Mies van der Rohe's failure to win an architectural competition in 1910 gives us an insight into a fascinating in-between period in the careers of artists
At the Walker Gallery in Liverpool there is a painting called The Murder. At night, on a slope, beneath thunderous clouds, a woman with treetrunk arms exerts all her massive weight to hold down a supine, raggedy figure while a slight man raises a knife to plunge it in the victim's lower abdomen. It is figuratively dark, too. It is a terrible and moral work that demonstrates the utter squalor of this crime. One's head can discern the example of Goya and, in the composition, that of the baroque. But such analysis is secondary. The initial impact bypasses art-historical and critical considerations: this is a painting that allows nothing to get between it and its direct line to the viscera. Most especially, it doesn't let formal considerations intercede. The artist was Paul Cézanne. You might say the artist was Paul Cézanne before he became "Cézanne". Forty miles away, the exhibition of LS Lowry's work at the Lowry Centre has a section devoted to Lowry before he became "Lowry", the maker of those overfamiliar figures so wincingly hymned by 1970s pop duo Brian and Michael. To mention Cézanne and Lowry in successive sentences is, I know, absurd and insolent.

But there is a stage in the development of many artists – after juvenilia and prentice pieces, and before maturity – that is hugely fascinating, and begs the question, what if? What if Cézanne had pursued narrative sensations and abjured an art that was, ultimately, about nothing but painting and perception and thus the precursor of cubism, of futurism, of ismism?

What if, for instance, the 24-year-old Mies van der Rohe's precociously assured neoclassical entry for the Bismarck Monument had won, had been built? Would the world look different now? Yes, probably. For, to put it crudely, the godfather of minimalism would have been less inclined to turn his back on columnar monumentalism and to try to ingratiate himself, through resort to exaggerated reductions, with the avant-garde of Walter Gropius – an aesthetic dicatator who, like the surrealist Andre Breton, laid down artistic laws that no actual artist could break or comply with, despite the paucity of his own art: another instance of the word's primacy and the eye's obedience. It is small wonder that Mies did not truly flourish till he was in his 60s in the last century's 50s. Only then did he slough the dogma.

It is well known that Mies treated with the Nazis, even after they had demolished his marvellous monument to the November Revolution – to Rosa Luxemburg. He hoped in vain. Yet had he won that Bismarck competition in 1910 … he could – I hate to say it – he could have been Troost, he could have been Speer: he did their shared idiom so much better than they did. He didn't debase it. And as a smooth epigrammatist he'd undoubtedly have outdone Speer's ponderous (and unwittingly prescient) opinions about the "value of ruins".

Had Mies won that Bismarck competition in 1910, he could – I hate to say it – have been Speer

Despite my usual prejudice that architectural exhibitions are pointless because buildings are impervious to such representation, I went to see Mies at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London. This man was, after all, the fons et origo of everything we see around us now. He is currently the highest in the pantheon. Or, put it another way, the easiest to copy, the apparently easiest: Gus Alexander's observations on Miesian scrupulousness in this magazine recently will be lost on the usual suspects. At the macro level, we have to come to terms with the fact that an artist who excels in one style will in another. Lutyens, Picasso, Nabokov, etc.

I can't – as Jeff Lynne once sang – get it out of my head: the idea that what Mies proposed for Bismarck above the Rhine in 1910, in imitation of von Klenze's Walhalla above the Danube, has actually come to pass in the crack-dealing suburbs of Paris.