Marcel Broodthaers (1924 – 1976), the Belgian surrealist-conceptualist-minimalist, was a poet, photographer, filmmaker, and artist who throughout the 12 years of his very short career challenged the role of art, the artist and the art institution, and is now recognized as one of the most important artists of the last century.
In the preface of the catalogue for his first exhibition in Brussels (1964), Broodthaers wrote: “I, too, wondered whether I could not sell something and find some success in life. For some time I had been no good at anything. I am 40 years old...Finally the idea of inventing something insincere crossed my mind, and I set to work straightaway. At the end of three months I showed what I had produced to Philippe Edouard Toussaint, the owner of the St. Laurent Gallery. ‘But, it is art!’ he said, ‘and I will willingly exhibit all of it.’ ‘Agreed,’ I replied.…What is it? In fact it is objects.”
By coincidence, the Michael Werner Gallery and the Marian Goodman Gallery are both presenting shows that explore the diversity of Broodthaers’s practice, including efforts never before seen in the U.S.
Broodthaers was a rebel in search of a cause, and like other Belgian artists after World War II, he fell under the spell of René Magritte’s surrealism and became a true follower, citing “La Trahison des Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe)” as a work of key importance to his development. In fact, it becomes Broodthaers’s iconic appropriated image—he painted his own “Model: La Pipe” in 1969, with the addition of black-and-white smoke clouds and stenciled letters on the pipe, conceptualizing Magritte’s work.
But his best-known homage to Magritte was an ersatz street sign reading: “rue René Magritte straat.” The artist’s statement accompanying the sign reads, “It is not sufficient to enter the street Magritte, but it is also necessary to go out of it!”
When they met in person in 1945, Magritte took an interest in Broodthaers’s work and gifted him a copy of Stéphan Mallarmé’s 1897 poem, published as a book in 1914, called “A Throw of Dice Will Never Abolish Chance.” In 1969, Broodthaers appropriated the book, obscuring many of the words with black stripes and retyping other parts, creating new meanings by transposing them from poetry into prose. Only the original title of the book remained: he even replaced Mallarme’s name with his own.
There are other instances where Broodthaers appropriated titles or ideas from his favorite artists, yet he was constantly changing the narrative, remaking them, putting them through an evolutionary process. He made shovels out of bricks or wood emblazoned with drawings of ivy, which entered into a contrarian dialogue with the works of Marcel Duchamp. He also created small Kurt Schwitters-style plaster sculptures out of found objects; a Max Ernst-like object-book with an original cover from Ernst’s collage-novel Une Semaine de Bonté; a Jean Cocteau-like “Souvenir de Cocteau” (1964); and a Joseph Beuys-influenced assemblage of a chair and lamp in a glass case and dark jackets on a hanger.
He was a rebel even in avant-garde circles, repudiating André Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto, humorously citing the famous quote, “Everything leads us to believe that there exists a state of mind where life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, no longer seems contradictory,” and adding, “I hope I have nothing in common with that state of mind!”
Later on, he became one of the signatories of the manifesto “No Quarter in the Revolution” (1947), which criticized “the faux shamanism of André Breton” and pursued new radical experiments. From an interview with J-M Vlaeminckx (1965), we learn that Broodthaers was also influenced by the French artists surrounding Pierre Restany—the “new realists” such as Martial Raysse or Arman, who also produced accumulative assemblages.
Broodthaers’s “Section Cinema” (1972) at the Goodman Gallery is a reconstruction of his celebrated “fictitious museum,” the Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles. This installation, which he began in his Brussels home in 1968, was followed by 11 further manifestations of the “museum,” including one appearing at the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf for an exhibition in 1970, and at Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972. Through such works, he is associated with the late 20th-century global spread of both installation art and institutional critique.
In the far right room of the Goodman Gallery, the 16mm film “The Hare and the Raven,” projected on a small screen, is not a 3-D work, yet feels three-dimensional because the artist superimposed colored film over static black-and-white text. There is also a proto-graffiti film, shown over stencils on a wall, which looks as experimental now as it was in 1970. In the front room another film features a darkened room with a world map covered with dots and symbols, and a director’s chair against a wall with the inscription “fig.12” hovering above it. The films, six in all, constitute a darkly humorous array, a little bit Kafka and a little bit Brakhage.
The publication accompanying the exhibit, published by the Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and the Departement des Aigles, Brussels 2010, with an essay by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh and coordinated by Maria Gilissen Broodthaers, is a useful addition, with photo-visuals underscoring the artist’s puns and elaborate sarcasms.
While extremely rich in allusion, Broodthaers’s work is ultimately enigmatic, his meaning quietly elusive. Rather than providing answers, Broodthaers’s work raises questions, often about the very nature of art and the institutions that protect and foster it.