Belgian Conceptual Artist, Filmmaker and Poet
Summary of Marcel Broodthaers
Marcel Broodthaers' meteoric rise to the top of the art world upon his entrance onto the scene in 1964 - coupled with his brilliant output until his untimely death twelve years later - makes one wonder why he waited until age 40 to begin his artistic career. On the other hand, Broodthaers' work explores irony, contradiction, and the questioning of long-established artistic institutions, so it may be fitting that his artistic fame constituted a 180-degree turnaround from a 20-year period spent in poverty as a poet and journalist. Broodthaers' engagement with language, history, and identity helped establish the genre of Conceptual Art and fought to free visual art from the shackles of aesthetic taste and commercialization.
- Because Broodthaers spent years outside of the art world - despite his friendships with other prominent artists and intellectuals - much of his work exposes how art is often "colonized" by either an elite, by the state, or by commerce, and attempts to reclaim the exhibition of art as a catalogue of an artist's experiences, instead of a display showroom for a certain demographic.
- Broodthaers often incorporates humor, language, and personal metaphor as source material, which both helps to make his conceptual work accessible to a broader public and challenges conventional understandings of governments, museums, galleries, and other sources of power and control both within and outside the art world.
- Broodthaers' engagement with identity - and particularly Belgian identity - helped provide fresh attention to his native country's art for the first time after the Second World War, but paradoxically, it also called into question the meaning of national identity in an increasingly-globalized dialogue about art.
- Broodthaers' films are diverse, ranging from comedies to documentaries to melodramas, and they often reveal a sense of humor and playfulness that is less apparent in his other work. Often they show him performing ridiculous acts under obviously staged circumstances, or humorous depictions of him dressed as historical or imaginary characters. They frequently illuminate the artistic influences on Broodthaers, such as Magritte and Schwitters, and critique both the methods of filmmaking and the locations of shooting and display.
Progression of Art
La Clef de l'Horloge: Poème Cinématographique en l'Honneur de Kurt Schwitters (The Key to the Clock: Cinematographic Poem in Honor of Kurt Schwitters)
Broodthaers decided to become an artist full-time in 1964, but he experimented before then with various media - most significantly, film, to which he returned repeatedly throughout his subsequent career. In Broodthaers' films, he reveals his inner playfulness even more so than in his other works, and La Clef de l'Horloge, made in 1957, hints at this. Its creation is the result of an after-hours shoot of an exhibition of Kurt Schwitters' work at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (Broodthaers was only able to gain access with the assistance of the night guards). Broodthaers focuses closely on fragments of Schwitters' works, in many cases collages, where Schwitters has removed excerpts of material from advertisements, labels, and other commercial packaging - usually featuring numbers and letters - and recast them in a nearly-nonsensical context akin to Dada works. The narration at the beginning of La Clef de l'Horloge consists of a man describing the works, noting that Schwitters was the inventor of "Merz" art - a combination of the contemporary influences of commercialism and the disruptive nature of Dada. It then shifts to the recitation of a love poem, fitting because Schwitters himself was a poet, like Broodthaers. Much of the spoken words in the film are recorded over the tick-tock of a clock, suggesting the passage of time.
La Clef de l'Horloge thus not only highlights some of the influences on Broodthaers, but also touches on themes that would emerge significantly in his later work. Its nearly "homemade" quality - Broodthaers had to balance his camera on the shoulders of one of the guards and rely on a torch for light - echoes both the materials used in Schwitters' work and later, Broodthaers' own pieces - shells, postcards, patio furniture, for example. It is implicitly a critique of the museum itself and public access to art, with institutional rules about viewing hours, proper lighting and display, and even security of its spaces. Finally, with his "after-hours" viewing, Broodthaers thus gives the public viewer of the film an arguably even-more-privileged view of the exhibition than the social elite of the museum's patrons - in literally a completely different light, no less.
16 mm film, black and white, sound, 7min 40 sec - Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona
Pense-Bête (Memory Aid)
In 1964, Broodthaers tried his hand at visual art by taking unsold copies of his latest volume of poetry, titled Pense-Bête, and encasing them sloppily in a mix of plaster and other materials. As his first "official" piece, Pense-Bête set the tone for the rest of Broodthaers' artistic output, including his pursuit of preserving ideas of experience. Here, he takes his "failed" poetry - which didn't sell - and converts it into something new that actually was considered to be successful, worthy of preservation.
Broodthaers' attempt with this work was to transform the refined poetry to which he had dedicated himself into an aesthetically "ugly" object. The conversion accomplishes two ends: it reveals the absence of a link between either hard work or beauty and eventual success, and it recontextualizes his past experience as a writer into something else entirely - into a form whereby his words would be preserved, rather than forgotten. Ironically, therefore, his polished verses had to be degraded into a "mess" in order to be positively received.
In a way, Pense-Bête showed Broodthaers mocking both his own history and his fellow contemporary artists. There is a certain humor in the fact that the title refers to the means by which his apparently forgettable poetry would become memorable. The rather haphazard way in which the plaster and ordinary materials are applied to the volumes of text pokes fun at the usually careful nature of the construction of artworks as a product of great technical skill. The title also contains a bit of humor in its translation as "Memory Aid," yet the conglomeration of materials grouped around the books do not immediately remind the viewer of anything specific and remain ambiguous as a referent. The transformation of the original poetry, meanwhile, does not make the text of the poetry itself any more memorable - it only achieves lasting fame as a piece of a larger work.
Books, paper, plaster, plastic balls on wood base 11 4/5 x 33 3/10 x 16 9/10 in - Collection Flemish Community, long-term loan S.M.A.K.
Un jardin d'hiver II (A winter garden II)
One of Broodthaers' running themes in his work is the idea of an installation as a movie set. This piece, the second in his Un Jardin d'Hiver series, approximates the interior setting reminiscent of colonial-era Palm Courts, a decision that references two historical circumstances. More generally, Broodthaers alludes to the display of artwork in cultural institutions as a staged gathering place for an economic and social elite to voyeuristically view the experience and life of the "other" - either the lower-class subjects of art or the pedestrian artists themselves - a move possibly influenced by Broodthaers' own longtime experience as a starving, aspiring writer. On a more specific level, the use of palm trees and selection of decorative imagery is a direct link to Belgium's pre-1960 colonization of Africa - where an elite European culture exploited the so-called "primitive" civilizations and cultures of the Congo.
Broodthaers adds complexity to the piece, however, by incorporating part of his other artwork in the installation. In Un Jardin d'hiver II, he shows a film recording the installation of Un Jardin d'hiver I, displayed earlier that same year, thereby making the staging of a previous work part of the staging of this work. As such, Jardin d'hiver II is only "complete" and fully experienced while the film of Jardin d'hiver I is being played. Jardin d'hiver II thus not only emphasizes process, but could be said to exist itself only as process and only for the duration that Jardin d'hiver I is being played in the installation.
Jardin d'hiver II places the viewer in the position of the elite empirically viewing the work of the proletarian artist. Broodthaers' work - and literally, the work of installing it - is on display for the pleasure of the viewer. Broodthaers thus equates his own condition (a struggling artist whose work exists for consumption by a social elite) with the residents of the Congo, formerly colonized and plundered for the pleasure of Belgians. But in Jardin d'hiver II, he inverts the power dynamic, as the audience is unable to stop the rolling of the film, and arguably is uncomfortably conflated with this exploitative contemporary and historical viewing elite. Likewise, in his references to the Congo, Broodthaers acknowledges the products of the region's residents as works of art, and by extension, insists upon broader recognition of their cultural importance and value - an honor systematically denied to them by Europeans.
Six photographs of 19th century etchings, painted chairs, 30 potted palms, 16-mm film - Estate Marcel Broodthaers
La Salle blanche [The White Room]
The initial purpose of La Salle blanche was to be a recreation of the apartment-studio where Broodthaers had inaugurated his Musée d'art moderne in Brussels in 1969. He hired a group of carpenters and fabricators, but during construction changed his mind and instead declared that it was simply a recreation of the typical bourgeois interior; the absence of a color scheme on the walls speaks to the "generic" nature of the setting (and possibly the spare, austerity of the existence of a starving artist or writer, like Broodthaers during the first 40 years of his life). Broodthaers instead covered the walls with words related to the creation and understanding of art: "gallery," "collectors," "color," "perspective," "amateur," "shadow," "paper," etc.
Broodthaers' purpose is to critique the traditional means of experiencing art. Instead of placing framed images on the walls, as one would expect in this space, the concept of art is evoked through language painted on the interior surfaces by traditional workmen. Literally, therefore, Broodthaers has "installed" art in the constructed space, which itself can be dismantled and re-erected in any accommodating location, just as a painting or sculpture can be hung or set up as desired. Broodthaers also fuses his past experience as a poet with his current occupation as a visual artist, forcing the viewer not to approach the words on the walls in pre-arranged sentences, like directed prose, but to engage with the syntax and aesthetics of the words' arrangement in a more playful and haphazard manner. Furthermore, Broodthaers is implicitly arguing for the dissolution of the boundary between art and life, as the space in La Salle Blanche is understood as the construction of a residence, and is covered entirely in the words evoking artistic creation and display. The occupant/viewer is thus unable to escape this association no matter where his gaze is turned. Finally, Broodthaers asks us to consider the question of authorship in the creation of the work, as his ideas and directions for its realization were carried out only through other hands. The art here is less the actual craftsmanship as it is the conception behind its construction - as is often the case in much of Conceptual Art.
Wood, photographs, light bulb, paint, and cord, 153 9/16 x 132 5/16 x 259 1/16 in - Centre Pompidou, Paris/Musée national d'art moderne, Centre de création industrielle
Décor: A Conquest (XIXth and XXth Century Rooms)
Created for the inauguration of the Institute of Contemporary Art in London (UK), Broodthaers' two "decor" rooms representing the 19th and 20th century show his engagement with a complex network of themes, including language, memory, and the boundary between reality and a staged or invented experience. The idea of the "period room" itself involves a space that acts as a repository for items that most vividly remind us of the past. But rather than simply evoke the idea of an interior from these two centuries, Broodthaers attempts to illustrate the full range of human experience from these respective eras. The high-backed upholstered chairs, chandeliers, and plants in the 19th-century room, for example, are juxtaposed with period cannons, a taxidermied snake and old revolvers, all afforded their own artificial grass "podiums" - as if to say that war and encounters with the exotic were as much a part of the century's human condition as the furnishings. Likewise, in the 20th-century room, the plastic lawn furniture includes a table on which rests a jigsaw puzzle of a print depicting the 19th-century Battle of Waterloo (A British victory ending the Napoleonic Wars which, incidentally, took place on Belgian soil). Nearby sits a rack with modern high-powered weaponry, indicating how our understandings of furnishings and war have been transformed, and arguably the incomplete puzzle refers to the difficulty of piecing together an understanding of the past.
In both rooms, a commercial film light stands guard, letting viewers know that this isn't a real space - but one recontextualized as a backdrop. (Décor, the work's title, can be translated from French as either "decoration" or "film set.") The latter references both the way that period rooms constitute an artificial staging of a past reality, but also literally to the fact that these spaces served as the set for Broodthaers' own film Battle of Waterloo, filmed during the ICA inaugural exhibition. Additionally, Broodthaers uses humor - a lobster and a crab sitting at a table playing cards, and a cannonball covered in flowers - to underscore the break between reality and staging.
Mixed-medium installation - Estate Marcel Broodthaers and Michael Werner Gallery
Cercle de Moules [Circle of Mussels]
Many of Broodthaers' major works from the beginning of his artistic career in the mid-1960s engaged with questions of national identity. Mussels, often considered the Belgian national dish, became an ideal subject matter for confronting this theme. His use of mussel shells only means that he favors the organic detritus, versus the actual consumable portion - thus, the remnants in the discard pile instead of the valuable meat. Yet, Broothaers has saved the shells and preserved them by permanently attaching them to the panel and coating them with resin. He then hangs the panel on the wall just like a painting, thereby elevating the so-called trash to the status of high art. Like in Pense-Bête, Broodthaers' recontextualization of a pile of throwaway items has allowed him to recast them as culturally significant.
Broodthaers is also playing with language, since "moule" can be translated from French as "mussel" (when feminine) or "mold" (masculine). In this sense, Broodthaers arguably references the sense of diversity within Belgium's national identity. Since Belgium has been a multilingual and multiethnic nation from its creation in 1830, the notion of Belgianness is difficult to fit into a conceptual mold. The subtle differences between each mussel shell suggest such diversity, while the circumscribing of the work within a preconceived, arbitrary circular shape hints at the imposed national geographic boundaries of Belgium with little regard for ethnic variance and identity - hence a kind of absurdity in the country's very existence.
Mussel shells, tinted resin on panel, 63" diameter - Private Collection, courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Musée d'Art Moderne [Museum of Modern Art]
Perhaps no work shows Broodthaers' willingness to place himself and his experiences into the historical canon - on his own terms - than his Musée d'Art Moderne. Developed and displayed over a four-year period, the work took on different iterations in the form of "exhibitions," which used found objects, written words, and other re-appropriated media to make a "museum" that was unlike any other cultural institution. In a sense, this work laid the groundwork for the conceptual art movement that would come later in the century.
The impetus for the Musée d'Art Moderne was the occupation of the Palais des Beaux-Arts by artists in Brussels in May 1968, in which Broodthaers, as one of the occupation's leaders, condemned the commercialization of art. He decided to use the opportunity to critique the very nature of the museum itself, transforming the space in his apartment in Brussels into a temporary exhibition that would last for exactly one year, beginning on September 27, 1968. This initial incarnation of Broodthaers' "museum" consisted of the "Department of Eagles, 19th-Century Section," wherein Broodthaers mounted postcards of 19th-century artworks using imagery of eagles on his walls. He painted signage saying "Museum" on his windows, labeled individual rooms as numbered "galleries" and included descriptive placards for the artworks. He even opened the exhibition with a buffet featuring speeches by himself and Dr. Johannes Claedders, director of the modern art museum in Monchengladbach, a supporter of his work. Over the next four years, Broodthaers expanded his Musée - and thus critique of the institution of museums - with the creation of his "Financial Section," attempting to sell his own institution in the face of bankruptcy, but no buyers were found. The following year, he augmented the "Financial Section" by selling gold bars stamped with eagles - the museum's symbol, and an emblem of power and victory - at twice the metal's market price (due to its "artistic value"). In 1972 he was invited by the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf to create the "Figures Section," which expanded the original Department of Eagles to a historical, cross-cultural retrospective of nearly 300 two and three-dimensional objects all bearing an image of the bird. The Musée was intended from the start to be moveable and reinstalled in alternate locations.
The Musée d'Art Moderne engages with a multitude of issues surrounding art institutions such as power and money. Broodthaers' questions the formality of the museum with the impromptu nature of his construction of the institution, its ability to be dismounted and reassembled, the absence of a permanent collection, the wholesale display of mechanical reproductions of traditional artworks - which itself also critiqued the very nature of what constitutes art - and the very names of the museum's divisions (no traditional museum includes a "Department of Eagles"). His choice of the eagle for the museum's symbol and thematic device allowed him to reexamine its multitude of meanings: power and strength when employed by government agencies, but also solitude and independence when compared to other birds. With the creation of the Financial Section, Broodthaers even contradicted himself in his declaration that the Musée requested monetary support through the sale of its collections, even though his stated inspiration for creating the Musée was a protest against the commercial aspects of art.
Mixed-medium installation - 19th century Section: MoMA, Publicity Section: Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Financial Section Gold Bars: Galerie Beaumont, Luxembourg
Biography of Marcel Broodthaers
Marcel Broodthaers was born in Brussels in 1924. As a youth he was known to be bright and academically-inclined. From a relatively early age Broodthaers was involved in political and social issues. Around the age of 16, he was introduced to the "Surréalisme Revolutionnaire," a branch of the surrealists in Belgium, and during World War II he joined the anti-Nazi resistance.
Broodthaers worked as a poet from the age of 20 until the age of 40. Between 1943 and 1951 he was a member of the Communist party, and his written works discussed the ways in which creativity and cultural expression could influence society. In 1945, Broodthaers befriended René Magritte, whose exploration of the boundaries and meaning of language greatly influenced him. That same year his poetry first appeared in print, though he did not release an entire volume of poetry until Mon Livre d'Ogre was published in 1957.
Broodthaers did not receive popular or critical success for his writings, and lived in poverty during his 20s and 30s, supporting himself as a journalist and bookseller. His class consciousness would inspire much of his later visual work that explores a sense of Belgian national identity as intertwined with themes of power and establishment. This theme would pervade so much of Broodthaers' work that Magritte once asked him, "Come to think of it, Broodthaers, aren't you more a sociologist?"
In the 1950s Broodthaers, whose work in journalism had included photography, also began experimenting with film, creating his homage to Kurt Schwitters, La Clef de l'Horloge, un poème cinématographique (1957). While working as a docent at the Palais des Beaux-Arts In Brussels in February 1962 he famously met the conceptual artist Piero Manzoni, who was exhibiting there at the Galerie d'Aujourd'hui, where the Italian declared Broodthaers to be a "Living Sculpture" and signed a certificate of authenticity to that effect. Later that year Broodthaers moved to Paris before returning to Brussels in 1963 and starting to produce visual art.
Broodthaers began sculpting in 1964, only twelve years before he ultimately died at age 52. In some ways, this meant his artistic practice began at a period of maturity in his life that allowed him to reflect on both his experiences as a poet and his Belgian identity. Broodthaers was inspired to turn to visual arts in part due to the changing notion of the art object in the 1950s and '60s, which may have been advantageous for someone like him who had no formal art training and might be predisposed to consider art in more unorthodox ways. Broodthaers noticed how Pop art often made use of humor and word play and saw in it a potentially lucrative opportunity for his creativity with words.
Broodthaers' art quickly found critical acclaim, and his output during those years was staggering. He produced over 50 different films between 1967 and his death in 1976, and in the twelve-year career he staged some 70 one-man exhibitions. His first solo show was in 1964 at Galerie St. Laurent in Brussels, where he unveiled his first piece, Pense-Bête (Memory Aid), a work that encased the unsold copies of his final volume of poetry of the same name in plaster. At this time, he also started using mussels and other found objects. Mussels, one of the most common Belgian dishes, and other organic detritus, such as eggshells, became ways to represent both Belgian identity and the passage of time and memory. His use of materials would go on to include objects like worked metal and plastic signs, as well as discarded clothing and art. The themes of memory and the difficulty of preservation pervades every medium of Broodthaers' work, from installation to painting to readymade object.
1968 was a tumultuous year in Europe, with revolts by students in Paris in May that soon developed into a general strike; these protests also spread north to Brussels. There, a group of students and artists occupied the Palais des Beaux-Arts, and briefly, Broodthaers served as their spokesperson, challenging the control that the museum exerted on the artists whose work was displayed inside. But he quickly dissociated himself from the occupiers, realizing that all art is inextricably linked with commercial value. Instead, he soon afterwards sought to make his home and studio a gathering place for intellectuals, artists, and critics to discuss the state of European art and politics. This provided the impetus for what would be one of his most famous works, the Musée d'Art Moderne, as these meetings were reputedly held under a sign in his apartment for the "section of eagles" - eagles being a preferred symbol of power and strength used by organized institutions and the state. The "Department of Eagles" was also, initially, the only division of his house-museum - its contents were all related in one way or another to the imagery of the bird.
The "museum" also took on different "exhibitions" and sections to directly call into question the role and function of museums and institutions, and, by extension, confronted the possibility of recontextualizing art and the art object. For example, one of the first versions, Musée d'Art Moderne: Documentary Section from 1969, consisted of a traced-out museum floor plan on a beach.
Occasionally Broodthaers would pose for public stunts. In 1974, for example, he appeared in front of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels with the camel from the Antwerp Zoo and its two handlers.
In 1970 Broodthaers left Belgium for Germany, living in Düsseldorf for a couple of years before moving to London briefly in 1973. Broodthaers then returned to Germany, this time to Berlin, for an artist exchange program, in which he had an impressive six solo shows during 1974 and late 1975. Broodthaers died on his 52nd birthday in January 1976 in Cologne, after a battle with liver disease. He rests in a cemetery in Brussels under a tombstone that he designed.
The Legacy of Marcel Broodthaers
Broodthaers' legacy can be seen in the many postmodern installations and conceptual pieces that continue to pervade the contemporary art scene, as well as in the experiential art that takes the viewing experience to an interactive level. For example, it goes without saying that the Young British Artists generation is in some ways incredibly influenced by Broodthaers' work. Tracey Emin's installations, including My Bed, echo Broodthaers' La Salle Blanche in terms of recreating an artist's lived experience, and her neon signs both use fabrication processes and language to impart meaning to the viewer. The staging of objects to create meaning can also be seen in the work of Damien Hirst. Even in the works of the American artist Matthew Barney, the idea of exploring themes of experience and humanity in almost surreal scenery can be traced back to Broodthaers.
His open-ended edition of gold ingots can be almost directly seen in the works of contemporary conceptual artist Danh Vo, who uses gold bars and gilding to comment on his own experiences with his nationality and the influence of his family. Also, Broodthaers' use of text as visual language can be seen in the works of Ed Ruscha, and his fabrication processes have similarities in the work of artists like John Baldessari, who employed sign-painters for some of their works, similar to the way that Broodthaers did.