10 things to know about Marcel Broodthaers
An introduction to the groundbreaking Belgian artist, poet and filmmaker — the self-proclaimed 'King of Mussels' whose cerebral work was underscored with wit and rebellion
Born in Brussels in 1924, Marcel Broodthaers spent his youth experimenting in a variety of disciplines, including journalism, film and creative writing. It was poetry, however, that became his first love: Broodthaers wrote from the age of 16, publishing his work in collections including Mon Livre d’Ogre (My Ogre Book, 1957) and Minuit (Midnight, 1960). These avant-garde works struggled commercially — in the two decades he dedicated to poetry, Broodthaers lived in poverty, scraping a living through bookselling and photojournalism.
Despondent after years of financially fruitless creative activity, at the end of 1963 Broodthaers decided to become an artist and began to make objects. His first has been interpreted as a symbolic interment of his former career: Broodthaers took 50 unsold copies of his book of poems Pense-Bête and embedded them in plaster.
In 1964, and with no artistic training, Broodthaers held his first exhibition, famously writing in the catalogue preface:
‘For some time, I have 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 straight away. At the end of three months I showed what I had produced to Philippe Edouard Toussaint, the owner of the Galerie St Laurent. "But it is art," he said, "and I will willingly exhibit all of it." "Agreed," I replied. If I sell something, he takes 30 per cent. It seems these are the usual conditions, some galleries take 75 per cent.’
Influenced by the Belgian Surrealists, as a young man Broodthaers befriended painter René Magritte — then in his 50s — who gave him a book of Mallarmé’s poetry, Un Coup de Dés Jamais n'Abolira le Hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance). Spread over 20 pages, in varying typefaces, the work was revolutionary, introducing poetry as something that was not just read or heard, but had its own visual quality.
Mallarmé’s poem became a key influence, spurring an exploration of the relationship between text and image that would come to define Broodthaer’s practice. The artist acknowledged its significance in his own work, incorporating Mallarméan objects including shipwrecks, mirrors, and dice into his art. In 1970, he republished the original text for an exhibition at Brussels’ MTL Gallery, adding handwritten annotations that acknowledged its role in his own practice.
It is easy to say that Broodthaers was a poet, who then became an artist. The reality is much less clear-cut. Broodthaers’ early collections of poems were visual objects in their own right, released in limited editions that showed meticulous attention to physical appearance. Words — printed, written, spoken or photographed — appear everywhere in Broodthaers’ art. In 1974, he declared himself able to ‘express myself on the edge of things, where the world of visual arts and the world of poetry might eventually, I wouldn’t say meet, but at the very frontier where they part’.
In 1957, Broodthaers made his first film — a seven-minute black and white production entitled La Clef de l’Horloge or The Key to the Clock. The work captured one of the earliest exhibitions of artist and poet Kurt Schwitters, held at the Palais des Beaux Arts. Short on resources, Broodthaers shot at night with the assistance of security guards, using the shoulder of one as a tripod, and a head-torch to light works.
Film became central to Broodthaers’ practice, his works ranging from the second-long Une Seconde d’Eternité (d’après une Idée de Charles Baudelaire) (A Second of Eternity After an Idea by Charles Baudelaire) to the 15-minute Figures of Wax (1975). He experimented endlessly, his unconventional methods including writing directly onto film, or shooting layered projections.
Like poetry and visual art, film was not something Broodthaers saw in isolation. He commented: ‘I am not a filmmaker. For me, film is the extension of language. I begin with poetry, then visual art, and finally cinema, which brings together several different elements of art. Which is to say: writing (poetry), the object (visual art), and the image (film). The difficult thing, of course, is the harmony between these elements.’
Broodthaers’ artworks were frequently made of found or discarded objects. Cracked eggshells and mussels, sourced from his favourite restaurant, became signature materials — the latter a satirical reference to the country of Broodthaers’ birth, where moules-frites reigns as national dish.
Each object was rich in puns and symbolic meaning. Eggs represented a beginning — the idea of something nascent, also reflected in Broodthaers’ interest in the letter ‘A’, which appeared in artworks throughout his career. In 1965, he wrote: ‘All is eggs. The world is an egg. The world is born of the great yolk, the sun.’
The mussel, or la moule in French, is a homophone of le moule, or mould. Mussels, Broodthaers reasoned, were ‘perfect’ because they created the shell that then shaped their form. He called himself the ‘King of Mussels,’ writing in Pense-Bête: The Mussel /This clever thing has avoided society’s mould. / She’s cast herself in her very own. / Other look alikes share with her the anti-sea. / She’s perfect.
Broodthaers questioned the very nature of art. What was it, he asked, that elevated the status of the ordinary objects he worked with into museum pieces that might be bought?
Works such as the unusable Tapis de Sable (1974) — a carpet made of sand — questioned whether objects became artworks when their function was removed. The idea re-emerged in a series of desks, chairs and tables, covered with mussels and eggshells and also rendered unusable.
Broodthaers had his first retrospective, Catalog-Catalogus, in 1974, at the Palais Des Beaux Arts in Brussels. He arrived on the day of the vernissage, accompanied by a camel from the Antwerp zoo. He would have numerous museum exhibitions during his lifetime, including Eulogy of the Subject at Kunstmuseum Basel and The Angelus of Daumier at Centre Pompidou.
The multiple, for Broodthaers, was a key tool in an oeuvre that focused on restatement and repetition, and the appropriation and amalgamation of images. ‘What is it that characterises an art edition?’ he asked in the catalogue for the L’Angélus de Daumier exhibition, 1975. ‘The editions displayed in this room have given no answer to this question, for the simple reason that there is no formal difference between an art edition and that which isn’t’.
Broodthaers used lithography, screenprint, collage and annotation indiscriminately and interchangeably, delighting in blurring the boundaries between original and copy, unique and multiple. La Signature Série 1 Tirage Illimité — comprised of 153 sets of the artist’s initials — is titled with the suggestion that it is an unlimited edition. In fact it was issued in only 60 copies, a contradiction which appears to render the artist’s signature a cipher of insincerity rather than a mark of authenticity.
The conceptual or experimental nature of Broodthaers’ work means he is often cast as a particularly cerebral artist. His intellect, however, was coupled with a great sense of wit and playfulness: works that divert the meaning of visuals and language show the impossibility of constants — but are also, in part, a joke.
His work has proved to be enormously influential. The subject of a major retrospective in 2016 — travelling to locations ranging from MoMA to Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, and then on to Dusseldorf in early 2017 — Broodthaers continues to inspire a generation of artists, curators and thinkers.