In 1964, in a manifesto printed on the invitation to his first exhibition at Galerie Saint-Laurent, Brussels, Marcel Broodthaers declared himself to be an artist: ‘I, too, wondered whether I could not sell something and succeed in life. For some time now I have been good for nothing... 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 Ph. Edouard Toussaint, the owner of the Galerie Saint Laurent. But it is art, he said, and I will willingly exhibit all of it’. By turns light-hearted and poignant, yet always showcasing his characteristic wit and elegance, Broodthaers’ subsequent work challenged the traditional role of a visual artist, incorporating poetry, films, lectures, open letters, collecting and exhibition-making into his practice. The present collection, which begins with that 1964 invitation, Moi aussi, je me suis demandé…, and spans the course of Broodthaers’s artistic output to 1975, offers a unique opportunity to engage with the artist’s work in multiple media. Together with a number of unique works on paper, a film and artist’s books, the collection showcases an exceptional, near complete set of graphic editions made by the artist.
Broodthaers’ work took in an encyclopaedic variety of historical, literary, social and critical themes, but, above all, it remained grounded in language. A former poet, Broodthaers succeeded in transforming poetry into visual art, reinventing its parameters and extending its reach. Petit rond, le renard (1967) and La lettre d (1967), both closely linked to a series of works presented at the 1968 exhibition Le Corbeau et le Renard at Wide White Space, Antwerp, use the text of a seventeenth-century fable of the same name by Jean La Fontaine, spliced with phrases taken from primary schoolbooks. In these works poetry becomes an object – to be hung on a wall, viewed in a gallery, shipped in a crate – and is thus able to broach the format of the book, designating new spaces and new contexts for reading.
The multiple, for Broodthaers, was a key tool in an oeuvre which focussed on restatement and repetition, and the appropriation and amalgamation of images. ‘What is 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’ (M. Broodthaers, quoted in N. Nobis, W. Meyer (eds.), Marcel Broodthaers. Katalog der Editionen Graphik und Bücher, Ostfildern-Ruit 1996, p. 10). Broodthaers used lithography, screenprint, collage and annotation indiscriminately and interchangeably, delighting in blurring the boundaries between original and copy, between unique and multiple. La Signature Série 1 Tirage illimité – comprised of 153 sets of the artist’s initials – is titled with the suggestion that is it an unlimited edition; in fact, it was issued in only sixty copies, a contradiction which renders the artist’s signature a cipher of insincerity rather than a mark of authenticity.
The editions produced by Broodthaers encompass all the registers of his artistic production. Their pages are covered with riddles and secrets, wordplay, corrected mistakes, quotes snatched out of context, obscure historic references and overt criticisms of commercial culture. In works such as Animaux de la ferme (1974), where labels and illustrations confront each other in puzzling non sequiturs, Broodthaers clearly referenced the work of the Surrealists, and particularly that of fellow Belgian René Magritte, whose Treachery of Images (1929) infamously asserted ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Yet Broodthaers was the first to admit that his work was too tethered to social, economic and institutional contexts to be truly Surrealist. In an imaginary interview with Magritte, Broodthaers proposed that his fellow artist ‘find events from real life, from society’; a puzzled Magritte declined, laughing, ‘You have a strange way of talking. This is sociology, I’m not interested’ (M. Broodthaers, quoted in M. J. Borja-Villel, C. Cherix (eds.), Marcel Broodthaers. A Retrospective, New York 2016, p.122). Broodthaers’s investigations culminated in Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, an itinerant exhibition which incisively commented upon the function, form and politics of the museum, and is widely considered to be his masterpiece. Appropriating the very identity of the art institution, Broodthaers legitimatised his museum through bureaucracy and documentation, such as Musée-Museum (1972), where architectural plans of the exhibition are supplemented by postcard reproductions of the postcards exhibited.
Currently the subject of a major retrospective travelling between the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid and Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf, Broodthaers’s work continues to have a profound influence on a generation of artists, curators and thinkers. This collection offers an exceptional opportunity to engage with the breadth and depth of the artist’s practice, uniquely capturing the elegant spirit of poetry and criticism which pervades Broodthaers’ work.