'I have been using since 1967 photo-canvases, films, slides, to establish the relationships between the object and the image of that object, and also those that exist between the sign and the meaning of a particular object: writing... The language of forms must be reunited with that of words. There are no 'Primary Structures'' (Broodthaers, quoted in M. Compton, 'In Praise of the Subject', pp. 15-69, M. Goldwater et al., Marcel Broodthaers, exh. cat., Minneapolis, 1989, p. 40).
Executed in 1967, the breakthrough year for Conceptual Art in Europe and America, by one of its key early protagonists, Marcel Broodthaers, Un Tableau Magritte is an important work in defining the origins of this movement and its future. The self-sufficient purity of the idea-as-object which is put forward depicts René Magritte, the major Belgian Surrealist artist pondering the catalogue from Broodthaers' own first retrospective, held in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in April 1967. That exhibition was entitled Court-Circuit (Short Circuit), as is legible on the catalogue in Magritte's hands, and indeed this picture itself carries out a form of short circuit between word and image. In a sense, Un tableau Magritte continues, in a more conceptual manner, the exploration of the chasm between signifier and signified that Magritte himself had instigated in his seminal La trahison des images of 1928-29. Here, above the picture of Magritte is his name, written out in a beautiful Magrittean script.
As a photographic image transferred directly onto canvas, Un tableau Magritte belies depths of conceptual implication and meaning, as befits Broodthaers' long-lasting concern with language and its pitfalls. In this sense, it is clear that Broodthaers, who had worked as an art critic as well as a poet before his change of vocation, was tapping into realms explored by Conceptual Art. This was the time of Joseph Kosuth's early works, of Sol LeWitt's Paragraphs on Conceptual Art in Artforum, of On Kawara's Date Paintings, of Nauman's explorations of body, space and performance, reflecting the way that similar mantles were being taken up by artists throughout the world.
Broodthaers was a pioneer in this world. He was almost forty years old when, in 1963, he turned from his former vocation as a poet to that for which he remains so well-known: artist. In fact, his first work straddled both worlds, as he bound unsold copies of his own verse in plaster, rendering them unreadable. Within a short time, he had established himself as a new force to be reckoned with on the artistic scene. For his first exhibition, held in 1964, Broodthaers sent an invitation that included some paragraphs written by himself that reveal already the vein of conceptualism that would run through his work for the remaining years of his life, especially the relationship between objects and language. In Europe, Broodthaers was taking the Belgian Surrealist tradition into new Conceptual territory at the same time that his Italian contemporary Alighiero Boetti was developing the idea of Arte Povera, each employing their own individual poetry of presentation in what was deemed a new era of stripped-back, Minimal aesthetics.
Broodthaers had himself been exposed and even appropriated by one of the greatest forefathers of conceptualism when he was declared to be a work of art by Piero Manzoni, marking the beginning of an enthusiastic friendship between the pair. That question of what art is or is not, as well as the appropriation of another human being for artistic reasons, is raised by Un tableau Magritte.
Broodthaers has explored this conflicted dichotomy, one which was to concern him throughout his all-too-brief career, using a medium which itself accentuates the detachment between the subject and the resulting picture. He has projected and printed the image, using a small negative to heighten the contrast and emphasise the deliberate avoidance of painterly contact. While superficially resembling the work of some Pop artists (he had paid strange, disruptive tribute to George Segal, Roy Lichtenstein and Jim Dine in particular in his writings and works), it can be seen here that Broodthaers has co-opted a Pop technique for his own ontological, conceptual reasons. Broodthaers had begun using this technique during precisely this period, and it was to remain a staple of his output for some time, a perfect medium for his explorations of the fallibility of communication. Rather than merely observing or commenting upon the rift between Signifier and Signified, Broodthaers was seeking to heal it. In this, he was taking the legacy of Magritte into new, conceptual pastures.
That this image shows Magritte in one sense is a continuation of his exploration of Belgian themes in his oeuvre, as exemplified in the moules,or mussels that feature in so many of his works. It also allows him to pay wry homage to an artist whose work was a crucial touchstone for him, even during his years as a poet, while also laying claim to recognition in his own right by humourously showing the older artist rapt in admiration of Broodthaers' own catalogue. Broodthaers, who during the 1940s had been fascinated by the Surrealists and knew several of the Belgian protagonists, met Magritte in that earlier incarnation; indeed, Magritte gave him a copy of Mallarmé's Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard. They came into each other's orbits again when Broodthaers became an artist. This contact was typically 'Broodthaers-ian' in that it was both actual and fictitious: it was earlier in 1967 that Broodthaers had carried out an 'imaginary interview' with Magritte, published in the Journal des arts plastiques. Considering both that interview and Un tableau Magritte, with their strange plays on the role of language to confine and convey the slippery truths of existence, one can see the pertinence of Broodthaers' comment that, 'Fiction enables us to grasp reality and at the same time that which is veiled by reality' (Broodthaers, quoted in D. Crimp, 'This Is Not a Museum of Art', pp. 71-91, M. Goldwater et al., Marcel Broodthaers, exh. cat., Minneapolis, 1989, p. 71).