We are grateful to Marie-Puck Broodthaers for the information she has kindly provided.
Created in 1965, Poêle de Moules by Marcel Broodthaers is one of an iconic group of sculptures that established the pioneering Belgian conceptual artist’s career and earned him lasting acclaim. Comprising of a cooking pan overflowing with open mussel shells, the work exemplifies how Broodthaers transformed humble objects from everyday life into provocative and poetic meditations on the nature of art and language. Mussels were a key motif within his early career, and feature in other significant works from this period. Many are now in museum collections in Europe and America, including the Tate in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. Testament to the significance of Poêle de Moules within the artist’s wider oeuvre, the work has been exhibited in two major retrospectives that travelled internationally between 1989 and 1992.
To Broodthaers, the mussel was “perfect.” He has left most of the mussels in Poêle de Moules in their natural state, but has embellished certain shells with vivid green resin to highlight their elegant scooped forms and to contrast with their dusky black exteriors. Yet Broodthaers’s decision to employ mussels time again in his work went far beyond a delight in how they looked. For him, the shellfish represented a self-contained world, for it was a creature born of its own mould. In a 1961 poem titled “The Mussel”, he wrote “This clever thing has avoided society’s mould / She’s cast herself in her very own” (M. Broodthaers, quoted in Marcel Broodthaers, London 2013, p. 24). Moreover, it allowed him to play with both verbal and visual puns. In French, le moule means mussel, while la moule describes a cast or a mould. Instead of using casts of the mussels to make a sculpture, Broodthaers has used actual shells given to him a local restaurant in Brussels, transfixing them in resin so that they appear fresh. In presenting a food that gives the illusion that it is ready for eating, Poêle de Moules fulfils the artist’s desire to make works that “contain within in them the negation of the situation in which they find themselves” (M. Broodthaers, quoted in Marcel Broodthaers, London 2013, p. 12).
Broodthaers’s repeated use of the mussel was also bound up with his native country of Belgium. It has been suggested that the mussel motif was inspired by the Flemish tradition of still life painting of the 17th century, in which the empty shell was often used as a symbol of luxury. Perhaps more significantly, moule-frites is well-known as one of the country’s national dishes. The moules motif is therefore a gently humorous reference to the culinary clichés associated with his country—other works dating from this period even employ frites imagery. Indeed, Broodthaers frequently engaged with notions of nationality in his work. In a powerful work dating from 1964-1965 called Femur d’homme Belge, the artist painted a human thigh bone in the three colours of the Belgium flag. He questions the depth that one can belong to a country: can a person be Belgian to the bone?
Born in Brussels in 1924, Broodthaers worked as a poet and writer for many years before he dedicated himself, without any formal training, to visual art at the age of 40. One of his first sculptures involved encasing fifty unsold copies of his recent poems in plaster, a daring gesture that was characteristic of his later works, which also play with the relationship between words and physical objects. Shortly afterwards, his work began to attract attention for its similarity to the provocative strategies employed by the group of artists known as Les Nouveaux Réalistes, who had gathered under the guidance of French critic Pierre Restany in 1960 and included Yves Klein, Arman and Jean Tingely. In 1966, Broodthaers was invited to exhibit in Paris at Galerie J, which was owned by Janine de Goldschmidt, Restany’s wife. Although Les Nouveaux Réalistes were also interested in the connection between art and objects and ideas from everyday reality, Broodthaers later distanced himself from the group, believing that they were too accepting of modern civilisation. In 1974, he asserted his difference by saying “my early objects—1964–1965—could never cause that particular confusion [with the group]. The literalness linked to the appropriation of the real didn’t suit me, since it conveyed a pure and simple acceptance of progress in art… and elsewhere as well” (M. Broodthaers, via http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/broodthaers-casserole-and-closed-mussels-t01976).
He was sceptical of the commercialization of modern society, and was wary of glorifying it in his art. He preferred the irreverent humour of the artists Marcel Duchamp and René Magritte, once saying “I have just followed the footprints left in the artistic sands by René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp. Faithfully in spite of the winds that I blow. I, too, am an apostle of silence” (M. Broodthaers, quoted in Marcel Broodthaers, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1989, p. 32). Like them, he was interested in subverting the regular relationships between objects, language and meaning; trying “by means of trivial, everyday objects, to restore the link between the object and its image…and to incorporate this dual concept of flatness and volume into the same entity” (M. Broodthaers, quoted in Marcel Broodthaers, London 2013, p. 13). Resolutely ignoring the boundaries between artistic disciplines and techniques, his career forged a distinctive path that embraced sculpture, poetry, film, photography and even a fictional museum, the Museum of Modern Art: Department of the Eagles 1968. Using surrealist paradox, a poetic sensibility and a playful sense of humor, Broodthaers continually questioned social structures as well as artistic conventions. As Poêle de Moules suggests, he believed we should be more like the clever mussel, and avoid society’s mould.
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.
Marcel Broodthaers (1961)