‘I have just followed the footprints left in the artistic sands by René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp … Faithfully in spite of the winds that blow. I, too, am an apostle of silence’
‘All is eggs. The world is an egg. The world is born of the great yolk, the sun. Our mother, the moon, is covered with eggshells. And the belly of a wave is white. A heap of eggshells, the moon. Dust of eggshells the stars. All, dead eggs’
‘I am a grave poetic hen
That lays poetic eggs
And to enhance my temperament
A little quiet begs.
We make the yolk philosophy,
True beauty the albumen.
And then gum on a shell of form
To make the screed sound human’
EZRA POUND, ‘STATEMENT OF BEING’, 1908
Executed in 1968, Marcel Broodthaers’ Sac en cuir avec oeufs (Leather bag with eggs) is a compact expression of his most important motif. Presenting a group of broken eggshells gathered together inside a leather doctor’s satchel, the work takes its place within the artist’s enigmatic subversion of commonplace objects. Having worked for twenty years as a poet, Broodthaers turned to art in 1964, developing a witty visual language that combined strong Surrealist overtones with the deadpan ‘readymade’ aesthetic of Marcel Duchamp. Over the next twelve years, the eggshell would become something of a talisman for the artist: a discarded harbinger of life ‘without content other than the air’ (M. Broodthaers, quoted in MoMA Highlights, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2004, p. 263). One of several recurring ‘found’ objects that would come to define his practice – including mussels and French fries – the eggshell embodied primal simplicity in the face of the mass consumerist emblems appropriated by Broodthaers’ American Pop contemporaries. Base, timeless and hollow, it spoke directly to the concepts of silence and emptiness that lay at the heart of his oeuvre. In a text published in 1965, Broodthaers declared ‘All is eggs. The world is an egg. The world is born of the great yolk, the sun. Our mother, the moon, is covered with eggshells. And the belly of a wave is white. A heap of eggshells, the moon. Dust of eggshells the stars. All, dead eggs’ (M. Broodthaers, ‘Evolution ou l’Oeuf film’, Phantomas, December 1965). Juxtaposed with the medical satchel’s connotations of sickness and health – of birth and death – the present eggshells seem to invoke both the root of existence and its ultimate futility. Drained of all substance, they offer an irreverent commentary on the ability of art – and life – to contain and confer meaning.
The late 1960s was a breakthrough moment for conceptual art in Europe and America, witnessing the rise of artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, On Kawara and Bruce Nauman. By 1968 – the year of the present work – Broodthaers had established himself as a leading exponent within this burgeoning field. Channelling his fascination with linguistic structures through an extraordinary range of media, his output drew together an encyclopaedic variety of literary, social and historical themes. In 1967, he mounted his first retrospective at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, and the following year went on to establish his fictional ‘Museum of Modern Art’: a notorious enterprise consisting of postcards of paintings and packing cases displayed in his Brussels home. Combining sharp cultural criticism with undercurrents of humour, his work took to task traditional ideas about authorship, originality and the role of the art institution. Broodthaers placed great value on the notion of ‘insincerity’, proclaiming that ‘fiction enables us to grasp reality and at the same time that which is veiled by reality’ (M. Broodthaers, quoted in Marcel Broodthaers, exh. cat., Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, 1989, p. 71). His output was one of riddles, puns, wordplay, semiotic puzzles and visual non-sequiturs, underpinned by strategies of repetition, misdirection, appropriation and self-deprecation. Throughout his oeuvre – as in the present work – seemingly complex layers of meaning are held in tension with semantic vacancy and interpretative dead-ends. In this regard, the hollow nature of the eggshells may be seen as something of a metaphor for his own practice. ‘I, too, am an apostle of silence’, he claimed (M. Broodthaers, quoted in Marcel Broodthaers, exh. cat., Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, 1989, p. 32).