'This clever thing avoided society's mold.
She cast herself in her very own.
Other look-alikes share with her the anti-sea.
(M. Broodthaers: 'The Mussel' translated by M. Compton, in 'Selections from Pense Bête', October, no. 42 (Fall 1987), p. 27)
In the mussel, Marcel Broodthaers found an object which most conformed to his belief that art should be unsullied by what he saw as the rampant threat of western commercialism. He equated its pure and perfect form with its self-contained lifecycle, secreting its own shell and sustaining itself without having to rely on another living creature. When opened up, the shell of the mussel takes on the symbolic shape of a heart. This holistic nature appealed to Broodthaers whose own artistic practice involved assembling found materials such as mussels, eggshells and discarded household goods that spoke of simplicity and poverty in the face of big business, mass production and cultural homogeneity.
Executed in 1966, Surface de moules (avec sac) is an early example of an iconic series of work that celebrates the humble mussel. Nestling side by side, the artist assembles scores of discarded shells into a work, which reverberates with both conceptual and visual richness. Although most are left in their natural state, Broodthaers embellishes some of the mussels with touches of vivid colour-adding splashes of jade green and aquamarine to the subtle gradations in colour that the shells possess naturally. In this way, some of the shells pop with colour like jewels encased in bedrock, waiting to release their full chromatic potential. In 1974 the artist added a discreet metal hook to the centre of the work designed to support a shopping bag filled with mussel shells. Broodthaers intended this hook and bag element to be displayed at the curator or owner's discretion. However, in place it does serve to reinforce the jarring gap that Broodthaers felt existed between the commercialism of modern society and the poetic beauty of Mother Nature and her bounty.
At the same time, by covering the panel with mussel shells Broodthaers emphasises its sense of surface, replacing the traditionally painted surface of a panel with his own perfect forms. In doing so he is parodying the creative act of painting by using forms that are themselves a metaphor for creativity. Deliberately subverting traditional ideas about surface, Broodthaers provokes questions about the nature, validity and purpose of art and at the same time creates a visual metaphor for inner growth and creativity.
Born in Brussels in 1924, Broodthaers was an artist, printmaker, draughtsman and poet. For nearly 20 years he lived as a Bohemian poet and in 1964, without any formal artistic training, he turned to making visual art. He adopted a strategy whereby he appropriated the materials and techniques of Nouveau Réalisme, Pop and Conceptual art, developing his own artistic language, which emphasised the craftsmanship without resorting to 'cult of the artist' that had befallen many of his contemporaries. Broodthaers associated with other artists, particularly those with an affinity for the surreal and the conceptual. 'I have just followed the footprints left in the artistic sands by René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp' Broodthaers once declared: 'Faithfully in spite of the winds that I blow. I, too, am an apostle of silence' (M. Broodthaers, Marcel Broodthaers, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1989, p. 32). From his study of their work he took a particular interest in bringing together seemingly improbable combinations of objects.
The empty mussel shells in Surface de moules (avec sac) are transformed through the poetry of Broodthaers' simple yet provocative aesthetic. Although poetically beautiful, the mussels that adorn this work are ultimately empty, mere vessels of the life that previously occupied them. This sense of space, emptiness, and silence, infused colour and poetic meaning is central to much of the artist's oeuvre, and it is one that lies at the heart of much of the conceptual art being made in the 1960s. Like his ideological forefathers Duchamp and Magritte, Broodthaers never allowed his work to take itself too seriously. Using paradox, poetical rhetoric and many layers of metaphor, the logic of his aesthetic is often tongue-in-cheek and self-mocking. Ultimately his works are, playfully 'insincere' because, it is only fiction that 'enables us to grasp reality' (Ibid., p. 71.).