Sunset Décor: Five Tableaux Leading From An Exhibition To A Film, And An Intermission
Magalí Arriola
February/March 2016

While the 19th century referenced both European colonialism and the expansion into the American West as a scheme to tame fierceness and exotica, the 20th century seemed to symbolize the domestication of war and the internalization of imperialism.

In January 1976, not long before his death, Marcel Broodthaers intended to send his friend Alain Jouffroy two photographs of his recent show “Décor: A Conquest”. On the back of one of them, the Belgian artist wrote: “These two photographs concern an exhibition that was solely Décor” with hired equipment. It was held in London (ICA New Gallery) shortly before the Paris one”. [1] Nevertheless, the images with the handwritten note were only sent after Broodthaers’ death, and Jouffroy didn’t respond to them until 1982, with a significant delay. The photographs showed two opposing views of one of Broodthaers’ last famous décors. Each represented a period room—of the 19th and 20th centuries respectively—and both were indeed almost exclusively composed of appliances borrowed from Bapty & Co Ltd, Stage and Film Warlike Stores, a firm that provided props for films for the most part related to military depictions.

By then Broodthaers had already conceived—and closed down—his Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (1968-1972), an initiative dedicated to explore the role of the institution in which objects and artworks enacted a critique of collecting and exhibiting practices. His later décors, starting in 1974, sought to articulate “differently objects and paintings realized at various times between 1964 and this year [1975], in order to form the rooms in a ‘décor’ spirit. That is to say reinstating the object or painting with its real use. Décor not being an end in itself” [2]. In other words, with these pieces that frequently operated as a kind of mise-en-scene of his own work, Broodthaers was hoping to reconnect the role of art with social reality by further exploring the concepts of production and reproduction, exhibition and retrospective.

Revisiting the late Broodthaers through A Conquest…, one of his most overtly politicized pieces—one that displays concrete references to the social and cultural context of its time, including the flourishing genre of Western movies during the 1960’s and the uncertain ending of the Vietnam war in the 1970’s—allows to re-envision his practice as a kind of backdrop for other artistic inquiries and political narratives to be reframed and played out.

Just as A Conquest… and the ensuing film La Bataille de Waterloo, with their deliberate inconsistencies and anachronisms, still set up a symmetry between the 19th century colonial drive and the imperial politics that still prevailed well into the 20th century—a sustained connection between the interior and the exterior, between the near and the far, between the domestication of war and its spectacularization—this essay addresses a constellation of themes and unravels a series of historical threads that seek to put into perspective the concept of the American West as the production of a symbolic order in the name of freedom, civilization and democracy, as well as some of its long-term echoes and consequences in global history.

1. The exhibition (and the hand).

The two communicating period rooms set up by Broodthaers that make A Conquest… filled with (replicas of) firearms and domestic furniture, were also artificially lit with stage lights. The first of these rooms referenced a 19th century Western saloon with a stuffed python raised between two (Napoleonic) cannons, a couple of chandeliers, a deck of cards, a single-action Colt Peace-Maker revolver (legend has it, Wild Bill Hickok’s preferred gun), a lobster and a crab, and two liquor barrels above which was pinned a poster of the 1969 western Heaven with a Gun. The second room represented a 20th century bourgeois setting between two vitrines displaying semi-automatic rifles from the Vietnam War period, a variety of modern guns, a hand grenade and a jigsaw puzzle of a painting representing the Battle of Waterloo left unfinished on a garden table.

In other words, while the 19th century room with its gigantic python and Broodthaers’ signature potted palms seemed to reference both European colonialism and the expansion to the American West as a scheme to tame fierceness and exotica, the 20th century room seemed to symbolize the domestication of war and the internalization of imperialism. For what did it mean for Broodthaers to assign a real use to these replicas of firearms within a bourgeois interior décor besides canceling their status as works of art and, as suggested by Gloria Moure, creating a “scenography with no plot or narrative within it, but prepared to induce these”? [3] To put it differently, what was the function of a plastic lobster and crab playing a hand in a 19th century saloon if not referencing, as many of the Belgian artists works do, chance or fate as two concepts that meet at the opposite sides of the spectrum?

Take Wild Bill Hickok, prototype of the frontiersman and folk character of the Old West whose favorite gun Broodthaers chose to put on display. He always sat with his back to the wall when playing a hand in order to remain vigilant. Although he was known to be one of the fastest guns in the Wild West, he was shot by Jack McCall on that one fatal day he was caught off guard turning his back to the doors of the saloon in Deadwood, in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. Fate or chance? Who knows… The only sure thing is that the pair of black aces and the pair of black eights he was holding came to be known as the dead man’s hand. The identity of the fifth card is still debated, just as Maria Gilissen wonders to this day why Broodthaers specifically requested that she photographed two particular card cuts as she documented A Conquest, one showing a four of spades, the other the king of diamonds and the ten of hearts. [4]

2. The Footsteps.

They must have been playing cribbage or penny ante poker when they were suddenly interrupted, and left in a rush. (…)

From a board on the wall, next to the powder horn, flint, and steel, hung three infantry caps, tin cups, and a canteen. Above, an antler was mounted on a flat slab of wood, a colored Teton arrow balanced horizontally between its tines. Four more arrows of the same type were decoratively crossed behind two framed lithographs, one showing French pheasants, the other a trout. And bound together with a blue ribbon, two eagle feathers were attached to the wall by a nail. From their white tips a bit of horsehair, tinted red, extended fully a foot.

Were these trophies or gifts? They might have come from their ‘red-skinned enemies’, killed in the Black Hills, or from their native friends, settling in tepees around the fort. (…)

At that moment, while looking at a pipe so richly adorned with the head and neck of a gree-neck duck, a tiny woodpecker’s wing, and some yellow tail feathers of the great owl, I heard footsteps behind me. Another visitor I thought, and returned to the past. [5]

Lothar Baumgarten’s “Carbon” series is a “photographic essay, a survey on pioneering the West through building the railroads across the US” upon the expropriation of Indian territories and the exploitation of the Chinese population. [6] The series weaves together eleven short stories—“The Trickster”, “The Flake”, “The Catfish”, “The Pit-bull”… among which The Footsteps that the artist claims to have repeatedly heard as he visited an old fort, one could think reminiscent of Broodthaers own décors. The stories recount Baumgarten’s loner interactions with the landscape, his distant encounters with sparse but proud dwellers as well as his silent peek at a variety of animals and plants. The scenes described are frequently disrupted by roaring trains that still bear the Native Indian names of the populations they first displaced and later transported, recalling of the original clashes between the native people and the westbound settlers–in the artist’s words, “a demography of settling the West”. As the series puts into practice a sort of geographical survey of what became of the original rail lines and their surrounding contexts, Baumgarten’s photographs can also be seen as addressing what has been traditionally accepted as landscape’s timeless values left untouched by politics and ideology, as a questioning the purity of the Arcadian sceneries captured by the patriarchs of 19th century photography such as Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge. [7] The work of these photographers, mostly commissioned by government surveys, speaks of exploration and the will to map as a way to assert control over those uncharted lands and their natural resources. Some of them, like Muybridge, also worked for the US Army and documented the Indian Wars producing rather picturesque images of a wild nature that needed to be preserved, having disposed of the native populations that had originally inhabited those lands. These idealized landscapes provided the nation with an imagery that was instrumental for the development of not only the railroad and the tourism industry, but also for the construction of a North American identity.

This place had seen them all, the hunters of the High Plains: Cheyenne, Lakota, Blackfeet, Arikara, Crow, Assiniboin, Mandan, Arapaho, and Teton. Then, an adobe trading post was established here; mountain men, trappers, fur-company agents, and all kind of hagglers took their chances here, but only tough traders with an insight into the native psychology had made their fortunes at this place (…)

Suddenly I heard footsteps again, although their sound was real, I was sure that they belonged to no real person, that I was the only one around. (…)

As I stepped out of the haunted building and reached the wooden porch, the enigma of the mysterious footsteps was suddenly solved. In a light breeze, high on the flagstaff of the parade grounds at Fort Laramie, as Fort Williams was later named, the Stars and Stripes were flapping gently in the clear crisp morning air. [8]

3. The Backdrop.

One possible backdrop to Broodthaers’ 19th century décor is a critical re-reading of the frontier’s myth as historian Frederic Jackson Turner defined it in 1893 and of the country’s imperialist expansion understood as its Manifest Destiny. In his address to the American Historical Association, Turner wrote about the vigorous spirit and the dominant individualism that accompanied the exploration of the frontier. These traits that made the “American intellect” were closely tied to the development of commerce and the unfolding of progress as commanded by Providence in order to expand and strengthen society’s sense of liberty and self-governance. From that perspective, forcefulness for Turner came to be a redemptive and restorative attribute since it was exerted in the name of an identity: the movement towards the West would strip the new immigrants from their European background, and they could be born again and recast as good Americans. More importantly, this would justify the expansion and the take over of “unexplored” territories that, according to Turner, didn’t belong to anyone (the truth being that they belonged to Indians and Mexicans but these weren’t considered to be civilized people but rather non-white savage populations). As written by artist Trevor Paglen in “Frontier Photography”, an essay paralleling 19th century North American photography and his own work documenting contemporary US surveillance programs: 

The frontier was a space where old-world caste systems might be left behind and a man might become rich by simply being in the right place at the right time. This sense of possibility, of course, came with exceptional violence: fifty years before [Joseph] Conrad penned Heart of Darkness, Nevada newspapers openly advocated solving the “Indian problem” by “exterminating the whole race.”[10]

Last but not least, Turner stated that the most important effect of the frontier had been the promotion of democracy. Yet it is known that the democratic processes were gradually exported from the eastern territories to the Wild West where the concepts of justice and order didn’t legally exist and only pervaded through the rule of a few (sometimes) good men provided with weapons. These would frequently be invested with the confidence of a community and would take onto themselves the responsibility of establishing a seeming order, an order that would nevertheless rely on a force outside the order. [11]

Broodthaers’ inclusion of a poster from Heaven with a Gun in the 19th century period room is thus not fortuitous. With its sequences of scalping, rape and murder that make the predictable vocabulary of the genre, the film tells the story of Jim Killian, a preacher unmasked as an ex-convict gunslinger tore between good and evil, that finally decides to take matters into his own hands and save his town from an unscrupulous rancher. “Jim Killian killed like an artist—praised another poster of the time—this is the story of his masterpiece.”

4. The stage set.

Given the fact that for Broodthaers the décors weren’t originally an end in themselves, one could think that Décor: A Conquest was then truly meant to be a temporary stage set hosting a series of objects, props and spotlights that would end up being some of the leading figures in the film The Battle of Waterloo. The film itself opens with some sequences of smoking cannons alternating with the image of an actress un-making the jigsaw puzzle that lays on the garden table, and with the image of some guards marching to the sound of band music and Wagner’s Tristan e Isolde.

Stuctured upon this sort of mirrored mise-en-scène of 19th and 20th centuries in which props are real but not original objects, A Conquest… remains suspended in that in-between space that is a stage before filming. The beauty of the piece lays in the conundrum it produces between exhibition and film set, opening the question of which one came first? Whereas the exhibition was clearly mounted before the film was shot, its conception as a film set seems to have preceded the décor itself. The work can thus be located precisely in that space in which art and spectacle are played out by means of the false historical patina of these two period rooms constructed out of props.

Most likely, as narrated by Michael Crompton, when Broodthaers and Barry Barker, then Director of Exhibitions at ICA, started working on the project, Broodthaers had a very clear idea of the kind of décor he wanted to produce and made a list of artifacts for Barker to get, among which two cannons from the Napoleonic era.[12] Legend has it that, after receiving many negatives to the cannon loans he requested from different institutions, Barker found instead a jigsaw puzzle representing the Battle of Waterloo after a painting by William Heath that he bought for the artist’s daughter and which Broodthaers immediately decided to incorporate to the piece. Legend has it too that chance (unless it was fate as Broodthaers was about to conclude a lifetime work) was again behind the fact that the only viable solution to comply with the artist’s requests was to get the objects he required from a prop supplier for film and theater. Once the exhibition was on, a regiment happened to march on the Mall for the annual ceremony of Trooping of the Colours, parading past the windows of the ICA. The Trooping of the Colours was originally a battlefield ritual meant to encourage the soldiers to fight not for their lives but for the colors of the flags. Today—as back in 1975—it has become The Queen’s Birthday Parade, a sort of historical misreading in which the guards in uniforms march like empty signifiers.

5. The film.

By integrating a martial spectacle in his film among the other props that made the décor, Broodthaers refers to military history as the story of spectacularized warfare, one that echoes the theatrical melodramas of the Buffalo Bill Combination (1872-1876), a troupe formed by William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his longtime friends Wild Bill Hickok and Texas Jack Omohundro, and in what later came to be known as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” (1883-1916). For more than thirty years Cody ran one of the most successful spectacles both in the US and Europe that reenacted the making of North American history—the riding of the Pony Express, Indian attacks on wagon trains, and stagecoach robberies (the attack on the Deadwood Stage was particularly popular)—recruiting its actual participants among celebrities like Calamity Jane, Geronimo and Sitting Bull that were asked to play themselves.

In “Ten thousand francs reward”, an interview from 1974, Broodthaers himself mentioned that when objects on display are assigned an illustrative role, they “become interchangeable elements on the stage of a theater. Their destiny is ruined. Here I obtain the desired encounter between different functions.”[13] In other words, even though the Belgian artist used to play with the combination of objects in his décors as if they resulted from chance encounters, he nevertheless managed, in his words, “to articulate them morally and materially.” That is probably why Alain Jouffroy wrote in his 1982 letter responding to his dead friend’s note: “By attacking as you did, frontally, the cannons and machine guns of Western décor, you revealed our fake metaphysics. With you and thanks to you, the ripped curtain raised and we can now look into this sort of abandoned Hollywood studio that we still call today ‘modern art’ with lucidity.” [14]

Both the film set and the exhibition—sometimes referred to as Décor: A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers, the authorship being part of the title—have been read as the final taking over by Broodthaers of the institutional space. For, if as he said, the décor wasn’t an end in itself, maybe the film was and the décor was just a temporary place, or setting, in which presentation and representation, perception and experience were at play. The undoing of the puzzle in La Bataille de Waterloo (the puzzle that was almost finished in the 20th century room) might very well be pointing at the final undoing in Broodthaers’ oeuvre of the bourgeois cultural and historical constructions inherited from colonial history that so frequently end up being a colorful parody of themselves.

6. The key in the drawer (In the guise of conclusion, an intermission).

The scene of the actress un-making the jigsaw puzzle on a garden table in La Bataille de Waterloo has been interpreted by many as a reference to the puzzle scene in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane—that is, as conflict represented and internalized in a bourgeois setting or put it differently, in Jouffroy’s words, “as [Broodthaers] said about European 19th and 20th centuries, the cannons, pistols, rifles, machine guns and revolvers of Western thought [being] part of the intellectual comfort, the key to which the scribe still holds in a drawer.”[15] But what few people know is that Welles’s first film and masterpiece actually came up as a second option after RKO Pictures rejected, in 1939, his adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for its overt political tone. The film remained unrealized until Fiona Banner decided to stage the script, with a monologue in which actor Brian Cox plays both Marlow’s and Captain Kurtz’ parts, just like Welles’ was hopping to do. Thames and Hudson. Orson Welles’ Heart of Darkness (2012) clearly picks on Welles’ own vision in marking a clear parallel between European colonialism and North American expansionism—which would eventually lead to the US imperialist ventures in South-East Asia and other latitudes, including outer space as demonstrated by John F. Kennedy’s concept of the New Frontier. [16] In the opening of the film the Nellie isn’t anchored in the river Thames but in the river Hudson, in New York’s harbor at dusk, as Marlow muses (one could imagine, with the scribe’s key in his hand) on the tidal currents carrying all the memories of these “hunters for gold or pursuers of fame… The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of Empires”. [17]

Now that the drawer lays wide open, there seems to be a renewed interest in the concept of the Frontier and the image of Wild West [18], a situation that might be pointing rather than to the intellectual comfort, to the mundane discomfort before the still “unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus” that were already present in Kennedy’s 1960 take of the New Frontier. [19] The current discredit of political parties (facing the increase of independent candidatures), the ongoing erosion of natural resources as a result of (imperial) greed and corruption, and civil society taking business in their own hands (extremist youths across Europe, spontaneous militias in the south of the US fighting drug smuggling and migration, as well as the armed self-defense groups that fight the cartels in Mexico to name a just few circumstances taking place on each side of the border), are all phenomena that seem to create—and defend—their own state of exception in an attempt, for better or worse, to find new alternatives to social and political institutions as we’ve known and experienced them


[1] Marcel Broodthaers in Marcel Broodthaers / Alain Jouffroy Correspondance(s)”, Décor A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers XIXth and XXth Century London 1975, published by Michael Werner Gallery, New York, 2007. p. 32. The “Paris exhibition” mentioned by Broodthaers is L’Angelus de Daumier held in 1975 at the Musée National d’Art Moderne Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

[2] Marcel Broodthaers, Notes on the Subject, Marcel Broodthaers Collected Writings, Gloria Moure ed. (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2012), p. 48.

[3] Gloria Moore, Lespace de l’écriture”, Marcel Broodthaers Collected Writings, op.cit. p. 18

[4] Maria Gilissen, Décor, Décor A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers XIXth and XXth Century London 1975, op.cit., p. 35

[5] Lothar Baumgarten, The Footsteps, Carbon, exh. cat., The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, April-June,1990, insert pp. 24-25

[6] Ibid., p. 29.

[7] On the inscription of politics into 19th century landscape photography, see Deborah Bright Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men An Inquiry Into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography”, (last accessed January 18th, 2016), and Trevor Plaglen “Frontier Photography”, Art Forum, March, 2009.

[8] Lothar Baumgarten, op.cit., p.25

[9] William Jackson Turner “The significance of the Frontier in American Life” was first presented during the Chicago Columbian Exhibition organized to commemorate the 400 anniversary of the “discovery” of the Americas—international expositions embodying, as we know, the spectacularization of colonial experience.

[10] Trevor Paglen, Frontier Photography, (Last accessed January 18th, 2016)

[11] For an extended development on the Wild West as a generalized state of exception and its representation in traditional Westerns, see Magalí Arriola, “Riding out of the sunset, or how to cover the sunrise with a thumb in Guantánamo Bay”, May N. 2, 2009.

[12] Michael Crompton, La Bataille de Waterloo, 1975, Décor A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers XIXth and XXth Century London 1975, op.cit., pp. 26-30.

[13] Marcel Broodthaers, Ten thousand francs reward, Marcel Broodthaers Collected Writings, op. cit. p.415.

[14] Alain Jouffroy in Marcel Broodthaers / Alain Jouffroy Correspondance(s), Décor A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers XIXth and XXth Century London 1975, published by Michael Werner Gallery, New York, 2007, p. 33.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Banner also conceived in collaboration with a series of graphic designers various possible promotional posters for The Greatest Film Never Made, many of them clearly indebted to Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, as it is widely known, and adaptation of Conrad’s book set during the Vietnam War.

[17] Orson Welles, Heart of Darkness (1939), accessed January 18th, 2016)

[18] The Western genre and/or the Wild West setting has experienced a sort of revival during the last decade in TV series like Deadwood (2004-2006) and movies such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), There Will be Blood (2008), No Country for Old Men (2008), True Grit (2010), Django Unchained (2012), and more recently The Revenant and The Hateful Eight (both 2015) to name a few.

[19] We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus”. John F. Kennedy, “The New Frontier”, Democratic National Convention Nomination Acceptance Address, delivered 15 July 1960, Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles. (Last accessed January 18th, 2016)