Marcel Broodthaers’s career has to be one of the most hermetically abstruse, at least to an American audience, of the 20th century, so it’s a signal event when a museum like MoMA, so vested in the pas de deux of Dada and Surrealism, celebrates one of that tradition’s most prodigious acolytes. Broodthaers’s work stems from the partition-smashing symbolism of both of those movements; he particularly identified with the wry humor of his fellow countryman, René Magritte. While his projects reflect the seriously playful recombination of words, images, and contexts that have come to represent the disinterested impertinence of the European avant-garde stemming from Symbolist poetry and anarchist dissolution, they gel into a singular critique of cultural institutions and the capital (both social and monetary) generated by the empires which support them. This gives his work an added value to today’s audience, caught as we are in an accelerated convergence between art and capital. Rather than simply mugging for his patrons, Broodthaers carefully directs their mug shots.
Broodthaers initiated his public life as a poet. A francophone Belgian, he strongly identified with the poetry and critical writing of Stéphane Mallarmé, whose work pops up regularly in both implicit and explicit ways throughout this dense, but well-chosen show. Like Mallarmé, Broodthaers found symbolic vessels to contain the artist/poet’s wager on the creative reinterpretation of formal meaning. He opposed sanctioned culture with such humble containers of poetic intention as cracked eggshells and steamed-open mussels, which he also posited as molds (the French word for mussels, moules, is a homophone for “molds”). One of his earliest assemblage works, Le Problème noir en Belgique (The black problem in Belgium) (1963 – 64) superimposed seven plastic eggs spattered with black paint on the Brussels newspaper Le Soir addressing the Congo’s difficult emergence from Belgian colonial rule. Superficially, the work recalls synthetic Cubist experiments with quotidian news as well as the then-contemporary trend of Nouveau Réalisme to submit material forensics of the everyday as art, yet Broodthaers’s sardonic political message in this piece sets it apart from a mere re-presentation of the real. His “black” is similar in its metaphysical multivalence to Mallarmé’s “white death–agony” in the famous poem, Le Cygne (The Swan), except that Broodthaers’s oblique, atmospheric symbolism comprises the container for a specific political realism. Interestingly, the subtitle to the newspaper headline reads “Simple truths and difficult problems.” This could serve as the motto to Broodthaers’s entire career: how to consign the lyrical essence of matter to its own devices without simply reducing difficult semantic problems, in both politics and art, to fatuous procedural gestures, empty molds.
Evident throughout the exhibition is the artist’s insistent message that formal decorum conceals and often intentionally occludes the power of real truths, and that the poet/artist has the key to unlock those verities by playfully rearranging the representational signifiers of cultural capital. His molds are all cracked to reveal the loss of this signification, for which Broodthaers compensates with the possibility of their transformation into newer models of poetic being. Triomphe de moule I (Triumph of mussel I) (1965) is a pot vertically overflowing with empty mussel shells in a hysterically absurd allegory of fullness and absence. The artist’s humor in such a work disarms one to its frozen weight, and allows for one to assimilate its fundamental message of the life and inevitable death of overcooked, official aesthetics.
Broodthaers extended the metaphorical reach of his poetic empire when he declared that he would no longer make objects as an artist but to establish himself as a meta-institution of cultural administration which he christened the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (1968 – 1972). Picking up where Marcel Duchamp left off with his readymade practice, Broodthaers created a readymade administrative wing to critique the readymade assumptions of museum aesthetics. The installation Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section XIXème Siècle, held in Antwerp in 1969, consisted of wooden packing crates, postcards of 19th-century artworks on the walls and a painted sign reading “Département des Aigles” on a rear garden wall. The starkly deconstructed space of cultural display is combined with the willfully not-unpacked commercial boxes. By withholding the product of cultural capital Broodthaers reimagines the art museum space as one of virtual transit, abstract capital. In doing so he simultaneously reinforces the physicality of place while evacuating the auratic meaning from any typical bourgeois trade in decorum.
The eagle mascot of his department comes with a complex history of being appropriated to connote empire, from the Romans through Napoleonic France and up to its usage as an icon of the ascendance of the American century. Capturing an “eagle” (the bronze casting surmounting the regimental standards of Napoleon’s Grande Armée) was a prize of victory in the wars of France’s 19th century imperial ambition. The eagle became a fetish for both sides, one in coalescing empire, the other in signaling its demise. The conditional meaning of such a symbol was a very local one for Broodthaers, as the battle of Waterloo was fought in his home country, an event he comically parodies in Un voyage à Waterloo (Napoléon 1769 – 1969). In this short film the artist is seen wearing a prosthetic nose (a veritable beak) in a commemorative day trip to the battle site.
For Broodthaers the historical demise of the far-reaching Napoleonic empire in the farmlands of diminutive Belgium held a special significance, since within his lifetime the country was overrun and devastated by wars in which Belgium often played a rather minor role, that of a conduit toward greater conquest. The destructive ambition of empire for an artist like Broodthaers, who so closely identified with Belgium that he incorporated the national colors in such artworks as Fémur d’homme belge (Painted Bone) (1964 – 1965) and La valise belge (The Belgian suitcase) (1964), carried real aesthetic baggage. Other references to the Napoleonic age include photo-reproductions of works by Ingres in theDépartement des Aigles. Ingres,who famously painted idealized, allegorical portraits of Napoleon, serveshere as a reminder of the laurels bestowed by the Beaux Arts academy and the realpolitik implications of that particular honor.
Being Belgian was central to Broodthaers’s aesthetic since it allowed him the perspective of one whose “territory” had historically been extremely contingent. Maria Gilissen Broodhaers, his wife, has said, “Broodthaers was not in the habit of laying down borders. He was beyond borders.”1 The artist’s hilarious reduction of the bordered silhouettes of thirty-two different countries to the same size in a tiny bound volume entitled La Conquête de l’espace, Atlas à l’usage des artistes et des militaires (The conquest of space, Atlas for the use of artists and soldiers) (1975) makes fairly clear that his approach to empire was tactically metaphysical, thereby gaining the highest ground first. This type of appeal to the universal may be dismissed today as absurdly romantic, but to Broodthaers’s credit as an artistic strategist, he never relies upon a single artwork to carry the day. Instead he consistently spreads his intent thin throughout his oeuvre, thereby preempting the onset of the aura of masterpiece in any given work. This tendency is perhaps what makes his work so demanding and also probably why it retains such a playfully cryptic potential even forty years after his death.
What is most interesting about the Broodthaers retrospective is how is delineates the artist’s career as one of stops and starts, folds of intention, from an artist whose stated goal was to “depart from a literary poetry in order to lead to a poetry of the object”2 but also to see that, “The language of forms must be joined to that of words.”3 The poet becomes a fabricator of objects, then a fabricator of worlds, then returns to synthesize these skills into a revelatory alphabet of meaning. Recognizing Broodthaers’s restless transgression and transmutation of aesthetic categories is essential to understanding the artist’s playfully destabilizing tactics which help to suspend any artistic rationale that would otherwise be too easily recuperated by the cultural status quo.
The artist’s late work—which includes his Décor: A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers (1975) and Un Jardin d’Hiver II (A Winter Garden II)(1974) installations—are composite, environmental works that extend his aesthetics into time and space more aggressively than in some of the more discreet works preceding them. At the entrance and throughout the show, potted palms and etchings of endangered species associated with European colonial conquest evoke the palm courts of the 19th-century bourgeoisie. Broodthaers sets up this rather elegiac scenario to implicate the flaneurial aesthetics of 19th and 20th-century art lovers in their complicity with empire. But who here exactly is the endangered species? John Berger has written, “Everywhere animals disappear. In zoos they constitute the living monument to their own disappearance. And in doing so they provoke their last metaphor.”4 In deploying these antique animal etchings as elements in his larger critical décors, Broodthaers unequivocally points to the ultimate bankruptcy of real and symbolic resources that would prop up the armchair model of empire in its own museum (or mausoleum) of best intentions. This perhaps is Broodthaers’s greatest and most lasting metaphor.