Visual artist, filmmaker, photographer, and poet, Marcel Broodthaers is the éminence grise of 20th-century art. A major figure in the intellectual circles of mid-century Brussels, Broodthaers remains under-celebrated. Yet his influence stretches down the decades, from dada and surrealism to conceptualism and pop art.
In February 2016, MoMA launches Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective,the first major celebration of the artist since the Tate Gallery retrospective in 1980, and the first one ever in New York. In celebration, an exclusive selection of Broodthaers’s poetry has been translated into English for the first time. We asked renowned mystic scholar Andrew Harvey to explore its secrets; in these poems, he discovers an intriguing side entrance to the artist’s maverick, multidimensional mind.
Words by Andrew Harvey
Imagine if Rembrandt had left us long, rich philosophical essays that gave us a sustained glimpse into the heart and mind that engendered his masterpieces. Imagine if Piero della Francesca or Velázquez or Chardin or Cézanne had written prose poems or luminous fragments that could help us share directly something of the passions and revelations that led to their pioneering breakthroughs. Their works, of course, speak for themselves, with a silent, timeless eloquence, arguing convincingly that that is more than enough, and that having such documents might confuse our judgments and appreciation rather than enhance them. And yet any serious lover of art who reads Van Gogh’s sublime letters, or Kandinsky’s visionary explorations of his mystical understanding of color, or Andy Warhol’s dystopic, acrid essays and books, or Francis Bacon’s polyfaceted and polymathic conversations with David Sylvester will only find their fascination with the work of these crucial artists deepened and their awe at their enterprise expanded and enriched.
It is a real grace, then, that we have Marcel Broodthaers’s poems to tease, bewilder, and enrapture us. I have always believed him to be, since I first encountered his work in Paris in the 1980s, along with Joseph Beuys, the most challenging and original of the conceptual artists of the 20th century. Any thread that can help guide us through the labyrinth of his complex, deliberately cryptic, always twisting, shifting, and evolving imagination is a thread we should grasp gratefully.W. H. Auden once told me that there are three kinds of true poets: the naturally gifted ones, the authentic ones, and the great ones such as Rilke, or Pessoa, or Shakespeare, whose transcendent genius can never be exhausted or explained but only approached in gratitude and wonder. Broodthaers is, in my opinion, in the second category— and that, God knows, is enough cause for celebration.
For all their obvious indebtedness to the surrealists, to Lorca— whom Broodthaers so passionately admired —and to the greatest visionary of all of French poetry, Rimbaud, the Rimbaud especially of Les Illuminations, Broodthaers’s poems stand on their own with a strange dignity, a pervading sense of mystery, at once dangerous and revelatory; a steely, sometimes tragic, always subversive authority, that make them to me as baffling, haunting, and moving as his works in all the other mediums of which he was the ever-elusive master.
For me, the only useful way to approach Broodthaers’s poems is to allow them to be exactly what they are — word and image “events” that constantly evade or collapse any attempt at explanation. Allow your mind to grow white, blank, unconditionally spacious and relaxedly alert. Then read them word by word, image by image, over and over,silently and out loud, and just allow whatever connections, memories and thoughts they evoke to arise, without, as Keats said in his famous letter about negative capability, “any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” And you will be astonished.
A Garage edit of “Poetry, Photographs, and Films” by Sam Sackeroff and Teresa Velázquez. Originally published, along with poetry translations, in Manuel Borja-Villel and Christoph Cherix, Marcel Broodthers: A Retrposepctive, 2016, pages 52-75.
Born on January 28, 1924, in Brussels, Marcel Broodthaers was encouraged by his father, a hotel manager, to pursue a career in banking. Instead he studied chemistry at the Université libre de Bruxelles, but dropped out after one year. He was a messenger for the Belgian Resistance during World War II, and joined the Communist Party in 1943.
Broodthaers forged friendships with Belgian luminaries such as the surrealist painter René Magritte, and in 1945 his first poem was published. In April 1954, his poem “Adieu, police!” appeared in the literary journal Phantômas. It recounts the career of a shadowy figure who drifts from occupation to occupation until he finds himself alone, a “scarecrow of commerce” on a sinking ship. The figure reemerges from the sea to adopt the persona of the journal’s namesake, Fantômas, a masked criminal of early twentieth-century pulp fiction who assumed the identities of his victims. The poem reflects many of the interests that characterize Broodthaers’s early career: a fascination with multiple, often assumed identities; an awareness of the pitfalls of commercial culture; a penchant for anachronism; a suspicion of authority; and above all an appreciation of the ability of language to elude and evade.
In 1956 Broodthaers began his first major work of art, the black-and-white film La Clef de l’horloge, Poème cinématographique en l’honneur de Kurt Schwitters.
The film—or, as Broodthaers called it, the “cinematic poem” — finds the artist experimenting with what would become one of his most enduring personas: the museum curator. In taking Schwitters as his subject, Broodthaers explored terrain which offered a model distinct from the vestiges of surrealism and communism that had dominated the Belgian scene. Schwitters, like Broodthaers, was a poet and a visual artist who developed a means of navigating the border between commercialism and culture—a border which Broodthaers would cross and recross in the years to come.
In 1957 Broodthaers’s first volume of poems, Mon livre d’ogre (My Ogre Book), appeared. Described as a “suite of poetic stories,” the volume contained poems that were more mysterious than his earlier efforts. One line reads “O, melancholy bitter castle of eagles,” a phrase to which he returned when planning his most ambitious project, the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles. It was followed in 1960 by his second collection, Minuit, which experimented with typography and spacing. Some poems are odes to personified ideas, while others are remembrances of visionary experiences.
Broodthaers self-published his final volume of poetry, Pense-Bête (Memory aid), in 1964. The opening poem, “Art poétique” (The art of poetry)—a title that calls to mind earlier treatises by Horace and Paul Verlaine— provides one of his most explicit statements regarding his poetry and artistic practice: “A taste for secrecy and the practice of hermeticism are one /and the same, and for me, a favorite game.” These themes are reflected in the physical makeup of the book: Broodthaers added collage elements to many copies, gluing pieces of colored paper to the pages. Some obscure portions of the text; others can be folded over to reveal the words hidden underneath. On the cover of some copies, Broodthaers added a paper cutout of a keyhole. Although readers could “turn the key” by opening the book, the contents were not so easily unlocked; even the poems, which can be read in full have an elusive quality. Shortly after “Le Petit Doigt et l’index” (The little finger and the index), readers encountered a second keyhole, formed from the negative cutout of the first. Adjacent to it was an ink impression left by Broodthaers’s finger —suggesting that in the end the key to the poems was held only by him.
Poems by Marcel Broodthaers
I wanted to be an organ player / in the army of silence / but played hopscotch / on the pink dew of blood. / My vessel foundered at anchor / and its wood rotted in flames / at the bottom of the waters. / So I played zanzi / and from setback upon setback, / I arrived at the blackest season. / I was the scarecrow of commerce. / The sea took me back again / under the rags of the drowned princes; / ever since my friends have been seals. / Later I played poker dice / and took off running, / burning my books and friendship / in the maw of oblivion. / And laughing in the face of crimes, / the ser-geants and Bluebeards, / I became Fantômas. / Dressed in water and in war, / I grew under the Parisian sky. / (Château d’If.) / The road along the wharf is the rendez-vous point / Of deviants and players of all species; youth and the / Young people occasionally pass by, just for laughs, but rarely go there.
For J.B Uyttendaele
In the New Year / the reconciled / Hop-o’-My-Thumb and Ogre / haunted the white forest / One with his knife / the other his 7-league boots / Behind them marched / the wolf and the lamb / Saint Hubertus and the Bogeyman / awash in white flakes / followed the fairies / the handsome Penelours and the elves / Then came the executioners / each coiffed with a pheasant’s feather / and finally the North Star / preceded by the Great Bear’s chariot / Death with its long strides / spurred the cortege along / Death mimicking the forest / with coffee grinders / I greet the funereal convoy.
Me I say I Me I say I /The King of Mussels Me You say You /I tautologue. I conserve. I sociologue. /I manifest manifestly. At the sea- level / of mussels, I have lost the lost time. /I say, I, the King of Mussels. the word / of Mussels.
Everything is eggs. The world is egg. The world was born of the great yolk, the sun. Our mother, the moon, is scaly. The egg’s crushed scales, the moon. Egg dust, the stars. Everything, eggs dead and lost. Despite the guards, this world-sun, this moon, stars of en- tire trains. Emptiness. Of empty eggs.
1. A mussel hides a mould and vice-versa. /2. The pipe of Magritte is the mould of smoke. A factory is the antique mould of smoke. /3. Every object is a victim of its nature, even in a transparent painting the color hides the canvas, and the moulding, the frame. /4. An object is invisible when its form is perfect. Examples: the egg, the mussel, fries.