Figure-clé: Broodthaers*

Mark Thomson on the Belgian poet-turned-artist

Words are the prisoners of the alphabet. Words are as dependent on the letterforms and combinations of the alphabet as the prisoner is dependent on his jailer. The Surrealists’ attempts to escape this prison range from Aragon’s Suicide, 1924, a 26-letter poem, to Magritte’s n’est pas. Later, there is Perec’s feat of producing a novel without the letter ‘e’, the alphabet’s most visible letter, La Disparition, 1969.

For Broodthaers, Mallarme held the key. The typographic arrangement of Un coup de dès jamais n’abolira le hasard includes the page, its boundaries and colour. The white space arrives with an equal plastic status: word and space together become both subject and object. Later, in music, Cage observed that the silences in a piece are not simple frames for sound, but sound objects in themselves.

Broodthaers turned up the volume on this seduction of the word by its image, replacing words and lines of text with black lines of a similar weight throughout Un coup de dès. In 1974 Broodthaers answers a question: ‘Do objects function for you as words? – I use the object as a zero word.’ Of Un coup de dès only traces remain, only a mould.

Broodthaers started out as a poet, and in this context his closest associations with Belgian Surrealism are found: publishing in Le Surrealisme Revolutionnaire, signing a manifesto with Magritte and Paul Nouge and attending meetings from 1945 onwards. The move into images in 1963 was not a renunciation, more an expansion of metaphorical co-ordinates.

Looking for analogy, not precursors, takes you past Magritte to 19th-century French literature – Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Lautréamont – and also to Tristram Shandy. Sterne’s graphic stunts begin to relieve words of their duty: the flourish of Corporal Trim’s stick, which appears as a trace in ink on the page, the asterisks which replace words read in private, Chapters 18 and 19 in Volume IX, which contain neither words nor image. The paradox of Broodthaers’ imagised version of Un coup de dès is paralleled, even slightly clarified by the marbled page in Volume III of Tristram Shandy. What kind of knowledge is it that is required to penetrate the impenetrable? The marbled page is not illustration but, like Broodthaers’ Un coup de dès, image.

The film La Pluie, 1969, is subtitled ‘Projet pour un texte’. Many works are this, from the one-second film La Signature (Une seconde d’éternité), 1970, to the lithograph Poème – Change – Exchange – Wechsel, 1972. The low-tech plastic reliefs called Poèmes Industrielles have something of the fractured form and pathetic atmosphere of Apollinaire’s Zone, mixed with a static and inflexible method of production. At the Jeu de Paume an excellent arrangement of Poèmes lndustrielles one next to another, two deep and from wall to wall shows sensitive handling – these are emphatically not designed for the kind of tasteful display in which our museums excel.

There has been a tendency to align Broodthaers with second-wave Belgian Surrealist art, which is something like being on the edge of the margin. There is a simple explanation for this, although it may not be satisfactory. His most influential work among producers of art is conceptual, realised in ways that are either fictional (the Musée d’Art Moderne) or unsaleable (the Décors). Meanwhile the market has been doing its job and the nuances of collection and context have given way to a general concentration, through auctions and commercial gallery shows, on single objects seen more or less in isolation.

Becoming your own collector is a gentle subversion of art marketing. For the Décors, Broodthaers either used rented objects or collected and represented his own past work in new and flexible contexts; the thrust of the Décors is to study the effect of context on the individual work of art. In 1968 Broodthaers announced ‘I don’t believe in the unique artist or the unique work of art. I believe in phenomena, and in men who put ideas together.’

The manifestations of the Musée d’Art Moderne occurred between 1968 and 1972 and used mostly borrowed objects or ephemeral media. In its first guise, the Section XIXème Siècle, it contained packing cases used for shipping artworks, postcards of 19th Century French paintings and an empty truck. Starting from Broodthaers’ studio/apartment in Brussels, the Musée gradually extended its institutional critique of the museum to other venues, including a beach and the Kunsthalle Dusseldorf.

A couple of months before the inauguration of the Musée d’Art Moderne, Broodthaers was part of a group called the Free Association that occupied the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels for a few days in May and June 1968. In its manifesto, the Free Association condemned ‘the commercialisation of all forms of art considered as objects of consumption’. Shortly afterwards, Broodthaers says in an interview: ‘Whether he knows it or not, every artist today is engagé. The problem is to be consciously engagé, authentically – not to become the object of others’ engagement.’

An opportunity to raise the profile of the Musée d’Art Moderne may have been missed by the show’s organisers. The public still lingeringly identifies the Jeu de Paume with the 19th Century, particularly Impressionism, as the proliferation of signs directing unsuspecting visitors to the Musée d’Orsay shows. It would have been more than appropriate to draw a parallel between the departed works and the first incarnation of Broodthaers’ Musée.

A text from 1975, To be bien pensant ... or not to be. To be blind, suggests that Art be defined ‘in terms of a constant, I mean the transformation of art into merchandise’. Artists’ films seem to escape this transformation, which is strange for a medium so clearly identified with popular exploitation. The films of Broodthaers offer the biggest revelation of the retrospective. Like Cornell’s, they have an unexpected literalness, as well as some brilliant visual ideas.

La Pluie is a text for nothing: Broodthaers writes in ink at a table. It starts to rain. The ink dissolves as the rain pushes the words away. The caption announces ‘Projet pour un texte’. La Pipe, 1968-70, on its own against the sky, smokes from both ends, clouds of smoke. Before The Last Voyage, 1973-74, a disclaimer appears on screen: Broodthaers never saw the edited version of this film. It is composed of a sequence of readymade stills dating, at a guess, from the turn of the century, which form a narrative of the delirium and death of an old sailor. But all the time Broodthaers’ camera is swinging up and down, as if the film was made on a heavy swell.

Each day there is a screening of a 30-minute selection of films; on two occasions a larger selection was seen, which includes the more complex and ambitious works. It is slightly disappointing that these films, which like Cornell’s would be influential if they were seen, are not available more often during the exhibition.

The metaphor of the parrot reappears on the breakfast table (still in its cage) in Berlin oder ein Traum mit Sahne, 1974 (a pun in another language, it translates as Berlin or a Dream with Cream), next to the poet, still imprisoned but this time behind cream-smeared dark glasses, behind a newspaper, suffocating behind the net curtains of a bourgeois apartment in Berlin, prisoner of the East or West. In To be bien pensant ... Broodthaers writes ‘Art is a prisoner of its phantasms and its function as magic; it hangs on our bourgeois walls as a sign of power, it flickers along the péripéties of our history like a shadow play ... ’. Berlin oder ein Traum mit Sahne was made at the same time as a presentation, one of the Décors, of Broodthaers’ past work at the Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Broodthaers saw the DAAD fellowship which facilitated both exhibition and film as part of ‘official life’, and called his décor Invitation pour une exposition bourgeoise.

Figures of Wax (Jeremy Benthnm), made in London in 1974, also carries a disclaimer. The narrator’s impeccable English tones announce ‘Although this film was made between the two elections of 1973 and 1974, any connection with reality is entirely incidental and is not the intention of the author’. The film goes on to describe in a near-documentary technique the exploits and opinions of Jeremy Bentham, whose mortal remains are imprisoned in a wax recreation in the corridors of University College, London. It’s hard to believe the disclaimer, since Bentham was one of the protagonists of the philosophy of Utilitarianism, which states that actions are reducible to a tendency to cause either pleasure or pain; those which promote the greatest happiness for the largest number are preferable. The disclaimer sounds, in fact, like a passable one-line programme for making art: say what you don’t mean.

The Battle of Waterloo, 1975, is probably the most ambitious film, and also the best-photographed, although that really doesn’t matter. Shot from the roof of the ICA during the Trooping of the Colour and in the galleries where his Décor was installed, the film is a kind of props-cupboard war game with a historical twist: Napoleon fights back with own-label cognac.

Although art is often a slow-release medium, practicality and the effects of real-time can prevent the recreation of some works, and the ICA Décor is among them. The film records the installation and at the same time elaborates on it in a different tempo.

Among the other high spots of the Jeu de Paume retrospective is La Salle Blanche, which formed part of Broodthaers’ last décor, l’Angelus de Daumier. The White Room is a highly detailed reconstruction in timber of part of Broodthaers’ apartment in Brussels in which the first manifestation of the Musée d’Art Moderne, Section XIXème Siècle took place. Painted on walls and floor, but really drifting idly through the space like smoke, are many words, words familiar from the metaphorical environment of Broodthaers. The electric light burns away. It’s more than night ou!side – it’s death: the room is a coffin, the words ghosts, the museum a fiction. It is the blacked-out image of Mallarmé and the black page of Tristram Shandy. And it now belongs to the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, a private room finally made public property, as Broodthaers’ metaphor is public property.

It’s hard, and it may be irrelevant or premature, to say what Broodthaers’ influence is and where it exerts itself. At least, in the field of installation, which is about context, he opened many doors. From a production perspective, there’s no better programme than that of the assembled 19th-century poets in Broodthaers’ smoke, drink, copy, speak, write, paint, film.

Marcel Broodthaers was at the Jeu de Paume, Paris until 1 March 1992.

Mark Thomson is an artist.

*Those who have always wondered how Marcel Boodthaers’ surname is pronounced need wonder no more; AM has been reliably informed that an accurate phonetic rendition in English would be Brroe/tarsh (eds).

First published in Art Monthly 153: February 1992.

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