Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective

“I WANTED,” Marcel Broodthaers declared in his 1954 poem “Adieu, police!,” “to be an organ player / in the army of silence / but played hopscotch / on the pink dew of blood.” Either choice—each one an irresistibly visualized paradox—gives vivid testimony to the multifarious career of this Belgian artist who began as a poet and (after encasing fifty of his unsold volumes in plaster) became a sculptor, collagist, painter, filmmaker, and all-around provocateur who parodied the institutional qualities of a museum by creating one of his own in his Brussels studio. With strong roots in Surrealist subversion, his comically inclined assemblages include a music stand covered in mussel shells, a shovelful of coal, wooden barrels filled with broken eggshells, a coffin filled with painted jars, and painted human femurs (one male, one female). Across his wide range of media and materials, he made wry, deliberately confounding use of text; truly, he never ceased being a poet. A series of letterpress pieces with the look of memorial plaques offer enigmatic précis of writers’ lives: “The Turpitude of Charles Dodgson,” “The Mind of William Blake,” “The Dimension of Edgar Allan Poe.” Numerous media (photographic canvases, films, sculptures) are covered with text from Jean de La Fontaine’s Le Corbeau et le Renard (The Crow and the Fox), a fable about trickery; in one piece, the handwritten text issues from a typewriter. The dilemma of every artist and writer who contends with an army of silence is dramatized with witty poignancy in his film La Pluie (Projet pour un texte) (The Rain [Project for a Text]), in which Broodthaers sits in a drenching downpour attempting to write with a fountain pen, even as the rain washes away each letter before it is fully formed on the page. Although this Sisyphean task depicts an age-old fear of erasure that dates, no doubt, to cave paintings, it also exhibits a prescient understanding of the contemporary artist’s increasingly peripheral, commodified status in the culture industry: The author makes his most salient mark against blankness by enacting his inability to do so. Acute awareness of the creative process—the way meaning is determined by mode of expression—informs Broodthaers’s entire oeuvre and is particularly evident in his extensive use of mussel and egg shells. Moules are a Belgian specialty and a symbol of national identity, and like eggs, they are edibles whose content is shaped by form (in fact, moule also means “mold” in French). In L’Erreur (The Error), Broodthaers exploits the pun (the eggshells are also molds), disrupts the relationship between word and object, employs the title to comment on that disjuncture, and produces an image that elegantly contrasts the orderliness of actual molds with the personalized flair of that handwritten word. That’s some complicated hopscotch.

Marcel Broodthaers, L’Erreur (The Error), 1966, eggshells and paint on canvas, 39 3/8 × 27 5/8".
Marcel Broodthaers, L’Erreur (The Error), 1966, eggshells and paint on canvas, 39 3/8 × 27 5/8". © Estate of Marcel Broodthaers/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Sabam, Brussels