How Marcel Broodthaers Created the Conditions Necessary to Definitely Go His Own Way

Lasting just twelve years, the career of Marcel Broodthaers was short. Nevertheless the Belgian poet constantly changed the direction taken by the visual arts.

Written by Hans De Wolf and Joris D’hooghe / Translated by Anna Asbury

The first image that comes to mind when thinking of the poet Marcel Broodthaers (Brussels, 1924-1976) is of a city during the war. The young poet once dipped his foot in the hot water of the resistance but fortunately escaped with nothing more than a shock. It is clear: he is a poet, an individual without ties in search of himself, a man who plays with the meaning of words, who wants to conquer language. In this environment he is in his element. This is a game he knows how to play, where words take on new perspectives through the spontaneous arrival of other words, just as dice do as soon as they are cast. Whatever the outcome, the person who rolls them is implicated. The dice say something about him, but it is not always clear what, and that is the problem.

Broodthaers reached maturity in a world of scarcity and then one of reconstruction, in which people saw little use for a poet. With the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair in sight, this was a resolutely modern setting, which worked with the kind of certainties for which a poet in turn had no use. It was a time of a dozen trades and thirteen miseries, as the saying goes in Brussels, when he frequently went to bed uncertain how he would get through the next day. There was hunger too, reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s image of a starving gold seeker who dreams of putting two forks into two bread rolls (which he does not have) and bringing hunger to life. Hunger brings objects into sharp focus. It objectifies them. Take, for example, the suitcase in which, in the absence of a cradle, their little daughter Pierette slept while Broodthaers and Reine, his first wife, hurried off for a rare evening at the cinema. Halfway there, they stopped and turned back in fear: what if the lid fell shut?

Almost twenty years later the poet, supported by his spouse Maria Gilissen, ventured into art. He did so with great results. The image which comes to mind this time is one of a parallel. During a cocktail party at the end of his life Miles Davis was approached by an elderly woman who asked him what he had done with his life. Davis replied, ‘I changed the course of music five or six times.’ Things eventually worked out similarly for Broodthaers. In his short career, lasting just twelve years, he constantly changed the direction taken by the visual arts.

layers of meaning and poetic undertone

Various circumstances conspired in Marcel Broodthaers’s decision to enter the world of the visual arts at the end of 1963, including a reaction to developments within the art world at the time. In October that year he saw the work of American pop artist George Segal (1924-2000) at the Parisian Sonnabend Gallery. His impressions there led him almost immediately to a critical analysis of the pop art movement in the form of the article ‘GARE AU DÉFI!’. Not long afterwards, he set to work creating a series of objects which formally fitted this trend of the moment and nouveau réalisme, its European form of expression. Successful participation in the ‘Prix de Jeune Sculpture Belge’ was followed by a first solo exhibition of these works in April 1964. During this show at the Galerie Saint-Laurent in Brussels, the poet’s bold turn of career was symbolised by Pense-Bête: unsold copies of his latest poetry collection, set in plaster and labelled a work of art. This pivotal moment was paired with the publication of the first public statement he was to make on being an artist:

I, too, wondered whether I could not sell something and succeed in life. For some time I have been no good at anything. I am forty years old… Finally the idea of inventing something insincere crossed my mind and I set to work straightaway. At the end of three months I showed what I had produced to Ph. Edouard Toussaint, the owner of the Galerie Saint Laurent. ‘But it is art,’ he said, ‘and I will willingly exhibit all of it.’

‘Agreed,’ I replied. If I sell something, he takes 30%. It seems these are the usual conditions, some galleries take 75%. What is it? In fact, objects.

In creating his own ‘objects’, he followed the fashion of the day in order to provide commentary on the subject. The ironic undertone of the text accompanying the exhibition at the Galerie Saint-Laurent betrayed something of Broodthaers’s intentions. In deciding to dedicate himself to the production of a series of works, he took a personal stance in the contemporary art world. By employing iconography prominently featuring coal, eggshells and mussel shells, he didn’t search to join the artists whose work consisted of portraying fragments of the reality which surrounded them. Broodthaers’s visual elements were characterised by layers of meaning and poetic undertone. Alluding to his French title, his game with the mussel shell reads as a play on words. Regardless of the article which indicates the meaning, a mussel (‘la moule’) sounds precisely the same as a mould (‘le moule’). He also used his objects to lay a connection with the work of René Magritte, who gave a painting of a pipe the caption ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, underlining the tension between image and word. In deciding to become an artist, Broodthaers also supported Magritte’s legacy, because where pop art called on Magritte’s everyday language of images as its historical foundation, Broodthaers pointed out that the artist’s work required comprehension in all its ambiguity. ‘It is with that pipe that I tackled the adventure.’

literally reading a work of art

In 1967, Broodthaers reached a particularly pivotal moment in his artistic practice. With Le Corbeau et le Renard (The Crow and the Fox), which was presented as a ‘livre-film’, publication and exhibition in one, he opened up a whole new chapter in his oeuvre. Where previously as an artist he had focused on visual design, he now literally introduced poetry into his artistic practice. The work comprised a reference to the famous fable of the seventeenth-century poet Jean de La Fontaine, and in Le Corbeau for the first time he expressly handled the written and printed word in his visual oeuvre. The work presented the viewer with the challenge of literally reading a work of art while being hindered in doing so, a challenging stratification which turned out to be a harbinger of his further artistic development.

From the end of 1968 Broodthaers moved away from reflections on the individual work of art as they had been presented in his objects. Between September 1968 and October 1972 he designed the structure of the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles project, which eventually comprised twelve independent sections delimited in time and space. The inspiration for founding this museum can be traced back to the occupation of the marble hall at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, which took place in May and June 1968, following the recent wave of protests. This action was carried out by a group of artists who were critical of the country’s prevailing cultural policy, and who wished to gain a place on the political agenda. Broodthaers was involved in this occupation from the beginning, fulfilling the role of mediator between the protesters and the directors of the institution. When he realised that the protesters were driven largely by personal ambition, he distanced himself from the action, but this did not mean that he was no longer interested in the discussion. As he indicated in a conversation with Flemish essayist and radio producer Freddy De Vree a few months later on the opening of the Section XIXe siècle of the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles and the ‘inaugural discussion’, he took a personal position in the museum debate:

The simplest thing would be to go back to the very beginning. In 1968, after this wave of protests we experienced, a few friends - artists, collectors, gallery people - and myself got together to try to analyze what was going wrong in the Belgian art world, to analyze the relationships Art-Society. We chatted then we eventually decided to hold a meeting in my studio.


Alongside this museum enterprise which eventually lasted four years, Broodthaers formulated ideas on the situation of the arts and the institutions of his time, alluding to the importance of past artistic accomplishments and anchored in contemporary reality. At the end of 1971 during Art Cologne he structured the Section Financière (Financial Section) of the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles. His publication for this occasion, displaying the words Musée d’Art Moderne. A vendre pour cause de faillite, appeared to suggest the closure of his museum as a result of financial difficulties. However, this statement also emphasised the bankruptcy of the museum for modern art as a phenomenon. He viewed the prevailing trend to see museums as research centres of the avant-garde as one arising from ideological confusion. In fact, Broodthaers saw the museum strictly as a place where the art of the past should be preserved and displayed. This critical dimension of the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles eventually came to a climax with the final piece which he designed in 1972 for documenta 5 in Kassel, providing the exhibition with a commentary from the inside outwards.

During preparations for documenta 5, curator Harald Szeeman had taken on the role of chief creator in the sense that he had used the works of the participating artists as illustrations of his exhibition concept. This way of working had led to protests from the artists. A few weeks before the opening, in a telegram to the curator, Carl Andre, Hans Haacke, Donald Judd, Robert Morris and others expressed their criticism of the ‘conditions’ according to which Szeeman had worked, and went public with their dissatisfaction on 12 May 1972 with an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Broodthaers’s response to the situation was subtle, involving the opening of the Section d’Art Moderne of his Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles. This work, for which he sectioned off part of the exhibition space using four posts with a golden chain, tellingly emphasised the idea that the work of art could never be a curator’s private property.

Halfway through documenta 5 Broodthaers concluded his Section d’Art Moderne installation and opened the Galerie du XXe siècle. By ceasing to work through the structure of the Musée d’Art Moderne, and instead launching it into the world from a Musée d’Art Ancien – the full name of the operation was Musée d’Art Ancien, Département des Aigles, Galerie du XXe siècle – he provided the ultimate commentary on twentieth-century art. In his reflections upon the trends of the moment, instead of its own section, Broodthaers merely devoted a museum gallery to this art. This conclusion finally enabled him to establish a personal direction in his practice. By the end of his museum enterprise, the artist had created the conditions necessary to definitively go his own way.

a pure mental space

The experiences with his museum projects, particularly the lessons learnt during documenta 5 in Kassel, had made it clear to Marcel Broodthaers that no aspect of artistry could be left either to coincidence or to the will of a curator. For the third time the artist’s oeuvre underwent a wonderful twist, turning away from the institute, away from the kind of ‘present day’ portrayed by an art world, from which he literally withdrew. From then on he applied himself to creating autonomous spaces which he himself determined integrally, determining every detail himself. They were connected spaces, mise-en-scènes of the artist with objects, items of furniture and plants, where for the first time various media – such as film and music – were linked. Visitors were also able to wander around in these installations and in doing so they appeared to become part of the whole work. Broodthaers named this new form of expression Décor, indicating that these spaces were artificial environments, products of the imagination, and should be treated as such. These were spaces which constituted a ‘conditio’ that they could form the backdrop to a narrative (as in the theatre), a narrative which on the other hand seemed not to interest the artist himself. This opened a new chapter in art history.

In 1974 Broodthaers created his first ‘décor’, Jardin d’hiver, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, consisting of an arrangement of palm trees and green and red garden chairs, with framed exotic images from an illustrated dictionary hung or displayed in glass cabinets between them. The ‘décor’ might allude to the nineteenth-century bourgeois custom of giving the ‘foreign’ and the ‘exotic’ their own place in the house in the form of exotic plants and furniture placed in a separate room. At the same time, the work points to the isolation of the poet, for whom delightful adventures of the spirit lie in store but who is often still left behind, misunderstood. This alienation is further reinforced by the artist through the use of a monitor displaying various other rooms from the exhibition space, making it seem as if the ‘décor’ is detached from the building in which it is accommodated. The artwork can thus be understood as a pure mental space which cannot in any way be contaminated by the art world – not even by the Palais des Beaux-Arts. In a second version of the Jardin d’hiver, Broodthaers substantially enhanced this effect with the projection of a film accompanied by poignant, melancholy music which continually coloured the space.

The Scattering of Words

A year later, in response to an exhibition in Paris, Broodthaers created the Salle Blanche, a pale wood reconstruction of part of the artist’s living room in Brussels, with the walls displaying the poet’s vocabulary almost in the style of Magritte. Here the words appear once again.

This late masterpiece is so layered that it is reminiscent of the jewel of the French nineteenth-century poet Stéphane Mallarmé in which a new facet appears whenever it is moved. The scattering of words in the space can, for example, be understood as a reference to ‘Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard’ (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), Mallarmé’s spatially drawn-out poem and quintessential challenge to many poets of its time.

We also find in it the echo of the same poet’s credo that everything on earth exists merely to be expressed in a single all-encompassing book. Moreover, a ‘salle blanche’ is also a scientific concept meaning a completely isolated and disinfected room in which research is carried out, while the words found there in turn refer to the hard lot of the poet who must master a subject in which no one, not even the poet himself, knows the rules. In this respect the Salle Blanche is also a room of terror, of the ever-recurring challenge of the blank page which confronts the poet.

the triumph of the poet over the history of war

This new genre reached an unseen high in the summer of 1975 when Marcel Broodthaers was invited to exhibit at the ICA in London, situated near Buckingham Palace. With exceptional lucidity the artist succeeded in using this opportunity to make a statement, the ambiguity of which has yet to fully sink in. Décor (singular) consists of two rooms presenting the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in a quiet moment. Weapons play an important role here, with English cannons in one room and automatic rifles in another.

Again visitors can become part of the piece, while it is also important to stop and think about the title: Décor. A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers. What conquest are we talking about precisely? To summarise briefly: in 1975, when space was conquered and history written, Broodthaers took the triumph of the poet over the history of war and placed it in opposition to this dominant narrative, showing how he worked diligently for peace. For the poet it is not the story which is important but the setting, or to put it in Mallarmé’s words, ‘Rien n’aura lieu que le lieu, excepté peut-être une constellation.’ Nothing is important other than achieving the right circumstances for the setting to come into being.

While Décor: A Conquest was on show in London, Broodthaers also produced a film closely related to the work. We have yet to fully understand all the dimensions of this masterpiece, too. The film makes it clear that a fourth revolution in the artist’s oeuvre was on its way, but advanced disease and fate prevented it from coming to fruition. Marcel Broodthaers died in Cologne on 28 January 1976, his 52nd birthday.


Hans De Wolf is Professor art history and aesthetics at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
Joris D’hooghe completed a PhD on the work of Marcel Broodthaers at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 2017.

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