The Museum of Modern Art in New York recognizes the work of the Belgian artist-poet Marcel Broodthaers with a retrospective and the reconstruction of his famous fictitious museum Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles.
Marcel Broodthaers, born in Brussels in 1924, had been known only among insiders of the art scene for a long time, until his works had been presented at the documenta X to a broad audience. His work which is diffucult to decipher resulted from a whim in 1964. Frustrated Marcel Broodthaers stated: ”I’m no good at anything. I am 40 years old”. After twenty years of failure as poet, journalist and bookseller he asked himself, if he as well couldn’t be able to sell something and be successful in his life. Thus he took the last remaining copies of his unsuccessful volume of poetry Pense-Bête, dipped them in a bath of plaster and created a sculpture from his verse. From this very moment on Marcel Broodthaers was a fine artist and in the last remaining twelve years of his life he developed his work, not easily accessible and poetic at the same time, and defying a categorization in art genres and schools deliberately.
Marcel Broodthaers took care painstakingly to elude a determination as a painter, sculptor or object artist. He preferred to juggle the meanings of words and images, continuously shuttling between the most various media like books, drawings, picture and object collages, photographs and movies. In doing so, poetry and language appear as an immanent part of his work, like a conceptual leitmotif they connect the different forms of expression to each other. Marcel Broodthaers always remained an observer and critic of the art world who opposed to be taken over by the mechanisms of the art market, instead his intention was to unmask and caricature its unwritten laws from an outsider position.
From this distance Marcel Broodthaers slips into the most various roles of the market participants and tests their patterns of behaviour and practices on his own work. Like an actor he plays the roles of an artist, curator, critic and even a museum director, directing himself and following his own script. His goal is to anticipate the reception and positioning of his art into a historical context by the art market with a subversive self-promotion. Of specific importance in his work is to depict the theory of signs in thought constructs with a meaning of words and images that take the combinatory aesthetics of his countryman René Magritte to the extremes. He likes to use attributes of Belgian everyday life such as mussels, eggs and fries which he merges in assemblages and installations. The typically Belgian moules (mussels) he skillfully underlays with the secondary meaning of ”moule”, which also means casting mold in its male form, thus creating a context of artistic education and social conditioning. In his visual puns he always remains a poet who feels connected to the sensually intellectual art of René Magritte and the symbolist prose of Stéphane Mallarmé.
Marcel Broodthaers considered himself as the Jacques Offenbach of art who didn’t take his own work and the art market too serious.
Despite all parallels to the conceptual art of Marcel Duchamp it is this very poetic momentum that differentiates Marcel Broodthaers from the neo-dadaistic schools of the Sixties. Even more huge and insurmountable was the divide between him and his colleague Joseph Beuys whose messianic demand for a total work of art he was highly suspicious of and which he could only react upon with his ironic poetry of everyday life. For him Joseph Beuys embodied Wagner, whereas he considered himself rather as the Jacques Offenbach of art, always looking at his own work with a twinkle in his eye.
During the students’ uproar in 1968 Marcel Broodthaers opened his magnum opus in his apartment in Brussels, Rue de la Pépinière, the fictitious museum with the significant name Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles which was to keep him occupied for four years. The eagle as symbol of a bourgeois system of power and order is ubiquitous on stockpiled beer glasses, vehicle grilles, tourist souvenirs and militaria. Petit bourgeois decoration such as photos, ancient engravings, film projectors and an orangery of palm trees make the visitor immersed in the sunken world of the Belle Époque, when the museum crystallized as institution and classification system of art.
In reality the visitor gets lost in Marcel Broodthaers’ mazelike cabinet of curiosities just like The Menaced Assassin in René Magritte’s famous painting. Words, sounds and images merge and evoke a poetic flow of associations. In order not to raise too much of a Wagnerian gravity the viewer is always brought back down to the petit bourgeois reality through the humour in Marcel Broodthaers’ works like the cooking pot boiling over with mussels, the Belgian national dish. In the movie Rain from 1969 Marcel Broodthaers explores the meaning of vanishing words. He is sitting in a garden and is writing in a notebook. Suddenly water showers down on him, washing the written words away. But Marcel Broodthaers keeps on writing unperturbed, just like his hero of melancholy comedy, Buster Keaton.
Walk-in poetry ”within the realm of art” was the ambition of Marcel Broodthaers in order to undermine the mechanisms of the art market.
Marcel Broodthaers’ ambition isn’t the creation of exhibits for a museum, but questioning the mechanisms of the art market which decides about what is allowed to be art and what isn’t. One of his last works is the so-called Salle Blanche, a reproduction true to his original studio in Brussels, where he was writing poetry before he became a fine artist. It is a big room-sized wooden shell, with words in a poetic or political context floating across the walls: ”shadow, sun, cloud” or ”privilege, value, museum”. Thus the work of Marcel Broodthaers has come full circle, which takes him back to his volume of poetry Pense-Bête all started with. The bizarre life and work by Marcel Broodthaers was a poetic unity, it ended with one last felicitous punch line of destiny: In 1976 Marcel Broodthaers died on his birthday.
However, one goal Marcel Broodthaers didn’t achieve: to undermine the system of the art market substantially, despite all subtle subversiveness. His work wasn’t meant to be art for a museum, but walk-in poetry ”within the realm of art” and beyond the White Cube. The art market, however, didn’t want to understand his intention in that way and couldn’t act differently than it always does: by appropriating anything that questions the art market under the totalitarian banner of artistic freedom, and exhibiting it in the museum. Thus, two birds can be killed with one stone, art critical of the system itself is rendered harmless and monetized at the same time. The eagle keeps watching over everything to stay in order.
14.02. – 15.05.16 MoMA, New York