PRINT May 1976

Marcel Broodthaers' Throw of the Dice

“THE MOTION OF HEAVEN AND all it contains has a motion like the motion of reason,” says Plato in his Laws (No. 897). Marcel Broodthaers’ death on the 52nd anniversary of his birth prompted me to reappraise his artistic work in terms of revolutions in time, more specifically in terms of a circle completed by Mallarmé within the Symbolist movement and by Magritte within the Surrealist movement. Broodthaers both subverts and extends Magritte’s principle grounded in “This is not a pipe.” Broodthaers, influenced by Marxism, and possibly Lucacs, wants a work of art to be considered as a phenomenon of reification. The work of art, when viewed as reified, can be judged in tautological terms. I assume him to mean that since labor is evaluated as merchandise, and man-made objects are appraised in mercantile terms, a work of art can be placed in a tautological relation to objects that are not works of art. To prove his point, Broodthaers organized an exhibition of eagles, which included famous museum works of all periods and mass-produced eagles in cast or print. Over each exhibit was a notice, “This is not a work of art,” the implication being that it was merchandise. A single painting omits the eagle: it shows a castle in a romantic alpine setting that presupposes the presence of eagles.

Tautology is personified in Broodthaers’ mind by a certain General de la Palice. This 15th-century soldier died fighting gallantly even after being mortally wounded. His immortality is due to eulogy by comrades who said of him that 15 minutes before his death he was still alive, implying by this that he was still alive despite his fatal wound. Ever since, tautology has been to the French une verité de la Palice. Broodthaers explains in his introduction, called To be a straight thinker or not to be blind:

Monsieur de la Palice is one of my customers. A lover of novelty, who makes others laugh, he used my alphabet as an excuse to laugh himself. My alphabet is paint. All this is obscure. The reader is invited to penetrate this darkness in order to find in it a therapy or to experience fellow feelings—those feelings that united all men and particularly the blind.

This catalogue contains certain illustrations. Photographs of trees appear identical, while other illustrations, set side by side on the same page, seem so unlike that the mentally blind fail to discern their tautology. By implication, the mentally alert will discover common denominators. For instance, what is the common feature of his alphabetical picture and a section of Mallarmé’s poem “Un coup de dés n’abolira jamais le hasard” transcribed in Broodthaers’ handwriting? In the alphabetical painting the letter “M,” Mallarmé’s initial, is replaced by a black square with dotlike letters in the semblance of a die, suggestive of Mallarmé’s line “Every thought emits a throw of the dice.” I assume that both these paintings reflect Broodthaers’ meditations on the pictorial relevance of Mallarmé’s poem. It is as if Broodthaers were saying that Mallarmé (literally mal armé; meaning badly armed) was better equipped to battle with words than General de la Palice. On the opposite page we have two more alphabet paintings: one is an alphabet of the 15th century (the time of la Palice), the other an X painted against a Miró-like background of blobs, Broodthaers’ X is a surrealist version of an X by the Dutch Constructivist Hendrik Werkman, while the composition of his painting with the handwritten words of Mallarmé was borrowed from Daumier’s print La Sainte Russie. Both Werkman’s X and Doré’s page were reproduced in the catalogue of the famed exhibition “Writing and Painting,” held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1963. This was a year before Marcel Broodthaers made his paintings into a new alphabet.

He called his first exhibition “I wondered why I couldn’t sell something.” Among works he made for sale was a slim volume entitled Un coup de dés n’abolira jamais le hasard, subtitled Images, authored by Marcel Broodthaers. First came Mallarmé’s poem set in a prose layout. There followed pages of abstract “images.” These consisted of horizontal black lines of varying width, length and spacing, a “negative” representation of the famous idiosyncratic layout of Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés.”

While in Images Broodthaers meditated in abstract terms on the layout of Mallarmé’s poem, in Voyage on the North Sea he presents a series of views of boats on the high seas. Two pictures seem identical until we discover that the boat which is presented off center in one has “moved” closer to the center in the other. Those two are followed by pictures of storm-tossed ships, as well as blown-up details of a sinking vessel. In his “Un coup de dés” Mallarmé compared the perilous sea voyage to a throw of the dice.

A similar series was shown in stills filmed and projected on a screen in what I would call a “cinematic layout,” accompanied by a speech and written words including the oft-repeated “my dear little sister.” One jumps to the conclusion that “my dear little sister” perished at sea. Further juxtapositions, at long last, reveal that those words were written on the back of a postcard sent to a little girl who had never seen the sea, by her brother.

Barbara Reis has perceptively written about what she calls “Broodthaers’ Museum Gambit.” Broodthaers undoubtedly seeks to force museums to include the reification of a work of art as an element in the establishment of its value—the complementary opposite of Duchamp’s attitude. In his introduction to his exhibition at the Oxford Museum, while conceding that “in reality commentary on Art follows economic changes,” Broodthaers adds that “it seems doubtful whether these commentaries can be politically influenced.” We should not deduce from this that Broodthaers is an apolitical artist. Were this so he would not have publicly expressed disapproval of Joseph Beuys’ political stance, nor would he have asked that the preview of his exhibition at the Centre National d’Art et de Culture (CNAC) in Paris be closed half an hour before the usual time as a token of solidarity with the cause of the persecuted Spanish republicans.

Broodthaers’ exhibition at the CNAC was the fourth seeking “to articulate in different ways objects and pictures [made by him since 1964] and used to transform exhibition rooms into decors.” Although objects and paintings function as elements of decor, this does not mean that the decor is an end in itself. Broodthaers’ decors during the ’60s were generally considered as variations on the broader theme of the environments of the Conceptualists. However, Broodthaers’ articulation of his objects in a linguistic structure transforms his decors into statements made up of metonymies set in a metaphorical syntax. These are pictorial poems and far more cerebral, in the Duchampian sense, than the plans of the Conceptualists, whether merely formulated or actually executed.

The decors at the CNAC were billed under the heading L’Angelus de Daumier. In a foreword to the catalogue Pontus Hulten urged the public to attempt to decipher the mysterious title of the exhibition. When, last November, I went to see it, I was preceded at the entrance hall by a dignified lady who, taken aback at her first glimpse, asked the receptionist to direct her to the rooms of the Daumier exhibition. The provocative title proved that the modernists can still fool the bourgeoisie. The receptionist politely reminded the lady that the Angelus was painted by Francois Millet, who, it may be added, happened at the time to be resurrected by necrophilic art scholars. Why L’Angelus de Daumier? Angelus, from the Greek angelia: message. “Let Daumier do me justice,” says Broodthaers in his introduction, having noted, not without bitterness, that his views, his message, failed to attract the full attention of critics and collectors. Why Daumier? Because of Daumier’s satire of judges—and also of judges of artworks.

Broodthaers’ General de la Palice has assumed the role of a colonial figure personifying tales of adventure alongside the legend “new tricks, new combinations.” On a reduced scale he appears on the covers of Broodthaers’ two catalogues. In Part One every page is headed with the statement that the decor of each room is based on new tricks, new combinations. The tricks of this artist are of excellent quality, as if they came straight out of the pipe of Magritte. The point is made by the inscription “tabac belge” written on sacks displayed on opposite covers of the catalogues.

The identification with Broodthaers’ homeland, Belgium, is marked throughout the show. In the entrance hall it is denoted by a large human femur set against the wall (mur). It is painted in the Belgian national colors to show that we are about to see the work of a mûr (mature) Belgian artist. In the last room a comedian appears as a bourgeois puppet moving his head to and fro while reading the French weekly L’Express during his vacation on the beaches of the North Sea.

Broodthaers was undoubtedly delighted to have a retrospective at the Solomon Rotschild Foundation, as the CNAC was previously called. He placed a wicker basket at the foot of the sumptuous double stairs of what had once been l’hotel, or mansion, of the Rotschilds. Balzac once lived on these grounds. The basket, therefore, could recall this traveling author, although Broodthaers adds modern locks to it, as if to suggest that the celebrated novelist’s Human Comedy has not yet ended.

On the occasion of this exhibition the room serving as the museum of the Baroness Solomon de Rotschild was for the first time shown as an integral part of a public exhibition. Broodthaers wished the visitors to view this room as forming a decor incorporated in his series of decors. To make the point he established the axis of the objects in his White Room at right angles to the open doors of the Baroness’s museum. To its gilded pieces, its ebonies, majolicas, Aubusson tapestries, he contrasted a rectilinear bed of charcoal held within a wooden frame pointing toward a crude little black table covered with mussel shells. To the banking fortune of the owners of the Hotel Rotschild, Broodthaers opposes the charbonnerie (charcoal) industry from which Belgians made millions.

The mussels (moules) of the national dish moules marinières suggest several associations. In a catalogue for a 1966 exhibition Broodthaers says, “Une moule cache un motile et vice versa (a mussel hides a mold and vice versa).” There, also, he showed photographs of eggshells, together with a molded plastic egg crate. Hence the proposition: he made an egg’s yolk the mussel of its mold (eggshell), and of the pipe the mold of the smoke. Given these clues I realized that the black chair of the entrance hall with eggshells on its seat was the counterpart of Van Gogh’s chair with pipe. To the right of the chair the three black jackets hanging on the wall are, in Duchampian terms, moules malics (male molds); words from “Un coup de dés” chalked across the front are the complementary opposite of the lettres moulées (cast letters). The jackets are covered with plastic wrappers to keep them from getting mouillées (wet).

Those are some of the tricks that une moule (a fool) might do. Other tricks include painted flowers on a gardener’s shovel, bricks on a bricklayer’s shovel. Objects hanging on the walls of the mussel-cum-charcoal room are a take-off on museum cataloguing. Two items are numbered with the figure 2, followed by a single one marked 1, followed in its turn by a clock, numbered by 12 rather than 3. Twelve is composed of 1 and 2 (=3), and the clock’s hands point respectively to 2 and 3, or a quarter past 2.

Broodthaers decorated the room facing the Rotschild private park with a 19th-century setting, with a touch of the exotic suggested by garden chairs, palm trees, and English prints of birds, reptiles and insects, perhaps to remind us that the great banking fortunes of Belgium, France and England stemmed from the exploitation of colonies. Broodthaers is a master at handling what one might call the surrealism of the understatement. While at first glance his winter garden seems perfectly conventional, upon closer observation it proves to be highly eccentric. Palm foliage hides the prints from view. The garden chairs are placed facing a cluster of palms. The chairs themselves, freshly painted in a shrill combination of red and green, retain their old unpainted wooden seats. A room is devoted to Broodthaers’ works, and glass cases with old-fashioned hinges hold his writing. Alphabet paintings with lettres moulées adorn the walls.

Of all the rooms, the most important is the one housing two adjacent rooms presented as a single wooden mold. Those are replicas of rooms the artist had once lived in. In the absence of all decoration the two conspicuous plaster molds at the height of the ceiling, together with those adorning the fireplace, reiterate the theme: new tricks, new combinations of moules. The blackened windows with the word toile written above one and huile written above the other are notices that these rooms are inhabited by someone for whom painting is his abc (letters written above the windows). The artist is more interested in painting according to linguistic rules than according to the rules of true perspective.

The words painted on the walls constitute the vocabulary of a structuralist artist who paints to sell his products. Walls of empty rooms with a layout of words must be seen as a three-dimensional counterpart of the two-dimensional structure of Mallarmé’s poem ending with toute pensée émet un coup de dés (every thought emits a throw of the dice). The third dimension is within walls, within the mold, within the head of a great cerebral artist. The motion of heaven and all it contains has a motion like the motion of reason.

Nicolas Calas, long-time friend of the Surrealists, is author of Art in the Age of Risk.