PRINT May 2014


the writings of Marcel Broodthaers

AT SOME POINT, perhaps as early as the 1940s, Marcel Broodthaers—then a café poet and used-book dealer who had yet to publish a volume of his own—wrote a line he liked so much he used it in two of his later poems: “mélancolie aigre château des aigles” (melancholy bitter castle of eagles). The proximity of the key French words aigre and aigle undergirds the surreal disjunction of terms with a material logic. In fact, Broodthaers would famously go on to establish a Département des Aigles in his fictive Musée d’Art Moderne of 1968, an impermanent collection of objects brought together in defiance of a conventional museum’s bureaucratic divisions. As he explained, with a nod to one of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and the Comte de Lautréamont’s notorious standard of beauty:

A comb, a traditional painting, a sewing machine, an umbrella, a table may find a place in a museum in different sections, depending upon their classification. We see sculpture in a separate space, paintings in another, ceramics and porcelains. . . . Each space is in turn compartmentalized . . . susceptible to being divided into departments . . .

With his eagles, Broodthaers inaugurated a department that cut insouciantly across other, more familiar classifications. But despite the wry humor of his disregard for standard institutional categories, an aftertaste of that earlier “melancholy bitterness” remains in his discordant mélange of aquiline imagery. In painting, badly blended or inharmonious colors are said to be aigre: mixed in a way that—like Broodthaers’s ersatz museum—goes against established aesthetic ideology and the etiquette of institutionalized compartmentalization.

Indeed, on reflection, all of Broodthaers’s signature iconography—mussels, eggshells, eagles—points acerbically to the fine-arts tradition rather than whimsically away from it. “Papier grand aigle,” for instance, designates a large-format drawing sheet of the size often used for atlases (one of Broodthaers’s favored genres and part of the joke of his absurdly diminutive La Conquête de l’espace. Atlas à l’usage des artistes et des militaries [The Conquest of Space: Atlas for the Use of Artists and the Military], 1975). Depending on the grammatical gender, moules can denote either sculptural molds or the more prosaic shellfish. Moreover, the shell of that mollusk (écaille) is a terme de métier for the mortar in which a painter grinds pigments, while the shell of the egg (coque d’œuf)is the term for a defect in a pottery glaze. And that egg, of course, is an easy phonetic step back to aigle—a private association, perhaps, but the rhyming eigen in Dutch (Broodthaers was Belgian, remember) means “one’s own”: the peculiar, the idiosyncratic, the signatory proper.

Broodthaers’s signature artworks are thus works about art; they are self-reflexive because of their linguistic constitution, and so his writings are especially important for understanding his practice. By his own equation, “if space is really the fundamental element of artistic construction (form in language and material form), then, after such a strange experience, I could only oppose it to the philosophy of writing with common sense.” And earlier: “Since no one form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist can use any form whatsoever—from literary expression, either written or spoken, to physical reality—in equivalent fashion.” Accordingly, in her editor’s introduction to Marcel Broodthaers: Collected Writings, Gloria Moure insightfully explains, “If there is any satisfactory term with which to characterize generically the work of Marcel Broodthaers, it is ‘l’espace de l’écriture’ (the space of writing).” In her own extensive contribution to the volume, Birgit Pelzer corroborates: “Through writing, it is the very act of language that he seeks to introduce as a fulcrum for his praxis.” So it is odd, then, that a collection focused on writing and attuned to the literary significance of Broodthaers’s praxis nonetheless betrays a certain visual bias when it comes to his books of poetry. It seems that the literary, as Broodthaers himself mused, still “has a pejorative connotation.”

On the one hand, Collected Writings showcases photographs of the full spreads of Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. Image (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance: Image), 1969, Broodthaers’s version of Mallarmé’s 1897 poem with the lines of text replaced by solid rectangles, as if redacted. Similarly, the early manuscript notebook Louis Bourgoignie d’écriture (Louis Bourgoignie Writing), 1954, an exciting and invaluable inclusion, is photographed and translated, as is Pense-Bête (Memory Aid or Stupid Idea), 1963–64,the last fifty copies of which Broodthaers infamously encased in plaster and many of which he had customized with colored-paper quadrilaterals collaged over the pages to obscure much of the verse. But its prequel, La Bête noire (The Black Beast or Pet Peeve), 1961, is not included. (In the tradition of Apollinaire’s 1911 Le Bestiaire ou cortège d’Orphée [The Bestiary or Procession of Orpheus], both books are bestiaries, as their punning titles intimate; had Broodthaers written a trilogy, the third might have been titled after Duchamp’s talismanic phrase: bête comme un peintre [“stupid as a painter”]). Also absent are Broodthaers’s first and second volumes of poetry, Mon livre d’ogre (My Ogre Book), 1957, and Minuit (Midnight), 1960. The rationale seems to be that these books do not show the hand of the artist.

By comparison, Marcel Broodthaers, the recent overview edited by Marie-Puck Broodthaers, includes several tantalizing poems from La Bête Noire, translated by Imogen Forster and all en face (as his poetry requires, given its punning) along with a handful of other verses, printed in a large handsome font on par with the oversize book’s impressive color images. And yet the provenance of these poems is all but impossible to determine, even as all of Broodthaers’s publications are documented elsewhere in the volume with a bibliographic detail and attention lacking in the Collected Writings, where a clearer context for the original publications would have been transformative. For example, Vingt Ans après (Twenty Years After), one of Broodthaers’s disingenuous “interviews,” ostensibly conducted with his publisher Richard Lucas in 1969, was inserted as the flyleaf in seventy-five copies of an early-’60s Livre de Poche edition of Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 eponymous sequel to Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers), to which Broodthaers also added a wrapper so that Dumas’s name was covered by the names of Broodthaers and Lucas. The work thus shares something of the obscuring tactics of the papers in Pense-Bête; the cancellations of Un Coup de dés; the erasures of Charles Baudelaire. Pauvre Belgique, 1974, which reprints Baudelaire’s eponymous work from the Pléiade edition of his oeuvre, but with all of Baudelaire’s text eliminated and only the paginated headers remaining; and the minimal typographic intervention of Charles Baudelaire. Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes (Charles Baudelaire: I Hate the Movement That Displaces the Lines), 1973, an assisted readymade that treats Baudelaire’s poem “La Beauté” (1855) in the way Duchamp’s 1914 Pharmacie treats a found commercial print. Marie-Puck Broodthaers encourages similar connections by brilliantly sequencing the image of Vingt Ans après so that the red rectangular wrapper and the sculptural volume of the two matching paperbacks shrewdly rhyme with Broodthaers’s contemporaneous felt-tip-pen sketches of red bricks; the materials and color scheme of his 1974 Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, exhibition “Catalogue/Catalogus”; and his similarly titled An 10 (Year Ten), a single inscribed brick, and Monument An X (Monument Year X), a mortared tower of twenty bricks with a protruding trowel, both from 1967.

In the final analysis, the material format of the text of Vingt ans après casts the work less as a dialogue between Broodthaers and Lucas than as one between their book and other artists’ books, such as Aram Saroyan’s ream of typing paper, which had been published by Kulchur Press the previous year, when Saroyan added his name and a copyright date to the readymade red-labeled wrapper. Further, Vingt Ans après anticipates works such as Sherrie Levine’s reprinting of Gustave Flaubert’s Un Cœur simple in 1990; the page made by Rodney Graham for insertion into Ian Fleming’s Dr. No in 1991; or the facsimile edition of Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces by Simon Morris in 2012, with one chapter replaced by photographs of pigeons encountering the relevant pages.

With some five hundred pages of texts—many previously unpublished—ranging from notes and film scripts to interviews and feuilletons and with a generous assortment of the idiosyncratic genre of “open letters” cultivated by Broodthaers over a half-dozen years, the Collected Writings is a treasure trove. But despite that capaciousness, the absence of so much of the early poetry hardly makes it a “complete writings.” Broodthaers’s early poems are often more symbolist than modernist, but the condensed lyrics of the bestiaries hold their own against the verse they most resemble: Max Jacob’s extraordinary Le Cornet à dés (The Dice Cup, 1945). Like Jacob’s own poetry, Broodthaers’s poems deserve to be easily available and better known. Moreover, beyond their intrinsic literary interest, and despite their often precious romanticism, the poems evince a linguistic continuity that counters the aesthetic disjunction between the “form in language” of Broodthaers’s early writings and the “material form” of his later sculptures and installations.

Copies of Broodthaers’s poetry volumes are fugitive and scarce; published as fine-press livres d’artiste, the early books were originally issued in very limited editions of just a few hundred copies. Perhaps, perversely, the decision to exclude them from these new surveys will maintain something of the artist’s long-standing mystique; as Rachel Haidu has argued, “Much of Broodthaers’s reputation rests on this inaccessibility.” Greater accessibility and less-segregated genres might dispel some of the romance of Broodthaers’s early career, but it would take up his critique of compartmentalization and sustain the ethos of his later work. These publications advance Broodthaers’s cause, but by cleaving to the traditional departments—poetry separate from visual art—they also prove that the conceptual force of his work, its critical disruptions of received aesthetic categories, remains unfinished. One dreams of a future Complete Writings, operating like a Musée d’Art Moderne, Département d’Écriture, that would finally take Broodthaers at his word.

Craig Dworkin is a professor of English at the University of Utah and the author of No Medium (2013) and, with Kenneth Goldsmith, the editor of Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011).