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Encounters with Marcel Broodthaers

Kaire Nurk (3/2015)

Kaire Nurk visits the Marcel Broodthaers retrospective at the Fridericianum Art Museum, which was part of the 60th anniversary of “documenta”.


Fridericianum Art Museum, Kassel
17. VII–11. X 2015
Curator: Susanne Pfeffer.


As my train from Düsseldorf arrived at Kassel's Wilhelmshöhe station, the opening of Marcel Broodthaers' (1924–1976, Belgium) exhibition had already started. As I reached the museum building on Friedrichsplatz, the opening had already ended and the art world elite were moving in two opposite directions in front of the entry to the Fridericianum in 30-degree heat. After leaving my luggage in a wardrobe locker, I still had enough time for a journey through the exhibition; the museum was open until 9 pm because of the vernissage.

In the midst of an endless bright open space, palm trees were growing in the air-conditioned exhibition halls. Underneath them (and in between them and in their shadow) the works of an "artist standing close to conceptual art, but still following his own separate path"1 were shining like stars in their ethereal esprit. Three storeys and exhibition hall after exhibition hall full of mysteries. Mental fireworks. "M.B."-fireworks. A brazen mixing of text and visuals into a picture. Into a picture? Magritte, whose influence was readily available for Broodthaers in their mutual homeland, added written text to a visual object represented on the picture, and thus, raised the fundamental question about the relationship between text and image right there on the picture. Despite Foucault,2 let us ask here whether it was to challenge the need to declare concepts in art, or in the other way around, bringing our attention to the inevitability of this need? Broodthaers goes further and displays words alone, names of people alone, punctuation marks alone, and initials alone as ready-made and finished pure visual art – as a picture. As a painting? Entire panels made up of paintings of a few words! Not only that – he also shows a picture as such (or to be precise – classical paintings) projected as diapositives onto the panel of a stamped transportation crate made of timber planks that are nailed together. For this he has chosen one of the finest pearls of classical painting – Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres – whose classicist purity and perfection has been consequently soiled. Or rather completely destroyed through the naturalness of timber and the rhythm of the box boards, not to mention the insufficient lighting.

Broodthaers' entire "team" is represented in full, including the date palms, sand, sea, empty egg-shells, pearl oyster shells, a pile of coal, bricks and even a parrot and a boa constrictor (NB: everything natural). René Magritte, Stéphane Mallarmé (and it is Magritte who supposedly gave Broodthaers Mallarmé's collection of poems "Un coup de des jamais n'abolira le hasard" (A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance, 1897), which set off the entire "discourse" for Broodthaers), La Fontain, Lewis Carroll, Erasmus and Rubens, and of course, the "greatest" from German cultural history (according to Broodthaers) – Kant, Hegel, Marx, Goethe, Beethoven, Hölderlin and Nietzsche. The alphabet and poetry and philosophy, and a museum (indeed, it is logical to start with the alphabet; the alphabet precedes, and only then can come poetry, philosophy or a museum). And in the end – cinema … or at least this is how it is at the Fridericianum.

The unrepeated variety of media does not allow a leisurely stroll through the exhibition: natural and ready-made objects, sculptures (marl, wood, lead, concrete, plaster, etc.), assemblages, photographs, postcards, stencil, silkscreen and offset prints on canvas, carton or artificial materials, varnish on plastic that has been given form with the help of vacuum (even a "stencil painting on a terry cloth towel" is not missing from the exhibition), showcases with different shapes and sizes, shelves, books, maps, tables, projected slides with variously staged images, empty or full room installations with or without date palms, an environment-like museum project (in contemporary terminology an artist's archive) and – cinema. And it is possible that all of this can be summarised using Broodthaers' own term "décor", which means a decoration, a stage and film decoration or, more precisely, a scene composition in French.

Uwe M. Schneede cautions, "Without a recipient who thinks in line with conceptual art, it is null and void, completely invalid". In my opinion, the phenomenon of Broodthaers lies in the fact that he does not open meanings to someone who is not thinking in line with conceptual art – i.e. he can be completely "meaningless", incomprehensible – but at the same time he still has striking visuals that conceal meaning behind them. A reason. Density. He still captivates the viewer even if the viewer does not know the formula, and because of this, is not able to think in line with his art or even ask concrete questions.


Encounters with Broodthaers

My first encounter with Broodthaers was in 2002 in Berlin at the Neue Nationalgalerie's exhibition "Räume des XX Jahrhunderts" (The Spaces of the 20th Century). At the time, in an article in the context of this exhibition, I wrote an disproportionately long section about Broodthaers: "In Marcel Broodthaers' WORD-IMAGE-SPACE resonate–blend together Andy Warhol's shapes with Neo-Dadaist chaos and subconscious and conceptual allusions, creating an extremely interesting synthesis. This at the same time sensitive and intellectual artistic thinker and wanderer, who assimilates opposites, has likely not been written about in any art publications (or even translated works3) in Estonian. [---] His ability to generate an open discussion and elastic image combinations has a fascinating impact – and it is a big surprise to find among the chosen artistic stars of the century (the majority of them, of course, are German followed by American artists) a Belgian artist I had never heard of, but who captured me at first glance. I will join the fans of Broodthaers (Hans Haacke, Ilya Kabakov, Martin Kippenberger, Paul McCarthy)."4

The second magical encounter took place in the second half of the same year in Dusseldorf and this time through the works of Tacita Dean. Dean's "solo exhibition in Dusseldorf [---] created an intriguingly oppositional and attuned entity of forgetting and remembering, having the main goal to be a hommage to Marcel Broodthaers, who is increasingly recognised as one of the most important artists of the 20th Century. Dean offers in the work titled "Section Cinéma" (2002) still-life-like individual film shots of Broodthaers' former (1970–1972) windowless cellar atelier in the old town of Dusseldorf, where the Belgian artist started5 his imaginary museum. We see numbers and designations like fig. A, fig. 1, fig. 2, fig. 12, which have been on the walls and the ceiling of the room for over 30 years, in the middle of the long and static film shots. [---] It is actually a very good metaphor for the reception of Broodthaers' legacy, the way his work is difficult to explain, and for his original experiments undertaken to explore the connections between the signifier and object, word and image, sign and description. [---] Another artwork having a direct connection for Broodthaers was "Palindrome" (2002): Dean, who visited Broodthaers' atelier in Dusseldorf for the first time in 2002, found a row of numbers 21 12 0 2 on the wall. Inspired by this she designed the magical date 20.02.2002 only occurring once in this millennium for seven newspapers."6

Next encounter happened in 2003 during a quick sprint through Kunsthalle Wien that left me with an excellent catalogue7 (although, admittedly, this specific exhibition impression has also been overshadowed by the catalogue). Nourished by these foregone encounters,8 I travelled to Kassel full of anticipation: what kind of a picture will a "retrospective" paint? Is the magic still there? What I mean here are the visuals of the works that are in close relation to the idea. What principles are brought to light when an exhibition structures creation? How much do the rooms and storeys of Fridericianum shape this structure? Or in other words, how appropriate is Fridericianum to showcase Broodthaers? What has become of Broodthaers in Fridericianum? What has been stressed and what new connections are made in such an already tightly knit and homogenous network of artworks? It has been said that the network is almost impossible to have an overview of and just as difficult to look through.




Marcel Broodthaers
The Ballad of a Star over Reading Gaol
oil on canvas
Courtesy of the artist's estate
Exhibition view at Fridericianum
Photo by Kaire Nurk




The central work of Broodthaers is undoubtedly his own museum project "Musée d'Art Moderne. Département des Aigles" (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, 1968–1972). With every new exhibition he added a new "section" to the museum. Broodthaers set up his own versions of the following sub departments of a modern art museum: 18th Century, 19th Century (in two parts), literature, folklore, cinema, the figure, advertising (more precisely: work with the public realm), modern art gallery, 20th Century gallery, documentation and the financial section. Only one of these was on display at the Kassel retrospective "Section Publicité des Musée d'Art Moderne" (1972, exhibited first at "documenta 5") and only one installation from the 19th Century department "Projection sur caisse" (Projection on a crate, 1968).

With this piece Broodthaers is represented in the most recent publications of 20th Century art, at least in the German-speaking world. It is continuously read as a critique of the museum institution and seen as a parody to "a functioning but still obscure system of representing art".9 Accent is given to the figure department, where Broodthaers focused on the shape and image of an eagle in all possible variations on coats of arms, flags, banknotes, wines, jewellery, etc. He paraphrased Magritte, adding the sentence "This is not a piece of art" to each object ("Der Adler vom Oligozän bis heute", The Eagle from Oligocene to the Present, 1972). This highlighted the Marcel-Duchamp-like problem of art versus non-art, which was not an exception in the Fluxus-like art situation of the 1960s,10 yet Broodthaers raised this question directly in the context of a museum.

However, we could also try to adopt the opposite perspective. We should remind ourselves that "art museums and the discipline of art history as such have been constituted together with modernism and the development of both have run their course affecting each other closely" – taking this into consideration, contrasting museums and art while criticising the museum institution does not sound so good: "Broodthaers is being ironic about the madly meticulous order and classifying obsession of museums with his personal museum".11 Yet Broodthaers' modern art museum, despite – or just because of – the fact that, as put by Schneede, it has "the setup and equipment of a museum, transportation crates for artworks, a manager, labels, frames, managing documents of artworks, also postcards, i.e. all the necessary accompanying elements but no artworks as such,"12 also represents the passion for collecting and systematising, but the passion is an artist's passion.

Naturally, the leftism of the 1960s also shaped the protest situation within the art world, which was against the market logic and institutional power of the museum. However, the art world was still more independent at the time than it is now. And the nature of Broodthaers' museum project was not only institutional critique (i.e. politics), but it was also his, as an outsider, passionate curiosity or even plea for power, his wish to individually grasp and take control over the entire art system. Pavel Pepperstein has said: "Marcel Broodthaers is an energetic melancholic [---]. Already Sigmund Freud has said that melancholy is the orientation of oneself towards "a different world". Broodthaers has given up the opportunity to psychologise his personal melancholy, which would (probably) have made him more approachable to a wider audience. For him, melancholy was a practice – and as a practice, melancholy is the closest to collecting as a form of protocolling and inventorying. It was not a coincidence that Kafka was a clerk in a bank."13

It must be stressed that the museum of Broodthaers is a "modern art museum" – a museum in which Duchamp's "works without art" are actual works of art. In this instance, in Broodthaers' museum the "accompanying devices" and "this-is-not-a-work-of-art" elements of the museum were the actual artworks. His museum project was also a study of museums. At the same time also a prognosis and challenge for a changing museum and changing art. At the same time a play, which was directed by an artist.

A museum, which was not created by an institutional or fixed script that is reproducing itself, but was created by a free, creative and simultaneously programmatic vision of an artist. Broodthaers' museum as a utopian future project at the time has largely become a reality today.

Broodthaers also does not paint his paintings – he composes and stages them. (Also Magritte – "a thinker who paints"14 – staged his thoughts.) Broodthaers has similarly staged all of his works. He stages – experiments, tries out and investigates – the meanings of objects/(art) phenomena while distorting them through other/unexpected/strange media or through an Andy-Warhol-like removal of objects from their context, thus making them independent, having a meaning by themselves, or, exactly the other way around, turning them into icons with open meanings. Elevating them to an icon. It seems to me that Broodthaers is "ready-making" in a Warhol-like way rather than a Duchamp-like way, but this would require a longer and more specific analysis. The history of 20th Century ready-made art has presumably not yet been published?


Poetics or politics?

We would be, of course, able to have a more independent understanding of Broodthaers (also using the Estonian context as a backdrop15) if we had read his poems and earlier art criticism, if we had followed his development and could fathom what his leap from literature into visual art meant for him personally. It was definitely not "a bad mood"16 that made him cast 50 unsold copies of his last collection of poetry in plaster ("Pense-Bête", Reminder, 1964), thus making them unreadable, but as a sculpture, turning them into a meaningful union of word and object. So, what respective artistic prerequisites appeared in his earlier activities? What influenced his genesis into an artist ranging across the entire trajectory of development, from the beginning to an end?

The Kassel retrospective does not incorporate Broodthaers' personal story; the exhibition accentuates self-reflection and the ability to explore societal problems. What are the perspectives, needs and potential of art in today's evermore globalising and monopolising world?17 The exhibition tries to both confirm and question Broodthaers' (little) societal interest, including his opposition to interweaving politics and art the way Beuys does it. We can ask this question also in Kassel. Broodthaers is, if in no other way, at least through a deep fascination for culture, deeply and subtly, always and forever, a contra political power.

When Warhol made (in an American way) objects of mass-consumption iconic and objectified them, then Broodthaers makes (in an Ancient-Greek/European way) cultural phenomena iconic, elevating the objects (without offending them). This is exemplified by an object installation "Éloge du sujet" (In Praise of the Subject, 1974), which – in a dialog with Magritte's painting "La Clef des songes" (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1927) – among other things, elevates "the artistic subject, who may give everyday objects a different meaning than what has been prescribed by society".18 (Its central object, a fedora signifying Magritte, has been given the label "Sujet", meaning subject.) The charge of Broodthaers' exhibit and art is accumulated from this elevation of the spirit. The magic of Broodthaers: the spirit glimmers in the light, the stars – in the dark. The pure white classicism of Fridericianum19 magnifies this interpretation even more.


Kaire Nurk is an artist and art teacher who works in the realms of philosophy, (art) history and art.


1 Uwe M. Schneede, Die Geschichte der Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert. München: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2001, p 228.

2 Michel Foucault, This is not a Pipe. Two letters by René Magritte. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

3 Even in 2015 that has not changed: publications translated from English into Estonian do not mention Broodthaers (Norbert Lynton's "The Story of Modern Art", translated in 2001; David Piper's "The Illustrated History of Art", translated in 2006; E. H. Gombrich's "The Story of Art", translated in 1997). Newer publications on 20th century art have not been translated into Estonian yet, German art histories have not been translated either. Broodthaers is also missing from Estonian overviews of 20th century art; see: Ants Juske, Jaak Kangilaski, Reet Varblane, 20. sajandi kunst. Tallinn: Kunst, 1994.

4 Kaire Nurk, Ruum. Ruum. Ruum. – Eesti Ekspress 24. XII 2002.

5 Broodthaers' museum project actually started in his Brussels flat in 1968. Altogether he developed the museum's 12 departments through the same number of exhibitions (1968–1972).

6 Kaire Nurk, Tacita Deani ajadokumendid kunstina. – Sirp 5. IX 2003.

7 Marcel Broodthaers, Poétique/politique. Hrsg Sabine Folie, Gabriele Mackert, Gerald Matt. Wien: Kunsthalle Wien, 2003.

8 To be fair, I have also visited Broodthaers' room in K21, Dusseldorf, where he is part of the permanent exhibition.

9 See, for example: Ulrich Reißer, Norbert Wolf, Kunst-Epochen. 20. Jahrhundert II. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun., 2004, pp 170–173.

10 See, for example: Martin Damus, Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert. Von der transzendierenden zur affirmativen Moderne. Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag. Rowohlts Enzyklopädie, 2000, pp 335–336.

11 Anne-Marie Bonnet, Kunst der Moderne. Kunst und Gegenwart. Herausforderung und Chance. Köln: Deubner Verlag für Kunst, 2004, pp 43–44.

12 Schneede, p 228.

13 Marcel Broodthaers, Correspondences, Korrespondenzen. Galerie Hauser & Wirth, Zürich; Galerie David Zwirner, NY. Stuttgart: Oktagon-Verlag, 1995, p 80. (This compilation brings together an array of comments by artists on Broodthaers' work and on his influence; the questions are answered by Carl Andre, Daniel Buren, Stan Douglas, Hans Haacke, Ilya Kabakov, Martin Kippenberger, Mike Kelly, Thomas Locher, Christian Philipp Müller, Paul McCarthy, Pavel Pepperstein, Raymond Pettibon, Jason Rhoades, Niele Toroni, Lawrence Weiner, Vadim Zakarov, Peter Zimmermann.)

14 Schneede, p 95.

15 Among Estonian artists Broodthaers' work could be linked to Kiwa's (1975). For example, Kiwa's "Alphabet Without A" (2008), which, unlike Broodthaers' witty presentations, removed A altogether and creates "a symbolic void" (Kiwa: "The weird semitoc connotations of the letter A have politicised its meaning. A is absolute perfection, A-class and Arian race, an example of the top of power hierarchies and winner's position. So, the letter A offers a nice possibility for a new castration".) For example, see: Kiwa, Metasemiootilised strateegiad nothingoloogilisel väljal. – Vormi dematerialisatsioon. TKK toimetised No16. Tartu: Tartu Kõrgem Kunstikool, 2013, p 168–185; also see: enter the untitled. Kiwalysis/Kiwalüüs. Text: Anders Härm & Hanno Soans. Tartu: ;paranoia, 2014 (pages unnumbered).

16 Dietmar Dath, Das doppelzüngige Zwischen der Illustration. – Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 20. VII 2015.

17 During the event "60 years of documenta" a two-day symposium took place ("documenta 1997–2017: expanding thought-collectives", 17.–18. VII 2015) that focused on those issues and critiqued the commercialisation of museums and the art world using the examples of "MOMA caricature" and biennalisation. It was argued that this will not happen to documenta. Enwezor talked about the role of documenta': It has made the layered and changing nature of art visible. Not the biennalisation, but pluralisation!" It was also discussed how to present contemporary art to audiences – with or without museums. Broodthaers' retrospective had a significant role in working out the strategy of the 14th documenta.

18 Marcel Broodthaers. Exhibition booklet. Fridericianum 17. VIII–11. X 2015. Hrsg Susanne Pfeffer. Kassel: Fridericianum, 2015, p 20.

19 Fridericianum (1769–1779) designed by Simon Louis du Ry is the oldest building on the continent especially created as a museum.

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