Do words limit our experience of a given artwork? Gustave Flaubert believed that, “Explaining one artistic form by means of another is a monstrosity.” Art critic John Berger wrote: “When words are applied to visual art, both lose precision.” And what if the words are in the art? Expressed by the artist herself?
From Cubism to conceptual art, the 20th century saw a spike in the appropriation of words in visual expression. Of course, there are earlier examples, like illuminated manuscripts, Egyptian hieroglyphs, or the works of visual poets like William Blake. But it was in the 1960s especially that the boundaries between the seemingly distinct art forms really began to blur.
Marcel Broodthaers was a product of this time. Currently having a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the Belgian is hailed for being innovative with written and visual language, borrowing from Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte (a contemporary and friend), and Pop art, while giving these influences a new twist.
Let’s start with Broodthaers’s first work of art, which he made at the age of 40, when he decided to move on from writing poetry. Well, sort of. He took unsold copies of his most recent collection of poetry, Pense-Bête (“Memory Aid”) (1964), and encased them in plaster and egg shells so that they hardened into monuments and useless objects. At MoMA, one of these books is placed near an invitation to his first exhibition: a series of magazine spreads that Broodthaers painted over with the words, “I, too, wondered whether I couldn’t sell something …” The start of his visual art career is marked by a bitterness, and even a sense of revenge, that never really goes away.
In addition to eggshells, Broodthaers had a penchant for mussel shells. These remnants appear in dense geometric patterns, spilling out of pots, crammed into a cabinet, or piled on a chair. At times, he is heavy-handed or obvious in his symbolism, fixing egg shells to the Belgian flag or smearing black, explosive globs of manufactured eggs on a newspaper reporting Belgium’s 1960 invasion of Congo. These works surround you with noisy clutter that is resoundingly empty, recalling the art that copied and critiqued consumer culture at the time.
The MoMA likes to stress that Broodthaers “distanced his photographic reproductions from those of Pop” by copying his own works. The results, however, are generally less than inspiring, including a display of glass bottles that he painted words over, set before a photograph of those same objects. In a concurrent Broodthaers exhibition titled, appropriately, Écriture at Michael Werner, three sheets of paper, each placed in individual typewriters, read, from left to right: “Parle,” “Ecrit,” “Copie” (“Speak,” “Write,” “Copy”). He seems to say that words, like images, in being reproduced, risk their originality. With both existing in the same systems of meaning, Broodthaers believed that “The language of forms must reunite with that of words.”
At its most stimulating, his work reflects on how we understand the world through words and images, and how we fit them into one another. Which contains which? In one series, Broodthaers transforms the words of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance” (1897) into sleek bars of various thicknesses and lengths. In another, he pairs objects, à la Magritte, with poetic, unusual, and surreal written associations: “style” with a glass bottle; “subject” with a hat; “pipe” with a palette. Similarly, in Series in the French Language (1972), Broodthaers matches the names of well-known writers and artists with unexpected or even inaccurate descriptors that often switch the roles of the writer and visual artist, such as “Charles Baudelaire Peint” (“Charles Baudelaire Paints”). Like Henri Michaux (another Belgian poet-artist), Broodthaers made words painterly subjects by scribbling letters and sentences on canvases. At times, he even used words in protest of images — in response to Minimalism, where form reigned supreme, he writes, in the 1968 oil on canvas work of the same name: “there are no primary structures.” For him, it was words that underly creation and give shape to images. “An artist does not construct a volume. He writes a volume,” he said.
The latter work is featured in his Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles), a traveling conceptual museum that Broodthaers developed between 1968 and 1971. Here we see a series of pamphlets and letters declaring his vision for the project that re-appropriates and mocks the museum as an institution. In one of his “décors,” or sets alluding to the privileged rooms of the bourgeoisie, titled “Un Jardin d’Hiver II” (“Winter Garden II,” 1974), he created a room of palm trees where pictures of exotic birds hang on the wall, alluding to the colonialist origins of museums.
Why eagles? We are brought back to a poem of his that opens the exhibition: “O sadness assent of wild ducks / Assault of birds at the forest granary / O Melancholy bitter castle of eagles.” As a MoMA label says, the eagle is “a bird that symbolizes autonomy and solitude, and which had come to represent the artist.” I cannot help but see his bitter castle as his attempt to establish some sense of authority, of payback for not earning the success he felt he deserved as a writer. Beneath his art lies a fervid will for and insistence on writing. In the video “La pluie (projet pour un texte),” we see him writing in a downpour, unfazed and triumphant.
In “La Salle blanche” (“The white room,” 1975) — another of his décors — Broodthaers recreates a room of his apartment and prints words associated with art-making, like “color,” “subjects,” “paper,” “shadow,” and “bright,” on the white walls and floors. The scene conjures the image of an artist in her room, as her thoughts about her art reflect and swim about her. Again, the implication here is that words are at the source of art — a message, in the end, that feels, at least for a viewer today, a little trite. I try once more to gaze over the words — “gallery, “black,” “figure,” “copy” — but I have trouble moving beyond their literal nature. I am, quite frankly, a little bored — they’re like the words AP Art History classes use to describe Western painting.
In an effort to get us thinking about art as more than objects, Broodthaers encases it with written language. But his words don’t always feel integrated into the artwork; rather, they speak at the art, to the image referenced. Perhaps, in this sense, he is more like a type of critic. Which brings us back to Flaubert and Berger: Do words and images, like oil and water, not mix? Perhaps it’s the words Broodthaers chose that make his works too literal and obvious, or his curmudgeonly tone that distracts them from their poetry. But, in the end, he probably should’ve stuck with words.