Marcel Broodthaers (28 January 1924 – 28 January 1976) was a Belgian poet, filmmaker and artist with a highly literate and often witty approach to creating art works.
From 1968 to 1975 Broodthaers produced large-scale environmental pieces that reworked the very notion of the museum. His most noted work was an installation which began in his Brussels house which he called Musée d'Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles (1968). This installation was followed by a further eleven manifestations of the 'museum', including at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf for an exhibition in 1970 and at documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972. In 1970 Broodthaers conceived of the Financial Section, which encompassed an attempt to sell the museum "on account of bankruptcy." The sale was announced on the cover of the Art Cologne fair catalogue in 1971, but no buyers were found.
In 1968, the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers created an installation in his house that he entitled the Musée de l'Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, or Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles. This was a fictive entity in that the museum had neither a permanent building nor a collection; nonetheless, it was elaborated by Broodthaers in about a dozen further installations. Evidence of the museum's existence (apart from its title) ultimately encompassed specially created objects, films, and art reproductions as well as ephemera such as wall labels and signage.
Subsequently, Broodthaers added other 'wings' to his museum department, including a Financial Section (through which he attempted to sell the museum itself, stating that this was necessary "on account of bankruptcy"). The Financial Section was also the sponsor of a series of gold ingots stamped with the museum's symbol, an eagle; these ingots were sold at twice the market price of the gold they contained.
Broodthaers's museum belongs in a lineage of institutional critiques that are deeply inspired by the work of Marcel Duchamp (especially his Readymades) and that proceed by assuming the general form and authority of key art world institutions such as the museum, the gallery, and the nonprofit organization. More recent entities of this kind include the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Museum of Forgery, the Museum of the Double, and many others. With the advent of the web, which interposes a compelling facade between the visitor and any actual building or place, such fictive entities have exploded in number and kind, with quasi-scientific institutions (the Institute for the Study of Perpetual E.motion, the Institute of Militronics and Advanced Time Interventionality) and corporations (the International Coropration of Lost Structures, RTMark) entering the mix. At times, it can be difficult to discern the difference between what is merely an elaborate project title, and a genuine effort to exploit the structural affordances of contemporary institutional forms.
Section Publicité du Musée d'Art Moderne Département des Aigles, 1972
In September 1968 he invented the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, which comprised an installation of crates, postcards and inscriptions situated in his Brussels apartment. The Museum was opened with an inaugural speech given by Johannes Cladders, then the director of the Museum in Monchengladbach, Germany, which was followed by a discussion on the role of art within society. In present-day terms this work has acted like a “message in a bottle” washed up on the shore of the future that alludes to the inevitable fate of works of art once embraced in the arms of the museum and the art market. Broodthaers’s working methods and his overinflated reputation for being difficult to work with may, even to this day, put off some curators and museum directors from being involved with his work. Broodthaers was not difficult to work with; the fact was that he was his own best curator. He would refine and refine his ideas until he achieved what he wanted. Working with him was not difficult at all, but it was demanding, so that you had to be patient, hold on to your nerve and closely follow his thinking. He would precisely construct the context of his work within his own conceptual parameters, relating constantly to his intentions and purposes of the exhibition or project as he had conceived it — sometimes putting existing works together to create new, combined, multiple meanings.
Over his lifetime he worked long and very hard to enrich our cultural and intellectual life for very little financial reward. It is now for those who have known his work for a long time and those who are interested but new to it to keep his work fresh and alive for a forever-expanding contemporary audience.
Even during his lifetime, and particularly now, Broodthaers has been difficult to categorize; he has never fitted easily into Surrealism or Conceptual Art. Although very much an international figure in the art world of the ’60s and ’70s, he has since remained an outsider who even since his death has contributed to our understanding of the world of ideas. In his own words: “It is possible to grasp reality as well as that which reality conceals.”Barry Barker
Naturally aided by his scattered physical legacy, there’s something mysterious, apparition-like, about Broodthaers’ art that asks to be protected. One can unpack his programmatic use of mussels and eggshells, for instance, but the works containing membranes – delicate protectors of more delicate contents – seem, in retrospect, almost a caution to interpreters chasing a master code. Considering Grand casserole de moules (Large pot of Mussels, 1966), a bluish surfeit of glued bivalve shells rising implausibly out of a black steamer pot in a holistic form weirdly reminiscent of a hamburger, one wants to linger in the forest of potential discursive content: the Mitteleuropean response to Pop that salutes fine dining over fast food; the metaphoric gravitation towards structures (the shell, the pot) that are Janus-faced, not only protecting but also restricting freedom; the reality-exceeding autonomy of art.
In his dandyish attention to styles of normative constraint, in particular, it’s clear that Broodthaers’ great tactical gift to art was his location of a place between meaning and meaninglessness, positing both as contingent. One of many unseatings of language here, 4 Pipes Alphabet (1969) – four embossed plastic reliefs on which the alphabet is tidily spelt out, with occasional anarchic divergences, around four graphic depictions of Magrittean pipes – is a deviation from a given rule that convinces through its spotless formal crispness. Broodthaers did deadpan certitude almost arrogantly well: he could locate it in something as simple as the slide projector’s metronomic click in Bateau–tableau (Boat–Picture, 1973), which shuffles through close-ups of a maritime painting. Such gambits, of course, touch on his lawless reinvention of museology, exemplified by his ongoing project Musée d’Art Moderne (Section XIXe Siècle) Département des Aigles. First produced in Broodthaers’ Brussels home in 1968 and then transported into various institutional settings (involving the re-labelling of existing art works), this was never going to transfer well into a retrospective, and one gets only the faintest hints of it here: a couple of photographs, a couple of props. Such, of course, is the big problem with accurately anthologizing Broodthaers: many of his projects for institutions are hugely difficult to reconstruct. But, again, maybe it’s better this way: some things ought to be left viewable only through a glass darkly, where misprision can do its work.