ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Marcel Broodthaers - 1998 - Mannen met gusto [NL, essay],
Men with Gusto
A Few Words on Pop Art, Panamarenko and Marcel Broodthaers
I. What is Pop Art?
In order to be able to discuss how Pop Art influenced the work of the artists Marcel Broodthaers and Panamarenko, we must first examine what exactly is or was understood under the term Pop Art by Marcel Broodthaers, Panamarenko and others.
The book that seems of most use is Lucy Lippard's Pop Art, a collection of five essays published in 1966. The remarkable thing about this work is that it includes an attempt to write history at the time of the events. In this case, this offers two great advantages.
Firstly, it gives Lawrence Alloway, the man who first used the term 'Pop Art', the opportunity to explain what he actually meant by it barely ten years after having coined it. This gives us an exact picture of the conditions in which British Pop Art came into being.
Secondly, Lippard's essays are characterised by the precision with which artists describe or delineate their work. Lippard counts five practitioners of Pop Art: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselman, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg. The criteria she employs to include these five and no others help us not only to look at their work more clearly, but also provide us with a picture of what Lippard understands by the term 'Pop Art'.
II. The Birth of British Pop Art
Lawrence Alloway says that, between the winter of 1954-55 and the year 1957, the term 'Pop Art' was used increasingly in discussions by the Independent Group, a small, informal organisation at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. Their first meetings took place in the winter of 1952-53. The topic was technology. Alloway writes that he was invited to a discussion evening on the design of helicopters, but did not go. Two years later, a second programme started, organised by Lawrence Alloway and John McHale, its topic being popular culture. The members of the group had discovered that they had in common a vernacular culture. We were interested in movies, advertising, science fiction, pop music. We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as a fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically. One result of our discussion was to take Pop culture out of the realm of escapism, sheer entertainment, relaxation, and to treat it with the seriousness of art. (1)
I do not know whether the word 'seriousness' indicates that these saviours of popular culture also immediately denied it the right to remain no more than entertainment, but their efforts still seem miraculous to me. When Panamarenko told me that during the fifties he went to the cinema almost every day, I did not realise that it meant something different from today. Nowadays a distinction is still made between so-called commercial and so-called artistic films, but it is generally accepted that both categories can produce both good and bad films, and that 'artistic' intentions are by no means a guarantee of seeing a good film (it seems, rather, that the opposite is true: the fewer profound artistic pretensions a film has, the more chance of one's being pleasantly surprised). Even so, I am still troubled when I see children watching Walt Disney films. I still nurse prejudices that Alloway and his companions pushed aside in the fifties.
According to Alloway, the first phase of British Pop Art (1953-58) was firmly linked to the theme of technology. He refers to three influential books, which the artists involved with the Independent Group did not so much read as look at: Ozenfant's Foundations of Modern Art, Siegfried Giedion's Mechanisation Takes Command, and Moholy-Nagy's Vision in Motion. The influence of these books derived chiefly from their visual richness, images of art and science being mixed freely. Alloway writes that he was struck mainly by the 'acceptance' of science and the city in these books. He continues by saying that the word 'image', a powerful word by this time, was used to describe evocative visual material from any source, with or without the status of art.
In 1953 an exhibition entitled Parallel of Life and Art was organised at the ICA. 100 images were displayed, including photos, X-rays, anthropological material, children's drawings, and so on. Each image was enlarged photographically and mounted on the wall, reaching up to the ceiling, like film screens surrounding the visitor. In this way all the images were given the same degree of significance. In 1955 Richard Hamilton organised an exhibition at the same institute to examine the intimate contact between man and machine, partly on the basis of photos. Alloway wrote that until that time, images from the mass media and technology were simply linked to art, without anyone seeing how one could define the actual relationship between these so-called different fields, whereas in this catalogue attempts were made to do this, in such words as, the way in which technical progress eventually overtakes and satisfies the wish-dreams of science fiction is aptly demonstrated in yet another application of the aqualung. The figure swimming in front of the camera is Richard Fleischer, director of Disney's production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne's pioneer submarine novel of nearly a century ago, which it has now become possible to film on location.
Alloway also quotes Paolozzi: ‘It is conceivable that in 1958 a higher order of imagination exists in a SF pulp produced on the outskirts of L.A. than in the little magazines of today. Also might it be possible that sensations of a difficult-to-describe nature be expended at the showing of a low-budget horror film. Does the modern artist consider this?’ Alloway continues by saying that in Paolozzi we clearly find all the ideas necessary for the development of Pop Art: a preference for popular culture, a belief in multiple evocative images and an interest in the interaction between man and technology. And yet his work is not part of Pop Art, for example because of his habit of converting everything into bronze.
In the same year, 1958, Alloway also wrote an essay in which he expressed the wish to expand the boundaries of art, and showed himself to be a champion of overlapping between art and life. He opposed Clement Greenberg, who labelled mass culture as an ersatz culture, and he tried to define the popular arts of our industrial age on the basis of acceptance. The original meaning of the name 'Pop Art' becomes clear in this article: it was another word for the products of the mass media.
In 1956 the Whitechapel Art Gallery held an exhibition entitled This is Tomorrow. One of the twelve stands looked like a lively carnival stall, with a false perspective, soft floor and black light. The outside was covered with images from popular culture, including pictures of Marilyn Monroe, a giant beer bottle and an almost six-metre high robot with a girl, cut out of a poster for the film Forbidden Planet.
According to Alloway, the greatest merit of the Independent Group was the expansion of aesthetics to include the environment as created by man, and the consequent shift in the space and the images used in art. The space became defined as intimate, occupied by known objects and images, a world in close-up, with aesthetic distance drastically reduced.
III. Pop Art in New York
As already stated, Lucy Lippard counted five Pop Art artists: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselman, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg. She sees Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns as forerunners, still forming part of Abstract Impressionism. Lippard wrote that Rauschenberg wanted to work in the gap between life and art, but that his art remained highly personal, rough and abstract. Commercial images, photographs, and signs are not used specifically but are left in poetic suspension, by which I think she means an older, more sensitive poetry.
According to Lippard, the origin of Pop Art was to be found in the work of Jasper Johns, because he made his action-painting techniques impersonal. By painting two-dimensional objects such as flags, Johns encompassed three major streams of abstract art: the Abstract Expressionist surface, the simplified composition of non-relational or emblematic art (I do not understand what she means by this), and the post-Surrealist Assemblage. Duchamp had made art out of the ready-made, but Johns went further, says Lippard, and made the object into a painting, thus 'neutralizing the gap between life and art and clearing the way for Pop Art.'
Pop Art also emerged from the art of assemblage and a growing disdain for sentiment, and even for sensitivity. In this respect, Jim Dine declared that he no longer wanted to work with found objects because there was too much of other people's mystery in them. What is also very important is that the withdrawal from the principles of Abstract Expressionism by Pollock, Kline, De Kooning, Rothko, Still and Barnett Newman was largely based on admiration and respect for that movement: it had been done too well to continue.
There gradually arose a cleaner-cut, simpler, more blaring, ordered and cool expression within the Assemblage trend. Lippard writes, of Johns' painted bronze beer cans, that, by 1961, these cans looked like the harbingers of a full-fledged trend, but by the beginning of 1962, they looked like antiques in comparison with the newly emerged Pop Art. In no way did they attempt to reproduce exactly the commercial labels, or even the exact size and shape of the actual cans; still more significant, they were on a bronze base - set apart as art. Just like Johns' flags, these works were masked by painterly treatment. The next step was to bring these cans still closer to reality by eradicating the artistic remnants.
Johns is not a Pop artist, concludes Lippard, because his objects are not brand new. Their painterly surface rids them of the newly minted mass-produced aura typical of Pop. His objects also make us think of their use, so that the past is evoked, whereas Pop objects forego the uniqueness acquired by time. They are not yet worn or left over.
Lippard also points to the prevailing misunderstanding that Pop Art is to be considered as a form of satire. Pop Art is no more a form of satire than it is a complacent acceptance of everything, she writes, but it is a poorly understood new attitude towards art and life. Every Pop artist has a different aim, she continues, but even though they all, in one way or another, work with consumer objects or illustrations of them, as has been done in art since the 19th century, yet none of them is engaged in anecdotalism, in telling stories or social comment.
Furthermore, Pop artists did not see themselves as the destroyers of Art. They were against art as little as they were against all other human occupations, on the contrary, they tried to accept the existing world. 'Pop Art looks out into the world,' Lichtenstein said, 'it appears to accept its environment, which is not good or bad, but different.' These artists' only subject was the present, writes Lippard, and the hardest task was not to lapse back into conventional beauty and emotions. Lichtenstein declared that it was difficult not to be seduced by nuances of 'good painting'. Pop Art is characterised by techniques in which the hand of the master can no longer be seen, as in Warhol's screen prints and Lichtenstein's enlargements of the screen dots, but this did not prevent these artists from developing a recognisable personal style.
The artist tries to isolate objects or images of objects so that the spectator perceives them in a different way. The absence of satire and parody does not mean that the objects or pictures spotlighted are naïvely idealised. In fact it appears that these artists, who were all familiar with advertising tricks, turned away from that sort of advertising which itself leaned towards the fine arts, preferring simple labels such as that of Del Monte or Brillo (even if it was designed by an Abstract Expressionist), which were not so much intended to be beautiful, but were designed to stimulate sales of the product.
Pop Art moved away from the specialised design taught in art schools, tasteful colour, asymmetrical composition and the images of the Bauhaus and the Abstract Expressionists. This led, among other things, to the use of a non-art palette of insipid ice-cream shades or 'kandy-colors', glow-in-the-dark tones, hues like turquoise, pistachio green, mauve, lavender and peach. As much as possible was left out of the picture. Images were isolated instead of being combined. The works of art were made from such new materials as formica, chrome, Day-Glo and aluminium paints, epoxy, false wood-grain, cheap textiles, automobile enamels and lacquers. Pure aesthetic pleasure and composition became side-issues, and the presentation of the works of art was brutal and snappy. Pop Art was generally characterised by a deadpan approach. Pop Art was cool, simple, detached, hard, self-assured, optimistic and humourous. It was not satirical, parodic or socially committed.
In the academic world, similarities are first sought between different shells, plants or works of art in order to classify them into large groups. Yet it is precisely the most exceptional, the most characteristic aspect of each species and each individual that makes it different from one another or from the others. Panamarenko is not a Pop artist, although certain aspects of Pop Art have definitely influenced him. To him, Pop Art means 'a form of freedom, a tone, but most of all an intelligent sensitivity, all the time missed at school.' What appealed to him most was the exposure of 'the poetic humour of many things in the outside world and the feeling of giving value to a completely new beauty - Motten in't riet, Krokodillen, Hofkens, Walvis' (Moths in the Reed, Crocodiles, Little Gardens, Whale). 'As an enthusiast,' says Panamarenko, 'I was convinced that from that time one could realise simply everything, in all disciplines, every wish or dream. You could just make a real aircraft, your own design, your own invention, fly around in it, with a real engine, real pedals, real functions, and also make all this visible.'
Lippard writes, 'For each individual artist the pop style was simply a way of arriving at a personal artistic form free from the predominant codes.' (2) The first experience that freed Panamarenko from the bigoted and narrow-minded swamp of his youth was reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.
'There at last I became acquainted with someone who wanted to free himself from that terribly backward background of America at that time. That was exactly the same dreadful background as the art world with its museums and its collectors. A background of superstition and religion, in which no one ever wants to learn anything. And this Henry Miller, who had also crawled out of a similar swamp, was already trumpeting on the second page that he was going to give God a kick in the pants. On some pages you can see that Miller was a writer with a talent that he was not going to betray in order to be able to attend one or other opening night. And, without being a philosopher, he passed on to me a sort of liberating way of thinking, a sort of courage, arrogance and negligence so as to be able to do something without being obliged to go to the opera and find everything oh-so-marvellous, while feeling that this cult of the Fine Arts was very closely linked to all the other forms of superstition and fear. That was very important to an eighteen-year-old whippersnapper who had until then only heard a lot of hogwash, just like Miller, who had almost drowned in all that nonsensical superstition and all those stupid, absurd moral patterns in America.'
V. Panamarenko and British Pop
No one reading Alloway's description of the early days of British Pop will be able to miss the numerous similarities to the way Panamarenko spent the second half of the fifties. 'We accepted the commercial culture as a fact,' writes Alloway. 'We discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically: technical and technological innovations, new products, new materials, film, advertising, science fiction and pop music.'
Panamarenko is by no means an admirer of pop music, because he has the feeling that most music never radiates joy, but only a compulsive cheerfulness and deathly sadness, but he has always been involved with film, science fiction, science and technology. 'When I was fourteen, in 1954,' he tells us, (3) 'there was a pin-up in Popular Mechanics or Electronics Illustrated who was holding a matchbox, and underneath it said: This contains more information than the whole Encyclopedia Britannica. I am still looking for that little box. Underneath that, in the same magazine, which I still possess, was a picture of Boris Karloff and one of those robots with an antenna on its head.' According to Alloway the picture of Robbie the robot was one of the most striking images of the 1956 This is Tomorrow exhibition.
In the late fifties Panamarenko studied electricity, mechanics and aerodynamics and the science of materials in a library where he had found a shelf with a few scientific reference books. He often spent the afternoons at the cinema, where he saw such films as Samson and Delilah with Hedy Lamarr, and the science fiction classic War of the Worlds.
'They showed fine landscapes and tricks of exceptional beauty, with perfect little space ships, with strange shapes that had a certain magic, not like those insipid ships with twenty thousand pipes and eyes like you see in 2001, A Space Odyssey or Star Wars, where space ships always look like things that already exist. I remember one very well-made scene in which the heroes have to do an emergency landing in their Piper Cub. The only thing the pilot can do is land his plane between a load of trees and bushes, and while he's doing that, they suddenly see three of these space ships turn up. Green flying saucers with orange tips and a sort of snake's neck in the middle. And you see all that in one picture. That scene is a rarity. That film still has the same power.'
But even though the members of the Independent group organised an evening of discussion about designing helicopters, even though Alloway writes that the first phase of British Pop Art was closely linked to the theme of 'technology', and even though such critics as David Sylvester claimed that Hamilton's interest in things technical, technological and modern goes further than the romantic fantasies of the Futurists, (4). Alloway nevertheless also writes that Ozenfant's, Siegfried Giedion's and Moholy-Nagy's books were not so much 'read' as 'looked at. The positive aspect of this is of course that these men were trying to 'broaden' art by taking every image seriously, but in the end it was no more than a superficial occupation that remained limited to the iconography.
The greatest difference between Panamarenko and these artists is that Panamarenko did not consider industry, science, science fiction and film as potential suppliers of new images, but as occupations that might lead to unhoped-for surprises and new forms of beauty. One might say that here were two contradictory concepts of art. Since his 'liberation' by Henry Miller and Pop Art, and definitely since the time, in 1967, when Beuys exhibited Panamarenko's aeroplane Das Flugzeug at the art college in Dusseldorf, Panamarenko has considered art as being open to what is new, unexpected and unknown, as overcoming fear, in search of magic, wonder and poetry. He expects art to surprise him and allow him to see things in a different way. But the opposite often happens. Art usually functions as a calming ritual, so that the fear is not overcome, but is suppressed, disguised and reinforced.
'When I read in a catalogue about the Wide White Space Gallery that a renowned ex-gallery owner says of the work of Buren that it was as if she saw the master departing out of those stripes' says Panamarenko, 'I wonder what the difference is from an old nun lying prostrate on the marble floor in front of Christ's Cross. That's exactly the same nonsense: third-rate metaphysics. Why are these people always so lazy and why do they never learn anything? I have known dozens of people with a lot of talent who one day just stopped learning. Why? Because they latch onto superstition and religion. Religion is the greatest form of laziness, because it offers solutions to everything. Alright! There we are! Who makes the rain? God! Why do trees grow? God! What makes this bit of junk worthwhile? Art! It all fits together: that laziness, that knowing nothing and never learning anything, nor having the slightest interest. And the fuss these people make! They are constantly occupied with countless useless and pointless things in order to prove they are not lazy. Religiosity as the total result of laziness. Being at ease and being left completely at your ease. When they are twenty they say, 'I accept, now and forever, that good art consists of strokes made by a paintbrush on canvas, with or without a landscape, and that's what I call art.' That's why you hardly ever see a work of art with an unexpected poetry and a pleasant, lively feeling, a work of art you find magical, beautiful and perfect because it does result solely from that stinking art history.'
VI. Panamarenko and Pop Art in New York
When looking for Pop Art's possible influence on Panamarenko, apart from the fact that it gave him the feeling that, in art, one could 'realise every wish and dream', one might point to the affinity between Panamarenko's 'poetic objects', which are usually reconstructions of things he once saw (a pair of boots covered in snow in a courtyard, or the crocodile cage at the zoo in Antwerp), and Warhol's Brillo Boxes or the imitations of objects like Oldenburg's light-switches. You might also point to Panamarenko's use of new materials and the simplicity of his images, but if you consider the reasons why Lippard did not include certain artists in Pop Art, then, apart from a lack of stylisation, it has mainly to do with the artists' attitude, and, for example, with their 'humanism', as it is called, which usually takes the form of satire or parody.
According to me, the most important similarity between the work of Panamarenko and Pop Art lies in its acceptance of reality. In the case of the New York artists, in artistic terms this means they did not oppose the art of the Abstract Expressionists, and in social terms that they did not create politically committed art. This is possibly also the greatest difference from Dada and Duchamp. Neither Panamarenko nor the New York Pop artists were ever engaged in anti-art. Their work is positive. It proposes new things, broadens the view, embraces as much of the world as possible. This attitude reaches its peak in such statements by Warhol as 'I like everything,' 'Pop Art is liking things' and 'I want to be a machine'(5). This 'machine' aspect refers to the wish to be a detached observer who records and reproduces reality as objectively as possible. Lichtenstein said, 'The closer my work is to the original, the more threatening and critical the content.'(6) Claes Oldenburg stated that 'Pop Art is characterised in the purest way by its ambition to make a style of impersonality.'(7)
One of the consequences of this attitude, which in reality goes back to Taine and Flaubert, is that one cannot properly appreciate or understand these artists' work if one sees them as satire or parody. They are of course funny, but there is no reason at all to attribute any profound humanist or socially critical intention to this funniness. Cervantes' 'Don Quixote' is always considered to be a parody and criticism of the chivalric romance. Why? Why not see it as a homage? Why should it not just be a funny book taking the form of a chivalric romance?
For instance, there is clearly no point at all in considering Warhol's Death and Disaster series as social criticism. Both Henry Geldzahler and Gerard Malanger, Warhol's right-hand man at the time, said, and this may have become more credible since the filming of J.G. Ballard's book Crash, that Warhol simply found several of the pictures he used exciting.(8) At the same time, these were of course pictures of race riots, suicides, car crashes and an electric chair, images that evoke a melancholy atmosphere of violence and death, but it seems to me that what we have here is first and foremost not a political or moral attitude, but a personal need, albeit one that is hard to define, to create these images. Some people, including David Bourdon, detect irony in the fact that Warhol printed these images several times, next to and above each other, and thereby repeated them. I do not see repetition, but a shift. I just see an artist trying to make an image more powerful and genuinely visible. Why? Because the image affects him and he believes he will affect others with it. That has nothing to do with irony. Warhol and Panamarenko are not ironists. They do not set themselves up as critics or commentators. They move onward, they postulate, they try to create powerful images.
Another similarity between Panamarenko and Warhol, linked to their positivist acceptance, is their attitude to money, which simply comes down to the fact that its existence and importance is dealt with in their work. (9) In 1962, Warhol drew, painted and screen-printed works representing dollar bills. The link between art, fame and money was obvious to him. He tried throughout his life to come into contact with famous, successful and rich people in order to be able to earn more money. Not many works were sold at the few one-man shows Warhol had during his lifetime. In 1964, when only very few of the Death and Disaster series were sold, and nothing from the Brillo boxes exhibition, Warhol still had an assistant who carried on his advertising work. For a long time Warhol actually financed his activities as an artist by means of this advertising work.
In 1965 Panamarenko still called himself 'Poval', after a new Japanese synthetic resin, but from 1966 he called himself 'Panamarenko Multimillionaire'. Panamarenko never had a job by which to finance his work, but due to his sales of multiples he does not have to produce more than three or four large-scale works per year.
Both Warhol and Panamarenko had a penchant for silver and gold. In 1956 Warhol made numerous pictures of men and shoes using gold leaf, in 1957 he published A Gold Book, and in 1962 he did a gold spray-paint Marilyn, which according to Bourdon were references to the icons in the Church of St John Chrysostom in his birthplace, Pittsburgh, and in 1964 he had his workspace, soon to be rechristened 'the Factory', clad in aluminium foil and silver paint by Billy 'Name' Linich. Panamarenko made a Golden Rucksack, a Silver Rucksack and a Golden Archaeopterix. The gondola under his The Aeromodeller was sprayed silver. The walls of his living room are papered with colour photocopies brightened with gold paint applied with the fingers, and he often signs his work with silver paint. From 1964 to 1968 Broodthaers worked on several versions of La banque, a wooden framework for three bank counters, that was finally partly painted gold, and which was first shown at the 1965 Pop Art exhibition in Brussels; he used a gold colour for some of his Industrial Poems and in 1971 he conceived the plan of selling gold bars marked with the image of an eagle for double the normal price of gold, in an attempt to financially support his reputedly moribund museum.
VI. BEYOND THE OLD FRAGILITY
One might call Panamarenko a humanist without sentiment, as Lippard writes of Oldenburg. (10) Among other things, this means that he is not looking for a poetry of fragility, but for an essential, rigid form that in the end looks as simple as possible. One day he asked me what I thought of the Barada Jet, a balsa wood aeroplane with a jet motor. 'Don't tell me it's a fragile work,' he said, 'Or you'll get a smack in the mouth.' When we tried to place the work in an exhibition several months later, without making any measurements, he suddenly started sawing 30 centimetres off each wing under the gaze of the astounded gallery owner. The plane did indeed then look more rigid and less fragile.
Panamarenko uses light, and therefore often fragile, materials because his aeroplanes have to be as light as possible. The construction of an aeroplane comes down to finding a balance between solidity and lightness. When he uses new materials like Kevlar, it is often because they enable the construction to be lighter and at least as strong. For instance, the development of Pepto Bismo, a harness helicopter on which he has now been working on and off for five years, follows the rhythm of the development of the latest batteries and electric motors. The building of a submarine, using about two tons of steel, follows the same logic as the construction of the flying machines, but in reverse. Every time a solution is found for a problem, such as the material to be used for the large window at the front, its density had to be taken into account, and it was never high enough. 'We shall see whether they still find it so fragile,' laughed Panamarenko.
Since Panamarenko's work also has to function as an image, it also complies with criteria that are not purely technical. For instance, I have written elsewhere (11) that 'Hazerug' (Hareback), the flying rucksack on which Panamarenko has worked longest and most often (including two periods of several months on the test-beds at Brussels university's Aerodynamics department), is such a fascinating work because the artist insisted on mounting the motor upside down 'because it looks better'. Why would the motor then no longer work, even with the most ingenious ignition mechanisms? It is this that becomes the issue and the virtually invisible joke in this work.
In his essay on British Pop Art, Alloway wrote about the visual material in which 'new experiments and ancient remains' were combined. As the Ping le sous-marin interview (12) shows, Panamarenko is looking for an unexpected mixture of archaic and new elements. 'Spaceships with cannons, primitive and mysterious at the same time, which is better than looking modern,' was his reaction to the film Dune, 'Because making those ships look modern is nothing but lousy projecting, that makes us sick. As if travelling through space would be insipid and politically correct! Environmentally friendly? What are you talking about? The drives used and the shape of the spaceships is imposed by the way things are, and that's that, just as that generator forces us to make the submarine in a particular way.'
VII. Marcel Broodthaers
'Pop Art ranks alongside the pamphlet, or provocation, or poetry,' wrote Marcel Broodthaers in November 1963. (13) 'It is cursed,' he continues, 'and abuse and contempt are its lot.' In contrast to Panamarenko, it seemed to Broodthaers that Pop Art and nouveau réalisme, which he considered to be the American and European variations of the same movement, exuded something threatening, the same way as a story by Edgar Allan Poe. 'From what ghostly world do they come?' he asks about Segal's plaster figures. 'I cannot say they express horror, without expressing my own horror.' He sensed something cynical in this work, with its 'blinding, absurd, black humour', because it does not offer the spectators anything to hold onto, throwing them back on themselves. 'Narcissus has prevailed,' he wrote.
This narcissism - understood as a concern for the way we are perceived, since we do not exist except in the eyes of others - is one of the basic themes of Broodthaers' work, which presents itself as a powerless succession of small actions, inventions, connections, short concentrated sentences (L'alphabet est un dé à 26 faces), reversals and travesties piling up in an endless rustling of paper that expresses a terrible loss and the pointlessness of every fixed word. Verses are stuck over with strips of paper so that their make-up becomes visible and their rhythm stutters, like the apparently monotonous song of a blank brick wall.
Broodthaers was a man who tried to give shape to his own isolation and the great ubiquitous comedy by cutting out photographs. Just like Magritte, whom he called 'clumsy', Broodthaers was an apparently clumsy artist. He was a tinkerer, someone who made new art because he did not stick to the rules. The discovery of Pop Art and nouveau réalisme made it possible for him to take his tinkering seriously and present it as art, though with him one never knows. Humour and seriousness merge into one another like the surfaces of a Möbius ring. The cynicism he detected in Pop Art was transformed into a consistent 'insincérité' and counterfeit. Broodthaers is elusive. In the same way as he was shut in by a narcissistic, hermeneutic circle, as if everybody had been born with a bucket over their head (the reason for his fictional interviews with Magritte, Jeremy Bentham and his daughter Marie-Puck's cat), he also withdraws from our understanding.
Broodthaers sees the political or provocative undertone in Pop Art and nouveau réalisme works as residing not in a loud discourse but in their objectivity: in the objects' tacit nakedness. In April 1965, in an article about his first exhibition, he wrote, concerning the mussel shells, egg shells and objects exhibited, that they 'have no grace and no other content than a bit of air', and in December 1965, in an article for Phantomas magazine, he wrote that he preferred to call himself a 'creator' rather than an artist, since the word creator implies 'that marvellous indifference'.
This objectivity or marvellous indifference does not contradict Broodthaers' wish to make works with a political or provocative content, but is in fact a condition for it. In this way he arrived at the continuation of an occupation of the Palace of Fine Arts in his own home, by setting up his own museum, which originally consisted solely of objects like an empty house-mover's truck parked in front of the house, a number of empty packing cases, postcards, three inscriptions, an inaugural speech and a tortoise in the garden. Broodthaers used this collection of objects to make a protest. A few years later, as a sample of ideological critique, he assembled more than five hundred pictures of eagles for an exhibition in Dusseldorf, while his museum's Section de Publicité advertised this event in Kassel, using a series of prints and empty picture frames mounted on a black wall.
'The change of subject in art has made a deep impression on me,' Broodthaers wrote in 1965. (14) 'Opting for eternity and natural things led to academism. The advent of the transient, the artificial and the false has aroused both my enthusiasm and my poetical loyalty.' The immediate reason for Broodthaers' conviction that it was not Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters or Marcel Duchamp that were behind these new developments, but René Magritte, arises from Magritte's renunciation of the 'aesthetics of the painting'. In a fictional interview from 1967 (15), and fully in accordance with this reasoning, Broodthaers asked the 'touchy, clumsy, great René Magritte', what he would think of 'no longer considering his paintings from the point of view of their titles, which complete the spectator's detachment and carry the image to a level of the mind where it is freed from all common interpretation' and turn his gaze on everyday occurrences in society. 'In that case,' according to Broodthaers, 'they would appear as testimonies of present-day events and no longer as poems.' Magritte answered that he did not understand the question.
In this instance, Broodthaers appears to be both mocking a particular form of art criticism and unfolding a programme for his own work.(16) The possible reading that Broodthaers playfully put forward to Magritte, i.e. to throw away the poem and retain the image of the bowler hat, is exactly what he himself tried by first exhibiting objects like mussel shells and later images of eagles, in the hope that this tireless dragging in of lost pictures and random objects would give shape to a new poetry of hopelessness, preferably accompanied by sociological and highly academic prestige.
'Magritte reminds one of a good journalist,' wrote Irène Hamoir in 1929 (17). 'His pictorial phrasing is readable, sharply outlined and concise. No trace of sentimentality. He looks down on literature. [...] The coolness of his writing is contemporary. He observes and talks about science and discovery.'
Broodthaers points out that Magritte's paintings seem to offer evidence of the same emancipation of objects as that encountered in Pop Art works, where objects such as Coca Cola bottles are allowed to present themselves completely alone, in all their eloquent simplicity. The marvel of Magritte's work possibly lies in the fact that it occurred to him to evoke 'mystery', which in Baudelaire's work was still called 'le surnaturel', by the clear juxtaposition of recognisable images. The oddness is not in the juxtaposition (the Surrealists had already discovered this in the encounter between an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table), but in its clarity. Magritte's work contrasts with others by its clarity. The 'mystery', 'dream' or 'unconscious' had previously been considered something obscure through which strange nocturnal creatures crept, as in the work of Goya. The clarity of Magritte's paintings, in contrast to this, is probably the result of his advertising work. I remember once having seen a very early poster of his which contained all the elements of his later paintings.
Was Pop Art really influenced by Magritte? It is not an interesting question. It seems much more important that both Magritte and Warhol were influenced by their advertising work. Is it by chance that Broodthaers ultimately set up a Section de publicité for his museum? Perhaps all modern and contemporary art is nothing other than a variation on this strange evocation of absent goods and the result of an unashamed emancipation of objects, which was set in motion halfway through the 19th century by the world exhibitions and the festive presentation of mass produced utility objects. In Magritte's paintings, positivism and an independent poetry à la Mallarmé seem to encounter each other. Broodthaers' work shows us a pendulum movement between these two extremes, but without the appearance of Pop Art he might never have been able to distinguish them.
Montagne de Miel, February 5th 1998
(1). Lippard, 1966/1992, p. 31-32.
(2). Ibid: p. 10.
(3). Theys, 1989.
(4). Sylvester, 1997, p. 279.
(5). Quoted by Bourdon, 1989, p. 140.
(6). Quoted by Lippard, 1966/1992, p. 90.
(7). Ibid: p. 86.
(8). Cited by Bockris, 1989.
(9). 'J'ai tourné ma veste lorsque j'ai vu qu'elle était doublée de vison,' explained Serge Gainsbourg when he started writing 'yeye' music. And Gerard Reve had this to say, 'Everything has its price, and you can't expect something for nothing.'
(10). Lippard, 1966/1992, p. 110.
(11). Theys, 1992, p. 22.
(12). Theys, 1998.
(13). David and Dabin, 1991, p. 52.
(14). Ibid: p. 71.
(15). Ibid: p. 104.
(16). What Broodthaers offers us here is a precise description of what has happened to Duchamp's ready-mades, the Snow-shovel and other ready-mades to which he always gave titles 'to transport the spectator to more verbal realms', away from the object, in other words, and in total contradiction of the later and contemporary interpretations of his work which search it for a liberating release from banality (see Duchamp, 1975).
(17). Scutenaire, 1977, p. 48.