ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Marcel Broodthaers - 1996 - The Lie of Waterloo [EN, essay]
The Lie of Waterloo
Sixteen footnotes from a lost essay on the films of Marcel Broodthaers
The title of this essay refers to Paul Bourget’s famous book ‘Essais de psychologie contemporaine’, published in 1883, which interpreted the oeuvres of writers such as Stendhal, Flaubert and Baudelaire in the light of Napoleon’s defeat and the malaise, or spleen, that subsequently entered the French psyche. Broodthaers’ unending preoccupation with the Battle of Waterloo only seems explicable through this book, or perhaps even via the original spleen, which he absorbed through secret literary channels.
1. Film as a lie – Museum as a fiction
What fascinated Broodthaers about film was the lie, that it was an optical illusion, a deception.
For some inexplicable reason, we perennially forget that the images in videos and films do not actually move and are, in fact, the result of a primitive optical trick. Ultimately, a film is just a running sequence of twenty-four static images per second. Like a slide show with an almost unlimited number of frames. I suspect that film’s whimsical status is precisely what drew Broodthaers to the medium. The precarious nature of an illusion. The lie. The exhibition in which the film Une seconde d’éternité [A Second of Eternity] was first presented was an attempt to contrast the static image with its moving equivalent. In addition to the film, Broodthaers also showed a plastic reproduction of the twenty-fourth image and a film strip that was looped around a white piece of cardboard in a frame.
‘The Musée d’Art Moderne Département des Aigles,’ he wrote elsewhere, ‘is simply a lie, a deception.’ Broodthaers’ museum was an illusion. A conjuring trick. A little white lie aimed at questioning the ‘staging of the truth’ in the ‘real’ museums. ‘There is a truth in the lie,’ he wrote, ‘the only way to be an artist, I believe, is perhaps to be a liar…’.
Broodthaers famously announced his official career as a visual artist with a declaration of principles in which he affirmed that he also wanted to do something insincere. He recapitulated the idea many years later in the form of a letter to his wife, Maria Gilissen, in which he stated that only she would be allowed to determine the authenticity of his artworks. ‘All that needs to be known,’ he wrote, ‘is whether art exists somewhere else, other than on a negative plane.’
2. The artwork as a spider’s web
Marcel Broodthaers’ work resembles a three-dimensional spider’s web: a dense network of interconnected subjects, themes and formal solutions. If you pull on one thread, the entire structure starts to buckle. In order to clarify this statement, it needs to be considered from several perspectives. The idea is related to ‘jouer sur la réalité et sa représentation’, as Broodthaers expressed it in one of his first open letters, but also to a love of jokes and a penchant for Baudelairian synaesthesia or ‘correspondences’. It finds its origins in both quasi-scientific (Marxist-sociological) approaches and an interest in pseudo-encyclopaedic knowledge, sham taxonomies and enumerations.
He calls a film night a painting, a filmed painting an analysis, and a series of slides or a book is deemed to be a film. He uses objects, drawings, slides, photographs of both objects and engravings, books, covers, catalogues, display cases, postcards and prints to lend diverse forms to limited number of primary themes.
Marcel Broodthaers’ films speak of nostalgia and melancholy, of raging seas and tranquil paintings, of a distant sailor’s spidery handwriting, of England’s heroic past, of a despondent and hopeless piecing together of a jigsaw puzzle in a quiet decor pierced by battle cries and the overture from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. We are nothing but a perpetual shuffling, shifting, guessing and silent perishing.
At the same time, cinema is an elusive and fragile miracle, which is precisely why Broodthaers’ works are able to speak not just about film but also about the fleeting stuff of which we are made.
Broodthaers was a resourceful chap, a tinkerer and a puzzler. In French, the art of tinkering or ‘do it yourself’ is described by the term ‘système D’. When the artist refers to this expression, as in ‘Le D est plus grand que le T’ [The D Is Bigger Than the T], he was also alluding to the throw of the dice (‘le coup de dés’).
The poet transposes the words in the sentence, eases them off their hooks, and forces them into a novel melody that evokes a familiar object in a new way, one that is uncontaminated by conventional linguistics. The similarity with bricolage is self-evident. When Broodthaers made a sculpture from plaster of Paris, mussel shells and a music stand, he was seeking the perfect rhythm, the ideal riff or, as Louis Ferdinand Céline called it, a ‘little music’ (‘une petite musique’). The specificity of Broodthaers’ work is not just to be found in his gift for playing with plaster and mussels, but also in the fact that he pondered the definition of the word ‘mussel’. The French word for ‘mussel’ [moule] also means – when accompanied by another article – ‘mould’ or ‘cast’. The ‘moule’ is unique in terms of being both its own mould and a cast, just as the ideal artwork spontaneously emerges from the material.
The artist, for example, tumbles from a typographical contemplation (The ‘D’ Is Bigger Than the ‘T’) to a commentary on his adventures with bricolage and Mallarmé’s poetics. A mussel is both an object and a word with two meanings. Film, therefore, is simultaneously a theme, a symbol and an instrument.
This not only means that hundreds of different approaches can be taken to Broodthaers’ work, but also that it is nigh on impossible to find a single methodology that does justice to its organisation. Since it branches off in countless directions, and each work has numerous pendants, additions and counterparts, a kind of gigantic, articulated scale model might be the best form of representation; an Atomium with two thousand interconnected spheres; or a website that allows users to explore the connections in every direction.
In 1995, Marcel Broodthaers’ widow, Maria Gilissen, invited me to help her compile a catalogue of his films. For two years, I spent countless hours by her side, pottering around in the huge archive, during which time she steadfastly rejected any overarching methodology. ‘Yes, Mr Theys, but we have already tried this approach, let’s invent a new one for the next movie.’ Using stills from every film was out of the question, simply because we’d already found a beer mat with a brilliant sketch for one movie, had discovered a good photocopy of a lost photograph for another, and then discovered the old invitation card for which the photo had actually been taken (and which Marcel had ultimately decided he didn’t really like). This constant stalling was incomprehensible in the beginning, but after a few months I understood that it was the only way of approaching Broodthaers’ work: to preserve it in its original state for as long as possible, no matter how complicated. It took Maria Gilissen a year and half to finally agree to my proposal to shred bad copies of the films in order to publish the stills. This decision didn’t come a day too late because if she’d agreed to the idea any earlier, then I probably wouldn’t have looked with such attentive eyes.
3. The true world
Broodthaers was a Catholic. He believed, therefore, in the existence of a true world. One that lies behind the mirages that reach our retinas, but which can also be found on this side of our eyeballs. Only he could never prove its existence. His entire oeuvre seems to be a playful but stubborn attempt to explore the ‘space’ between his retina and the ‘reflecting eyes of Beauty’. He is like a Narcissus bent over a bucket of dark water, a man who attempts to divine his ‘inner’ self in the reflection of his face, a self that refuses to make itself known. In so doing, he is immune to the unscrupulous passage of time. He was born too late, but more importantly, he cannot grasp either himself or the world in which he lives. Whatever happens, he is permanently on the outside. He is a tourist looking for a foothold in reality.
4. Broodthaers as a tourist
‘As the shadow of a Mallarmé whom I cannot understand, I am a tourist. I am captivated by the light of the city and its beautiful images. I eventually go to bed and sleep, in black and white. I make cinema as a spectator.’
Tourists are people who don’t actually participate in the surrounding events. Tourists look. They often don’t speak the same language as the people they are amongst. They always want to be elsewhere, because they are never really anywhere. In a misunderstood reality, they only recognise what they already know. They see nothing but their own reflection. (‘I look at myself in a film as though in a mirror.’)
In the 1950s, Broodthaers associated the medium of film with black-and-white photographs of strangers, poets, wandering through a city, visiting forgotten museums and befriending organ grinders.
Later still, he added images pertaining to journeys. Voyages, time travel, reveries inspired by beautiful prints, a deeply mysterious world filled with child-like dreams about messages in bottles.
5. Brussels, as seen through the eyes of the poets (a synopsis from 1956)
‘I am predisposed to sadness. I wear white shirts to dispel the black thoughts. But I find ideas everywhere. If I played with dice, it would be depressing because of the black dots. I ought to be able to laugh. But nothing makes me laugh anymore.’ These sentences are from the introduction to a synopsis, probably dating to 1956, that Broodthaers wrote for a film about Brussels ‘as seen through the eyes of Lord Byron, Charles Baudelaire, Charlotte Brontë, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Hugo and other exiles from the commune, St. John Perse, Claudel, Francis Ponge. The circumstances and the words of the poets will form a counterpoint to the human reality’.
Just like his film about Schwitters, the 1956 synopsis contains many of the elements found in Broodthaers’ subsequent works.
‘Decors, preferably with people (‘de préférence animés’)
1. The Royal Park
2. Le Grand Miroir
3. The Broodhuis
4. The Courthouse
5. The Battlefield of Waterloo
6. The airport
7. Unusual streets
8. Pictures of the aforementioned writers and contemporaneous views of Brussels
9. The Musical Instruments Museum (place for an interview)’.
Most of these ‘decors’, or locations, reappear in later works. For example, in the film Un Voyage à Waterloo [A Journey to Waterloo] in which Broodthaers drives past the Palais de Justice in a Menkes’ removal van. The idea of the interview as a hopeless soliloquy recurs in the film Figures of Wax, in which Broodthaers interrogates the wax effigy of Jeremy Bentham; in the interview with a cat; in a fictional interview with Magritte; and in Dix mille francs de récompense [10,000 Francs Reward], an interview he wrote himself on the basis of an existing written piece that he considered inadequate.
‘Charles Baudelaire: During the heyday of the industrial era, the nineteenth century, the poet speaks in a corresponding voice about the unending preoccupations of our modern consciences, destruction and the angels of death, oblivion and dreams. What did this prophet of doom accomplish in Brussels? Lectures at the Cercle Artistique which had their seat in the Broodhuis. The camera takes us to the pottery and porcelain room. (…) As a romantic, he challenges reality. He feels like an eternal stranger. The camera approaches the window and pans in on the clouds. Reading from L’Etranger. (…) St. John Perse: same loneliness as Claudel. (…) Paul Claudel: imprisoned in a different kind of solitude. (….) Rimbaud: one of Claudel’s merits was that he adored Rimbaud. (…) Une Saison en Enfer [A Season in Hell](…) Image of this book, then of the printed words. Juxtaposed with images of unusual streets and the peregrinations of the last organ player. Concluded in the form of an interview. The poet appears as someone who is different to other people and yet completely normal. Sometimes solitary, at other times concerned with social and humanitarian problems. (Hugo and the exiles of the commune.) At certain moments in history he is propelled through the waves of humanity as a spokesperson or diplomatic emissary, at other times disdained or condemned, rightly or wrongly.’
6. Film as a museum
At the end of the 1956 synopsis, Broodthaers proposes that the last scene (an interview with himself) be filmed in the former Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, ‘that unusual and quiet museum with few visitors (…) where original images can be shot’. He recorded his first film La Clef de l’Horloge [The Clock’s Key] after closing time in the Palais des Beaux-Arts. The films he made just after the establishment of his own museum (Inauguration and Un voyage à Waterloo) were about this museum.
Someone (I’ve forgotten whom, unfortunately, but it must have been a clever Englishman) remarked that Un film de Charles Baudelaire [A Film by Charles Baudelaire] is actually a museum in itself, one that preserves moments from the past. I like this observation. If you consider a museum as a place where time stands still, or as one where you can travel backwards and forwards through different eras – independently of the real and unrelenting nature of time – then it is easy to see the similarities between the separate experience of time in the cinema, or with the almost unlimited possibilities for playing with time in film.
7. The poem as a counterpoint
Broodthaers later wrote that he only succeeded in completing La Clef de L’Horloge, his film about Schwitters, ‘thanks to a love poem that functions as the traditional counterpoint’. It took the artist two years to finish the work. In Pipe et formes académiques [Pipe and Academic Forms], the pipe fulfils an identical function. The counterpoint is a contrarian hiccup, a counter movement, an unexpected turn, the pulsating heart of the rhythm (which only has the semblance of regularity). La Clef de l’Horloge, a so-called documentary about the poet, painter and uber-bricoleur Schwitters, is ‘rounded off’ by adding a love poem. The film shows close-ups of Das Sternenbild [The Constellations]. Starry skies and other similar constellations often reappear in later works and also recur in his films.
8. Narcissism and tautology
‘All artists are motivated by narcissism and perhaps by the will to power,’ wrote Broodthaers. It is impossible to determine the precise meaning that he ascribed to the word ‘narcissism’, but he probably interpreted it as an obsessive need for affirmation and attention. I suspect, more than anything else, it reminded him of his own desire for fame. In a newspaper article dated November 1963, he wrote of Magritte: ‘He is famous in New York. All of Magritte’s paintings are famous in New York. Magritte is famous’.
Narcissism and snobbery are born of the fact that our inner worlds are shaped by our dealings with others. The narcissist shuns people because he is afraid of being judged. His life is one big pretence, which precludes the development of inner stability. Broodthaers links being imprisoned by one’s looks to the artist’s compulsion to make objects and show them to an audience for approval. He also associates this with the hermeneutic limitations of poetry and to Mallarmé’s striving for the necessary, classical form.
Narcissus looks at his own reflection. All he sees is his face reflected on the water’s surface. His self-awareness is forever limited to what he knows of his appearance. His inquisitive gaze is trapped in a kind of external, circular movement; he is never able to grasp the wider world or the inner self that is supposed to exist. Over and over again, his gaze caresses his countenance. There is nothing he can to do to make his inner self seem real or tangible. Narcissism is therefore a form of tautology. The late Wittgenstein observed that our entire understanding of beauty is tautological, simply because we can only recognise beauty through our knowledge of beautiful things. Tautology occupies a special place in Broodthaers’ oeuvre because, following in the footsteps of Mallarmé, he was convinced that language curtails expression and, like Magritte, he decided to explore every conceivable relationship between objects and images or objects and their names. ‘Moi, je tautologue. Je dis je’ [I, I tautologue. I say I], he said.
This monologue emanates from a tape recorder next to a caged parrot. Broodthaers is Mallarmé’s and Magritte’s parrot, but also his own. We are all parrots, endlessly repeating the sounds that whistle in our skulls. Inside, we do not exist. We are nothing but the product of shifting forms, the changing ways in which we are viewed by others. The only things that seem to make steady progress are the ocean steamers, ships on a predetermined route towards a tropical location dotted with palm trees.
Another example of a tautology in Broodthaers’ oeuvre is the way in which he deploys his initials. In many instances, this ‘signature’ replaces the actual artwork.
In a 1973 publication entitled Magie [Magic] and subtitled Art et politique [Art and Politics], you will find, amongst other things, the following: ‘Being Narcissus… Uplifted by his image as though by a snake… Being an artist…’ The artist’s writings either complement the sculptures or replace them. He adds his signature.’
In the animation film of one second duration, comprising twenty-four images, Une seconde d’éternité [A Second of Eternity], you can see how Broodthaers’ initials are created through the addition of a series of lines. The film is projected in a loop, which means that it lasts forever.
‘On the model of Narcissus. I wanted a film, one second (24 images) long, just for me (I gaze at myself in the film as in a mirror). For me, the idea was sufficient.’
‘For Narcissus, one second is already the time of eternity.
Narcissus has always respected the time of 1/24th of a second.
In Narcissus the retinal after-image lasts forever.
Narcissus is the inventor of film.’
For Broodthaers, perhaps, the narcissism of this film resides less in the adulation of his own name and more in the accompanying poem that he connects, via the cinematic loop, to Narcissus’ endless contemplation of his own reflection. ‘Narcissus is the inventor of cinema,’ he writes. Why? Because everything is an illusion in the cinema. Even what we believe to be motion is the result of a precarious optical trick. For what is cinema if not the act of blindly staring at the reproduction of an absent reality? Apart from the flickering light spots on the screen, the cinema is shrouded in darkness. Reality lies outside. Just like Narcissus, the cinemagoer never manages to grasp reality. Perhaps this is what Broodthaers meant by the phrase ‘I make cinema as a spectator’. (See also the footnotes on tourism, postcards and Baudelaire as a stranger).
8. Cinéma Baudelaire
The subtitle of Une seconde d’éternité is: ‘A film by Marcel Broodthaers after an idea by Charles Baudelaire’. It is not wholly clear why Broodthaers linked his films to the French poet Baudelaire. The only references we have are two film titles and a verse from Baudelaire’s poem La Beauté [Beauty], which Broodthaers first quoted in the text Projet pour un texte [Design for a Text] and later used as the title of a self-published anthology of Baudelaire’s writings.
Why did Broodthaers write that Une seconde d’éternité was based on an idea by Baudelaire? In the text 24 Images par seconde [24 Images per Second], he says of the work: ‘The film consists of a series of static images that follow in quick succession. They create an illusion of movement for us.’
In Projet pour un texte, probably Broodthaers’ longest essay on the subject, one can also read: ‘I hate movement for it displaces lines. When I make a film, a medium that is still regarded as being about movement, I have to keep repeating Baudelaire’s verse.’
In 1973, Broodthaers published a booklet by Charles Baudelaire entitled Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes [I hate the movement that displaces lines]. The title is taken from Baudelaire’s poem Beauty, in which a cold, static and unapproachable Beauty articulates, amongst other things, her hatred of movement and the way it displaces the lines. We do not know what Baudelaire meant by this poem. My own view is that he was invoking an ironic image of the classical ideal of beauty, which he personified as an irascible woman who, like Venus in the prose poem The Fool and the Venus, is inaccessible to the poet. But what is ‘the movement that displaces the lines’?
Broodthaers’ reference to this poem is tongue in cheek. He suggests that Baudelaire would have disliked film on the grounds of it being a new-fangled, popular art form that, thanks to an optical illusion, is able to set lines in motion. Having achieved this, however, it hides classical beauty from our gaze and perhaps, simultaneously, the true world. The joke is derived from the fact that Baudelaire always supported the colourist Delacroix in the great painterly debate rather than the ‘master of line’, Ingres. ‘A good drawing,’ Baudelaire wrote, ‘is not a hard, cruel, despotic and rigid line, imprisoning a form like a straitjacket. A drawing should be like nature, alive and in motion.’
Broodthaers, however, preferred Ingres. (And he wanted to make films without movement.) One of the Peintures littéraires [Literary Paintings], bears the inscription ‘Baudelaire peint.’ [Baudelaire Paints]. This is a typical Baudelairian assertion, based on ‘similarities’ (‘correspondances’, in French): combined sensory impressions. Baudelaire describes Beauty as a frigid woman who cannot abide shuffling gestures, yet his own work was based on a kind of shocked languor, feverish fermentation and a sultry shuffling of scattered elements into a single form.
‘In this way, concepts of movement, form, compactness, strength and durability conceal the ultimate truth,’ wrote Broodthaers. And yet his entire oeuvre is one long and protracted shuffling – involving reversals of printed images, drawings of both photographs and engravings, photographs of projections, drawings of words and the verbalisation of an image, yet more reversals and the pasting of things next to one another – until he finally arrives at the perfect constellation. And when he succeeds, it creates a kind of shiver. One only has to see how he united empty picture frames in his museum’s Section de Publicité [Advertising Department] or note how he obscured Mallarmé’s verses with black strips, the thicknesses of which were determined by the font-size of invisible letters. The cadence of the poem suddenly becomes visible. The constellations are revealed on the surface of the page. It helps us to understand Mallarmé’s comment on Edgar Allan Poe’s empty spaces: ‘The intellectual framework of a poem hides itself and holds forth – takes place – in the space that isolates the stanzas and in the midst of the white of the paper: meaningful silence that is not less beautiful to compose than it is verse.’
How do you banish coincidence and obtain the necessary form when you only have the crippled medium of language at your disposal? How do you rid the personal of the accidental and make it universal? And are we still allowed to laugh? The necessary form, for Broodthaers, seems to relate to that eternal shuffling, that fiddling and tinkering in an endless hall of mirrors. And the shiver that passes through an apparently static constellation is the contemporary variant of the suggestive power that lurks in Baudelaire’s supernaturalism or, as Mallarmé described it, the smell of ‘the ideal flower itself, the one that is absent from all bouquets.’
Un film de Charles Baudelaire is the fictional account of a journey through time, of a man who is lured by the call of a museum. Initially you see detailed images of a world map, captions with successive dates and individual words such as midnight, scurvy, noon, shark, death. Halfway through the film, the dates go into reverse. They are replaced by a ticking metronome and twelve chimes, in which you hear a girl say twice: ‘Enfants non admis’ [children not admitted]. This film seems to want to communicate the idea that the whole world is destined to end in a museum, just as Mallarmé once claimed that ‘everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book.’ A whole host of other explanations are undoubtedly possible. The only other certainty is that many of Broodthaers’ films equate a journey with a voyage of discovery or a conquest, a melancholic flight, dream or death, or as a comment on the idea of film as an illusory journey.
Mallarmé attempted to distil the romantic freedom of Baudelaire’s writing into an idiosyncratic, classical form of poetry. The real flower being absent and unnamed, a syntax shifted might pull a rose from the white of the page. Such a jazzily imbalanced sentence would force language, the world, or a white line to confess. It could also be called a throw of the dice or a constellation, a zodiac. I think this is what Broodthaers meant when he famously said: ‘a throw of the dice will never abolish chance.’ Much of his work appears to revisit this sentence, as though he is constantly looking at it afresh. This is because, as a poet, he was striving to emulate Mallarmé. The marvellous thing is that Broodthaers succeeded by placing everyday objects side by side, thereby confronting Mallarmé’s aversion to the everyday with Magritte’s evocation of the Mystery by juxtaposing representations of everyday objects. The assemblages with mussels and egg shells, which are like ‘sociological’ documents in which a textural form of poetry is suddenly materialised, are Broodthaers’ riposte to the limitations of Mallarmé’s poetics.
10. Photographic series and photographs that move from within
In the exhibition catalogue Marcel Broodthaers in Zuid-Limburg, which contains dozens of photographs taken by Broodthaers during 1960 and 1961, one finds a long sequence of images depicting a procession that, in terms of its form, is reminiscent of the film The Battle of Waterloo (which also contains overhead views). ‘When the photographs are placed one after the other,’ writes Alexander van Grevenstein, ‘one sees the entire procession passing by as though in a film.’ Elsewhere he writes: ‘A fountain is photographed from three angles. The order has something arbitrary about it but offers an irresistible perspective on a poetic moment. (….) It is a bogus order that brings coincidences to light, precisely as an order.’ As Benjamin Buchloh noted, the same is true of Broodthaers’ photomontages, such as Rhétorique [Rhetoric] and Ma Collection [My Collection]. He wrote: ‘The seriality is clearly contravened.’
At several points in the South Limburg series, Broodthaers seems to use repetition as a device for making something visible. Three photographs capture the same monument but with a different cyclist passing by each time, while another set of two photographs depicts the same bend in the road, but first taken by a motorcyclist and then by a cyclist. The repetition forces the surroundings into a subordinate and merely scenic role while also emphasising the individual differences between the cyclists. Because this effect is caused by the juxtaposition of different images, both of these examples could be described as belonging to the illusory world of film.
The power of Broodthaers’ work, however, lies in the fact that he captured near identical movements within a single image, which is quite different from suggesting movement by means of a sequence of ‘static’ pictures. His two photographs, each of which depicts three archers, is a pre-eminent example of this technique. In this work, tiny shifts within the photographs provide the full cinematic experience. In the first picture, you can see from left to right, archer number one positioning the arrow, the second archer stretching the bow and the third archer firing the arrow. In the second picture, the first archer is about to fire the arrow, the second assesses his shot, and the third turns around in satisfaction.
11. The constellation and the shift
Un voyage en Mer du Nord [A Voyage on the North Sea], which appeared simultaneously as a book and a film (the book is called a film and the film is a reading of the book), alternately depicts a black-and-white photograph of a sailing boat and details taken from an amateur painting of fishing vessels returning to the port. In the bottom left-hand corner of the latter is a floating bottle. The book is a prime example of how Broodthaers plays with the syntax of a series of images. Sometimes a page contains four images, at other times only one, while yet others contain enlarged details. Broodthaers strives to suggest a form of movement by means of the layout but, at the same time, and in order to extract something that was not previously visible, he smashes the image to smithereens and reconstructs it as a distorted, artificial sequence.
The same painting was also the subject of the slide series Bateau tableau [Boat Painting], in which eighty slides reveal a painting to us (even its borders), and also of the film Analyse d’une peinture [Analysis of a Painting], which solely consisted of adding a gilded frame to the said painting.
12. An interlude about bricks
The brick wall, a recurrent theme in Broodthaers’ work, is also an example of a constellation. A masonry wall or a tiled facade is comparable to the surface of a printed page. Coup de dés [Throw of the Dice], which is covered with black strips, resembles a wall in which some of the bricks are missing, as is sometimes seen in comic strips. The sculptures and works with bricks hark back to the ‘constellation’ in the Coup de dés. There is also the brick wall that encloses the Museum’s garden, the tiled wall of the Paris metro in Au-delà de cette limite les billets ne sont plus valables… [Beyond this Limit…], the spade painted with the image of bricks and the street sign for the Magrittestraat that depicts a brickwork sculpture of Magritte’s pipe. (It is one of the images in which Magritte and Mallarmé meet.)
13. Laughing with film (A static medium)
Just as the great eagle exhibition revealed the countless ways that images of eagles have been utilised in art and advertising, a phenomenon that both obscures the real eagle and exposes its ‘every possible’ manifestation, Broodthaers’ films repeatedly reveal the varied ways of either creating or suggesting the illusion of movement.
The credits for Le poisson [The Fish] were filmed in one continuous movement, with the camera panning from the top to the bottom of a long strip of paper with hand-drawn images of the acknowledgements.
The film Mauretania contains close ups of a postcard of the famous steam ship. Its funnels are angled backwards, perhaps in order to lend the vessel an aerodynamic appearance. In the film, however, they suggest movement.
Slip test or Dissolves is a movie in which the image skids up the screen every few frames, as if the projector has slipped. The images contain two wrestlers trying to get hold of each other in vain.
Sex-film (1971-1972) consists of a projection of thirty-three slides: blank celluloid surfaces upon which Broodthaers has written and drawn a series of exclamation marks, pierced hearts, heavy commas and words such as W.C. in marker pen.
The film The Last Voyage shows a series of hand-coloured magic lantern slides that convey the story of a father who, on his deathbed, points through the window at a ship and tells his daughter it is the one that will carry away his soul.
14. Art as the conquest of space
‘This is my dream,’ wrote Broodthaers in 1961. ‘We are in the nineteenth century. Circa 1875. Wearing a checked suit and elaborate gaiters, I’m strolling along Bond Street. With my British reserve. I’m carrying a flamboyant crocodile briefcase that contains maps of the world indicating all the places that, in the ugly eyes of Queen Victoria, must be conquered. With a fierce determination.’
In 1964, Broodthaers embedded fifty volumes of his poetry collection Pense-Bête in plaster of Paris, which made them unreadable. He expected the viewer to perceive this as an act of prohibition. Anyone who wanted to read the book would have to first destroy the sculpture. To his great surprise, nobody wanted to know about the text. ‘Nobody seemed to have been affected by the ban,’ he said in his self-interview called Dix mille francs de récompense [10,000 Francs Reward], ‘until then, I was rather isolated in the field of communication, because my audience was fictitious. Suddenly it became real, at least where there was space and a conquest.’
Later on, Broodthaers would repeatedly talk about art as the mental or economic appropriation of space. (One only has to read the text Il parle [He Speaks], which ends with the words ‘La conquête de l’espace’ [The conquest of space], for example.) Art often boils down to an attempt to wrestle as much space as possible from a museum. This necessitates the development of militaristic manoeuvres and strategies.
In Documenta 5, Broodthaers marked out a square metre of the floor, which was painted black, and inscribed it with the words ‘Privat Eigentum’, ‘Private Property’ and ‘Propriété Privée’.
Through the deletion and substitution of two letters, he appropriates a world map (Carte du Monde Politique / Political World Map) by renaming it Carte du Monde Poétique / Poetic World Map). He also created an atlas (La conquête de l’espace. Atlas au service des artistes et des militaires) [The conquest of space, Atlas for the use of artists and the military] in which every country is the same size (on the scale of poetic greatness, backlit, as if there is whipped cream on your spectacles that plunges everything into darkness).
There is also the drawing, Boire la dernière goutte sur le fond de l’océan [Drink the last drop at the bottom of the ocean], which takes the form of a contour map of an ocean floor. His last film, The Battle of Waterloo, was partly shot in a ‘decor’ that was called Une conquête de Marcel Broodthaers [A conquest by Marcel Broodthaers]. It depicts a military parade and a girl trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle depicting the Battle of Waterloo.
Time and space are the prerequisites for movement. Film is falsified movement. Time is non-existent (just a sequence of moments) and, as there are only two dimensions, there can be no space. Un film de Charles Baudelaire shows us a world map and a reconstructed sea voyage. At a certain moment, attracted by the lure of a museum, time turns backwards. Children are prohibited. A number of Broodthaers’ films are constructed around similar injunctions. In the film Arsin, we witness a variety of landscapes that are punctuated with signs that read, for example, ‘Défense d’entrer’ [No entry] and ‘Passage interdit’ [Passage forbidden]. We see smoke escaping from Broodthaers’ mouth in the film Défense de fumer [No smoking], whereas in Au-delà de cette limite vos billets ne sont plus valables [ Your tickets are not valid beyond this point] he can be seen wandering around the Paris metro in a state of confusion.
Most museums sell postcards of the works on display. Tourists send postcards home in order to show where they have been. In his Museum of Modern Art, which opened on 27 September 1968, Broodthaers exhibited some fifty postcards of paintings. These included at least two reproductions of portraits of Napoleon. In the film Un voyage à Waterloo, Broodthaers shows a kiosk with just such a rack of postcards. He would later invite Maria Gilissen to print the black-and-white photographs she took while shooting the aforementioned film onto pre-printed photographic paper designed to look like postcards. He also purchased several postcards depicting the Lion of Waterloo. Broodthaers embossed one with the museum stamp and placed two of the institution’s stickers on the other, as if he were trying to appropriate the battleground. (In the film you see that he has also stuck labels on the Menkes’ removal van, on the flagpole and the barrel of the cannon.) Broodthaers wrote an open letter on one of these cards, which commences with the words ‘Chers amis’ [Dear Friends]. This is followed by nothing more than a series of full stops, a comma, a semi-colon, an exclamation mark and his initials. The full stops are actually tiny circles, which resemble the dots in the film Le poisson est tenace [The Fish is Tenacious] or the pips on certain dice.
Broodthaers made repeated use of postcards in his films. Mauretania contains close-up images of a postcard of the famous steamer and portrays a number of voyages. In Histoire d’Amour [Love Story], we see blue postcards of a tempestuous sea, one of which bears the caption: ‘I have but one regret. That I can’t find prettier cards here to send you.’ (Je n’ai qu’un regret. C’est de ne pas trouver ici de cartes plus jolies à vous adresser.) In Ah, que la chasse soit le plaisir des rois [ Ah, May Hunting Be the Pleasure of Kings], we also see, amongst other things, postcards of dogs.
There are no postcards in the film Paris (Carte Postale) [Paris (Postcard)]. Instead, we see animated views of Paris (a view of the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, a railway bridge) interspersed with occasional captions, some of which are isolated against a black background: ‘Postkarte, postcard, cartolina postale, levelezö-lap, briefkaart, unione postale universale, Weltpostverein, carte postale’.
The postcards in Broodthaers’ work are variants of the photographic reproductions of engravings within Un jardin d’Hiver [A winter garden].
16. The reality of loss
‘I then realised that his death also spelled the end of exhibitions, despite the palms, carpets and eagles. Any presentations would be sterile, entirely lacking the poetic coherence that only the artist himself could impart. From now on, one should ban exhibitions of his work. Forever.’ Piet Van Daalen, the author of these words, was one of Broodthaers’ closest friends. Many of the artist’s acquaintances feel the same way. But assuming it perishes with the artist, where does this ‘poetic coherence’ reside? Firstly, I think that his nearest and dearest feel a profound sense of loss. I also believe that the first thing that disappears with the artist is his or her sense of space, both of which determine the perception and poetic impact of an artwork. The second thing that undoubtedly evaporates is the sense of humour. Walter Swennen once told me that Broodthaers, if he liked an artwork, would say: ‘C’est rigolo, non?’ [It’s funny, no?]. Well, humour doesn’t sell well. And curators cannot handle it. Furthermore, Broodthaers’ seriousness and humour flowed in and out of each other like a strip of paper that has been twisted and glued so that inside and outside are one and the same. When he reworked Mallarmé’s Coup de dés by covering the verses with black strips, it was intended as both a humorous and profound comment. His jokes were meant to be taken seriously and his seriousness, which often appeared misplaced, was often taken for irony.
One of the exhibitions that Broodthaers’ acquaintances roundly condemned was held at the Jeu de Paume in 1991. I must confess that I don’t set much store by their judgment. They probably only gave it a cursory look during a packed private view, whereas what they would call ‘the poetic coherence’ is perhaps to be found in the silence that reigns when just a handful of people are in the room (which is how it used to be in the early days of the artist’s career).
When I entered the Jeu de Paume at nine o’clock in the morning and my twelve-year-old daughter Fenna started pointing out the things she found funny or immediately recognised, in a fairly routine way, I gradually fell into the grip of a kind of silent scream that resounded from all those framed prints, pasted photographs and isolated words. This is where loneliness takes shape, I thought. For everything appeared to shout, yet the mouths were soundless: ‘I am Alone, I am Alone, I am Alone, I am Alone, I cannot speak to Thee, for Thou art far away, and therefore I am just Tinkering.’
Finally, I reached the room with Un Jardin d’Hiver. I first noticed the photographic reproductions of the engravings, including one with camels at an oasis, and then the film, which showed the same installation (with a group of folding chairs, palm trees from Pittoors and a monitor with a video camera) as the one in which I was then standing, albeit with the image relayed on the monitor. On the screen, you could watch the film of Broodthaers leading a camel through the Palais des Beaux-Arts. To me, this film speaks of a dizzying absence, about a perpetual yearning for another place, about the artist’s inability to capture the so-called true world in real objects, and about how this melancholia, the dreams and the impotence, are made tangible. You see a photographic reproduction of an engraving depicting a camel at an exotic oasis, but you’re in the midst of a stage set decorated with potted palms from tropical lands and the most ordinary of all café chairs (of the kind that were once hired out for every type of social event). Nothing happens, except for the fact that the projector whirs into action and reveals how the very same ‘installation’ once ‘lived’. And what do you see? A film of a video of a man leading a real camel. The latter seems to have become much less real than the dromedaries depicted on the engraving. Yet the very opposite is also true. The two cameras and the dual projection (first the video image of the camel on the monitor and then the image of the monitor in the film) establish a kind of ‘double screen’ between the viewer and the ‘real’ event. Reality is augmented by the distance. The only thing that becomes real is a sense of loss.
How does a person who is striving to reach the unobtainable – the things that might have already perished or are destined never to happen – speak? How does such a person talk about that lack, about the endless falling behind in their own quest, about that sensation of being an outsider, about that impression that no feeling or thought can ever be perfectly expressed or understood, that it is impossible to share emotions or thoughts with someone else in order to make oneself ‘real’? The nervous twitch that guides the solitary dreamer’s tinkering fingers has slowly turned into a hysterical fiddling with mussel shells, words and prints. In the end, those fingers started to giggle, in the midst of the rustling and crackling of those futile papers, becoming ever quieter and quieter, until we reach the soundless heart of a roaring laughter.
Montagne de Miel, 8 November 1996
Translated by Helen Simpson