And so even death, and the local afterlife of the grave, became an occasion for this idiosyncratic art, at once two-faced, or better, twin-faced, and self-effacing. The Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers designed his own grave, to the last detail, apart from, one assumes, the second date in the span,
28 Janvier 1924
28 Janvier 1976.
But even that isn’t certain – it seems too neat, too scripted, that he should have died on his birthday. The matter of the ‘scriptible’ extends too to the object itself, the gravestone. It is inscribed on both sides, making for a ‘double-grave’ and a memorial with a recto and verso, like a page. The catch-phrase ‘il n’y a pas de hors–texte’ would be on the tip of the tongue, were it not for the fact that Broodthaers has already anticipated it, pre-empting any final word at the ceremony, even that uttered by his semblable, the expert reader:
there is no proof that the real simpleton isn’t the author himself, who thought he was a linguist able to leap over the bar in the signifier/signified formula, but who might in fact have been merely playing the professor.
So what is inscribed there, in the afterlife? The joking continues (it is protracted, off-beat ‘joking’ rather than a series of discrete ‘jokes’ – walking around the retrospective at MoMA you find yourself repeatedly chuckling at the jibes and manoeuvres, but there is rarely any sense of a ‘pay-off’); there are the same deskilled images and ‘handwritten’ words and phrases, reminiscent of children’s primers; the tradition of modern poetry and the world of then-contemporary art (Nouveau Realisme, Pop, Fluxus, Minimalism, Conceptualism) are not far away; marketing, mass consumption and industry, ever-present in the preposthumous work, are at a remove, but what they consigned to the past – imperial emblems, dusty and ornate museums, ‘high art’ (particularly painting), former colonies, the certitudes of the man in the bowler hat – are still there; and Broodthaer’s own art is referenced. The aesthetic is modest and largely unengaging, an antidote to the appropriation of loud mass imagery by Pop, or the claims to bureaucratic neutrality of Conceptual Art. And there’s Minimalism, on the side of the stone without his name and dates, in the middle of a rather haphazard arrangement of what look like simple book illustrations and subtitles to illustrations, above the parrot (or eagle?) and below (Magritte’s?) pipe, next to the palm tree, not far from the words ‘museum’, ‘fig. 0’, ‘allegro’: four solids of spectral appearance – a cube, a pyramid, what is probably a sphere, and a cylinder. ‘There are no primary structures / there are no “primary structures”’, Broodthaers had (doubly) pronounced in 1968, two years after the seminal ‘Primary Structures’ exhibition in New York. But the (not really there) solids also suggested a much older iconic moment in art history: Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514). There are the solids again, a sphere and a rhombohedron to the left of the Saturnine angel, this time looking all too material – what should have been the ideal, geometric building blocks of art and existence, looking like the parts of a game that has gone stale. And sure enough, on the gravestone’s verso (or is it recto?) – the more ‘poetic’ side, in any case – more composed, and with the name and fateful dates – the word appears – ‘Melancolie’. In fact it is invoked, as part of a line from one of Broodthaers’ poems, composed before he made the ‘insincere’ gesture of encasing his final poetry collection Pense- Bête (1964) in plaster, and found an audience:
Ô Mélancolie aigre château des aigles
(O Melancholy sour castle of eagles).
A retrospective, like that at MoMA, is also a gravestone of sorts, and is concerned with an artist’s afterlife. In some respects this was Broodthaers’ canonisation, a rich, considered and detailed exhibition of his work in what is arguably the ‘museum of modern art’. There had been US exhibitions in 1989, but as Broodthaers’ widow, Maria Gilissen, mentions in the exhibition catalog, these ‘occurred perhaps a little early with respect to the sensibilities of the wider public’. Broodthaers himself, a scrutiniser of museums and their role in the public authorisation of artworks, would have recognised the difference. Despite the historic occasion, however, what struck me most, passing through the various areas arranged more or less chronologically, was the air of melancholy hanging over the spaces – of elements being arranged and rearranged which could never catch fire, too much dust having collected in their awkward joints and crevices, lacking the smooth surfaces of a confident modernity. It should not have been the case: I visited on a Friday evening, when the museum opens late and there is free entry. Consequently the place was jammed, particularly with groups of students, a constant flow through the exhibition’s circuit like the crowd around the Kaaba. It wasn’t exactly a situation conducive to experiencing feelings of solitude, repetitiveness and ultimate, worldly emptiness. But despite the kids relaxing in the Winter Garden (1974), checking their smart phones or idly chatting among the potted palms, the sparse installation with its plants and 19th century illustrations of peacocks, elephants and camels still felt like the gesture of a shopkeeper towards a store emptied by bad conditions. And would you have it full again? The charming exoticism, after all, relied on the same empire that gave birth to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). And we were in the financial heart of an America that was again to be ‘great’, that would again grasp its eagles and lion heads, and, yes, its shiny, world-beating international art and new museums, successfully lifted above the rubble of the old bourgeois West, the world of Broodthaers’ childhood. His allegiances leap back and forth over a dividing bar, to adapt his own literary figure.
In Grove Art Online’s entry on Broodthaers Michael Compton makes the extraordinary statement that the artist ‘regarded his art as a defence of European high cultural traditions in the face of barbarian threats and especially of western commercialism’. Which ‘high culture’, we might well ask? That of the Mallarmé, whose spatial quality Broodthaers forefronted by replacing the lines of poetry with thick, black bars (Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé )? That of Ingres, whose paintings appear in the form of postcard reproductions next to empty crates stenciled ‘PICTURE’ ‘WITH CARE’ ‘KEEP DRY’ (Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles: Section XIXe Siècle ). Those objects sacralised in a 19th Century Musée des Beaux Arts with its plush, mummified interiors (L’Angelus de Daumier: Sale rose )? This is taking Broodthaers at face-value, a move as walleyed as those made by his American contemporaries (‘commercialist’ or ‘barbaric’), to Broodthaers’ mind (though he could be ‘touched and amused’ by them as well, as his widow says he was by Warhol), and to which he offered the rejoinder of the carefully ordered residues of ‘high culture’ – the museum as institution, the ‘history of Ingres’, the emblematic eagles, the dreams of internationality, his own locality, Belgium, mussels and frites, bourgeois mentalities. More deeply, the inescapable subtitle that goes with the image – be it only ‘fig. 0’. And under this again, the egg of Broodthaers’ art, that has been cracked to form the plaster base of Pense-Bête — poetry.
The retrospective at MoMA made two very important advances on any exhibition of the Belgian’s work that I had seen to date. First, it didn’t show the pieces in isolation, as discrete artworks – it tried to recreate the sense of their immersion in carefully orchestrated occasions (‘environments’, perhaps, but with a surrounding of announcements and informal performance). What had always seemed missing to me when encountering a ‘Broodthaers’ at an exhibition was immediately restored – a kind of discursive and aesthetic milieu in which the separate moments were expected to appear and which they punctuated and prolonged. Second, the poetry. It is invariably referred to, if only to introduce the grand gesture of Pense-Bête, but we are rarely presented with the actual poems, which are sly, lyrical and inventive, in a post-surrealist way, and well worth reading. It is also, as this exhibition makes clear, there at the heart of all the subsequent visual art. He may have effaced himself as a poet in order to become an artist, but that effacement became the most significant of those residues with which he confronted the successful art of the world in which he found himself, a trader from a largely insignificant, former colonial empire with a shop of remainders. A substantial collection of the poetry books were on show at MoMA, with many individual poems there to be read, and fragments of these poems could be found throughout the subsequent artwork, right up to that moment when it appears also on the gravestone. We’ll take the lesson to heart, and give the poem from which the line comes (from the collection Mon livre d’ogre ), along with a rough translation:
ÔTristesse envol de canards sauvages
Viol d’oiseaux au grenier des forêts
Ô Melancolie aigre château des aigles.
(Oh Sadness, taking-off of wild ducks / Violation of
birds in the woods’ loft / Oh Melancholy, sour castle