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In retrospect, the career of Marcel Broodthaers (1924–76) seems an unlikely one. Basically, he decided one day in 1964 to become an artist after years of writing poetry and dabbling in art criticism, photography and filmmaking. He was 40, had no formal training and yet managed to emerge as one of Europe’s most influential postmodern artists. Still, he’s little known to most American viewers.
Broodthaers pioneered installation art and authored institutional critique, a Conceptualist genre that demystifies the role museums play in shaping art. In Broodthaers’s view, museums weren’t neutral conduits for educating the public. Instead, they served the rich and powerful, codifying their tastes as art history. Europe’s history of colonialism was especially crucial to this equation. Moreover, Broodthaers was an identity artist of sorts, commenting on the odd circumstance of being a Belgian writer expressing himself through art. His background figures into motifs such as his country’s flag, for example, and mussels and frites, both national delicacies. He wove these themes into a witty jacquard tapestry of Surrealism, Beaux Arts aesthetics, appropriation art and found-object assemblage.
The last includes early works such as Pense-Bête (Memory aid) from 1964, in which Broodthaers embedded a book of his poetry in plaster. It’s a concrete proclamation of his break with literature, though in fact, writing remained integral to his art.
In 1968, Broodthaers declared that he was no longer an artist and appointed himself director of the totally made-up Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art Department of Eagles). As re-created here, the “exhibitions” he “curated” include a wall full of eagles pictured as everything from door knockers to insignia on military banners, as well as a “winter garden” of potted palms, café chairs and 19th-century etchings of exotic animals and locales. What Broodthaers was up to, of course, was adopting a performative persona to delve further into the connections between institutions and power.
In 1972, he declared himself an artist again, turning to immersive installations he dubbed “Décors,” which he devised as film sets complete with movie lights. The most powerful features two rooms: One is filled with Victorian artifacts and Napoleonic cannons and the other with contemporary patio furniture and modern assault rifles. It’s a then-and-now exegesis of how bourgeois comfort comes courtesy of brute force.
The two major figures influencing Broodthaers’s work were René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp, and each contributed half of what would become Broodthaers’s whole. From Magritte he took the idea that all is not what it seems, while Duchamp showed him how a simple turn of phrase can transform the status of something, whether an object or a person. Broodthaers combined these two lessons into a third: That anyone can call themselves an artist as long as they realize what’s actually at stake.