Marcel Broodthaers, born in Brussels in 1924, first published Symbolic and Surrealist poems in 1945. Active as poet, essayist, and filmmaker until he was forty, in 1964 he switched his interest from non-lucrative poetry to the field of the fine arts by casting fifty examples of his poetry volume Pense-Bête in plaster and displaying them. Broodthaers died in Cologne in 1976. Numerous solo exhibitions have been dedicated to him in important international museums, including Fundación Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona (1997), Stedeljik Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven(1995), Jeu de Paume, Paris (1991), and the Tate Gallery, London (1980). He was also represented at the documenta 5 (1972), 6 (1977), 7 (1982), and X (1997).
Broodthaers is considered a seminal figure in the art world of the twentieth century. His work continues to offer points of reference for numerous artist colleagues today. Key figures for him were Stéphane Mallarmé and René Magritte, with whom he was personally acquainted. Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira pas le hasard with its refusal of a clear meaning and Magritte’s involvement with language and image as signs that have a disputable relationship to non-language reality, as demonstrated in his famous image Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a Pipe), were starting points for Broodthaers’ own artistic creation. By isolating words and letters, removing them from their semantic context and recombining them, he dealt with writing as image and aimed at annulling its conventional meaning and thereby the rational understanding of it. Broodthaers’ work, in general, is devoted to questioning the knowledge systems of contemporary Western culture. He took the entire enterprise of art as the object of his artistic work, and can thereby be seen as a pioneer of institutional critique. With his fictive Muséé d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles) founded in his apartment in Brussels in 1968, he questioned “real” museums’ claim of having the power to define what art is. His “Museum” manifested itself until 1972 in the organization of several fictional departments in various sites. Broodthaers illuminated the specific conventions of the art industry and questioned the practice of declaring objects as art works by means of their public display and the application of wall signs. Broodthaers’ “museum” intended to house art, not artworks, and consequently questioned the social role of art institutions that transformed works to objects of value for the capitalist value-creation machinery. The reduction of things to their exchange value, the artist as trademark, and the handling of original and copy, are themes that the artist grappled with intensely. In addition, he was concerned with the problematic of colonization and exoticism. His extensive work, which includes extremely diverse media (films, slide projections, objects, prints, photographs, and artist’s books) hereby developed manifold relations to numerous further artists, writers, and philosophers, such as Duchamp, Baudelaire, and Foucault.