Marcel Broodthaers at M KHA, Antwerp

Martin Herbert reads through the oeuvre of the late Belgian conceptualist, who dedicated his art to the undoing of constraining systems – through 19 January

By Martin Herbert

Red Saucepan with Mussel Shells, 1965, metal saucepan, red paint, mussel shells. © M KHA, Antwerp. Courtesy Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels

In 1972, four years before his untimely death, Marcel Broodthaers took an educational diagram of the sun and planets and modified it, lightly yet monumentally. He erased Earth, and next to the word ‘Soleil’ in the sun’s centre he wrote, in his elegant cursive, ‘politique’. The result, part of the larger work Soleil Politique et fig.1 fig.2 fig.12.fig.O fig.A, is economical code-jamming, both implicatory and oblique. M KHA’s massive survey uses it as a title to imply that Broodthaers’s practice always had political undertones, yet one could also argue that this artwork, and the show, remind us that although he quit writing poetry in 1964 after a decade of scribing, he never abandoned poetics. Or one could combine those readings and say that Broodthaers asked how poetry, filtered through art, might serve political ends related to the anarchic undoing of constraining systems.

That unfastening extends to the curating here. The show is open-plan and there’s no clear chronology, recalling the artist’s own comment on one of his films, in a 1968 interview: ‘a rebus that you have to want to decipher’. Gazing around near the entrance, we encounter works such as Monument Public no 4 (1963), a precarious mix of Funk art and Pop involving a wobbly stack of egg cartons on a makeshift shelf, under which sit a Warholian cardboard box for a ‘US Astronaut Space Helmet’ and 1966’s Grande casserole de moules, an overflowing black pot of mussels. Mussels and eggs would recur for years, along with the artist’s own initials, as he fashioned an artistic identity that drew knowingly and wittily on both his native Belgium’s cuisine and the iconography of fellow countryman René Magritte – who appears in the giant print Magritte (1967) reading a Broodthaers exhibition pamphlet. All those shells, though, also suggest containment and, by extension, societal malaise. One modest relief, Le Problème noir en Belgique (The Black Problem in Belgium, 1963–64), features plaster eggs doused in black ink upon a copy of the newspaper Le Soir, whose headline pointedly concerns the Congo.

By 1968 Broodthaers had lit upon the museum as a locus for his concerns, beginning his multipart project Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, an imaginary museum favouring invented categories, shown in fragments. Its artefacts are scattered through the show’s later stages: handmade signs used in making documented performances on the beach, grids of postcard reproductions of paintings chosen according to quixotic rules, wry vacuum-formed plastic signs for various ‘departments’. These bridge more explicit engagements with language, such as the vacuum-formed, cleanly graphic quartet Les quatre pipes (1969), which surrounds Magrittean pipes with alphabets going quietly haywire.

Outside of this, in his last years Broodthaers made slowly-clicking slide projections, featuring (again) his own initials or details of artworks, and largescale installations such as, here, Un Jardin d’Hiver II (1974), a parody of a nineteenth-century palm court featuring Kentia palms, a film projection set in a then-modern museum and suggesting surveillance, and framed illustrations of exotic wildlife harking back to colonialism. This works well as a sardonic oasis in the middle of a large room. Unfortunately the brilliant Décor: A Conquest from the same year – a surreal but allusive array of cannons, a floral cannonball, a rearing snake, racked weaponry, modern garden furniture – is shunted into an annex with a huge circular light overhead that shoves itself into the art. Striking, sure, but the wrong flavour of nonsense. That’s quibbling, though: Soleil Politique is a cornucopia of pointed disorder that informs both brain and gut that things don’t have to be as they are. In that regard, though yellowing in places, Broodthaers’s oeuvre appears largely impervious to time, and this retrospective feels like one giant, decades-spanning work. 

Marcel Broodthaers: Soleil Politique, M KHA, Antwerp, 4 October 2019 – 19 January 2020

From the December 2019 issue of ArtReview