To say today that artists ‘work across disciplines’, ‘tend towards media promiscuity’, or ‘produce works that are not only aesthetically striking but also intellectually refined’ is to be guilty of cliché – to sound positively old hat. In the late 1960s and 1970s, when the Belgian poet and artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924–76) was experimenting with film, this wasn’t so true. Broodthaers had a remarkable choice of focus: the interdependences, interactions and incompatibilities of text and image, as well as the pictorial quality of texts and the textual quality of pictures. In this way, he was making a critical and humorous reference to the boom in linguistics and semiotics in the 1960s, sparked among others by Richard Rorty with his anthology The Linguistic Turn (1967) and Umberto Eco with his ‘introduction to semiological research’ La struttura assente (1968). Broodthaers, unmistakably taking his cue from René Magritte’s rebus-like painting and the visual poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, was exploring the aesthetic aspects of conventional linguistic signs and the inherently metaphorical quality of language.
At Basel’s Museum für Gegenwartskunst – which hosted the first Broodthaers solo show in Switzerland exactly 40 years ago – seven of his films and film installations from the late 1960s and 1970s are presented, with works by other artists including Hans Arp, Robert Barry and László Moholy-Nagy, under the title Le Corbeau et le Renard. Revolt of Language with Marcel Broodthaers. This exhibition is exquisite, pointed but complex. The kind of show one would like to see more often. Here, the often problematic mixing with works by other artists is a success. While Broodthaers frequently replaced letters with pictures (e.g. in ABC-ABC Image, 1974, a double projection with two carousel slide projectors), Hans Arp’s wooden relief Objets placés selon les lois du hasard (1943) frees the comma from its usual employment and lets it go on an aesthetic excursion. In John Smith’s 16mm film Associations (1975), a voice-over reads an excerpt from Word Associations and Linguistic Theory (1970) by the psycholinguist Herbert H. Clark. Smith assigned certain recurring words to images that he inserted like subliminal messages. In La pluie (projet pour un texte) (1969), on the other hand, Broodthaers wrote words on paper in the rain that immediately blur and transform into abstract pictures. In this way, the exhibition creates a continuum of gradual transitions between pictures as empty, merely conventional symbols and pictures as the kind of ‘perception-oriented signs’, defined by Jörg R. J. Schirra and Klaus Sachs-Hombach as signs sharing certain aesthetic properties with the things to which they refer. Eventually, visitors to the exhibition will find themselves in the Jardin d’hiver II (a reconstruction of the Jardin d’hiver at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1974) among palm trees and folding chairs. On a screen, a camel moves, while the same animals are frozen on the wall as framed graphic reproductions – it somehow feels as if one is nothing but a comparison between a still and moving image oneself, framed by the artist’s visual discourse.
For all its minimalist precision, Broodthaers’ oeuvre remains diffuse. In spite of his work’s obvious research character, he never engaged in assiduous illustration of theorems or the kind of artistic research we now see as a result of the Bologna Process. Instead, his legacy consists of having anticipated today’s visual studies by artistic means in a balancing act between semiotics and phenomenology, Dada and Conceptual art. In 2007, the visual theorist Gottfried Boehm wrote that ‘talk of the iconic never [means] that it escapes language, but that a difference with regard to language comes into play’. It was precisely this discourse that was conducted by Broodthaers in the 1970s in a refreshingly idiosyncratic way, confirming Boehm’s theory ‘that a cryptic debate on the image took place in the artistic work of modernism’.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell