Marcel Broodthaers might have passed into the history of art as a worthy heir to the surrealist ideas of Marcel Duchamp and René Magritte had he not asked himself – among many other things – exactly what art was, and then taken his conclusions to the ultimate consequences. As a result, he became one of the leading figures in 20th century art.
He produced twenty-six editions of graphic work between 1964 and 1975, and from 1957 to 1975 published twenty-one books. The complete set of Broodthaers’ serial work is a collection of exceptional importance as it contains all the registers present throughout his artistic production.
His graphic pieces, book publications and films are not only a representative element of his artistic creation but also mediums that enable him to exploit the characteristics of reproducibility and thus increase the impact of his work.
Broodthaers's other main groups of multiple works, the books and prints, are extremely heterogeneous in their use of the medium and in their poetic devices [...] His prints are explicitly "editions" rather than "gravures" or "empreintes". Many were published by galleries, presumably, as a cheaper and more saleable form of art, as have been many artist prints. This was a period in which the multiple was promoted as a means of democratization of art. But, like other artists, he followed the practice of valorizing limited editions of technically indefinite print runs by the device of manuscript enhancement. That is he played out the game, just as he did in book publication. The situation, too, is indicated by a tautology: La Signature, published by himself during the period he was maintaining his own museum, comprises 153 of his signatures, lithographed with each sheet signed in pencil, but issued in an unlimited edition.
His first print is both tautology and contradiction, referring even more directly to the artist – gallery nexus. La La Faute d'ortographe takes as its starting point the gallery's announcement of its own publication, in which his name had been wrongly spelt. The fact that until he became very well known (and even after), people continually misspelt his name in a variety of ways was a source of great amusement to him. It added piquancy to his tautologies and offered a vehicle for his constant themes of teaching and correcting, designation and (apparent) misdesignation. Here he crosses out the names of all the other artists whose names are correctly spelt, gives his own name with the proper autography, adds his first name altering the last letter, ‘t', find it too large, crosses it out and does it again smaller. The corrections, whether of the original proof or of his own corrections do not serve their conventional purpose, which is to vanish after use (being metalanguage) but become the print itself.
Broodthaers often make use of constructed errors so it is possible to see them even where they may not have been intended to be significant. Comparison of the plan of the principal floor of the house in the Rue de la Pepiniere which had housed his Museum in the print Musée-Museum with the reconstruction of half of it in the Salle Blanche shows that the former, though plausible, is wrong; but he did not make the correction. The conventional abbreviation "rat." is glossed in the print Tractatus Logico-Catologicus as "ratures" (deletions). Can it be the solution of the caption-title to the shadow image of a cat, in another print, La Souris écrit rat? Has the cat rubbed out a mouse? All of Broodthaers's prints prompt such conjectures, but he made sure not to provide answers. That is not the work of an artist, but of the viewer. I personally have always associated this print with a half remembered history of the origin of painting given in garbled version by Vasari. The original history is due to Pliny: the daughter of Butades of Sicyon drew a line around the shadow of her lover who was going away. Broodthaers's direct source for this image was evidently a book of party games or pastimes. On the same page other figures seem to be drawn from simple instructions on dealing with light and shade in photography (camera or film manual?) and a man covered in soot, that is they are concerned with reality and illusion as exemplified in the notion of the fall of light or projection. So my association, though probably not specifically intended by the artist, may be a legitimate extension of his theme.
In some works Broodthaers provides an unambiguous foundation on which the viewer is invited to construct an interpretation. Comédie is lettered down the middle "Hotel du Grand Miroir" as if it were the jacket of a book with its title on the spine. An asterisked note points out that in the year 1864 Baudelaire had stayed at the hotel of this name in Brussels (the hotel was threatened with demolition in 1974, the year of the print). The words on the left evoke a night's sleep of Narcissus, who died of love of his own image reflected in a pool. Baudelaire's own prose poem Le miroir published in the same year, 1864, on the other hand, deals with a man so ugly that he should not wish to see himself in a mirror, but the man considers that the principles of 1789 gave him an equal right with all to admire himself. In Broodthaers's print, images are in pairs as it reflected but not reversed, as it the images in Magritte's painting (La Reproduction interdite) which is itself reproduced. Another image seems to represent the making of a print, and yet another Broodthaers's own work of 1974 (Basel), a mirror labelled image. The splendid double print Les Animaux de la ferme seems to point to the industrialization and commercialization of cattle (or food), each animal being captioned as a car; Fiat, Citroen, etc.... But what we are to make of the fact that the male and female of each breed are not allocated to the same marque of car? Broodthaers did not etch, engrave or work on the lithographer's stone, he produced art-work, drawn, written and spoken instructions and corrections. The print Rébus suggests the character of these. Almost everything was mediated by print technicians in the same way as the writer's and typographer's contributions to the productions of a book. But he was certainly no less concerned to make fine prints that any artist who wielded an etching needle. Nearly all his prints have the same beauty as his books; several have titles or phrases in elegant type and printer's decorations picked out in color in the way one associates with traditional fine books. They can be made invitingly collectable in other way than by fine art post-cards in color or black and white of Musée-museum. By borrowing a device from commerce, they illuminate the traditions of fine art. As in his other works, Broodthaers redistributes the definitions or concepts of mediums, subject and object. The effect of this is that he asserts his personal and artistic independence while participating in an activity that is generally determined by the market and by convention. It also represents the liberation of objects and of human pleasure in objects from imposed categorization. The inclusion of the museum post cards in his own fine prints (drawn by an architect) Musée-museum is such a case. Others include the strip of real film with frames numbered by hand (nothing printed) in M.B. 24 Images/seconde and the fiction of a film in Ein Eisenbahnuberfall, as well as the presentation of unfolded sheets of book printing as art prints, Tractatus logico-catalogicus (in negative) and Atlas. Le Corbeau et le Renard (which comprises a can on film and a prepared screen) is offered as an "edition" but is a condensed version of a "book" which had also an exhibition. Conversely, all but one copy of the print Paysage d'automne were assembled together as an object, just as his own poems had been in Pense-Bête 1964 and the whole imprint of a "catalogue raisonné" had been in 1971.
Broodthaers sometimes seems to transform other artist's styles. The recurrent signatures of Gedicht / Poem / Poème - Change - Exchange - Wechsel distantly resemble the obsessive marks in works by Hanna Darvoben and his ranks of repeated gold bars in Musée-museum resemble works of Minimal Art but Broodthaers fills his repetitions with significance. Both prints evidently refer in part to the industrialisation and commercialization of art. But in the former the calculations in the sheet Poème are clear and accurate while those in Change-Exchange-Wechsel are either wrong, larcenous, or based on some principle not revealed to the public. In this way Broodthaers implies the truthfulness of art.
The objects are intended to have the objective character of industrial products. They are not intended to represent anything other than what they are. The previous categorization of the arts no longer exists.