Marcel Broodthaers 1924–1976
Casserole and Closed Mussels
Casserole et moules fermées
Mussel shells, partly coated with polyester resin containing green pigment, in painted iron casserole with wooden handles
305 x 280 x 250 mm
Inscribed ‘M.B. | 66-67 | (avec toile photographique)’on under-side of lid
Purchased from the artist through the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (Grant-in-Aid) 1975
Casserole and Closed Mussels is one of a group of early assembled works by Marcel Broodthaers that use mussel shells as both their subject and medium. It was made in 1965, only a year after Broodthaers embarked on a career as a visual artist after several years as a poet, and before he gained the international success that would follow. As much from financial necessity as anything else, he used discarded everyday objects, including mussel and egg shells, second hand pots, pans and glass jars, to create these early sculptures. The mussel shells in this work were obtained from a restaurant that he frequented in Brussels. They were then cleaned by his wife, Maria Gilissen. They rise up in a column out of a black painted iron casserole with wood and brass handles. The enameled lid sits on top of the mussels. The cooking pot belonged to the Broodthaers’s family and was used right up until the time that the work was created, lending it a personal and biographical element that is a feature of many of his early sculptural pieces and later museum projects alike.
Broodthaers experimented with various arrangements for the shells before deciding on the present configuration. He enclosed the mussel shells in a bag to hold them in place and poured liquid polyester resin over them to retain the shape permanently once it hardened and the bag was removed. The resin contains green pigment, which remains visible on the mussel shells and, according to the artist, reminded him of the sea. Broodthaers produced several other casserole and mussel works during 1965–6 such as Triumph of the Mussels II or Red Mussels in a Cooking Pot 1965 (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique). He also combined mussels with pieces of furniture, canvases and an open suitcase. However, Tate’s is the only work in which he used closed rather than open mussels. The significance of this may be to do with the fact that closed mussels are inedible: to be eaten they should open during cooking. Casserole with Closed Mussels therefore presents the viewer with an inherent contradiction. Broodthaers was highly aware of the aesthetic appearance of his work, and its potential to go beyond the everyday circumstances of the materials he used. He stated of his mussel works: ‘A mussel conceals a volume. When the mussels overflow the pot, they are not boiling over in accord with a physical law, but following the rules of artifice whose purpose is the construction of an abstract shape.’1
Broodthaers’s accumulation of everyday objects appears similar to the strategies employed by the group of artists known as ‘Les Nouveaux Réalistes’ (The New Realists) who had formed in Milan in 1960.2 These artists were characterised by their use of manufactured and found materials and their unorthodox techniques. Their group was guided by the French critic Pierre Restany – who was responsible for writing a total of three manifestoes on the group’s behalf – and included Arman, Daniel Spoerri, François Dufrêne, Yves Klein, Raymond Hains, Jacques Villeglé and Jean Tingely. They exhibited widely throughout the 1960s, including in the seminal exhibition 40º Above Dada (40º au-dessus de Dada) in 1961, the inaugural exhibition of the Galerie J in Paris, the owner of which, Janine de Goldschmidt, was Restany’s wife. Restany’s catalogue text for the exhibition served to ally the group with the anti-art strategies of Marcel Duchamp and the dada movement and establish them as an important and high profile avant garde in Europe of the early 1960s. Broodthaers had encountered the work of Arman in Paris in November 1963, and it is highly likely that he was also familiar with the work of other members of the group as a result of his several trips to the French capital between 1961 and 1963. Arman’s ‘poubelles’ – glass cases filled with rubbish – and Spoerri’s ‘tableaux-pièges’ – vertical presentations of meal debris – have much in common with Casserole and Closed Mussels in their use of discarded materials and their focus on everyday objects and events. Comparison may be made with Arman’s Condition of Woman I 1960 (Tate T03381) or with Spoerri's Prose Poems 1959–60 (Tate T03382).
However, Broodthaers resisted comparisons between his work and that of the Nouveaux Réalistes. He disagreed with what he saw as their uncritical acceptance of progress, declaring that ‘everyone witnesses the industrial accumulations that our age produces. Only the Restany movement is rather quietly assenting to the forms of modern civilisation. Almost a glorification’.3 When, in 1966, Pierre Restany labelled him a predator of trash cans (a compliment in the eyes of the Frenchman), Broodthaers disagreed on the basis that his objects – mussel shells, egg shells and pots – were not waste but useful, indeed desirable.4 Later, in 1974, he would reinforce this distance from Nouveau Réalisme, stating: ‘my early objects – 1964–65 – could never cause that particular confusion. The literalness linked to the appropriation of the real didn’t suit me, since it conveyed a pure and simple acceptance of progress in art … and elsewhere as well’.5 Nevertheless, despite his self-proclaimed distance from the group, Broodthaers’s first solo exhibition outside Belgium, in 1966, was held at the Galerie J, a stronghold of Nouveaux Réalisme, and Casserole and Closed Mussels was included.6 The work was also included in Broodthaers’s first retrospective exhibition, held in April 1967 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and called Short Circuit.7 The catalogue included an essay by Pierre Restany.
However, the choice of mussels was not merely an aesthetic one for Broodthaers. The mussel shell can read as symbolising the artist’s native Belgium, mussels and chips being a popular national dish of that country. Broodthaers’s use of mussels may also make reference to the traditional representation of food, in particular shellfish, in Flemish still life painting. Here, particularly during the seventeenth century, the empty shell became a regular symbol of vanity and the futility of luxury. In Casserole and Closed Mussels this is experienced all the more strongly for the fact that the closed mussels cannot be eaten. As such, Broodthaers may also have intended the mussel to serve as a somewhat satirical symbol of the bourgeoisie.
A further clue to understanding Broodthaers’s preoccupation with mussels may be found in his poem ‘The Mussel’, a short verse that was included in his anthology of poems called Pense-Bête.8 Published in 1964, the book represented the second volume of the bestiary that Broodthaers had begun in 1961 with La Bête Noir. Both collections of poems recall the tradition of the moralising Fables of the seventeenth-century French author Jean de la Fontaine. Broodthaers adopted a highly abbreviated format, however, with a greatly reduced narrative content, using cryptic metaphors and highly stylised language:
This clever thing has avoided society’s mould.
She’s cast herself in her very own.
Other look-alikes share with her the anti-sea.
The poem employs a play on the French word ‘moule’ meaning both mussel in the feminine and mould in the masculine. The accumulation of a large quantity of mussel shells that all look the same suggests the idea of a mould from which many identical casts have been taken. The mussels themselves retain their unique shape whilst being moulded into the unnatural column in which they are arranged.
Linguistic games were central to Broodthaers’s work, no doubt in part because of his early career as a poet. Indeed, his first sculptural act was to encase several copies of his book Pense-Bête in plaster for display at the Galerie Saint-Laurent in Brussels.10 Broodthaers’s fascination with words and their function was manifested both directly – in works that include typographical and handwritten text – and indirectly – in works such as Casserole and Closed Mussels. For Broodthaers, objects and words had a combined or overlapping function. He stated that ‘objects carry, in a most sensational manner, the marks of a language. Words, numerations, signs inscribed on the object itself’.11 These linguistic concerns reflect the influence on Broodthaers of his fellow Belgian, the surrealist artist René Magritte (1898–1967), whom he had met and become friendly with around 1945. Broodthaers was attracted by Magritte’s concern with the relationship between language and objects, explored in Magritte’s 1929 text ‘Words and Images’.12 The use of everyday objects and the presence of puns, both visual and verbal, also suggest the legacy of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), whose ‘readymades’ challenged the status of the artwork in the early part of the twentieth century and brought into question the role of the author or maker of the work.
Broodthaers often recycled his own works, altering or combining them to make larger pieces or installations. A photograph of Casserole and Closed Mussels is one element in the multiple The Raven and the Fox, which was published by the Wide White Space Gallery, Antwerp in 1968. In that same year, Broodthaers also incorporated Casserole and Closed Mussels into a larger, composite work by pairing it with a canvas upon which was printed a photographic image of the work (there are known to have been at least two canvases depicting this work, each measuring 100 x 80 cm). In the canvas photographs, a label bearing the word ‘Moules’ has been attached to the lid of the casserole with string.13 Some time later, Broodthaers added an inscription, probably with a biro or felt tip pen, on the unpainted underside of the lid of the casserole, that includes his initials and a reference to the additional ‘photographic canvas’, though he mistakenly gave the date as 1966–7. He later dismantled this composite work and Casserole and Closed Mussels reverted to its original status as a complete work in itself (though the inscription remains). Just prior to his death in 1976, Broodthaers produced an illustrated list of twenty-four works as a plan for his retrospective exhibition. Small, quickly-executed pen sketches, accompanied by titles and dates, are arranged in a vertically aligned list, with frequent corrections and crossing out. Casserole and Closed Mussels appears on the first page.14
Supported by The AHRC Research Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies.