Marcel Broodthaers 1924–1976
Lithograph on paper
Image: 635 x 457 mm
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1977
Produced in 1974 for a portfolio of prints entitled Mirrors of the Mind, Comedy combines words and images to explore the theme of the mirror and the relationship between semblance and reality. Sixteen images are arranged in four rows of two pairs, with a wider margin separating the lowest set. The layout is based on the façade of the Hôtel du Grand Miroir in Brussels: the lowest row of images evokes the ground floor, with three windowed storeys above. The second row of images from the top of the page, comprising photographs of drawn curtains, makes direct visual reference to windows, providing a clue as to the architectural structure of the page’s layout. Red capital letters down the centre of the page spell out the name of the hotel. Its name is repeated several times in English typescript above and below the pairs of images on the right-hand side. A footnote in the lower left corner of the print offers the following somewhat enigmatic explanation: ‘in the year 1864 Charles Baudelaire lived in the Hôtel du Grand Miroir in Brussels’. The hotel, a well-known landmark in the city, was threatened with demolition in 1974, the year that Broodthaers made this print, and Broodthaers may have been attracted to its impending obsolescence as well as to its associations with the literary figure of the French poet and critic Baudelaire (1821–1867). The title of the print is printed twice at the top, in white letters on the left and black letters on the right.
In the winter of 1969–70, inspired perhaps by his own early career as a poet, Broodthaers had participated in a seminar on Baudelaire conducted by the sociologist of literature Lucien Goldmann (1913–1970). The event had a profound impact on him, a fact he would emphasise in his last interview, published in the journal + - 0 in February 1976, the year of his death. In the five years that followed the seminar, Baudelaire would provide the inspiration for several of Broodthaers’s works. In 1970, he made a seven-minute film called A Film by Charles Baudelaire (Political Map of the World). In 1972, as part of an exhibition in Paris, he produced a series of prints that included one titled Charles Baudelaire Paints. In 1973, Broodthaers published the book Charles Baudelaire: I Hate the Movement which Shifts the Lines. 1974, the year in which Broodthaers produced Comedy, was the last year that his works derive obvious inspiration from the poet. It was in this same year that Broodthaers produced the volume Poor Belgium, which took its name from the polemic anti-Belgian pamphlet that Baudelaire wrote as a result of his miserable extended stay in the country in the 1860s. In contrast to Baudelaire’s infamous hatred of the city, Broodthaers’s vision of Brussels was tinged with nostalgia. Writing in the Journal des Beaux Arts in 1961, he had bemoaned the modern development of the city, the ‘urban development [that] threatens the shade of Charles Baudelaire at the Hôtel du Grand Miroir’.
Baudelaire’s prose poem The Mirror was published in 1854, the year that Broodthaers cites him as living in the Hôtel du Grand Miroir. Its subject is an ugly man who persists in viewing his own reflection, convinced of his equal right to beauty, according the principles of the 1789 Revolution:
An appalling-looking man enters and looks at himself in a mirror.
‘Why do you look at yourself in the glass, since the sight of your reflection can only be painful to you?’
The appalling-looking man replies: ‘Sir, according to the immortal principles of ‘89, all men are equal before the law; therefore I have the right to look at myself in the glass; with pleasure or pain, that is an entirely personal matter.’
In respect to common sense, I was certainly right; but from the point of view of the law, he was not wrong.
In Broodthaers’s print, the windows of the hotel – which ordinarily permit a view from the outside in or the inside out – have been substituted with images that depict mirrors or with pictures that are themselves ‘mirror-images’. These contain multiple layers of meaning and allusion that meditate on the notion of the mirror. The uppermost pair of images on the left side of the page each depicts a pair of hands. One of them lifts the edge of a sheet of paper upon which is written the word ‘Nature’. The word is also imprinted on the uncovered page beneath, creating a ‘shadow image’. This doubling is reinforced by the fact that the pair of pictures are mirror-images of each other; it is impossible, however, to know which is the original and which the copy, whether the correct text should be read on the upper page or on the imprint. This uncertainty embodies Broodthaers’s fascination with the relationship between image and reality: the mirroring of ‘nature’ highlights the artifice inherent in the reflected image, offering a comment on the unreliability of representation. This act is doubled, since the word ‘nature’ is already a linguistic representation of the real thing. The text that accompanied the Mirrors of the Mind portfolio in which Comedy was included suggests an additional reading of this image, one that emphasises the link between the theme of mirroring and the French poet: ‘the word nature printed in this unnatural setting evokes the decadent Baudelaire’.
The images in the third row are taken from the slide projection Chinese Shadows 1973–4 (Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven), in which Broodthaers projected images of René Magritte’s painting Not to be Reproduced 1937 (Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam). Broodthaers consistently made reference to Magritte throughout his career, attracted primarily by Magritte’s concern with language and its relationship to objects. This painting by Magritte depicts a man seen from behind, standing in front of a mirror; however, his reflection also shows his back, rather than his face as expected. The painting’s visual contradiction is heightened by the book that rests on the mantelpiece in front of the mirror – an edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym (which Baudelaire had translated in the 1850s): its title appears correctly reflected in reverse. That Magritte painted the figure, an unconventional portrait of the English poet and surrealist collector Edward James from a photograph seems appropriate in the context of Broodthaers’s interest in the reproduction and reuse of images. Broodthaers’s projection juxtaposed an image of the painting with that of a pair of hands that Broodthaers took from a copy of Nature magazine dated 1880. This latter image takes its place in Comedy as the right hand side pair in the top and third rows. The images of the Magritte painting and the pair of hands are, like those in the top row, presented in ‘mirror-image’, though once again it is impossible to discern which is the original and which the reversed image. Reality and reflection are confused.
The bottom row comprises four identical pictures, though each one is printed in a different colour. Each image depicts a hand-held mirror, to which a label is attached, upon which is written the word ‘image’. The picture refers to Broodthaers’s installation In Praise of the Subject, which he created in 1974 for an exhibition of the same name at the Kunstmuseum in Basel. For the exhibition, Broodthaers exhibited a series of objects alongside contradictory titles. Both the objects – which included the mirror and a bowler hat – and the method of mis-labelling, refer to Magritte’s work The Interpretation of Dreams 1930 (Private collection). Broodthaers’s labelling of the mirror with the word ‘image’ highlights the level of artifice that a mirror involves, undermining the commonly held trust in its indexical relationship to reality. The label also casts doubt on the authenticity of the represented image. The round glass of the hand-held mirror is dimmed and blank, denied its purpose in a gesture that echoes the problematic reflection that is presented in Magritte’s painting of Edward James.
The captions on the left side of the print further elaborate on the theme of the mirror. In contrast to Baudelaire’s tale of defiance in the face of extreme ugliness, Broodthaers’s brief text alludes to the classical myth of Narcissus, the beautiful youth who, so in love with his own image as he gazed into a reflective pool of water, slept by it until he wasted away. Read from top to bottom, the captions follow a basic narrative structure. Thus the text beneath the uppermost pair of images (of the Magritte painting) reads ‘Narcisse Dort’ (Narcissus sleeps). The myth warns of the seductive and deceitful power of the reflected image, which appears real, yet can ultimately prove fatal. It is likened to a dream, an alternative and unreal version of the world. This mythical dream of Narcissus is made still more explicit by the caption underneath the third pair of images on the left (the second pair of Magritte paintings), which reads ‘Narcisse rêve’ (Narcissus dreams). Underneath the curtained windows that comprise the second row of images, the caption ‘minuit sonne’ (midnight sounds) suggests the liminal point when one day becomes the next, a metaphor perhaps for the mirror as boundary between reality and the world of its reflected reverse. The conceit of the façade of the hotel (itself called the ‘Grand Miroir’ or Great Mirror) and the sometimes curtained window similarly function as analogues of the mirror, as flat surfaces that both give way to and hide another realm beyond or behind. The caption above and below the bottom left pair of pictures reads ‘Narcisse s’éveille’ (Narcissus wakes), offering the potential for escape, though this is belied by the confusion that still governs the images in this bottom row: Narcissus wakes from his dream, to find that reality is no less topsy-turvy.
Broodthaers had previously made reference to the motif of the mirror and the character of Narcissus in the context of the role of the artist in society. His 1972 installation The Mirror carried the subtitle The Signature of the Artist. In the same year, he signed the back of one of his Magic Slate works with the inscription ‘La signature de Narcisse. (L’art: une manière originale de produire plus valeur)’, (The signature of Narcissus [Art: an original way of producing more value]). In his book Magic, Art and Politics, published in Paris in 1973, Broodthaers allied the character of Narcissus to the figure of the artist, comparing the state of ‘être Narcisse’ (being Narcissus) with that of ‘être Artiste’ (being an artist). Among the activities of the former, Narcissan state Broodthaers listed ‘reading – the book as it transforms itself into images. Let everything literally become mirrors’; in the latter, artist’s state, ‘drawing – the artist’s writing complements or replaces his images. He signs’. Transformation, the power to turn word to image or image to word, is common to both identities and echoed throughout Comedy, where word and image combine and where Broodthaers’s plea to ‘let everything become mirrors’ finds its concrete manifestation.
The portfolio Mirrors of the Mind was produced by gallery owners Leo Castelli and Marian Goodman in association with NY Multiples Inc., in an edition of 120. Comedy was printed as a ten-colour offset lithograph at the Hentrich printers in Berlin. Included with it in the portfolio were works by Vincenzo Agnetti, Arakawa, Joseph Beuys, Richard Hamilton, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, Meret Oppenheim, Robert Rauschenberg, Man Ray and James Rosenquist. All of them connect in some way to the notion of the mirror as a psychological realm. The portfolio’s accompanying text indicates its strong links with surrealism and its legacies. The psychological and metaphorical possibilities of the mirror are a typically surrealist concern. Figures such as the writer André Breton (1896–1966) had drawn on Freud’s identification of an inner compulsion to repeat that, he claimed, structures the unconscious drives. Freud located this repetition in mirrors, shadows and ghosts, which all represented for him the collapse of the boundaries between self and other, reality and unreality and, ultimately, life and death. These motifs were harnessed by many surrealist painters as a means to access and represent the subconscious.
However, while the subject matter of Comedy, and the strategy of repetition that it employs, appear overtly surrealist, Broodthaers resisted the ardent psychoanalytic concerns espoused by Breton. As a young man in 1947, alongside Magritte, Broodthaers had signed the Belgian surrealist manifesto ‘Pas de Quartier dans la Révolution’, which criticised the interiority of Breton’s model of surrealism. Throughout his career, Broodthaers was attracted primarily to Magritte, whose concern with language and its relationship to objects had distinguished him from many of his surrealist painter colleagues. It is significant that the opening lines of the portfolio’s text referring to Comedy place the work within the context not of the Bretonian model of surrealism, but of Marcel Duchamp and René Magritte. ‘To the illusions generated by metaphors of romantics and Surrealists,’ the text declares, ‘Marcel Broodthaers opposes patterns of metonymies.’ Here, Broodthaers adopted the role of the playful trickster who scatters the page with clues: he titled his reflective games with the word Comedy, printed inside the double picture-frame at the top of the page. The word appears twice which has sometimes led to the work being referred to as Comedy Comedy. However, it should be read not as a second part of the title but rather as a visual embodiment of the comedy of representation and repetition that underpins Broodthaers’s complex system of imagery and allusion.
Supported by The AHRC Research Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies.