Marcel Broodthaers 1924–1976
Dear Little Sister
Chère Petite Soeur
Lithograph on paper
Image: 156 x 210 mm
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1977
Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne; purchased through the Nigel Greenwood Gallery, London in 1977.
Dear Little Sister is based on a used vintage postcard and the text that was written on it by its sender in 1901, which Broodthaers found. The card’s illustration depicts an ocean liner sailing into port during a storm, with the lighthouse visible in the background to the right of the image. The message on the card, written on the front under the image, gives the work its title: ‘Dear little sister, this is to give you an idea of the sea during the storm which we had last night. Will give you details of this, best wishes and see you soon. Marie.’ (Chère petite soeur, celle-ci pour te donner une idée de la mer pendant la tempête que nous avons eue hier. Donnerai détail à ce sujet, bonne amitié et à bientôt. Marie.)
Broodthaers reproduced the image of the postcard in negative, so that the ship has become a ghostly white shape that stands out against the dark background. The words too, which would originally have been handwritten in dark ink on a light-coloured border, have become white text on a black ground. In 1972, Broodthaers made a four-minute film Dear Little Sister (The Storm) in which he used this same combination of image and text.1 In the film, images of the front of the postcard were interspersed with shots of the back, upon which the address, stamp and postmark were visible. The text was duplicated, phrase by phrase, in the form of subtitles in white typeface on a black frame, like that surrounding the original postcard. That the film and the printed version of Dear Little Sister are so immediately related is typical of Broodthaers’s working practice; though he refused the title of filmmaker, his films played an essential role in his artistic production and often relate directly to his works in other media.
The first showing of the film of Dear Little Sister was held at the Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne in June 1972, and for the occasion a negative print of the postcard image was used as an invitation card. On the reverse of this version of the postcard, Broodthaers added his own message in the form of his monogram, ‘M.B.’, repeated numerous times underneath the printed details of the gallery and exhibition dates. To mark the exhibition, the gallery published the printed version of Dear Little Sister as a limited edition offset lithograph.
Dear Little Sister is one of several works in which Broodthaers made use of vintage postcards. Others include the film Le Mauritania, also made in 1972 and also on a maritime theme. The use of found materials was a strategy that had initially sprung from financial necessity, but one that became central to his artistic project. Previously Broodthaers had used discarded materials to assemble sculptural objects, such as Casserole and Closed Mussels 1965 (Tate T01976). These can be related to the ‘readymades’ of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), whose designation of everyday objects as works of art challenged the status of the artwork and questioned the role of the author and of the art institution. Originally made in the 1910s, many of these – such as Fountain 1917 (Tate T07573) were replicated during the 1960s. While not strictly a ‘readymade’, in that the original postcard is just the source for the image and does not itself constitute the work, Dear Little Sister relies for its existence on the artist’s chance encounter with a discarded object. In an interview at Tate in 1975, Broodthaers declared that chance was central to his creative process.2
The use of a found image also raises questions of authorship, a concern linked not only to Duchamp, but to the wider surrealist movement. The strategy of undermining the identity of the single author-artist was a common one in surrealist circles, where collective or automatic methods were harnessed to suppress authorial identity. The appropriation of found imagery, the adoption of alternative personae and the presentation of images without identifying their source was common. Dear Little Sister introduces the possibility of unknown collaborators: the unidentified photographer who took the picture of the ship, and Marie, the author of the intimate note that is written on the card, who yet remains an unknown quantity.
Broodthaers often recycled his works, altering or combining them to make new ones. The image used in both the film Dear Little Sister and its associated printed works, was subsequently reused in the design for a poster to announce the programme of films at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in December 1972. Frames from the film were combined with those from eight other films to create a montage that became known as Rendez-vous with Jacques Offenbach.3 The image of the sea voyage is a common one in Broodthaers’s work, appearing in several other works that he produced between 1972 and 1974, including Analysis of a Painting, A Voyage on the North Sea, Two Films, and the slide projection Boat Picture. The image of the ship on a stormy ocean may be read, in the context of Broodthaers’s oeuvre which frequently involves a level of institutional critique, as a metaphor for the figure of the artist surrounded by the frenzy of the art market and museums.
While the printed version of Dear Little Sister recalls the appearance of a photographic negative (although the writing is not reversed as it would be in a true negative), the film, with its combination of image and subtitles brings to mind the early silent films that were produced at the turn of the twentieth century. The tension between the still frame and the moving image is a constant preoccupation in Broodthaers’s film work, which often plays on the status of the single frame as the fundamental element, at twenty-four images a second, of the moving picture. Instead of attempting to disguise this, as is the tradition with mainstream film, Broodthaers highlights it. In 1967 he wrote that, ‘at the heart of my intention was this idea of cinema that dispenses with the notion of movement.’ (A l'origine de mes intentions, il y aurait ce point de vue sur le cinéma qui écarte la notion de mouvement.)4 Dear Little Sister is representative of this investigation: a scene of heightened motion that has been captured in a still image, transformed into a moving picture (film) and then returned to stillness. Indeed, the text indicates that the images can only offer an approximation of the sensation of the storm. Such a reminder stands in conflict with the prevailing belief in the ability of narrative cinema to show reality. By depicting the image in negative, Broodthaers presents a picture that cannot be mistaken for reality, but rather takes on a new subject: that of representation itself.
Supported by The AHRC Research Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies.