Marcel Broodthaers 1924–1976
Mademoiselle Rivière and Monsieur Bertin
Black and white photographs laid on board
841 x 733 mm
Inscribed ‘Broodthaers M.’ in blue ball-point pen at the top of the backboard
Purchased from the artist through the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (Grant-in-Aid) 1975
Mademoiselle Rivière and Monsieur Bertin was made on site at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford (now Modern Art Oxford), in the days leading up to the opening of Broodthaers’s exhibition there in April 1975. The nine black and white photographs used to create this work were taken at Broodthaers’s request by his wife, Maria Gilissen. On the rear of the top left photograph, a blue rubber-stamped inscription documents her role: ‘Photo Maria Gilissen Tél. 12.09.54 Bruxelles 1’. Once developed, the photographs were trimmed to various sizes with a guillotine. Broodthaers arrived at the museum with a collection of photographs, from which he made more than one new work. Broodthaers chose the images that constitute this work while at the museum. He then gave detailed instructions as to the production of the work, specifying everything from the arrangement of the images to the weave and texture of the binding around the edges of the work. The photographs are stuck onto black board and are held in place by a strip of sellotape in the centre of each one. Though this method of adhesion has resulted in the photographs curling up slightly at the edges, it was Broodthaers’s intention when he made the work that the images should shift slightly over time.
The photographs depict the projection of images of paintings onto the side of packing cases. Five of the photographs depict two painted portraits by the French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) that are in the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Occupying all three places in the centre row is an image of Ingres’s painting Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière 1805. These three photographs are nearly identical, having been printed from the same negative. The centre and right photographs on the lower row show images of Ingres’s portrait of Louis-François Bertin 1832, a leading French political writer of the nineteenth century. Three of the remaining photographs show the outside of packing crates (with no projections on them), while the photograph in the top left corner depicts the darkened interior of one of the crates. Though these photographs were not taken during a public performance as such, they relate to actions carried out in public by the artist. For example, at the Städticshes Museum in Mönchengladbach in 1971, Broodthaers projected slides and films onto the side of packing cases, including an image of the same painting of Mademoiselle Rivière. For Broodthaers, this act of superimposition functioned partly to evoke the process of radiography, whereby the external skin and interior contents are seen simultaneously. The assumption that the crates contain the works depicted, however, is thrown into question by the upper left image, which depicts the crate’s empty interior.
Typically of Broodthaers, who often recycled his works wholly or in part, these images refer to an earlier project, the Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles. On 27 September 1968, in several rooms on the ground floor of his house at 30, rue de la Pépinière in Brussels, Broodthaers had opened his own museum. This first manifestation of what was to become a long-term artistic project took the form of the 19th Century Section of his ‘museum’. Under this rather grand aegis, Broodthaers displayed the paraphernalia and trappings of a conventional museum, but no actual artworks. In an open letter dated 29 November 1968 and bearing the stamp of the ‘Départment des Aigles’ (Department of Eagles), he described its contents thus:
Thanks to the cooperation of a shipping company and of several friends, we have been able to create this department, which includes primarily the following:
2/ postcards ‘overvalued’
3/ a continuous projection of images (to be continued)
4/ a devoted staff.
The packing cases in Broodthaers’s ‘museum’ were of varying sizes and probably came from the Brussels company Menkes Continental Transport, a specialist art transporter (Broodthaers’s 1969 film ‘A Journey to Waterloo’ (Napoleon 1769–1969) shows the artist unloading similar crates from one of the company’s trucks). Stencilled onto the side of them were warning signs typical of art handling, such as ‘FRAGILE’, ‘PICTURE’ and ‘HANDLE WITH CARE’. Clearly visible in the photographs in Mademoiselle Rivière and Monsieur Bertin are fragments of such instructions: ‘KEEP DRY’, ‘PICTURE’ and ‘WITH CARE’. Just discernible in the two images of Louis-François Bertin (lower centre and right) are the words ‘DEPARTMENT DES’ (the rest is illegible in the photographs), which Broodthaers inscribed onto the wood of the cases at the time of this first ‘museum’ display in 1968. The photograph in the upper right corner depicts a crate with the inscription ‘BOX 10’ which emphasises the arbitrariness of such labels, since there are only nine images here, and no sign of any other numbers. It recalls, too, the Cinema Section of the Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, exhibited in Düsseldorf in 1971. There, Broodthaers displayed assorted disparate objects on the walls of the exhibition space, labelling each with a number or letter: ‘Fig.1’, ‘Fig.A’, ‘Fig.0’. The repetition of the same labels, combined with the absence of any unified sequence, render such modes of signification meaningless.
There were forty postcards included in Broodthaers ‘museum’, depicting largely nineteenth-century paintings from major public collections, including the two works by Ingres that are depicted in Mademoiselle Rivière and Monsieur Bertin. For the Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, they were shown alongside works by Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Franz Xaver Winterhalter and others by Ingres. Broodthaers’s statement in a 1974 interview that ‘what interests me is Ingres. Not Cézanne and the apples’ reiterated his fascination with the nineteenth century and the art associated with it, a subject that is invoked in several of his installation works. The original portraits of Mademoiselle Rivière and Louis-François Bertin were both included in the Paris Salon – in 1806 and 1833 respectively – the annual government-sponsored juried exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, indicating the approval of the artistic mainstream. For Broodthaers, the museum and its constricting systems of classification were inherently associated with the nineteenth century and its bourgeoisie, and such images provided him with a means by which such institutions could be subverted. In a press statement of 1972, Broodthaers said of his ‘museum’: ‘It plays the role at one time of a political parody of art institutions and at another of an artistic parody of political events.’ The image of Louis-François Bertin (an artistic representation of a political figure) seems to embody this duality perfectly. Broodthaers stated that he was attracted to the painting as a representation of outdated bourgeois culture. For Mademoiselle Rivière and Monsieur Bertin, Broodthaers appropriated these well-to-do images, and presented them outside the grand setting of their usual home in the Louvre, instead situating them in such lowly circumstances as the side of a packing crate. The warnings originally intended to protect the works instead puncture the surface of the photographed images, compromising their integrity still further.
Broodthaers’s house on the rue de la Pépinière where he opened his ‘museum’ was itself a relic of the nineteenth century, typical of Brussels. Such houses offered a faded reminder of Belgium’s economic strength during that century. The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles no longer exists as a complete entity, and the building that housed it was demolished around the time of Broodthaers’s death. Instead it exists in fragments, photographs, written accounts and through works such as Mademoiselle Rivière and Monsieur Bertin. Most of the packing cases have also been lost, though the case depicted in the lower left corner of Mademoiselle Rivière and Monsieur Bertin was preserved by the artist and displayed for a time at the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf.
The projection that Maria Gilissen photographed consisted of coloured slides of postcard reproductions of the two paintings, rather than slides of the works themselves. Both the projection and this work that resulted from it, then, refer to the second item in Broodthaers’s list of museum contents, postcards. In this context, his judgment that the cards are ‘overvalued’ seems to refer to the association of a reproduction of a work of art with the work itself. ‘Is a picture post card of a painting by Ingres worth a couple million?’ he asked. Indeed, the painting has been reproduced several times over: first as a picture postcard, then as a projected slide, then as a photograph of this projection, and finally by being developed in duplicate (in the case of Louis-François Bertin) or in triplicate (Mademoiselle Rivière). Broodthaers used this proliferation of the image to question the attribution of rarity to artworks and to call attention to the commodification of the artwork by the institution. The catalogue that accompanied the Oxford exhibition contained an essay by Broodthaers titled ‘Défense de photographier’ (Photography Prohibited). In it, he declared, ‘I do not believe it is legitimate to seriously define Art other than in the light of one constant factor – namely the transformation of Art into merchandise. In our time this process has accelerated to the point at which artistic and commercial values are superimposed’. In fact, Mademoiselle Rivière and Monsieur Bertin effectively reverses this process by transforming merchandise (in the form of postcards) into art.
The arrangement of photographs invites a sequential reading that, moving from top left to bottom right, might suggest the unfolding event of the slide show. However, Broodthaers confirmed that the configuration of the photographs in Mademoiselle Rivière and Monsieur Bertin is arbitrary. Broodthaers placed great emphasis on the processes of chance in creating his works, something which to some extent seems reminiscent of the surrealist belief in ‘objective chance’. In fact, the choice of photographs for Mademoiselle Rivière and Monsieur Bertin appears laden with meaning, even if the arrangement is less premeditated.
Supported by The AHRC Research Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies.