Illustrated companion

The early career of the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers was as a poet, photographer and occasional maker of avant-garde film. To support himself he dealt in antiquarian books and gave guided tours in the art museums of Brussels. As a student he had wanted to specialise in art history but was persuaded to do chemistry instead. He did not complete these studies. At the age of about twenty he met the great Belgian Surrealist René Magritte and his fascination with Magritte lay at the heart of his mature work, produced in the dozen years before his premature death. The works of Magritte which most interested Broodthaers were those in which a written word contradicts a visual image 'to the profit', he remarked, 'of the subject'. The most famous such work by Magritte is that in which a realistically painted tobacco pipe is accompanied by the words 'ceci n'est pas une pipe' - this is not a pipe. The real subject of these works is the relationship of art to the reality it represents and beyond that the nature of art itself. This question was, of course, very much in the air in the art of the sixties and seventies; Broodthaers was unique in posing it in the context of the traditions of 'fine art' and its institutions.

'Paintings' is a work from one of eight sets of five works each consisting of nine canvases printed with words referring to various areas of art and culture. The words in 'Paintings' name basic constituents of a traditional painting ranging from brush and colour to price. There are sixteen different words appearing in various combinations so that each canvas represents the concept of a different painting although all are related. The most frequently occurring of all the ingredients is 'figures' which, taken with the large scale of the whole work, suggests that Broodthaers might have had in mind the tradition of magisterial figure painting exemplified by, for example, the Flemish (Belgian) painter Rubens whose name forms the title of another group in the series to which 'Paintings' belongs. The work both wittily and grandly evokes, and simultaneously throws into question, that tradition, but it is also possible that Broodthaers, in the midst of the avant-garde, was wryly pleading for a return to traditional approaches.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.273