Marcel Broodthaers

I Return to Matter, I Rediscover the Tradition of the Primitives, Painting with Egg, Painting with Egg


Not on display

Marcel Broodthaers 1924–1976
Original title
Je retourne à la matière, je retrouve la tradition des primitifs, peinture à l'oeuf, peinture à l'oeuf
Wooden box, egg shells, printed paper and metal
Object: 257 × 257 × 76 mm
Purchased 1980

Display caption

Broodthaers was fond of puns, and the French word ‘matiere’ in the original title of this work means both subject matter and medium. Similarly, the phrase ‘painting with egg’ can
be interpreted as both a representation of some eggs, and a work created using eggs
as a medium. The ‘primitives’ that Broodthaers refers to are the early artists, who, until the mid-fifteenth century, usually created their paints by mixing egg yolk with pigment.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Marcel Broodthaers 1924–1976

I Return to Matter, I Rediscover the Tradition of the Primitives, Painting with Egg, Painting with Egg
Je retourne à la matière, je retrouve la tradition des primitifs, peinture à l'oeuf, peinture à l'œuf
Broken eggshells, some painted, in varnished wooden box with metal fittings, in the lid of which are pasted gummed and perforated labels
313 (75 closed) x 275 x 258 mm
Purchased from the Galerie Isy Brachot (Grant-in-Aid) 1980

Ownership history:
Presented by the artist to Madame Cogeime, Brussels in 1966; with the Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels by 1978, from whom purchased in 1980.

Exhibition history:

Peinture à l'Oeuf, Peinture à l'Oeuf, Je Retourne à la Matière, Je Retrouve la Tradition des Primitifs, Galerie Cogeime, Brussels, September–October 1966.
Marcel Broodthaers 1924–1976, Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels, November–December 1978, no.7, as Peinture à l’Oeuf.
Marcel Broodthaers, Tate Gallery, London, April–May 1980, no.38.
Marcel Broodthaers, Galerie Isy Brachot, at Art/Basel 21, 1990, as Peinture à l’Oeuf.
Worlds in a Box, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, December 1994–February 1995, no.26.


The Tate Gallery 1980–82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984, pp.56–7.
Freddy De Vree and Isy Brachot (eds.), Marcel Broodthaers; Oeuvres 1963–1975, Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels 1990, p.30, reproduced p.89.
Dieter Schwartz, ‘“Look! Books in Plaster!”: On the First Phase of the Work of Marcel Broodthaers’, in Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (ed.), Broodthaers; Writings, Interviews, Photographs, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1988, p.66.

Like many of Broodthaers’s early sculptures, I Return to Matter, I Rediscover the Tradition of the Primitives, Painting with Egg, Painting with Egg uses discarded egg shells as both subject and medium, a dual function reinforced by the work’s tautological title. The work comprises a varnished, wooden cigar box filled with broken egg shells. Some of the eggs are painted in black, red and yellow (the colours of the Belgian flag), using a paint brush or possibly an aerosol spray, and some also have glue on them, though they are not fixed in place.1 The work was produced in 1966, early in Broodthaers’s career as a visual artist. Prior to this he had been a writer and poet. Partially from financial necessity, he obtained the materials for many of his sculptures during this period from friends and local businesses; the egg shells in this work probably came originally from the local Brussels restaurant La Boue, whose cook, Madame Fernande, was the only person who could consistently break them just as Broodthaers wanted. The hinged box, made from a commercial hardwood (possibly abura) is typical of those found in most tobacconist’s shops, though its exact source is unrecorded.2

On the inside of the box’s lid the artist pasted private view announcements that he designed for his exhibition at Galerie Cogeime in Brussels in 1966, which opened on 27 September, and with which this work shares its name.3 The egg shells that appear in this work had initially been incorporated into other works intended for the same exhibition, but were removed or replaced prior to the opening; such a strategy of recycling all or part of his works is typical of Broodthaers’s working methods. It is not certain whether the box itself was included in the exhibition. Broodthaers created this new work while setting up the exhibition and presented it to Madame Cogeime, the wife of the gallery owner, who passed it to the Brussels-based Galerie Isy Brachot some time in the 1970s. Many of the works in the Galerie Cogeime exhibition used eggshells, and on the day of the opening Broodthaers set up tables outside the gallery on which he piled cages of chickens, partly to emphasise his use of eggs as a medium for his work.

Broodthaers used two entire printed private view announcements in this work, and at least part of a third one also. Only one is visible in its entirety, while above it a section of the second may be partially seen. In another tautological gesture, Broodthaers made the exhibition the physical makeup of his work as well as its subject matter. Each announcement consists of a gummed printed sheet that is divided into nine rectangular sections by means of perforations. Each of the sections has a border, giving the appearance of nine separate miniature pages. The nature of the invitation, rather like a postage stamp, suggests that the exhibition's visitors were intended to use it in a similar way to this, applying it to any surface to which it would stick. Though the Galerie Cogeime was an established venue, the invitation resembles underground advertising such as fly posters. Broodthaers’s use of private view cards in this work reflects his interest in the systems and trappings of art exhibitions and the art world, a concern that would inform much of his work. Of the nine sections, three (upper left, middle right, and bottom centre) contain a photograph of eight eggshells against a darker background. The image may depict a part of one of Broodthaers’s other works from the period 1965 to1966, most probably one that he had prepared in anticipation of the Galerie Cogeime exhibition. It is reminiscent of several works of these two years, when Broodthaers frequently created works by placing egg shells and their fragments on canvas or board as well as on pieces of furniture such as tables or cabinets. Broodthaers often added paint to these accumulations of shells, though the contrast between the dark ground and the lighter shapes of the eggshells in these photographs suggests that these were only lightly coloured, if at all. Rather, in this instance, it is the printing process that has added colour to the eggs: the photographs are printed in the colours black, red and yellow respectively, echoing the painted eggshells below them. The use of the three colours from the Belgian flag recalls such works as Broodthaers’s Triptych 1966 (two panels in private collections, one in Collection Sylvio Perlstein), created in the same year as I Return to Matter…. This work consists of three canvases painted in black, yellow and red and covered in rows of eggshells, arranged in the same formation as the Belgian flag. Such references to national identity offer a reminder of the peculiarly Belgian concerns of Broodthaers’s artistic project, one that culminated in a body of work in which the symbol of the mussel, the dual languages of French and Flemish and the colours of the Belgian flag frequently reoccur.

The other six sections of the printed sheet are textual; three refer to the work and its creator, and three to the gallery and exhibition where it was first exhibited. The name of the Galerie Cogeime and its address at ‘4, rue J.-B. Meunier, Brussels 18’, comprise the middle left section. In the lower right corner are the exhibition’s dates and opening hours: ‘EXPOSITION / tous les après-midi (samedi et dimanche y compris) / du 27 septembre au 9 octobre 1966’ (EXHIBITION / every afternoon (including Saturday and Sunday) / from 27 September to 9 October 1966). The upper right section invites readers to the private view of the exhibition: ‘COCKTAILS / DU / VERNISSAGE / Mardi 27 septembre à 18 heures’ (COCKTAILS / AT THE / PRIVATE VIEW / Tuesday 27 September at 6pm).

The bottom left section of the exhibition invitation contains Broodthaers’s initials ‘M.B.’ in a handwritten script, repeated twelve times, in three rows of four sets. Although apparently written by hand, the signature of the artist is multiplied in print. In a typically subversive gesture, Broodthaers did not reserve his signature for the work of art, but repeated it on the invitation, allowing all those who received a card the chance to own it. Ironically, by the time it reappears here, having been returned to the artwork, its proliferation has undermined its status as a unique sign of authorship.

In the centre of the top row is a facsimile of Broodthaers’s handwritten title: ‘Je retourne à la matière, je retrouve la tradition des primitifs, peinture à l'oeuf, peinture à l'oeuf’ (I return to matter, I rediscover the tradition of the primitives, painting with egg, painting with egg), while beneath this in the centre appears Broodthaers’s name in heavy black capital letters. The title, which reads almost as an incantation, offers an indication of the multiple levels of meaning and allusion contained within the work. Broodthaers declares his return to ‘matter’, a word that, in English as in French, can indicate both the substance used to create the work (the medium) and the subject matter. In rediscovering ‘the tradition of the primitives’, Broodthaers creates a link between his work and that of fifteenth-century European artists known as ‘primitifs’. The use of the colours of the Belgian flag points in particular to the region famous for painters such as Jan van Eyck (c.1395–1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (c.1399–1464), both Flemish, and both known for painting on wooden panels with egg tempera. Egg tempera was made by mixing dry pigment with egg yolk and water and was characterised by its resistance to being blended, resulting in layer upon layer of hatched brushstrokes. Broodthaers’s work contains the same elements, though they display a modern sensibility: the wooden panel has become a discarded cigar box, while the coloured pigment is not egg tempera, but applied onto egg shells. The reference to this traditional method of painting is reiterated by the last phrase of the title, which is repeated in the manner of a poetic refrain. ‘Peinture à l'oeuf’ contains another pun, carrying a double meaning referring to both the practice of using egg as a medium (as the primitifs did), but also to the subject matter of the painting (as a still life, for example).

In 1994, I Return to Matter, I Rediscover the Tradition of the Primitives, Painting with Egg, Painting with Egg was included in the exhibition Worlds in a Box at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, although it did not tour to the show’s other venues. This exhibition presented it within an artistic trajectory rooted in the work of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) and Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948), and alongside the work of artists such as Joseph Cornell (1903–1972; see Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace) 1950, Tate T01846) and those associated with the Fluxus movement.4 Such a context highlighted the work’s debt to surrealism, including and especially the boxed collections of artefacts assembled and presented by the writer André Breton (1896–1966). However, Broodthaers’s use of the cigar box may also be viewed in the context of his choice of other materials in this period, many of which display a common interest in the form of the empty shell as an empty container, for example mussel shells, jars and cooking pots (see, for example, Casserole and Closed Mussels 1965, Tate T01976). In I Return to Matter the empty space of the shell is echoed by the empty cigar box, itself a discarded container. These forms evoke that which is now gone: the egg yolk and whoever has eaten it, the cigars and whoever has smoked them. The relationships between the various components of his works was central to Broodthaers’s interpretation of his sculpture. In an interview in 1974, he described those works that contained egg and mussel shells in these terms: ‘the subject is that of the relationship established between the shells and the object that supports them.’5 This interest in a direct relation between objects is in contrast to the surrealists’ juxtaposition of incongruous objects, distancing Broodthaers’s work from claims to a straightforward surrealist legacy.

Lucy Bradnock
September 2004

Supported by The AHRC Research Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies.


1 Tate Conservation Department, report of examination by Deidre Mulley, Conservation Student, August 1980.
2 Tate Conservation Department, report of examination by Tessa Jackson, Tate Conservator, 24 October 1994, p.2.
3 Galerie Cogeime, Brussels, Marcel Broodthaers, September–October 1966.
4 See Jennifer Mundy, ‘An “overflowing, a richness & poetry”: Joseph Cornell’s Planet Set and Giuditta Pasta’, Tate Papers, Spring 2004,, accessed 28 February 2010.
5 Marcel Broodthaers, ‘Ten Thousand Francs Reward’, an interview with Marcel Broodthaers by Irmeline Lebeer (1974), trans. by Paul Schmidt, in Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (ed.), Broodthaers; Writings, Interviews, Photographs, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1988, p.40.

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