Marcel Broodthaers was a poet-turned-visual artist who made his first work in 1964, at age forty, by embedding in plaster all remaining copies of his book of poems, Pense-Bête. With this droll gesture he embarked on a brief but prolific career during which he made paintings, sculpture, films, books, and prints as well as exhibitions/installations of his own work, which he referred to as “décors”—all suffused with his graceful wit and love of language. He was entranced by the interplay among objects and the images, words, and ideas we use to evoke them, a focus that links his works closely to those of Belgian artist René Magritte and French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, both of whom he acknowledged as influences. But Broodthaers’ practice was a postmodern one, and as such it also addressed issues surrounding the production and consumption of art as well as the cultural conditions through which we experience it.
He managed to broach these conceptual themes in a disarmingly simple way. Many of his sculptural works were made from found objects—mussel shells, spades, wine bottles, buckets, magazine clippings—that he juxtaposed in surprising ways, as in the glass-fronted white cupboard filled completely with eggshells or the tower of glass jars containing identical photos of a woman’s glamorously made-up eyes. These are elegant objects, but also sly memoranda on the relationship between the original and the reproduction.
Broodthaers’ slide-projection piece Bateau Tableau (Boat Picture) (1973) is one of about two dozen works he made in this format. Its eighty images are all photographs of one object: a late nineteenth-century amateur painting of boats at sea, which he had purchased in a Paris curio shop. He photographed the entire canvas along with dozens of details—billowing sails, flapping flags, crew members perched on the gunwales, cloudy skies—then arranged them in a sequence that begins with shots of the painting framed, then unframed, as if it had been released from stasis and sent on its way. Thereafter, the shots vary between close-ups and long views, a rather filmic method that suggests a narrative about a journey on the high seas.
Tucked into this story are photographs of the frayed canvas tacked to the painting’s edge, and images in which the painting slips out of the film frame, as if the slide has become stuck in the projector. These pictures gently remind us that this is not a boat, but an image of one; not a painting but photographs of a painting. As Magritte demonstrated, we often confuse these categories; in this work’s rhyming title, Broodthaers gives us a linguistic demonstration of how easily we can make this mistake. He remarked, “If you repeat ‘tableau’ and ‘bateau’ ten consecutive times, you will inevitably end up by saying bateau instead of tableau and tableau instead of bateau, and by the sound of things you could hold forth on the last bateau as easily as on the last tableau.” Broodthaers’ literate work is similarly limber, in both mind and eye.