“It was in 1968. We were very conventional. We didn’t understand much at the time. Thanks to Broodthaers we received an electroshock. He was a fascinating man, a poet. He gave us his vision. He revisited the fable of ‘Le Corbeau et le Renard’ (The Raven and the Fox by Jean de La Fontaine) and he was always carrying copies of Baudelaire, Mallarmé…” These were the words of one of the great Belgian collectors of contemporary art, Anton Herbert (1938-2021), who left a foundation in Ghent, as told in a conversation with me in 2006 about his early years, describing the conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976).
Through his freedom and his depth of thought, Broodthaers had a major impact on Belgian avant-garde circles, but it didn’t stop there. In 2016, for example, Moma in New York staged a retrospective of his work, which also travelled to the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. The introduction to the catalogue, written by Glenn Lowry, explained how an artist with an unpronounceable name from the Plat pays (“Flat Country”) was given a large-scale showcase in probably the most influential contemporary art museum in the world:
“Marcel Broodthaers is an artist’s artist. Although he is not generally widely known, he has had a profound influence on the generations of artists that have followed, and any museum committed to contemporary art crosses path with his legacy at some point. Tacita Dean, Cerith Wyn Evans, Rodney Graham, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Kelley Walker are among the many artists working today who regularly refer to Broodthaers in their work.”
His daughter, Marie-Puck Broodthaers, also recalls how on the occasion of the retrospective, Jeff Koons confessed that he was fascinated by her father. Today, Marie-Puck has decided to put up for sale at Artcurial in Paris on 25 May an ensemble of pieces from her personal collection relating to Marcel (120 lots) along with others that trace her activities as an art dealer. Indeed, having worked around the world in galleries as famous as those of Marian Goodman, Mary Boone and Michael Werner, she herself has had a space from 1987 and 1996 in Brussels, then an experimental space in the same city.
Her artistic choices
115 lots tell the story of her artistic choices with a forward-looking view. These days Marie-Puck lives between Brussels and Basel. “I was interested in the idea of creating a catalogue that would retrace my journey,” explains the daughter of the artist who also highlights her 40 years in the job.
The ensemble presented at Artcurial has a total estimate of 1.3 million euros. It can’t be said that Marcel Broodthaers is one of the stars of the art market.
He is an artist for connoisseurs of artistic creation from the second half of the 20th century who, as his first dealer in Germany Michael Werner explains, “was an exceptional intellectual who addressed in his work the art world’s modes of operating.”
12 years of career
Broodthaers had a career as a visual artist that lasted barely 12 years, having held various low-paying jobs, such as being a poet. A 7-page manuscript of one of his poems, dated from March 1960, “Chronique de l’amour enchanté” (Chronicle of the Enchanted Love) is up for sale (estimate: 20,000 euros). “Your breasts fly between my fingers, / Birds, sea urchins”…
In 1964 he published “Pense-bête” (Memory Aid), a self-published book that he illustrated with large bands of colour. He later had the idea to embed several of these unsold works in plaster. In this way they take on the appearance of sculptures. “This was how Broodthaers became an artist,” explains the art historian Bernard Marcadé, who contributed to the catalogue. Several of his non-plaster “Pense-bête” works are presented in the Artcurial catalogue with estimates ranging from 4000 to 10,000 euros.“He had a very strong relationship with the idea of the book and paper,” explains Marie-Puck.
To succeed in life
This features in an illustration from 1964, with his statement written in French from when he started out in the visual arts: “I also wondered if I couldn’t sell something and succeed in life.” A printed page dated from 1964 that details this approach in headline type is presented with an estimate of 3000 euros.
The notion of value
In 1972 Broodthaers, who likes to play with the notion of value in art, made two silkscreen prints in black and gold with a print-run of 100, depicting gold ingot bars marked with an eagle, a symbol of his imaginary museum (estimate: 12,000 euros). They are linked to the artist’s project in which when he drafted a sales contract for the gold bars, pegged to double the legal price of gold, in order to finance his fictional museum.
Mice and rats
A personal letter from father to daughter dating from 1974 recounts why food shouldn’t be left out for the animals she believed to be mice, and which were revealed to be rats: they devastated their apartment in Berlin. He concluded with a French play on words: “La souris écrit rat” (translated into English as “The mouse writes rat” in which “rat.” is an abbreviation of “ratures” meaning “deletions”) (estimate: 6000 euros). And from this account he made a silkscreen print with 150 copies (estimate: 3000 euros).
“Broodthaers enjoys a very international audience,” observes the co-expert of the sale, Benoit Forgeot. “For 15 years his prices have significantly increased due to the effect, among other things, of numerous exhibitions organized in tribute to him.”
The highest prices for the artist are verging on 500,000 euros for paintings or sculptures that use his vocabulary, from the time when he aped the spirit of American Pop Art with compositions based on the accumulation of foodstuffs such as eggs or mussels.
The death of James Lee Byars
The second part of the Artcurial auction features the works of Marie-Puck the dealer, displaying the highest estimates of the sale. In 1994 she orchestrated a memorable exhibition “The Death of James Lee Byars”, which foresaw the Pharaoh-esque death of the American artist, as shown in the photos of the catalogue.
Here we find, also, a painting by the Italian surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico ((1888-1978) from the 1930s, “La grâce des exilés”, composed of two enigmatic houses in a virtually deserted landscape (estimate: 180,000 euros) bought for 110,000 euros in 2012. She was also interested in the modern painter with multiple styles, who was Dada for a time, Francis Picabia (1879-1953) with, among others, a motley composition entitled “The Zebra” made up of overlaid motifs (estimate: 350,000 euros). It was bought in 2018 for 199,600 euros at Bonhams.
Without selling anything
“I showed lots of things too early without selling anything at the time. I was barely 25 years old when I exhibited Piero Manzoni, for example. No one wanted it,” explained Marie-Puck Broodthaers. A manifesto from 1957 signed by him, claiming “to destroy the ultimate convention: style”, is a testament to an age of immense freedom for artists (estimate: 400 euros). This sale allows us to put into perspective many gestures from current artistic creation which were in fact invented a long time ago.
(1) Tacita Dean will be the subject of an exhibition at the Bourse de Commerce from 24 May.
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