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Broodthaers, Marcel

b. 1924, Brussels, Belgium; d. 1976, Brussels

Bac à cendre, 1971-72 Sculpture with ashtray and ashes, 91 x 45 x 22 cm Collection: Estate Marcel Broodthaers

Deux morceaux de charbon, (anthracite) entourés d’ouate blanche, 1967 Sculpture with coal and cotton wool, 12 x 7.5 x 6 cm and 12 x 5 x 10.5 x 5 cm Collection: Estate Marcel Broodthaers

Trois tas de charbon, 1967 Installation with coal, wood, paper, variable dimensions. Collection: Estate Marcel Broodthaers

Between 1966 and 1967, Marcel Broodthaers incorporated coal into his trademark material vocabulary, a choice he wittily systematised in the title of his 1966 exhibition at the Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp: Moules Oeufs Frites Pots Charbon (Mussels Eggs Fries Pots Coal). Beyond alluding to the emergent ontology of an art that was merging with the everyday, coal became part of Broodthaers’s skewed critique of Belgian identity, entrusted to “materials that symbolically duplicate the tautological structure of the nation-state and then undo their own symbolic power” which were made laughable upon being inserted into the artwork (Haidu 2010:37). That these anti-monuments practically coincide in time with the political crisis caused by the violent clashes between the Belgian police and the miners picketing the Zwartberg coal mine in Genk (January 1966) would tempt the viewer to feel that when René Magritte reproached Broodthaers for being “more a sociologist than an artist” (Broodthaers 1988:41), he may have had works like Trois tas du charbon in mind. However, at the time the work was shown, Pierre Restany preferred to argue that the work involved a comparison between an excess of coal production in the 19th century and an “excess of information and visual solicitations” in the 20th (1998:55). Perhaps, then, the historical import of these works, indicated in the artist’s awareness that the “exploitation of the political consequences of art” had become, not unlike theory, “a private property” (Broodthaers 1988:45), derives from their occupying a peculiar space of aesthetic ambiguity and opacity, refusing to choose between literalness, critique and ridicule. CM