Marcel Broodthaers’s Fraught Relationship with Words

Do words limit our experience of a given artwork? Gustave Flaubert believed that, “Explaining one artistic form by means of another is a monstrosity.” Art critic John Bergerwrote: “When words are applied to visual art, both lose precision.” And what if the words are in the art? Expressed by the artist herself?

From Cubism to conceptual art, the 20th century saw a spike in the appropriation of words in visual expression. Of course, there are earlier examples, like illuminated manuscripts, Egyptian hieroglyphs, or the works of visual poets like William Blake. But it was in the 1960s especially that the boundaries between the seemingly distinct art forms really began to blur.

Marcel Broodthaers was a product of this time. Currently having a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the Belgian is hailed for being innovative with written and visual language, borrowing from Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte (a contemporary and friend), and Pop art, while giving these influences a new twist.

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