Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
A Material Matter: Marcel Broodthaers' Use of Bones as a Surrealist Intervention against the Political Cult of the Dead
Author: Sebastian Hackenschmidt
Abstract (E): "Fémur d'homme belge" and "Fémur de la femme francaise"- two human thighbones painted in the Belgian and French national colours - belong to the early work of the artist Marcel Broodthaers. While the semiotic reading of artworks is the predominant mode of interpretation for Broodthaers' entire ouvre, the special significance of these two objects seems to lie at least as much in the iconography of the material bone. Bones have played an important role in many different aspects of everyday-life, religion and politics for several thousand years. But especially in modern times, the claim to the mortal remains of the fallen soldiers has developed to a substantial element of nationalism; soldiers' cemeteries have since become sites of national worship and pilgrimage. Broodthaers' painted femurs remind us of the meaning that bones have within the political cult of the dead and arouse associations with the stately burial of coffins that have been covered with national flags - and the human relics beneath them. By pointing directly to the material that is the unresisting result of death, the artist turned against the creation of national myth and instead revealed the absurd logic of war.
Abstract (F): "Fémur d'homme belge" et "Fémur de la femme française"- deux os de la cuisse humains peints dans les couleurs des drapeaux belge et français - font partie des ouvres de jeunesse de Marcel Broodthaers. Contrairement au reste de l'ouvre de cet artiste, que l'on interprète souvent d'un point de vue sémiotique, la signification de ces deux objets semble relever avant tout de l'iconographie de l'os comme objet matériel. Les os ont joué un rôle de premier plan dans de nombreux aspects de la vie quotidienne, de la religion et de la politique depuis plusieurs milliers d'années. Mais surtout à l'époque moderne, le droit aux dépouilles des soldats tombés est devenu un élément clé du nationalisme. Les cimetières militaires sont devenus depuis des lieux de pèlerinage et de célébration nationale. Les fémurs peints de Broodthaers nous rappellent les significations des os dans le culte politique des morts et suscitent des associations avec les funérailles nationales de cercueils enveloppés du drapeau national et avec les dépouilles humaines qu'eux-mêmes enveloppent. En pointant directement vers l'effet silencieux de la mort, l'artiste s'oppose à la création des mythes nationaux tout en mettant à nu la logique absurde de la guerre.
keywords: Broodthaers, bones, surrealist object, Belgian Surrealism
1. "Fémur d'homme belge" and "Fémur de la femme francaise"
Especially in Marcel Broodthaers' early artworks, which are reminiscent of certain objects of the Nouveaux Realisme movement, a preoccupation with the artist's heritage and social coinage as a Belgian becomes evident. Many of his works with the typical "Broodthaers materials" are aiming at the national "character" and are often painted in the national colours. Some of these materials have themselves been claimed as characteristic for the Belgian tradition (in particular in opposition to the neighboring French), such as mussels and pommes frites, which are widely regarded integral elements of the Belgian kitchen - just as Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup and Brillo may be seen as the essence of the 'American Way of Life'. Thus art historians have interpreted the use of mussels and eggs in Broodthaers oeuvre as an allusion to the difference between French and Belgian cuisines. Jon Thompson, for example, argues that "throughout his work, Broodthaers use[d] the mussels of the Flemish kitchen, alongside the eggs, raw material of the French, Walloon cuisine, as interchangeable metaphoric or metonymic elements." (Thompson 1998, 40)
Among Broodthaers' early works are two human thighbones, dated 1964-65 and painted in the Belgian and French national colours. Both bone-objects are - implicitly by the colours and explicitly by their titles - marked as "Fémur d'homme belge" and "Fémur de la femme francaise" (fig. 1). It was not least because of the thigh bone in Belgian colours that the writer Marcel Mariën declared Broodthaers a Belgian Surrealist - to which Broodthaers replied: "Yeah, sure... but don't tell anyone ."( Mariën 1979, 44)
Fig. 1. Marcel Broodthaers: "Fémur d'homme belge" and "Fémur de la femme francaise" (1964/65), © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005
Bones have played an important role in many different aspects of everyday-life, religion and politics for at least several thousand years. In Christianity, for example, bone particles were by far the most widespread reliquary material and in churches, chapels and charnels skulls and bones were often applied as ornamental decoration. As a working material of the applied arts, bone has occasionally been used as a substitute for ivory. But when the materials of everyday-life suddenly became worthy of art in the 20 th century and began to replace the traditional materials like oil-colour, marble or bronze, bones began to be employed in a quite unprecedented way. The use of bones as a material superseded the traditional pictorial iconography of skeletons, skulls and bones. In comparison to the depiction of bones in a painting, the "real" material more forcibly seems to raise the issue of death: Not only do bones represent death, but they are brought forth by death itself and thus promise a higher grade of authenticity.
According to Benjamin Buchloh's influential estimation "[t]he transition from language to object, the object-language of art, and art's conceptualization to the status of language are the critical points of Broodthaers' investigation." (Buchloh 1980, 55) But instead of a purely semiotic reading of Broodthaers' works - which is the predominant mode of interpretation of his entire ouvre - it seems to make sense, in this case, to examine these two particular objects on the terms of an iconography of materials and to compare them to other "surrealist" objects that have made use of bones. In this way, an interpretation may go beyond the text-and-image- relations and focus on the special significance of bones as cultural objects, that Broodthaers employed for his two complementary artworks.
2. Bones in Surrealist Object Art
In numerous wars, Belgium had been the site of important battles, that - like Waterloo - did cost a vast number of lives. In the 17 th Century, for example, 130.000 Belgians died during a three-year siege of Ostende by the Spanish and their remains probably still appear at the surface, even today. In the paintings of James Ensor, we often find human skulls and skeletons - a preference, that the art historian Diane Lesko linked to the human bones that were frequently found in and around his hometown Ostende. Photographs of the late 19 th Century show Ensor with a friend posing with parts of a human skeleton that - as Lesko (1986, 37) implies - were found on the beach, as commonly as drift-wood (fig. 2/3).
Fig. 2. James Ensor and Ernest Rousseau on the beach near Ostende (ca. 1892), archive of the author
Fig. 3. James Ensor and Ernest Rousseau on the beach near Ostende (ca. 1892)
Even if the bones we see Ensor at play with seem to have been brought to the beach from his studio rather than found in the dunes, the apparent frequency with which human remains come to the light of day on the historic battle-grounds - and thus come to attention once again - may well have implied their use as art objects for Broodthaers, too. Later works such as his films Un Voyage à Waterloo (1969) and La Bataille de Waterloo (1975), attest to Broodthaers interest in historic battlegrounds as important places of memory. And even if bones are not - of course - a Belgian specialty, there is indeed a certain osseous tradition in modern Belgian painting that Broodthaers could have been alluding to with his bone-objects as well: Next to Ensor's pictures, we are reminded of the numerous skeletons in the ouvre of the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux, who - in a photograph taken by Broodthaers himself in 1966 - can also be seen at play with human remains in his studio around 1966 (fig. 4).
Fig. 4. Marcel Broodthaers: Paul Delvaux in his studio (ca. 1966), © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005
There is, however, a tradition of using real bones for art instead of representing them merely with pictorial means that can be traced back to the surrealists. The use of bones in some of Joan Miró's Constructions from the early 1930's may well have been the first application of this material in modern art. The surrealists were very fond of picking up things as objet trouvés - interestingly weathered natural objects or obsolete and discarded products from the world of commodities. The state of alienation of these objet trouvés was regarded as a poetic potential and often suggested the use of a certain material or article for surrealist object-art. And not surprisingly, bones with their fascinating repertoire of forms were among the favorite natural objects to be picked up and collected by the Surrealists. The British Surrealist artist Eileen Agar, for example, used bones as a source of inspiration for her temporary art-objects in the thirties. But for Miró the use of bones was not merely meant to trigger poetic or playful-aesthetic associations. On the contrary, bones were used by this artist specifically as a reminder of the brutality of war and accordingly as a material "carrier of meaning." (Bandmann 1969, 76)
In Miró's Construction (1930 - fig. 5), a dorsal vertebra nailed to a wooden structure reminds one of an impaled insect or an osseous trophy, while the cross-form of the bone-processes suggest the motif of the crucifixion. Other than many French surrealists, Miró himself was in military service in his native Spain during World War I and not directly exposed to combat. Nevertheless, his "Construction" by all means offers the possibility to release congruent sensations with the spectators: As a reference to death and mortality, the construction is interlinked to an impression of violence by the long nail, which acts as a sharp weapon.
Fig. 5. Joan Mirò: "Construction" (1930), © Successió Miró / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005
In an extensive analysis of surrealist painting, the art historian Sidra Stich has pointed out the frequency of bone forms and figurations and connected these to the omnipresence of bones in the time during and after World War I, which had coined the surrealists distinctly: " With high-powered weapons and aerial bombings scattering body parts and bone remains throughout the terrain, not just the soldiers in the trenches experienced the eruptive presence of death. Far from the frontlines and long after the war, in fact, human bones - arms, legs, skulls, ribs, and unidentifiable fragments - were found in residential and farming regions, and later in areas reconstructed into thriving villages. [...] The image of the skull or the skeletal body was therefore impacted with an extreme and very real emotional resonance. The Surrealist preoccupation with such figurations deliberately calls attention to the issue of death, refusing to shirk from ominous memories and tormenting fears." (Stich 1990, 78)
Comparably, Maurice Nadeau referred to the war years as the "incubation period" of surrealism in his classic study on the history of the movement (Nadeau 1965, 11). But even more so than in Miró's object, the surrealist use of bones as material in connection with war and destruction becomes evident in Wolfgang Paalen's 1938 bone pistol Le Genie de l'Espece , dating from the eve of the Second World War (fig. 6). In this work, chicken bones simulate the shape of the deadly weapon in the moulded trough of a velvet-lined pistol casket. Cause and effect seem to be coalesced in a matrix - the bones, arranged as a fantastic firearm, present death as the deliberate intention and inevitable result of the use of weaponry and are thus meant as an unmistakeable warning of conflict resolution by force.
Fig. 6. Wolfgang Paalen: "Le genie de l'espece" (1938), © Stiftung Wolfgang und Isabel Paalen, Mexico
Strongly influenced by the Surrealists, many of which had fled to America , the Japanese-American Artist Isamu Noguchi had begun to work in biomorphic forms and make use of objet trouvés for more experimental "sculptures" during World War II: " Everything was sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I considered sculpture. I worked with driftwood, bones, paper, strings, cloth, shell, wire, wood, and plastics..." ( Noguchi 1968, 26) Noguchi's Monument to Heroes (1943 - fig. 7) consists of a cardboard cylinder which is pierced through by several bone-like shapes made of wood and one human thighbone. As a sculpture, this assemblage of found materials and fashioned shapes reveals an anti-military attitude, as expressed by Noguchi late in his life when he ironically defined his monument as " a column for aviators who became heroes" and poetically described it in a haiku: " The bones of the unknown - the residue of bravery, blown by winds." (Noguchi 1987, 242) As a memento mori , the single exposed bone in Monument to Heroes brings to mind the vanity of human striving in general and of warfare in particular. While national memory - as in the political cult of the dead - is based upon the alleged insight into the necessity of sacrifice and the oblivion of the physical aspects of death, Noguchi's work is clearly not intended as a memorial for fallen soldiers. Instead it is meant as a deterrent monument at a time when both cultures that Noguchi felt related to - Japan and America - were at war.
Fig. 7. Isamu Noguchi: "Monument to Heroes" (1943), © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005
Since their first application in 20 th century art, bones had been used to embody death within the material assemblages of the surrealists and their successors. However, it is not the human moribundity that the bones point at in these works of Miró, Paalen and Noguchi, but very concretely the annihilation and destruction of warfare. Already, Noguchi's monument had directed attention towards the public handling of human remains by counteracting the national memorials of the political cult of the dead. In a quite similar way, I want to claim, Broodthaers not only referred to a semiotic reading of national differences with his two thigh bone objects but also alluded to the utilization of bones as a political instrument, namely in the cult of the unknown soldier. As Broodthaers focused on objects of a special significance for the national character in his early work, it does seem very plausible that he should have demonstrated the utilization of a material that is integral for the formation of identity in nearly all modern nation states.
3. Human Equality Is a Contingent Fact of History
The titles of the two complementary objects - "Fémur d'homme belge" and "Fémur de la femme francaise" - give us two pieces of information about the unknown and passed away persons, that we would not be able to tell by their naked bones alone: their gender and their nationality. The art historian Thomas McEvilley has pointed out the levels of differentiation, that are thus assigned to these two bones: "First is the raw biological reality of the bones, which asserts that these two people shared the fundamental identity of humanness, a biological, precultural species-identity. Over this sameness is laid a distinction, partly biological and partly cultural, between male and female; and on top of this is the thoroughly cultural distinction of nationality, designated by the references to the flags of two nations" (McEvilley 1989, 110). The information given in the titles distinguishes the bones from another and implies two generic prototypes: thighbone of the Belgian man and thighbone of the French woman. This implies the comparison to the systematics as employed by the natural sciences, where bones are regarded as prototypes that speak of the evolution of species. The presentation of bones in the zoological or anthropological departments of natural history museums usually informs us about the types of species and their gender, while Broodthaers awarded them a nationality, in addition - as if national differences could really be told by looking at bones, or as if bones came naturally in different colors. In 1995, the forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow described the state of the art in his rapidly developing science: "We can determine a murder victim's age, sex, and race from the size and shape of certain bones. We can extract DNA from some skeletons and match it with samples of the victims' relatives. Marks on the bones can reveal signs of old diseases and injuries reflected in the victims' medical histories..." (Snow 1995, 16).
From the size of Broodthaers' two bones we can conclude that the Belgian man was a bit taller than French woman. But if form and size of the human thighbone indeed allow to determine the gender of the person it belonged to, it "naturally" does not allow to determine its nationality. The opposition man vs. woman implies a distinction that goes beyond natural differences and instead points to the cultural differences between the sexes. Thus we are lead to believe that the French woman is not only different from the Belgian man, but can also be told apart from the French man and the Belgian woman. In other words, she is described as a certain type of woman, just as the Belgian is described as a certain type of man. But through the use of paint Broodthaers revealed this distinction on seemingly natural evidence to be a myth, that always runs danger of turning into a popular misperception or even a harmful ideology - as in Nazi Germany when skeletons and skulls of all alleged "races" were collected to serve as proof of the superiority of the Arians. ( Mitscherlich / Mielke 1962)
Beneath the shine of national differences, which was only a layer of colours to Broodthaers, the deeper substance of a universal human nature comes to the surface - the "raw biological reality of the bones", as McEvilley put it: The bare bones can be seen between the black and the yellow of the Belgian colours and - much more evident - as the white of the French colours. Thus it becomes clear, that underneath nationalist attribution we find the same human substance everywhere. That Broodthaers did not find these bones on a battlefield also becomes apparent here: Little holes are visible at the joints of the femur of the French woman - which leads to the conclusion that the bone was part of a skeleton held together by metal wire.
Towards the end of the 19 th Century the pathologist and anatomist Rudolf Virchow started an anthropologist collection of human skeletons as an inventory of all ethnic populations, which aimed less at a documentation of different human races, but to show the same exact potential of cultural development of the overall human identity. Or, as the scientist Stephen Jay Gould has convincingly demonstrated: "Human equality is a contingent fact of history." (Gould 1989, 153) With that in mind, the political - ideological - use of bones becomes completely absurd.
With the two femurs in national colours, Broodthaers pointed to a notion which construes nationality as an even closer classification of human identity than race. Thus, he tried to reveal nationalism as an attempt to turn a cultural coinage into a second nature. The national ascription of bones seems even more absurd, as it overrides not only natural but cultural similarities that, without a doubt, do exist between the Belgians and the French. The French prejudice (and proverb): "Je n'ai jamais vu un Belge distingué" attests exactly the difficulties of distinction and confirms the many similarities between the cultures. Accordingly, Broodthaers ironically commented on the relations between the "big brother" France and the smaller neighbour Belgium. The division of the world into separate areas was explicitly discussed in his Carte Du Monde Utopique (1968 - fig. 8), a work that, as McEvilley put it, demonstrates a separation of the world, that is built on national foundations and proposed for political reasons and interests: "Thus the world of political divisions becomes an arbitrary, artificial overlay on a material reality that lacks it." (McEvilley 1989, 110)
Fig. 8. Marcel Broodthaers : "Carte Du Monde Utopique" (1968), © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005
Broodthaers himself has explained the thigh bone of the Belgian man in comparison with a portrait of a General that he bought at the flea-market and to which he added the stump of a cigar in the crooked mouth of the military man: "Le Géneral mort fume un cigar éteint" (1968). The portrait and the thighbone seemed to him to have the quality to decompose the falsification inherent in culture: "Nationality and anatomy were reunited. The soldier is not far off." (Broodthaers 1994, 120)
4. National Bones: The Cult of the Unknown Soldier
In a way, the soldier is indeed not far off and reminds us of the absurdity of a nationality of bare bones - which unfortunately occupies a serious reality. It matches Broodthaers' signification of the "Fémur de la femme francaise", that the tomb of the unknown French soldier of World War I was meant to be read as "Le soldat francais" and identify the soldier as an abstract type. Finally, however, the Unknown Soldier was identified as "Un" and thus recognized as an individual: "Ici repose un soldat francais mort pour la patrie, 1914-18". In the logic of national memory it was crystal clear that the bones belonged to an unknown soldier: Buried as an individual, he could still be worshipped as the French soldier - vicarious for all other fallen soldiers of the nation (fig. 9).
Fig. 9. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris (1921), archive of the author
In his book, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World, the historian George Mosse describes how soldiers' cemeteries of World War I became sites of national worship and pilgrimage. Since, the claim to the mortal remains of the fallen soldiers on the battlefield is internationally carried through and has developed to a substantial element of the nationalism of all war-leading countries. The battles of World War I lead to thousands of soldiers going missing in action, whose remains could either not be found, because they were torn to pieces or buried in the dirt, or could be found and buried, but not be identified. Sometimes, the uniforms or the position on the battlefield gave a hint about the nationality of the dead. To make a burial possible for all the missing and unknown, tombs of unknown soldiers have been erected since 1920, first in Britain and France, then in just about all the countries that participated in the war. From the graves of the unknown of World War I, anonymous bones were chosen randomly for all fallen soldiers of the fatherland and solemnly buried in a central location for the celebration of the heroes of the nation. These national monuments secured the memory of the dead and commemorated the glory of battle without, however, revealing to the cruelties of war. Dying for the fatherland was glorified as an honour. A myth was created to stress the importance of sacrificing one's life in times of war. There is of course a tomb for the Unknown Soldier in Belgium too (fig. 10).
Fig. 10. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Bruxelles (1922), archive of the author
Although after World War II, the meaningful categories of "the people" and "the nation" have gradually been replaced by a reminding remembrance for the most part, even at present no cost seems too high, no toil too hard for an honourable burial of a fallen soldier. The ongoing exhumation and identification of the remains of those who died in wars, their repatriation - the translation - to native soil or the burial in special national monuments document the importance of bones for politics. Even today, thousands of people visit national places of pilgrimage like the huge ossuary of Douaumont near Verdun, a "Reliquiary of the Fatherland" (Ginisty 1930, s.p), in which rest the bones of more than 300.000 French soldiers, fallen in the trench warfare with Germany in World War I (fig. 11). The national reliquies, that legitimize this huge monument, were separated from the remains of just as many German soldiers, which were as Mosse writes "as impossible to identify as the French and simply covered with earth" (Mosse 1993, 116).
Fig. 11. Ossuaire de Douaumont near Verdun (1927), archive of the author
5. The Translation of Bones
The possibility of national identification of bones is of crucial importance for the appreciation and remembrance in the political cult of the dead. Fairly recently, this could be seen in an example of the cultural exchange between France and Germany: In 1992, upon request from the French consulate, the whereabouts of the mortal remains of several French generals that had fallen in the battle of the nations in 1813 near Leipzig were examined, but without success. "Time had confused the national order", as the German historian Wolfgang Ernst explained upon the occasion: "When the possibility of classification is lost, the bones lose their historical importance, as well." (Ernst 1995, 68)
It seems, as if bones are significant for the political cult of the dead, only if they can be claimed by a nation. The "translation" - the transfer - of the heroes' bones can be seen as an important factor of international cultural exchange between countries in the 20 th Century. With this, Ernst aims for the double meaning of the term 'translation', that not only refers to the cultural exchange beyond language barriers, national peculiarities and territorial borders, but also to the repatriation of fallen soldiers: "Read literally, translation as a technical term does refer to the act of transferring bones." (Ernst 1995, 68)
In the tradition of the cubist papiers collés , the surrealist objets trouvés or of Duchamp's ready-mades , the materials of Broodthaers art-objects - mussels, coal etc. - do bear the historicity and meaning of their every-day use and perception. And in the manner of certain surrealist anti-war bone objects, Broodthaers' two painted thighbones remind us of the meaning that bones have outside the art-world, in this case, within the political cult of the dead. As a translation of bones into the realm of art, possible associations to the political transfer and stately burial of coffins that have been covered with national flags (fig. 12) - and the human relics beneath them - not only stay current, but are straight on required by the national colouring that Broodthaers has given the bones.
Fig. 12. Repatriation of Fallen American Soldiers from Irak (2004), archive of the author
In opposition to the national monuments, in which the mortal remains of the unknown soldiers are buried and are thus kept out of sight, the vicarious bones are clearly visible in Broodthaers' work. By pointing directly to the material that is the unresisting result of death, the artist turned against the creation of national myth and instead revealed the absurd logic of war, in which it is the duty of soldiers not only to kill but also to fall for their fatherland.
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Sebastian Hackenschmidt is an art historian and has worked at the University of Hamburg and the Germanisches Nationalmuseum (GNM) in Nuremberg. He is custodian at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna and co-editor of the Lexikon des künstlerischen Materials. Werkstoffe der modernen Kunst von Abfall bis Zinn, Munich 2002.
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