100 Years of Eternity (Between Cinema and Painting)

Curator's Note


 …continuity in the presentation of history is unattainable.

    -Walter Benjamin


One century ago in 1924, the films Ballet Mécanique (Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy) and Entr’Acte (Francis Picabia and René Clair) appeared in the world, as did the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers. Born on January 28, 1924, Broodthaers wouldn’t have yet turned one year old when Ballet Mécanique made its first public showing at The International Exhibition of New Theater Technology in Vienna on September 24. Just three months later, Picabia’s ballet Relâche (No Performance Today) finally premiered in Paris on December 4 after a month’s delay. With a score by Erik Satie and performed by Jean Börlin’s Ballet Suédois on a radically electrified stage set of Picabia’s design, Relâche was punctuated at its beginning and its intermission (entr’acte) by sections of Picabia’s and Clair’s film mentioned above. Broodthaers wouldn’t make his first film until 1957 (La Clef de l’horloge/The Key to the Clock), six years before he formally renounced poetry for art-making, and eleven years before he stated, in 1968, “I am not a filmmaker. For me, film is simply an extension of language…I don’t believe in film, nor do I believe in any other art. I don’t believe in the unique artist or the unique work of art. I believe in phenomena, and in men who put ideas together.”[1]

We could say that both Ballet Mécanique and Entr’Acte were, similarly, extensions of the artistic languages of Léger and Picabia insofar as both deployed the film medium to further expand the boundaries of form and aesthetic experience that, by 1924, had already moved beyond the classical strictures of painting. “To the extent that the film will be inserted into the Swedish Ballet in Paris, and whose title is ‘Entr’Acte,’ it could very well be more interesting than Mr. Picabia’s paintings made of string,” one critic wrote from Algeria in November 1924, referring to Picabia’s “transparent painting,” Danse de Saint-Guy (Tabac Rat) (1919/1949), composed of a frame, string, and hand-written phrases on cardboard.[2]

For Léger, who came to his film project several years after his life-shattering experience in the trenches of World War I, Ballet Mécanique proved to be a profoundly material exploration of the film medium’s technical, technological, temporal, collaborative, and no doubt fiscal exigencies. But it was also a deeply formal experiment insofar as Léger aimed to construct, in his words, a “tableau” whose aim was not a critique of the language of film narrative of the 1920s, but rather a pictorial premise concerning “the individualization of the detail” that, “thanks to the screen” (and the plastic order of the cinematic close-up) no longer suffers from being criticized for being “larger than life.”[[3] This was his position in 1925, writing in Les Cahiers du Mois in one of the earliest critical journal issues devoted to the cinema and the other arts, and where he also declared that “all of the plastic arts exist in a state of relativity.”

We could say that such “relativity” between the arts was always at stake in Broodthaers’ oeuvre. In fact, the dense network that Broodthaers’s films create, between different artworks, exhibitions, installations, artist books, etc., across his career makes it plain that his films can rarely—if ever— stand alone qua films. His early film Le Corbeau et le Rendard (1967), titled after the seventeenth-century fable by Jean de la Fontaine, like the film Voyage on the North Sea (1971), were distributed as parts of editions. This too was the condition of La Pluie (Projet pour un texte) (The Rain [Project For a Text]) from 1969, even if it is his most iconic “film” commonly projected as an autonomous work in gallery or museum spaces. La Pluie, in fact, makes appearances in numerous other installation works such as Cinéma Modèle (1970), while a copy of the film and his Neuf Peintures, Série française (Nine Paintings, French Series) were sold as one work 1973. Broodthaers’ grandest cinematic work, Section Cinéma (1972) does not, in fact, privilege his films in its sprawling display of screens, images, objects, words and text. As the seventh section of his renowned project of institutional critique, Musée d’Art Modèrne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, begun in 1968), Section Cinéma instead lithely deconstructs the cinematic dispositif, or the ensemble of different media that allow a film and its spectator to be constituted as visible (and also legitimate) subjects.[4]  

The point here is not to simply quibble about the (non)autonomy of any one object or work in Broodthaers’ complicated oeuvre. Rather, it is to recognize that for one hundred years, the gambit between cinema and painting has been waged by Picabia, Léger, Broodthaers—and many others— largely as a problem of unattainability, or “l’introuvable.” The concept as it pertains to film was introduced by Raymond Bellour in his eponymous essay, “Le text introuvable” (The Unattainable Text), published in May 1975 in the special issue of the journal Ça devoted to Christian Metz’s film-semiological project. At this time in the early 1970s, film theoretical writing, debates, and academic intellection were largely focused on relocating the production of meaning from the materials of a work to its production as a text, or what can only be located in perception. Insofar as Bellour’s argument concerns narrative films, he points to the fact that “the text of the film never fails to escape the language that constitutes it,” this “it” being the script.[5] The analysis of films, he suggests, is thereby stunted by this paradox that reveals the limits of language as it “seeks to reveal in the film the filmic text itself.”[6] But Bellour also delimits other paradoxical roadblocks to seizing, holding, capturing—perhaps simply describing— the film text by way of language: for thirty years until the coming of sound film technology, he suggests, “the cinema” was anchored in our language like an image insofar as it “represented the film, all films.”[7]

In their parlance from one hundred years ago, Léger and Picabia likely used the word “cinema” to discuss what in fact were differences between American and French “films,” for example, and they likely did so in striving to talk about a film whose experience as a text depended on, in Bellour’s words, “the mixture of materials whose location is the cinema.” It is only at the cinema, itself a thoroughly social text, that the film’s paradox expands exponentially with the addition of movement:

On the one hand it spreads in space like a picture; on the other it plunges into time, like a story which its serialization into units approximates more or less to the musical work. In this it is peculiarly unquotable, since the written text cannot restore to it what only the projector can produce; a movement, the illusion of which guarantees the reality.[8]

Ballet Mécanique, in isolation as a work, attests to the capability of mechanical rhythms to invade and disorder the hierarchy of the human over the machine, while Entr’Acte testifies to the iconoclastic raucousness of the Dada Movement. And yet, we should not forget that the fullest achievement of each of these film experiments depended on the concept of the cinema—or the film’s primary apparatus or dispositif for becoming visible, and thereby cultural and textual. Insofar as the script (scénario) was precisely the great “error” of cinema for Léger in 1925 (whereas the error of painting was the subject), it would be a mistake not to think of “the cinema” as a structural component of Ballet Mécanique especially if we consider “the cinema” as an already constituted dispositif for generating a sensorial experience of the (moving) image both within and apart from its formal, technological, or spatial means of display. That is, Léger’s formal development of his film depended on the preexisting status of the cinema as an “artistic device,” what Gordon Hughes suggests lies at the historical heart of Léger’s conceptualization of the (filmic or cinematic) “tableau.”[9] Case in point: Léger only recognized the plastic possibilities of film when he went into the social space of the cinema while on leave from the front where, in the company of Guillaume Apollinaire, his friend and fellow soldier, he experienced the full capacity of the filmic text when Chaplin emerged on screen as a “living-object.”[10]

For Picabia, who had been spared the social and sensorial traumas of war, going to the cinema in New York in wartime allowed him to perfect his fluency in American cinematic aesthetics, which he called “theatrical contamination” for their joyfully, ridiculously instantaneous temporality that made French 1920s films seem like “flabby and inexpressive pantomime,” or the stuff of outdated, middle-brow theater.[11] Projecting Entr’Acte’s sections at Le Théâtre des Champs Elysées in 1924—sections filled with slow and fast motion, a satirical subversion of continuity editing rules, and “Phantom ride” footage— no doubt fractured the classical, theatrical dispositif of ballet or bourgeois theater. For Picabia, the whole ensemble of Relâche —including, necessarily, Entr’Acte— amounted to nothing short of perceptual experience tout court, or the unattainable sensoria of life itself that he rediscovered in the social and visual space of the cinema in New York, far from the warfront. Relâche is “…life as I love it; life without yesterday, the life of today, nothing for yesterday, nothing for tomorrow…Relâche promenades through life with a great burst of laughter; Erik Satie…René Clair…and I have created Relâche a little like God creates life…Relâche is the bonheur of instants without reflections…Relâche advises you to be livers…”[12]

Even as Bellour’s concept of “unattainability” was articulated from within the context of the great theoretical debates of the 1960s and 1970s that lit up the study of film with semiotic and post-structural (and also psychoanalytic) theory in journals like Ça, Cinéthique, Communications, and Tel Quel (which we know Broodthaers read)[13] among others, it is nevertheless a useful concept for thinking about the stakes of cinema and painting in the long durée. On the one hand, “unattainability” serves as shorthand, if you will, for the way Picabia and Léger bypassed the economic circuits ignited by paintings once acquired or “attained” by collectors. On the other hand, the “unattainable text” is also a valuable tool for thinking across Broodthaers’ variously “cinematic” oeuvre in which “the cinema” can appear all at once as discourse, dispositif, image, medium, and text. I suggest that to speak of Broodthaers’ cinema is to speak of that which is, indeed, introuvable. Like the filmic text described by Bellour, Broodthaers’ cinema is dispossessed of a body and utterly unquotable whether “the cinema” accrues in our perception across multiple works and sites, or whether it stands autonomously as a single film, as some critics still believe is possible. But to merely isolate a film from its position in one of Broodthaers’ site-specific matrices would be to trade the subversive paradoxes of Broodthaers’ artistic accomplishments in their complexity for the fantasy of textual capture. It would be to deny the very condition of Broodthaers’ “cinema:” that it is everywhere and nowhere in countless “works”— what in 1971 Roland Barthes identified as a “fragment of substance” as opposed to the text as a “methodological field.”[14] When Broodthaers’ “cinema” is located or perceived—perhaps by the very appearance of a film— it seems to “favo[r] the possibility of a voyage through language which unties and reties the many operations by which the work is made into a text,” to quote Bellour once more. “Or again,” to quote Barthes, “the Text is experienced only in an activity, in a production. It follows that the Text cannot stop…; its constitutive moment is traversal (notably, it can traverse the work, several works).”[15]

In order to chart the full, unattainable textuality of Broodthears’ cinema using the discursive yet historical landscape of film theory and its cultures (think also of Jacques Ledoux’s screenings at La Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, in Brussels),[16] we must also attend to both the material conditions of his cinema-works, and the way they abandon what Bellour called the “social utopia of a language without separation” for the incomplete contours of the absent object of our apperception wherein the cinema can nevertheless be perceived as a sign.

But then again, perhaps we must also remember that Broodthaers, in a written text dedicated to La Pluie (Projet pour un text), wrote, “If I make a film, for a genre still defined as the discipline of movement, I have to repeat Baudelaire’s verse, unless…I set aside the problems of film-specific language and consider the film as a simple reference to a type of abstraction…And here I find myself cruelly split between something immobile which has already been written and the comic movement that animates at 24 images per second.”[17] The verse to which Broodthaers likely refers is from “The Bad Glazier,” in Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (1869), after the protagonist causes a glass-seller to tumble down flights of stairs, breaking his fragile wares “from which burst the sound of a crystal palace shattered by a bolt of lightning.”[18] After this fleeting moment of terrible action, one that nevertheless generates the plentitude of sensation in an imagined event—the destruction of the Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations (1851)—Baudelaire ends the poem: “But what’s an eternity of damnation to one who has found in such an instant infinite satisfaction?” This “infinite satisfaction” holds something akin to that which is unattainable in Bellour’s sense: the endless paradox of a mixture of materials whose momentary inscription in cognition or in the senses (“an activity, a production”) can never be quoted or captured—as with the violent moment of shattered glass in Baudelaire’s text that imaginatively re-routes the history of World Exhibitions, commodity displays, and imperial and colonial capital in the flash of an image of breaking glass. Infinite satisfaction indeed.

Broodthaers did, of course, engage Baudelaire in numerous, other works, such as Un film de Charles Baudelaire/A Film by Charles Baudelaire (1970). But he also did so in Une seconde d’éternité (d’après une idée de Charles Baudelaire (A second of eternity [After an idea by Charles Baudelaire]), also from 1970, where we find what has been called “the shortest film ever made” consisting simply of the artist’s initials written on celluloid. The film is one second long. However, projected on a loop alongside the other components of A Second of Eternity, it conjures the phenomenon of what is eternally unattainable about Broodthaers’ works and the texts they generate within a century-long traversal between cinema and painting, as well as across the century of a life that continues in the bonheur of one productive instant. Happy Birthday, M.B.


For Maria Gilissen and Bruce Jenkins


[1] Marcel Broodthaers, “An Interview with Marcel Broodthaers by the Film Journal Trépied,” October, Vol. 42, Marcel Broodthaers: Writings, Interviews, Photographs. (Autumn, 1987), pp. 36-38.

[2] Anon. “Chronique Cinégraphique, Dada et cinéma,” Echo d’Alger (November 19, 1924), np.

[3] Fernand Léger, “Cinéma et Peinture,” Les cahiers du mois. 16/17. Cinéma (Paris: Éditions Émile-Paul Frères, 1925), p. 107-108.

[4] See Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999).

[5] Raymond Bellour, “The Unattainable Text,” Screen, Volume 16, Issue 3, Autumn 1975, Pages 19–28. I refer to this version of Bellour in translation.

[6] Bellour, p. 25.

[7] Bellour, p. 24.

[8] My emphasis. Bellour, p. 25.

[9] Gordon Hughes, “Fernand Léger’s Cinema of Pictorial Equivalence (and The Return to Disorder),” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 44, no. 1 (March 2021). Hughes’ research is essential for understanding the art historical meaning of “tableau” not as a “painting” but as a dispositif or an artistic device.

[10] See Jennifer Wild, “What Léger Saw: The Cinematic Spectacle and the Meteor of the Machine-Age,” La Ville: Fernand Léger and the Modern City (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2013): 145-151.

[11] See Jennifer Wild, The Parisian Avant-Garde in the Age of Cinema, 1900-1923 (Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 2015), p. 214-217. 

[12] Francis Picabia, statement in the program for Relâche, quoted in William A. Camfield, Francis Picabia (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1970), p. 36. 

[13] Broodthaers quoted Georges Bataille’s “The ‘Old Mole’ and the Prefix Sur in the Words Surhomme [Superman] and Surrealist,” published in Tel Quel 34 (Summer 1968).

[14] Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), p. 57. Originally published in Revue d’Esthétique n. 3, 1971.

[15] Barthes, “From Work to Text,” p. 58.

[16] See Marcel Broodthaers, Letter to Karl Ruhberg, Düsseldorf, 1971, in Jürgen Harten, Marcel Broodthaers, Projet pour un traité de toute les figures en trois parities (Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2015), p. 143.

[17] Marcel Broodthaers, “Project for a Text,” in Marcel Broodthaers, Cinéma (Barcelona: Fundació Antoni Tàpies, 1997), https://www.macba.cat/en/art-artists/artists/broodthaers-marcel/pluie-projet-pour-texte.

[18] Charles Baudelaire, “The Bad Glazier,” in Paris Spleen, trans. Keith Waldrop (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), p. 17.

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