Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere places physical suffering and wounded flesh at the centre of her work, along with her exploration of the duality of life and death, love and suffering, danger and protection in a blend that is influenced by the Flemish Renaissance. Over the years, she has developed a body of work in which Christian imagery is associated with martyrdom and redemption. Working with casts made of wax, animal skins, hair, textiles, metal and wood, she renders haunting distortions of organic forms that are utterly poetic. The overwhelming power of nature, the suffering body (both human and animal), fragility and despair are some of the core motifs of De Bruyckere’s oeuvre. It is early morning and I call her at home.
FILEP MOTWARY: How is COVID affecting the way you work?
BERLINDE DE BRUYCKERE: I was asked by a Belgian newspaper—it was quite an interesting request actually—to think about a work of art that I would like to have on my studio walls during the COVID period, since I am not able to go to any museums. This made me think of a week’s journey in Venice in 2012, where I was walking around to see all the St Sebastians—the sculptures, the paintings. I remember there was one that I liked in particular, by Giovanni Bellini, the Madonna con Bambino e Santi, at the Chiesa di San Francesco Della Vigna. I found St Sebastian in the right corner, the patron saint of the plague. It’s an image of a young man and the story is that it has to be the son of Bellini. Putting your own son on a painting as a representation of the saint who has to deal with such pain is quite something.
From that moment, the persona of St Sebastian became even more important, like a part of my creative language and the ways that I was dealing with suffering, pain and the representation of the human body in my work. For my pieces presented in Venice, I chose to create a huge sculpture of a tree. Within the shape of the tree, lying there on the floor, supported by pillows and bandages, the body of St Sebastian became visible in an abstract way, as an enormous, wounded body that has its firstaid treatment by nurses. During that time, I was observing my assistants as if they were nurses, as they were wrapping it with bandages, as if the branches were broken legs.
From Bellini’s image, I then moved forward and chose a different one, straight from my books, by Giorgone: an angel who is supporting the dead body of Christ [Giorgione, Cristo Morto Sorretto Da Un Angelo (1519)]. It’s a square painting of the body of Christ and behind him there is an angel and although it fades in the dark, you can really feel his huge wings. This was the perfect metaphor for our times today: this enormous help provided to humanity by hospitals and nurses, putting their lives at risk on a daily basis, saving lives. They are the representation of the angel.
FM: How do you approach the meaning of the body in your work considering the fact that it has a permanent outline and also the fact that it once used to be something generic?
BDB: Before 2000, my work was more abstract in terms of shape but not in terms of theme. The sculptures I had in mind during that time were about a woman standing on her bare feet, bare legs, a silhouette that was perhaps completely naked and covered by layers of blankets to the point when the body could not be recognized anymore. It was rather a view of the body under all that volume, unable to move, see or breathe anymore. She was just standing there helpless, knowing that everybody was looking at her. This image I derived from earlier projects I did and was especially related to my work with cages that were covered by blankets as well, resembling somehow a metaphor behind the meaning of home, a place to feel comfort, for shelter and protection.
I found the element of shelter and protection reflected through the blanket, as a living organism of its own. At a certain moment, I decided just to work with blankets as [if] they were human bodies. We all have blankets on our beds, we sleep under the blanket, we make love, we die under a blanket.
And when there is an accident on the streets, the first aid is always putting a blanket on top of that wounded person. When the work was then presented, people immediately felt connected to it.
The meaning of the blanket was something that attracts the human sense of emotion. Completely covered as she is, the woman becomes an object for the eyes of the spectator that feels empathy for her inability to look in the eyes, for her poorness and misery. The blanket becomes a divider between humans, as it can also take away the contact between two persons.
FM: What are the differences between!the human body and the animal body as you see them, because both subject types have been!interpreted in your work, both literally and metaphorically? How are they different or how are they!similar?
BDB: I always projected human emotions on the horses because, especially my first works with them at the Flanders Fields, [they] were my way for portraying war victims throughout the world. As I was not able to make actual portraits of humans who died, I chose to create through a metaphor. For me, the great amount of human death is translated accurately through the body of a horse. When discussing the theme of a war, you don’t think of singular victims but the masses who died fighting. So, with my horse sculptures, I’ve always tried to give them human emotions while aiming to express that pain of loss.
The emotion of loss and pain is achieved more precisely through an animal because when we look at a human body, we always feel compassion, but it is always connected to our curiosity to know who that person is that we are looking at. I was never interested in this personal information, you know. I was using the horse’s body in a universal way that everybody could have access to the pieces and feel something, even when not knowing the whole story behind this particular death, as this is not the important thing in the end. The important thing is what expression and emotion can do to give some comfort and compassion to someone.
FM: How did your connection with horses emerge?
BDB: My starting point was in ’99 while I was an artist-in-residence at the museum of the First World War in Ypres. There I had access to the libraries and photo archive and that’s how I saw a lot of pain. The images I found particularly touching were those of the empty streets of Ypres that were filled only with carcasses and dead bodies of horses. It was the lack of living humans and then the presence of all these horse bodies lying in a damaged city that enabled me to create something. These images struck me the most. I saw the metaphor of death during the war through the horses.
People have such an enormous appreciation for horses, the beauty of the horse, the impact of a horse through art and paintings—all the kings and the important people want to have their portrait painted sitting on a horse. A horse has a character and a great sensibility that is close to human.
FM: Your father was a butcher and also an avid hunter. I saw this interview where you described how his relationship with animals was based on consumption, as it is for most of us in fact. But, ever since you were a little girl, your sensitivity has allowed you to be above that context. And, as an adult, you speak about the emotion within the body or the body parts that you create or recreate. Did you choose your art form or did the form choose you? I mean because both you and your father are looking at the existence of the body in an entirely different way?
BDB: Throughout the years, many people have been asking me about the impact it had on my work, my father and my mother being butchers. In the beginning, I was averse and would always deny any connection. I would say that I started to
make sculptures with horses in 1999 and this was enabled through the First World War images that I found, so it has nothing to do with where I come from or the fact that my father was a butcher. As this was a question that came back all the time, I forced myself to try and find the answer about what the connection could be. The most important thing is, my father, mother and myself, we all did the opposite from each other: dad was making people happy by selling the finest meat and doing his very best to please his clients.
My contact with the dead bodies of the horses first emerged when I was moulding their bodies to make that piece in Flanders Fields, so I can say I tried to give a new life through death. And this is exactly what I am doing over all these years: I am aiming to offer a future to the bodies that are thrown away, to the bodies of the horses that we have at university, that died because of an illness and they become the material for the medical students to do their
practice with. When a horse corpse is study material, it goes for burning once the students are done with their job.
So, at that moment I try to make a collage of different horse bodies, force them together and make a new relationship between these soulless bodies. This can lead to the creation of some human feeling,
wishes, dreams or attitudes. I give them a new future. I can only do this because of where I come from, my parents. Finally, I have found the answer to the question that everyone has been asking me. It was difficult to say, yes, there is this influence. Another thing that has been there since the beginning, and this is something that I know because my assistants tell me, is that I’m never afraid of a carcass of a dead body. When I go to do the moulding with my team, I often work with young students or people just out of school. For them, the sight of such an enormous animal that is also dead is something they have never seen before. I know now that the absence of fear is due to my upbringing, growing up with carcasses arriving in the butcher’s shop.
FM: Have you ever doubted your role as an artist?
BDB: No, I’m really happy that I have this talent, that I’m able to express myself through my art and that my work is meaningful for many people. This is what gives me the courage to continue. Frankly speaking, I can’t imagine that I should do something different than going to my studio every day, looking, working and writing a little bit about the
things that I am doing. It’s my way of living and being.
FM: The forms you create are somehow a translation of the line between life and death. What is your view on these two words?
BDB: Both words are quite present in all of my work; they are visible. I start from death to create new life, like in the work that I make with the foals on the tables. Very often when I look at these pieces,
I wonder if they are going to breathe or not—it’s like the moment just before death. I try to capture the moment between life and death through the ways I position them. How people look at this work is very much connected to their own sensibilities: if they are in a positive way then they will see life and when they are in the dark side then they will see only the death and the pain and the suffering. So, because death is a constant presence in our lives, something we always have to deal with and at times it seems far away or nearby, I have this in mind lately, as something important to speak about.
Last week I was talking to my gallerist in Italy, about a show that was planned to open last March in Turin, but then because of COVID it never did. This installation at the Fondazione Sandretto was about endless volumes of death. Impressions of flayed skins stacked on industrial pallets, covered with salt to be preserved. All very close to what was the reality of what we have seen with the COVID pandemic. Nobody knew we would have to deal with so many deaths in the months that followed. This fact made it very hard for me to decide whether to reopen that exhibition or not, because now all the subtleties in this installation, the gesture of laying on top of each other in a death context and the strange comfort of this gesture—that loneliness is less when you die, or the references to the
mass graves during the Second World War, all of this suddenly had an updated meaning. Later on, being there in the middle of all this death, looking in the newspaper, looking at the television, where you see all these trucks stuffed with dead people because we were not able to bury them, there was no space, no extra help, no funding… This touched me so much that I discussed it with the people working in the foundation. They agreed that everybody visiting the exhibition should be offered a sort of introduction and a very private way of looking together and reflecting together within this specific context.
FM: War, fear and anger are topics that have inspired some of your masterpieces. How do these
intense elements coexist in your work?
BDB: It’s very strange to say, but it’s not that I’m looking for that by purpose—it happens. It’s the way I see life and the way that I’m sensitive to things happening around me. Maybe also the fact that, very often, people are missing the words to speak about it. Looking at a piece of art, to deal with drama, that can sometimes give some comfort and answers to questions that perhaps are in the air. From the reactions of people, I learnt that this is important to share and there is a need for honesty and openness to deal with these topics that we normally avoid putting into words. “Beyond words” is something that I often hear about my sculptures. People say, “This is something that touched me, but I can’t say why. I don’t
have the words to describe the reasons.” And I think this is something I value greatly because if you have the words to describe them, there is no need to make a sculpture.
FM: What role does longevity play in what you do? I’m thinking of how clothes and fashions are treated in museums, preserved, in a way, to reflect an era and to reflect the period in which they’re made.
BDB: With over 30 years working as a professional artist, and in terms of the themes that I started with and where I am now, there is not much changing. The way that I deal with things that I encounter in life never changes. Only the form and some topics arising next to the main themes that I repeat and reproduce change.
My topics are so human and universal that I think the value of the work will stay around for a while as relevant. You really can feel now the hunger that people have to go to a museum or to churches and all those interesting places, just to have contact with art and with human expressions. In the end, this is the value of the work: that it speaks about something that is related to humans, as it was in the past, it will be related to humans in the future. This is the quality of the work that it is not related to time or fashion because it is about going back and in constant search of our existence, the extension of emotions by humans, and these will always be there.
A leading figure on the contemporary Flemish scene, raised in a strict Catholic institution, Berlinde de Bruyckere has developed a body of work in which Christian imagery is associated with martyrdom and redemption. The daughter of a butcher, in her exploration of the duality of life and death she places physical suffering and wounded flesh at the centre of her work. During the 1990s she abandoned her minimalist sculptures made from assemblages of stone, wood, steel and concrete in favour of more personal figurative scenes, using more organic and malleable materials. She began producing installations: cages reminiscent of isolation cells, lined with blankets to hide what is inside. For B. de Bruyckere, inspired by images of the famine in Somalia, the war in Kosovo and the genocide in Rwanda, blankets symbolize warmth and protection but also vulnerability and fear: they suggest the ultimate refuge for individuals who are suffering or in flight. At the end of the 1990s she began a series of sculptures, blankets under which the figure of a woman was hidden, with only the naked legs visible. This marked the start of her incorporation of the human figure into her work. She sculpts nude bodies from a mixture of diaphanous wax and pigments, a material that resembles the human skin while leaving fine bluish veins visible.
Portrait by Mirjam Devriendt