Berlinde De Bruyckere’s work inhabits a psychological terrain of pathos, tenderness, and unease. Her sculptures express vulnerability and fragility, the suffering body—human and animal—as well as the overwhelming power of nature (and time). Using a wide range of materials, she draws on Christian iconography, mythology, and Old Master painting to layer familiar subjects and histories with new narratives inspired by current events.
In her current exhibition, “A simple prophecy,” she continues her exploration of the natural world through the pursuit of an unorthodox, corrosive beauty that channels Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. In fact, it is tempting to apply Baudelaire’s phrasings to De Bruyckere’s new works, as she salvages raw, carnal beauty from the overripe and the decaying to create hybrid forms that blend human, animal, and plant, particularly in the “It almost seemed a lily” series. Raised high on plinths, two “Arcangeli,” cast in bronze and lead, preside over this fallen world, caught between divine supremacy and earthly frailty, as consoling as they are unnerving.
Rajesh Punj: What is “A simple prophecy” about? Your focus seems to have shifted a bit, with a return to the figure in the midst of more abstract works.
Berlinde De Bruyckere: There are the new motifs of Arcangelo I, 2022–2023 and Arcangelo II, 2022– 2023. These works are made in bronze with a layer of lead. I created the wax models myself in the studio and then worked with a foundry in Saint Gallen, Switzerland. I will be continuing to work with these materials—initially the idea was to make them in lead, but it was too flexible, so I turned to lead-covered bronze. The figures were intended for the outdoors, but the idea of having them in the gallery was interesting, with everything relating to nature—including the “It almost seemed a lily” collages (2019–22) in which I chose a more abstract way of dealing with the flower and decay. I hope that having these two figures in the show introduces another part of my work. It’s not often that I create outdoor pieces without a commission, so I am not known for them.
Recently I was asked to submit a proposal for the Museum Hof Van Busleyden in Mechelen, which is close to my studio, and I told them it would take at least two years. This is a collaboration with the landscape architect Ronald van der Hilst, who is focusing on an enclosed garden for the new museum gardens. Any landscape shows you the cycle of life, so I tried to visit in different seasons, to see how it changes, before I decided on a location. I also like talking to people about how they use the garden. All of these things become important decision-making elements when conceiving a proposal, which is why it takes so long.
RP: What decisions did you make to accommodate the “Arcangeli” indoors?
BDB: First we opened the windows. I have shown at Hauser & Wirth Zürich before, so I was aware of the old columns, which help to contextualize the works in another way. The floor is a kind of eagle gray, so the archangel sculptures seem to grow up directly from the floor and into themselves. When you enter, at first you see only the recognizable parts of the angels, the feet and legs—though they are still very abstract—but when you go further into the space, you gain a greater sense of them as figures, with front, side, and back views. And you also see the other works; the angels are not on their own, they have to deal with the rest of the exhibition, too.
RP: How much input did you have in terms of the installation of the work?
BDB: We collaborated on the display. The angels came directly from the foundry, so I hadn’t seen them before having to decide on the other works that we brought from Belgium. In our 3D mock-up, the original intention was to have one of the angels closer to the entrance, with the other standing behind the column and another angel work on the wall; but it didn’t work in situ, so when I was at the foundry for two weeks doing the patina, I studied the figures and their possible relationships. I realized that this was something I needed to work out. Setting the relationship at the beginning makes you curious, makes you want to enter and look at them more closely.
I have made five “Arcangeli” in wax now, and I intend the series to have seven in total, though I haven’t yet decided when I will do the last two. I am giving them numbers, not names, to underline their singularity. Of the two in lead, one is more like a monk, very intimate and introverted; the other one has more of the body shown and is more extroverted somehow. The different figures address the circumstances of being human, which has also motivated my wanting to make seven.
RP: When the series is complete, would you want to exhibit all seven together?
BDB: Yes, perhaps, but I think we’ll have to be careful that it doesn’t feel like an army.
RP: This show also includes Liggende–Arcangelo I, 2022–2023 in which the figure lies on a tomb-like pedestal covered by a thin layer of black lino. How did the idea originate?
BDB: The beginning came from a conversation that I had during the pandemic, when a journalist asked me if art could bring some comfort during lockdown. Then I discovered a painting by Giorgione of an angel holding the body of Christ. I saw in it what was happening around us, what was happening to the people in hospital, who had to die alone. And I thought of all the people who had become anonymous angels. I couldn’t continue making large-scale works, which led me back to figuration, even though I hadn’t done that for 10 years or more.
We were suddenly aware of and worried about our bodies, aware of our fragilities, and how quickly things can change. With that in mind, I went back to the beginning, to thinking about angels, and while working, I considered many ways of reading them. We want to communicate with them, thinking of the questions they have to deal with, the burdens they bear, the secrets that they have hidden under a protective skin, or whatever you wish to call it, which keeps all of these things inside.
RP: There is a religious feeling to these works, and we approach them almost in the way that we might put faith in the divine, which takes us beyond the realm of art, beyond what we are looking at, to something greater.
BDB: If I didn’t give them the name of Arcangelo, viewers would still feel something. Everyone will give them a name.
RP: When I look at It almost seemed a lily IV, 2017-2018 and It almost seemed a lily, 2021-2023, in which weathered wood, wallpaper, wax, fabric, and lead come together to convey a sense of dying forms, I begin to wonder about my understanding of beauty. What do these works tell us about the exquisite?
BDB: I see beauty in decay, in the flower dying, in a blanket left outside to rot, which shows nature taking over. In the beginning, it’s colorful and patterned, and then it begins to fall apart, and all of the marks are made by nature, which I find quite beautiful. I have also found a great deal of beauty in the abattoir. Even with a skin that has no value, the people working there treat it with care—because it originally belonged to the animal. It starts from nothing, from something that is being thrown away, but it gets a new purpose; the skins are salted for preservation, piled up and folded on giant pallets to be shipped to leather workshops. If you see the beauty in these rituals, the life force in the salt drenched with blood, then it helps to see how I make this kind of work.
RP: You talk about a beauty that manifests itself not in the immediate here and now, but in a kind of afterlife, when objects are released from their original duties, left to decay and become something else. This is also about time and how you allow the elements to inhabit and affect your materials, as the seasons impregnate the fabrics, the colors bleed themselves dry, and the stitching congeals. What is behind this approach?
BDB: Collecting is a good example. I collect and store old furniture that I have found and bought, and we have an inventory of tables, iron dressers, small and large vitrines, and wood and glass items. They provide an important starting point for everything because they offer some potential. I do not sculpt in the classical sense; I start from casts and put different elements together. Often I start from old vitrines. For instance, if I have an idea to work with horses within a big vitrine, first I bring the vitrines into my studio, installing them and starting to work with the readymade, which becomes the flesh of the work, taking on the role of the shell for what I want to do. I choose an existing object that has relevance to what I am doing—I feel like I have to work with something I can add to, that I am able to become involved with. My subjects and path are about going on with these objects, but for another use, giving them a new life beyond what we already know of them.
Vitrines in museums typically house ceramics, fossils, or other fragile objects, but in my work, they might become huge cabinets, doors flung open, with a horse lodged inside jumping out, legs and head exposed. So, the vitrine no longer serves to protect its objects, because what I have happening inside is forcing its way out. That is a duality often present in my work, which is also talking about the beauty that I see in these old and unkempt vitrines. The works are asking for time so that you can discover them; it is not that you can see everything of the contents in one go.
RP: Why is lead an important material for you?
BDB: In the 1990s, I made big installations of roses composed of thin lead layers. I liked the material because I could easily cut out the roses with scissors, shaping and applying them, in one installation, to the walls surrounding a glass elevator. I created 5,000 lead roses, and what I appreciated was that I was able to manipulate the lead like wax. The wax is still warm in the molds when I come to it, so I can make changes; lead is similar, but it has a very heavy quality/component to it, and that fits in terms of my themes, my consideration of lightness and weight. As human beings, we have to overcome so much in our lives. The “Arcangeli” give the clear impression that it is a burden to wear a lead cloth. Lead is also a poison. Then there is the fact that, when you take it out into the landscape, it changes very beautifully, becoming whiter in parts, and darker and grayer in other places, due to the elements and weather changes. I like how you cannot control how the material reacts to its surroundings.
RP: Because the “Arcangeli” are elevated, we are invited to look up to them, which raises the question of how we understand their nature. Your angels are not surrounded in glory; they are sober, ruined, yet still able to maintain their majesty, their separateness from our maddening lives. Are you asking us to examine the properties of such creatures and what they represent? Are they about the personification of feeling faith in something again?
BDB: These are the very questions you need to ask yourself when you are in front of these works, whether you can think beyond yourself.
RP: When I consider the news, it feels as if there is an intense push for an end, with everything becoming more sensational and severe. I wonder how long this can be maintained. It’s as if silence and peace have disappeared from our lives.
BDB: This is something that I’ve learned from people who have very personal reactions to my work, especially with the “Arcangeli,” which prompted an incredible reaction. People have thanked me for making the series, saying, “This is the work that we need now.” My work has always been like this: I have always been in and of the world, looking at the world and seeing the changes, getting older and having children—all the things that normal people aspire to do and deal with. As an artist though, you have to try to come out and critique what is happening, and it is important that the work still be intimate and emotional.
RP: The other element to your work that interests me is your use of color. It appears more accidental than intentional. Is that true?
BDB: In the series of collages, my range of color goes from white to black, and everything in between. Up until now, I have never sought to use green, light blue, or pinks—the colors that are called colors. All the colors in the works are tones that emerge from deep, deep red to white, and then from deep, deep red to black, with grays and browns included. Here, the most spectacular color is in Sjemkel III, 2020, and then the red in the lily works, but even that red is so deep and so damaged, that it doesn’t appear to have the power of red. I think because of the depth of red that I use, you don’t read it as a bright color anymore. It is a color that appears to radiate a history and a life that came before what we see of the color now.
Berlinde De Bruyckere’s exhibition “A simple prophecy” is on view at Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, through May 13, 2023.