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About Berlinde De Bruyckere
Berlinde De Bruyckere is a contemporary Belgian artist born in 1964. She lives and works in the city of Ghent in Flanders.
De Bruyckere attended the LUCA School of Arts in Ghent. In 2000, the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium commissioned her to make a work to commemorate the tragedy of World War I. Confronted with the vastness of human suffering and the inability to express this through the human body, De Bruyckere chose to work on a larger scale with casts of dead horses, that served as a metaphor for suffering and the loss of human life. De Bruyckere’s work gained international recognition following her first participation in the Venice Biennale in 2003, where ten years later she represented Belgium with the exhibition ‘Kreupelhout – Cripplewood’ , curated by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee.
Her solo exhibitions include ‘Berlinde De Bruyckere’, Sara Hildén Art Museum, Tampere (2018); ‘Embalmed’, Kunsthal Aarhus, Denmark (2017); ‘Suture’ at Leopoldmuseum, Vienna (2016), ‘The Embalmer’ at Kunsthaus Bregenz (2015), Sculptures and Drawings at SMAK, Ghent (2014), ‘We are all Flesh’ at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2012); ‘The Mystery of the Body: Berlinde De Bruyckere in Dialogue with Lucas Cranach and Pier Paolo Pasonli’, the Kunstmuseum Bern (2011); ‘La Maison Rouge’, Fondation Antoine de Galbert, Paris (2005); and ‘Eén’, De Pont Foundation for Contemporary Art, Tilburg (2005).
In 2015 she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Ghent.
What inspires her work?
De Bruyckere is inspired by the human condition, and her work examines aspects of mortality, physicality, decay, and shelter.
Her work responds to the history of painting and significantly to the traditions of the Flemish and German Renaissance, in particular Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) and the leading Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464).
De Bruyckere takes inspiration from ancient mythologies such as Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ and references Christian stories and iconography. In ‘Cripplewood’ (2013), created in collaboration with the Nobel Prize novelist J. M. Coetzee, a giant fallen elm tree, painted in flesh colored wax, bandaged like a wounded body, refers to the patron saint of Venice, St. Sebastian. The martyr has often been depicted tied to a tree, pierced by arrows, but feeling no pain and with a beatific expression on his face.
De Bruyckere’s father was a butcher and a hunter, so from a young age she was in close contact with animal skins and bodies. She has worked with horsehide for many years, but it was only in 2014 that she first visited a skin trader’s workshop in Anderlecht, Belgium, where she witnessed thousands of freshly stripped livestock pelts being processed. The image was so potent that she was compelled to translate it into her work.
What does her work look like?
De Bruyckere’s work consists of sculptures and drawings. Her sculptures are made out of materials such as wax, resin, tanned animal skin, hair, metal, wood, and textiles.
Using wax and resin to create objects that appear to be made from human or animal flesh, the artists confronts us with the vulnerability of the body. The series ‘Anderlecht’ (2018) is on close inspection revealed to be wax casts of stacked animal skins, still holding small remnants of the original salted hides, such as hairs, flakes of skin, and grains of salt. Her training as a painter is evident in the multiple layers of coloured wax that appear in her wax sculptures as a soft palette of grey tones and, in previous works with animal skins, realistic flesh-like colours.
Since the early 1990s, many of De Bruyckere’s major works have featured structures involving blankets, suggesting warmth and protection, but also the vulnerable experiences that lead one to seek such shelter.
What are her main themes?
Drawing from the legacies of the European Old Masters and Christian iconography, as well as mythology and cultural lore, Berlinde De Bruyckere layers existing histories with new narratives; she is concerned with the dualities of love and suffering, danger and protection, life and death, and the human need for understanding.
In the series ‘Courtyard Tales’ (2017 – 18) the deterioration of the tightly woven structure of the woollen blanket speaks of the failure of social structures, created to shield and protect, but that over time have broken down, allowing the weakest to slip through the cracks. These references to social deprivation are a central aspect of De Bruyckere’s practice, and are particularly compelling at this turbulent moment in history.
How does she make her sculptures?
De Bruyckere works with a small team of assistants to create her works, from large-scale works made of horsehide, to wax works that have to be carefully molded, mixed and painted.
De Bruyckere accumulates second-hand traditional blankets that bring their own history to the pieces; each one is charged with stories and meaning that add an additional layer of complexity and intimacy. The blankets are left outside exposed to the elements, allowing them to decompose. The duration of time, the weather, the positioning – sheltered or unsheltered, folded or stretched, all enforce their presence onto the blankets and will determine their appearance and durability once removed from these circumstances. Weathering them in this way robs them of their original purpose – to provide warmth and shelter. Their colours have faded and the fabric is damaged and weakened, covered in mouldy stains. Ragged holes, caused by exposure to the elements, have been further manipulated by the artist to reference a physical wound, emphasising the loss of strength and the fragility of the material.
The series ‘Anderlecht’ (2018), composed of wax casts of stacked animal skins, are built up through layer upon layer of different shades of grey, painted in warm wax, which the artist allows to melt together into a rich palette of colour nuances, bringing a new level of interpretation to the pieces. The sculptures have the appearance of vast, dense, immovable piles; yet the physical fragility of being cast in wax.
How does she consider her drawings?
She sees her drawings as works that require solitude and considers them moments of reflection. She uses drawings to enter a new subject or theme from which point she will then expand with her sculpture.
What other artists’ work does she relate to?
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 – 1553) was one of the leading German painters and printmakers of the early 16th century. As court painter of the Elector of Saxony, the patron of Luther, Cranach is remembered as the chief artist of the Reformation. He painted altarpieces, Lutheran subject pictures and portraits, as well as mythological works and nudes. Cranach was celebrated for his particularly virtuoso rendering of skin and flesh.
Rogier van der Weyden (1399 – 1464) was the leading Netherlandish painter of the mid-15th century. He lived and worked in Brussels; he was extremely inventive inconographically and compositionally, and was a master of depicting human emotion.
Phyllida Barlow (b. 1944) creates anti-monumental sculptures from inexpensive, low-grade materials such as cardboard, fabric, plywood, polystyrene, scrim and cement. These constructions are often painted in industrial or vibrant colours, the seams of their construction left at times visible, revealing the means of their making. See here.
Anj Smith (b. 1978) draws upon sources as disparate as the works of Lucas Cranach, and the couture of Madam Grès (as examples), and weaves archaic traditions and contemporary signs together into a personal cosmology. Her intricately rendered paintings explore issues of identity, eroticism, mortality, and fragility. See here.
Josephsohn (1920 – 2012) devoted his art entirely to the classical theme of sculpture, the human form. His sculptures convey an intensity that speaks of stoicism and dignity in the face of suffering. See here.
Abstraction This is a term that can in its broadest sense be applied to any art that does not represent recognizable objects but which is most commonly applied to those forms of 20th century art in which the traditional European conception of art as the imitation of nature is abandoned.
Casting The act of shaping material by pouring it into a mould while molten.
Mould A hollow container used to give shape to molten or hot liquid material when it cools and hardens.
Northern Renaissance This term is applied to the transmission of Italian imagery and ideals to the rest of Europe.
Organic Form Derived from or related to living matter.
Ovid (43 BC – c. 17 AD) Roman poet who is particularly known for the ‘Metamorphoses’ which he completed around the time of the birth of Christ. This epic poem retells Greek and Roman myths and is an account of how from the beginning of the world right down to his own time bodies had been magically changed, by the power of the gods, into other bodies. The legend of the great hunter Actaeon, who was turned into a stag by the Goddess Diana, is referenced by De Bruckyere in her work ‘Actaeon, 2011 – 2012’.
Resin A usually transparent solid or semi-solid substance sometimes used as a medium by sculptors. Resins can be either natural or synthetic.
Sculpture A three dimensional art made by one of the four basic processes: carving, modelling, casting and constructing.
Wax Used for modelling since the Middle Ages, the properties of wax make it an excellent medium for modelling and casing in moulds. It melts at a low temperature, mixes with any colouring matter, takes surface tints well, and when molten, is highly responsive to impressions from a mould.
SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES DURING YOUR VISIT
NB. You will need to bring pencils and a sketchbook.
Make a circle shape by putting your thumbs and fingers together; this is your viewfinder. Look through your viewfinder at parts of the exhibition, find the view you find most interesting and draw it into a circle.
Pupils focus on the material of the works; selecting a small area of the work and using a variety of mark making techniques (including shading, smudging, rubbing out) pupils evoke what the material might feel like and how it looks. Discuss the language of colours, shapes and marks and how they contribute to the whole work.
In pairs, pupils make notes about the work for a somebody who has not seen it, thinking about the size, material, processes used to make it and its placement in the gallery. They then adapt their descriptions for somebody who is visually impaired, using descriptions such as ‘the blanket is no longer soft and clean, and looks as if it has been left out in the rain and wind’ rather than ‘old blanket’.
PRACTICAL ACTIVITY PROMPTS AND IDEAS FOR DISCUSSION FOLLOWING YOUR VISIT:
Key Stage 1 and 2:
What can you make from blankets and wood? Explore den building as a means to create shelter and space.
Take a piece of plasticine, manipulate it by bending and squeezing but without pulling it apart. Leave in an amorphous shape. Using a selection of wrapping materials (including fabric, string, ribbons, tape) wrap, tie and knot together the materials to cover the plasticine shape. Ask the students to think about what their form could be, and to continue to model it with this in mind.
Key Stage 3:
Create moulds using clay or plasticine of familiar objects; cast these moulds using plaster of paris (under teacher / adult supervision) and observe how the plaster of paris records the detail of the cast object.
Key Stage 4:
Berlinde De Bruckyere make reference to Old Master painting. Examine the way that different modern and contemporary artists have responded to the History of Painting, examples could include Picasso and ‘Las Meninas ‘by Diego Velázquez; Manet and ‘The Venus of Urbino’ by Titian; Warhol and ‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci.
Baert, Barbara, Szeemann, Harald, ‘Berlinde De Bruyckere: One’, Prato: Gli Ori, 2005
Boehler, Arno [et al.], ‘Berlinde De Bruyckere: Suture’, Vienna: Leopold Museum, 2016
Nylén, Antti, Sederholm, Helena, ‘Berlinde De Bruyckere’, Finland: Sara Hildén Art Museum, 2018
Sagmeister, Rudolf [et al.], ‘Berlinde De Bruyckere: The Embalmer’, Bregenz: Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2015
‘In the studio of Berlinde De Bruyckere’, see here, 2015
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