Published in Sculpture Magazine
Is religious art compatible with today’s post-modern and cynical attitudes? Very rarely does one see contemporary artwork infused with the sublime: that characteristic that makes you feel as if there really is something beyond the physical self, something more permanent. Berlinde de Bruyckere’s sculptures are indeed imbued with that quality – they combine awe and anxiety to bring you closer to something akin to spiritual upliftment.
The Belgian sculptor who has become an international sensation in recent years, works in Ghent, Belgium in a former Catholic boys school transformed into a studio, which she shares with her husband, also a sculptor. They also live in the building along with their two children.
In this large space, Berlinde surrounds herself with reproductions of works by old masters including Lucas Cranach, Matthias Grünewald, and Luca Giordano, to study the positions of the painters’ subjects in motion and pain. The influence from these religious artists is very visible in Berlinde’s work – it is clear that there is a search for the Christian ecstasy often found in the paintings of old masters that the artist so admires.
Berlinde’s search for truth, however, is not answered with a revelation about God, but rather it is a Kierkegaardian process, filled with pain, anguish, and doubt – a representation of the human condition. Her figures are fragments of bodies, some contorted, some graceful, all immensely beautiful. They allude to the horrors that have occurred in recent times, but reveal the universal reality of suffering through the ages.
In her most recent exhibition at Hauser and Wirth, Zurich, Berlinde exhibits some new works in her characteristic style, and some much more abstract, but throughout she continues her examination of death, pain, and solitude.
In Lange Eenzame Man, or Lonely Man, a body is lying sideways on a pillow, encased in a vitrine, headless, armless, with his feet together in a contorted twist. The figure was made after the wax cast of a male model, so it is hollow on the inside, allowing us to peek through the empty space where the head and neck would have been, inside the body’s cavity. The texture of the wax of which the sculpture is made seems skin-like, but there is much red pigment in the coloring, evoking blood, of course. How can such a corpse still contain red blood, the color of life? Berlinde’s goal is not to detach the viewer from death, but bring its horrible reality into our consciousness. Like the vitrine encased molds of Mt. Vesuvius’s victims that still remind visitors of the painful death Pompeiians experienced during the volcanic eruption more than 1900 years ago, so the Lonely Man becomes a permanent testament to human suffering. Yet his pose, the fragility of the body itself, and the pillow underneath are also direct references to depictions of Christ by Old Masters. The specificity and universality of the piece are in keeping with religious art over the last few hundred years.
This influence is no surprise considering Berlinde’s upbringing in a Catholic family, with a Catholic school education, and her studio’s location, but her preoccupation with the existential concerns of humanity make her very much a part of our modern world.
In another piece, Inside Me, Berlinde uses a new material, iron, to tackle the beautiful and the terrifying. The sculpture of a horse’s carcass is cast in iron and is covered with horse skin, a method which both objectifies the horrors of violent death by focusing on the graceful form of the animal, and triggers visions of war and destruction that are only too timely. The horse as symbol of the tragedy of war has been used throughout the Western canon for many generations, but Inside Me especially brings to mind the chapter in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front describing in great detail the cries of the wounded horses on the front, and the soldiers’ hesitation at putting the horses out of their misery.
In her newest series, which is a leap from her previous, more literal work, antlers hang in twos in various conformations on the wall. These pieces, all called Romeu (my deer) are also cast in iron, then covered with Berlinde’s signature wax layers and red pigment, more metaphorically and subtly allude to death. But the death in these pieces is mythological – the antlers conjure up the story of Actaeon the hunter and Artemis the goddess of the hunt, who was caught bathing in the woods by Actaeon, and out of anger turned him into a deer that was ultimately killed by his own dogs. These pieces are intriguing for their subtlety and elegance. One of the pieces in the series is even wrapped in a soft gauze as a sort of bandage, evoking the fragility of life in a delicate and rather abstract fashion.
Berlinde de Bruyckere’s work is arresting and disturbing, but it also combines the dark with the light to bring forth the duality of our condition. It is comforting to know that the great existential themes of the modernist period are still being explored, but with a contemporary touch, thus connecting our indifferent times with the impassioned ones of the first part of the 20th century. It is also this bridge between the now and the then that makes Berlinde’s work so saturated with spiritual wonder, the same feeling elicited by the Old Masters’ depictions of man’s fate as rendered in their paintings of Jesus.