Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (M HKA / Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Berlinde De Bruyckere - 2008 - The Fragile, Godly Boy Himself [EN, essay]
Text , 6 p.


Hans Theys

The fragile, godly boy himself
About ‘Behind Sadness’, ‘Wound’ and other sculptures by Berlinde De Bruyckere

I would very much like to give you an immaculate account on the solo exhibition in New York that I witnessed coming into being during the past week, but persistent hesitations make my thoughts falter. I have, yet again, experienced from close by how defencelessly artists can give themselves to the world, and how simply and without taking the slightest risk – as the restaurant critic in the film ‘Ratatouille’ formulates it – viewers and critics can judge and trample their work.

There aren’t that many themes in art, I think. I can discern death, love, and work (art). There are also not that many feelings to be distinguished: fear, rage, sadness, rage, humiliation, rage… And then there are a few affects: falling in love, homesickness, desire, jealousy, regret… Are there any other themes in art? I don’t think so. This is why I prefer to speak as much as possible with artists about the form of their work, and I choose most of all to stay silent about any so-called “content” that could be somehow miraculously detached from a form (in the way you extract an insect from its crunchy exterior).

Still, there are artists with whom you can impossibly discuss the form of their work, without also talking about their attempts to say something about the weight of our existence. Berlinde De Bruyckere (°1964) is such an artist. Her work is like a testimony. A way of being part of this world. An evocation and a conquest of things. Rendering visible the invisible, making thought heavy, making desire and grief slimy, thickening fear and sympathy, softening rage, hardening the fact of always hopelessly being on the outside of things. And it is not only for this reason that De Bruyckere is an exceptional artist. It is also because, as a human being, as a woman, she remains gentle in an exceptional way: present, attached, genuine, attentive and brave. I have met very few artists who are not mercilessly egocentric, who are aware of the existence of others and who try to do something else with their work than starching their own meagre existence. Ecce homo. Here stands a woman. And she makes marvellous, courageous work.

Old images

There are but few feelings, I think, and few ideas (which are actually images that have lost their magical effect), but is this reason enough to never look at those feelings and ideas? Here we are, dealing with an extraordinary artist, who is also an extraordinary human being. The images she creates move us; even when, as has been the case in recent years, they radically return to old images and seem to leave the predictable pathways of contemporary art. If we may believe one of Breton’s memories of youth, then Gustave Moreau painted Biblical and classical heroines in order to be able to paint the same woman over and over again; to adorn her with the same jewels and give her the same eyes and mouth. Maybe Berlinde De Bruyckere is returning to older images (subjects and themes) in order to show the same, concrete woman: as a lump of coagulated oil; as a plume of smoke that at times takes on the stature of a ghost; as a newly budded flower or a gnarled branch; as a receding landscape; as a sinking away in thought and dreams and fears; as a stone; as a stubborn holding of one’s ground; as an endless striding forwards; as an awakening, a state of being awake and firmly holding guard.

In a recently published interview, Berlinde De Bruyckere told me that her parents ran a butcher shop and that she often saw men wearing bloody, white aprons, carrying in cattle cut in half. In this light her current work seems to be an attempt at restraining gruesome images from her childhood by discovering a kind of beauty in their texture, that opens like a flower of reality in a spray of colours and light effects. But in a conversation that I had with her as part of a TV documentary about her work, she told me that as a young girl she had been sent to boarding school where she taught herself to draw, leafing through cheap art books with pictures of classical paintings, including some by Cranach the Elder.

All the more beautiful and mournful then is the image of this young woman, whose homesickness got mixed up with reveries of old paintings, of which the gruesome scenes became intertwined with images of the dead, cold meat that was closer to her parents’ fingers than she would ever be… And when I asked her to describe her loveliest experience of beauty, she described entering a convent in France, as an adult, being transported by an overwhelming chill, without consciously being reminded to the cool butcher shop and the icy corridors of the convent in which she grew up.


This said, there is little point in pausing any longer before the possible experiences and images that lie at the basis of this personal, extremely specific practice. We should, instead, direct our attention towards the forms in which it has been shaped and from which it has gradually begun to develop in an almost autonomous way. As is often the case in art works that touch us, the sculptures contain contradictions, which bring them to life in an eternally oscillating ambiguity. The blankets are warm, but they evoke a sense of suffocation. They lie in old cabinets, reminiscent of museums and convents; they have cold, antique windowpanes. Behind these windows we can see wax forms that are reminiscent of trees and thick, bent branches, which are holding themselves upright, crouching, sheltering, and leaning in an uncanny battle-array. The wax casts, melted by heat but by now cooled down and stiff, wrap themselves like large skins around rusted, metal poles. The figures seem human and inhuman. They become flesh, a preparation, or painterly sculpture. Every sculpture strongly evokes the feeling of a proud, be it sometimes worn out loner, of which the face is however never visible.

The faces are never visible, because De Bruyckere wishes to prevent that the viewer only looks at the face of the sculpture. This is why her figures are covered with blankets, their faces hidden behind their hair or why they simply do not have a head. Dozens of sculptures change into holes at the shoulders, which lead to the dark, hollow inside of the sculpture. The progression between inside and outside is gradual, immeasurable, dark. The recent sculptures are not built up by addition of matter to a core or by removal of matter from a larger volume. They consist of long and thick pieces of wax that are created by painting with wax, layer after layer, in silicone moulds. Each layer is semi-transparent and differently coloured. The eventual aspect of the sculpture is unpredictable. When the casts are removed from the mould, they are still malleable, and they are used in a non-realistic manner by giving them a new form, which is hung up like a cocoon from a metal hook on a stand, which is anchored in an invisibly supported and weighted plinth. The space between the metal hook and the wax shell is filled with cobalt fibres and epoxy.

Grey Thought

And so I stand here in New York facing the monumental sculpture ‘Behind Sadness’: above a top-heavy wooden worktable (built like a roof and drenched in motor oil), we see a three metre tall, grey sculpture. It hangs from a construction with metal posts normally used by masons. It is composed of three large casts (two for the bulbous rear and one for the hollow front). It has an unrealistic shape, with realistic details. Three protrusions, reminiscent of cut off legs, evoke the image of a suspended animal. Upon entering the exhibition space, we see the sculpture from the side and from behind. Whoever walks around the sculpture, recognises on the other, hollow side, the ribbed pattern of a quarter of beef. On this side the sculpture arises as a nightmarish ghost, as a magnificent spectre that we seem to remember from old paintings, as if it had been branded in our memory for centuries. Like a grey thought that we had forgotten for just a moment.

To the left behind this sculpture is a pieta: a male figure who seems to slide off the plinth and seems to be holding up another, armless figure, balancing on his chest. What an image! Here we see not the mother of God mourning her perished son, but the fragile, godly boy himself who gently tries to prevent another boy, that he is himself, from slipping into the eternal night.

(We also found a pieta consisting of two men in the Flemalle panels of Robert Campin in which a bearded figure – who is God, and who has thrust himself into our reality in order to teach us how we can cope with our mortality – holds up a feminine young man by an armpit and a shoulder, with invisible but infinite strength, whereby the perished God slips of the plinth with a twisted right foot.)

In an adjacent space, which is visible from the street, we discover two leaning figures whose upper bodies transform into hanging branches. Slowly they change into trees, and grow towards the earth. One of the figures is standing so lightly on the tips of his feet that it seems as if he is being let down from above. He appears to float, lifted up by his or her becoming a tree.

In the last space, finally, we find two ‘heart-shaped’, abstract sculptures, which are attached by flat ropes to a steel structure that has been half-closed with panels. The metal structure repeats itself in the supporting structure of the gallery’s roof, which rests on metal buttresses. The planes left open mirror a void in the ceiling. The works are called ‘Wound’: they are the remains of a wound, the story behind a wound, a form growing out of itself which can swallow us up or take us in or overwhelm us. These are the last sculptures that Berlinde De Bruyckere made for this show.

And here I would like to return to the starting point of this text. Two years ago, Berlinde De Bruyckere visited this exhibition space for the first time. After a visit to the Metropolitan Museum, where she saw a pendant that represented a couple in love on one side and a skeleton on the other, she decided, especially for this gallery, to make an exhibition that would render present both Eros and Thanatos. We feel that the form of the works relates to the exhibition space. But do we also recognise the themes? What fascinates me in the ‘Wound’-sculptures is that they came into being in an unpredictable way, from the use of casts of shaved horse bodies for the composition of more than life-size ‘Men of Sorrow’. Through the change in scale the material was used in a more abstract manner, and led to less figurative works. When it comes down to it, the true contribution of these works does not consist in the theme that they wish to embody, but in the specific way in which they do this. And then again, love, life and death are really made present. That makes at least two simultaneous things. We feel the theme and we see the form. Like a medal with two sides. Tumbling and flickering.

Montagne de Miel, 12th of October, 2008