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 - On Doubt and Openness, Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Colours Red and Green [EN, interview]
Interview , 9 p.


Hans Theys

On Doubt and Openness, Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Colours Red and Green
A conversation with Berlinde De Bruyckere


- Some of the first pictures you saw as a child were reproductions of paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder. You have just visited an exhibition of his work.

De Bruyckere: One of the things that struck me in the exhibition is that because Cranach returns to certain themes so often – as indeed I do –, you begin to wonder just how far a single theme can be pared down or, conversely, how many ways there are of exploring different forms and materials within the same theme.  In my view, many of his paintings are really badly painted, especially the portraits. However, in some portraits his admiration for his subject really comes across. These works are wonderful to look at, but all too often he just seems to be churning out commissions…
    Above all I feel an affinity with the way he deals with corporality, the way he uses the sensual body as an image for the mental body. There was a painting on show of a Pietà with a veiled Mary. Her whole face, but also the way her hands are placed round the body of her son tell us something about the pain she feels. You know that Christ is dead, but she holds him in her arms as if he was still alive. Christ’s face and gestures constitute a powerful experience within the painting. His hands are clenched, as if trying to hold onto life, but you sense that it has just gone out of him. On the edge of the painting we see a crown, which is really lovely because it denotes the ‘letting go’ and suggests that enough is enough. I’d like to make a work centred on a crown of thorns, which conveys that sense of letting go… For me it’s a really powerful painting: the way the body occupies the picture-plane, the way the hand is positioned in the corner and the feet are not contained within the framework of the painting.  

- The legs call to mind your sculptures. Downstairs I saw a photograph of the man who posed for your sculpture in the position of the ‘Thinker’ and to my amazement I saw that his legs really do look like the legs in the sculpture. His legs are strangely thin, almost sculptural. And you have that here too: a sort of emaciated leg.

De Bruyckere: As I said, I feel an affinity with Cranach because of the way he distorts the body. I have never copied his work on paper (in the way that I have Antonello da Messina’s), but his bodies have always fascinated me because of the restraint. I could never copy work by Rubens with its corporosity and fullness, because it is restraint that is important to me. The restraint you feel here derives from that dent in the leg. If I made a sculpture of that body, I would give it the same dent… But if I had to sum up what it is that strikes me most about Cranach I would say his subject matter; all those essential questions which I deal with in my work, too, and which have been asked countless times and are answered and not answered and asked again. In that respect we are brother and sister, I think.

- A moment ago you referred to the mental body. What do you mean by that?

De Bruyckere: When I look at his paintings, I experience their physicality as the medium to express the thoughts and concerns of those figures: their fears, their passions, their doubts… It is all to do with man’s mental state, which is evoked by the visible body.

- Just now you spoke of your intention to make a work centred on the image of a discarded crown of thorns. In a previous conversation you told me you would like to make a head.

De Bruyckere: Perhaps a crown is a more powerful starting point because it also evokes the head, but then by its absence. I was planning to approach that head in an abstract way, it’s just that I hadn’t found the right form.

- After our conversation I saw a large head by Rodin in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. Its neck becomes the socle.

De Bruyckere: That reminds me of Carlos Saura’s film Salomé and the scene where they cut off John the Baptist’s head. They couldn’t just walk around on stage with a severed head, so they put John in a pillar which they rolled across the stage, the head protruding. That was a brilliant image! Like Salomé in this painting: her gown is almost pillar-like. Her expression is fantastic too. You feel a sort of unfulfilled desire. And all those other women looking on. Everyone has a different viewpoint… Whether it is Judith or Salomé, you feel the passion that drove them to decapitate John. That’s what’s so powerful about Cranach. The care he took with her jewellery and the fineness of her gown reinforce the fact that a beautiful, sensual woman is capable of such a horrific deed. In my opinion, Cranach is a master when it comes to creating characters of whom you would not expect such acts. He always comes up with exciting contrasts. You can see that in this hand which is touching an ear. The hand is not actually touching the ear, because it is wearing a glove, however elegant that glove may be.   

- The dog also has an unusual viewpoint.

De Bruyckere: Yes, it’s licking up the blood. I always found that a powerful moment: the head being chopped off and the blood spurting everywhere. Even as a child leafing through Artis-Historia books and seeing that severed, rolling head gushing blood, I thought it was extraordinary. I’ve always found it fascinating.

- What is your favourite colour?

De Bruyckere: Green, because there are so many different shades of green in nature. I once made a huge carpet of flowers for an exhibition in Speelhoven. I had found a large open expanse and was amazed at all the different shades of green there. My grandparents were florists so as a child I often went to nurseries. I always loved the fields of begonias with their reds, yellows, oranges and pinks. Having found that amazingly green place, I wanted to put something there that would be equally powerful. I took an Iraqi carpet as my starting point and designed a carpet of flowers using scores of different shades of red and pink. The experience was very intense. The flowers vibrated. One of the reasons it looked so strange and intense was because there was nobody there. Normally you see flower carpets in the middle of a city, but this one was at the end of a no-through road in the small town of Aarschot. I had also erected long ladders used for fruit-picking so that people could see a larger piece of the carpet. For me the most beautiful thing about the carpet was its decay. After the exhibition all the flowers withered and the grass began to grow back. It was magnificent. You really felt that while you can try and do something in nature, it will always be temporary.

- Your assistants told me you are able to see beauty in the dichotomized carcass of a horse which initially they found difficult to appreciate. I wonder if you learned to look at a dissected horse as if it were the maquette of a landscape? Is it true that you see a sort of red landscape in those horses, a landscape with lots of different colours and shades of red?

De Bruyckere: Yes. I had never looked at it like that, but what you say is consistent with a very recent experience at the veterinary school. They had offered me a dichotomized horse to cast but I started taking detailed photographs of the internal organs, the ribs and the muscular tissue. There’s a lot of colour in that. While I was taking those photographs, I remembered medieval paintings in which blood and the colour red were treated in a very unusual way… When you asked me what my favourite colour is, I said ‘green’, because I find it the most restful colour. I like to look at trees and at the way the light colours all the leaves differently. I had never thought about red in the same way until now.

- One of the things that amazes me about artists is the way they always seem to make certain images over and over again without realizing it. Two months ago when I suggested making a green cover for a book about your work, your immediate reaction was that there is no green in your work. Yet there is a lot of green in your wax sculptures. Now you tell me that you have never considered red to be multicoloured, whereas five minutes ago you told me you once made a huge, red carpet of flowers. So could it be that you unconsciously look for green because you want to get away from red? But at the same time seeing landscapes in animal carcasses in your father’s butcher’s shop as a child seems to have been your way of making them palatable.

De Bruyckere: I don’t think artists should try and understand everything. If I could put the answers into words, I wouldn’t make sculptures any more. So as a general rule, I try to say as little as possible about my work… I am an iconophile and an iconoclast. One sculpture follows on from another. It is a story which needs to develop slowly.

- In his introduction to Werner Herzog’s diary excerpts about his journey to Paris on foot, Wieringa says that Herzog approaches film-making as a hopeless venture. Herzog dwells on the hopelessness of making an artwork and believes that doubt is inherent in what he does. Can you relate to that?

De Bruyckere: Absolutely, which is why I chose to publish excerpts from that book in a new book about my work. I couldn’t work without that element of doubt, even if it is sometimes very difficult to cope with. I believe doubt is an integral part of making sculptures or works of art in general, whereas certainty gives you nothing to say. You are driven by a desire for something that may be unachievable. For example, Herzog used manpower to pull a boat over a real mountain rather than stage the scene in a studio somewhere. I understand all too well why he didn’t want to fake it. All that heaving and toiling gives you a very different experience, particularly when you are working with other people. It is that experience which enables an artist to say something, I think. It is much easier to stage things in a film studio than actually mobilize people, get them to believe in a particular set of ideas and go for it. And that is something I experience myself very strongly when working with the people around me. I realize I have to make them all crazy enough to go for the same thing, each in their own way, because we are all very different... Best of all is that in the end there are people who recognize something of themselves in the sculptures. That’s what makes a good sculpture, I think: the fact that it doesn’t rely on a meaning or subject matter, but that it is so broad that you can take it in any number of different directions and lose your way in it.

- It should be open?

De Bruyckere: Yes. Because if you can categorize a sculpture or any work of art and attach a name to it, you suffocate it, you shut it off and rob it of its raison d’être. You need to be able to let a work go. I can do that... I can only make the sculpture, keep it with me for a while to charge it and after that occasionally show it in different contexts. You have to put up with your work being read or interpreted in different ways… If an image just relies on the meaning the artist gave it, you forget it as soon as you have seen it. Good images stay with you and the questions keep coming.

- The artist gives shape to doubt, perhaps because of an aversion to ‘certainty’.

De Bruyckere: I think so, yes. We used to have the certainties of faith and tradition, now we are all looking for rules and norms to help us survive in this world, though we are always wondering if they are the right ones.

- Tarkovsky describes it as “an inexhaustible pleasure to discover that the image is impenetrable and does not reveal its true meaning”.

De Bruyckere: That is why we return to beautiful works time and time again. Once we think we have understood them, the longing to see them again ceases, the longing to have them with us all the time, the longing to cherish them in our memory.   

- Do you remember which was the first artwork to affect you in this way?

De Bruyckere: I would find it hard to choose any artwork, because my first contact with art was through the Artis-Historia books. As a child I never saw artworks for real.  

- Your parents never took you to museums?

De Bruyckere: Definitely not. Art did not feature in our lives at all; it was not even discussed. My parents did collect the points for the Artis-Historia books, but it was a customer, I think, who carefully stuck the prints in the books and gave them to me. As a five or six-year-old, I remember being intrigued by the illustrations. I was moved by the power of the paintings, even if I had never actually seen them.
    My first physical experience of art was when I was at primary school and we went to see the Gustaaf Van de Woestijne exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. The teacher allowed us to walk round on our own. Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ carrying the cross made a great impression on me. I found Christ with the cross and all those hideous, staring figures around him really scary.
    After that I was far more interested in poetry and books than in visual art, because at boarding school I found large piles of magazines in the library. There wasn’t a single book about art.

- What was life like at boarding school?

De Bruyckere: I have some very good and some very bad memories of it. But I was at boarding school from the age of five and so had nothing to compare it with. I had no brothers or sisters and in that respect it was nice having a group of girls around me at boarding school. On the other hand, the experience impacted on many aspects of my life. At the age of five, I suddenly had to cope with a large school, difficult tasks and nuns I could not really relate to and so I have always felt I had to do everything on my own… Every decision I made, I made myself. There was nobody I could turn to and ask: am I doing this right or am I doing this wrong? As a child I missed having someone to look out for me and help me solve questions and make decisions. However, I think I may have become an artist because I was used to questioning things. In that respect I don’t regret going to boarding school.
    I wasn’t a star pupil. I had a group of really nice friends and we spent a lot of time together. We escaped the world of the nuns through our imaginations and that was exciting. Drawing was my escape valve, my way of expressing myself and finding my feet in a world that was a gaping hole and one big question-mark. The need to express myself through sculpture is certainly the result of going to boarding school. I was there from the age of five to fourteen; that’s a long period in a child’s life… But I shouldn’t give the impression that I was always fearful, anxious or sad because I had to fend for myself. Sometimes I got quite a kick out of going it alone. There were certainly times when I thought: I did that all on my own and I don’t have to share it with anyone. Even then I attached great importance to emotions which I didn’t have to share and translate. And I want my own children to have that too; I don’t want to over-protect them and try and read their minds so as to know exactly what is going on in there. I believe I can help them by being open and receptive and by giving something back to the world, but I don’t believe my job as a mother should go beyond that.

- You said that as a child you started drawing and created a world of your own. When did you realize you wanted to make works of art?

De Bruyckere: I can’t remember. When I was twelve, I decided to do arts at secondary school. My parents allowed me to choose and now I’m really glad they did. At one stage in my life I wondered if it would not have been better to go to an ordinary secondary school first, because at the academy you only learn techniques and don’t develop any sensitivity for poetry, literature, languages or the history of art. But I think I’m making up for that now.

- Bosch’s painting frightened you. Do you remember the first time you drew comfort from an artwork?

De Bruyckere: (Thinks for a long time.) Strange. I always feel the need to comfort people in my work, but off the top of my head I can’t remember an image that has given me comfort.

- Perhaps you want to make them yourself because you feel they don’t exist?

De Bruyckere: Maybe. I think I find more solace in books, in films and in conversations with friends and family members. My husband and children bring comfort and serenity to my life. Without them I would be precipitate and I would never be able to stop working.

- Is being married to an artist important to you?

De Bruyckere: I think so, because my husband understands that element of doubt as nobody else can. There are times when Peter [Buggenhout] comes into my workshop and makes a comment almost over his shoulder which is spot-on. He sees the whole process, he has followed it and experienced it and then, just when I need feedback, he knows exactly what is required. I’m grateful for that. He is not the sort of person who wants to thrash things out, know and understand everything that is going on in my head. Certainly as two artists together you have to give each other the freedom to explore and develop and you should not demand or expect constant explanations… I think that is important in every family: you should be given the space to be yourself.

Montagne de Miel, June 30th 2008