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 - About Socles for the Night and about Soothing Circumstances [EN, essay]
Text , 5 p.


Hans Theys

About Socles for the Night and about Soothing Circumstances
A Conversation with Berlinde De Bruyckere

The following conversation contains a number of references to statements by the artist Paul McCarthy. It is not the intention to suggest that McCarthy and his work have a particular bearing on Berlinde De Bruyckere (°1964) and her work. It is simply that he had paid a visit to her workshop a few days earlier and so many of his remarks were still fresh in her memory. In the normal course of events I would have removed these digressions from the conversation. However, the image of the emptied body used by McCarthy and quoted by De Bruyckere is so important that I decided to adhere to the authentic drift of our conversation.

I am in Berlinde De Bruyckere’s workshop. She’s supervising a number of men loading large, heavy crates onto a lorry. I study several small reproductions on the wall, including Cranach the Elder’s Lucretia; a photograph of homeless people or bodies lying under blankets; Paul McCarthy’s The Garden; Rogier Van der Weyden’s Deposition from the Cross; a prisoner in a Christ-like pose with a hood over his head, being tortured in the Abu Ghraib prison; Grünewald’s altarpiece and a photograph of the artist’s son resting his head on someone’s lap. I walk round the sculptures which are in the making: a Pietà, a branch person and a figure with two backs. And then we have coffee together.

- When I look at your latest sculptures – including the ‘Schmerzensmänner’ (Men of Sorrow) –, it strikes me that you set about your work like a painter. Not only on a small scale, because of the facture of the surface – which is tinted with colours that emanate from the inside of the wax layers, as in Rogier Van der Weyden’s paintings – but also on a large scale, because of their structure: the sculptures consist of what might be described as a self-supporting hull arranged around a skeletal structure. The space between the hull and the structure is only filled in later on with cobalt fibre soaked in epoxy. In that sense your sculptures can be seen almost as thick paint strokes, as if you have applied the wax with a gigantic brush around a non-existent core.

De Bruyckere: As a matter of fact, I trained as a painter. I don’t see myself as a traditional sculptress in the sense that I don’t construct my sculptures by gradually adding or removing material… I am someone who brings things together. I regard sculpting as a sort of recuperation process: my first sculptures were bas-reliefs made from bits of iron and wood I had found, which I then used to make a new sculpture by putting them together (see ill. on p. 4). By combining a stool and a pile of blankets, I create a new reality, a new meaning. I am fascinated by used objects and materials; they are charged with meaning. For example, I once made roses with used lead; the lead was weathered and so perfect for my sculpture.

- Your recent sculptures are the result of assembling casts of parts of human or animal bodies.

De Bruyckere: I ask models to pose in specific positions and then we make casts of parts of the body which seem to me essential to that position. I then use those casts to make a silicone mould, which I paint in with coloured wax.

- So they are really the result of painting? 

De Bruyckere: Yes. For every sculpture we create a colour palette which consists of numerous pieces of coloured wax. Depending on the colour I need, I melt a sample and paint in the patch. The effect is achieved by painting a number of transparent layers one over the other.

- The result isn’t visible until you remove the form from the mould.

De Bruyckere: Yes, I can’t control what it eventually looks like – only an approximation. If I want a particular colour to show through in a particular place, then I make that colour very hot so that it melts through to the bottom.

- And after that you can’t touch them up because the outer layer has taken on the microscopic form of the silicone mould (it shows the details of the skin).

De Bruyckere: Yes, the moulds are very detailed.

- You created your recent sculptures by fashioning together several hollow casts. You begin by fastening them together with thick needles and lengths of string and when the form is definitive, you join them together. Partly because of their coloration, but also because of the verve of the different parts, these sculptures look like three-dimensional reproductions of figures in paintings by Francis Bacon.

De Bruyckere: Others have said the same thing.

- In 1975 when Bacon was asked by Sylvester what appealed to him so much about painting faces of screaming people, he replied that he found black holes surrounded by shiny teeth a fascinating subject. He loved the technical difficulties involved in trying to paint a dark hole. 

De Bruyckere: You see the same thing in Bernini’s monument to the Blessed Ludovica. Her ecstasy is expressed by the opening of her mouth; also by her hand, but particularly the mouth. 

- The mouth is the place where our outside becomes a dark, antediluvian inside, where the light has not yet penetrated. If we ignore their cobalt filling, your sculptures are hollow. In some places you leave an opening. That hole then seems to become the real core, which can only be made visible by building a sculpture around it, as a special socle for a special hole. On an emotional level, the sculptures seem to act as a veil hiding and revealing the night or the unutterable. On a structural level, however – and more importantly, I think– they allow us to reflect on what it means to make a sculpture. 

De Bruyckere: The hollow is very important to me. Not only the hollow of the sculpture, but also that of the body. Last week Paul McCarthy paid me a visit and we had good conversation. Even though our works are miles apart, we do start from the same needs, the same fears and pain. “The emptier you can make the body by vomiting, bleeding, urinating, defecating, sweating, crying or ‘coming’, the freer it can be”, he told me.

- So we could regard his films as recordings of attempts to turn living bodies into sculptures, just as in his work the existence of several, more or less polished versions of the same sculptures invests the sculpture with a sort of spiritualization… He likes a sketch as much as a polished end-product and he likes to place those different levels next to each other as different stages in the realization of a fantasy or the poeticization of reality…

De Bruyckere: He thinks I should show my sculptures in their unfinished state, with the scars still visible.

- You are currently working on a sculpture which makes us think of a human body bending forward, its arms dangling and seemingly turning into branches, cane supports or insects’ legs. In the right ankle we also see an exposed bone, which could be an outward growing tree.

De Bruyckere: Yes, it looks as if the body is being pulled downwards by a parasite. I recently came across a drawing I did in 1997, showing a similar parasitical form which seems to be controlling a figure.

- In this drawing we see a human figure surrounded by very lightly applied stripes of red paint, criss-crossed with small lines like a scar. Those scars also appear in your unfinished sculptures, the various parts of which are held together by means of staples, thick pins or pieces of string.

De Bruyckere: As I said, McCarty thinks I should keep those scars in the final version, but in my opinion they would divert attention away from the essence. I want to remove everything that is superfluous. Keeping the needles or the string, which conjure up the image of a wound or scar, would be a guaranteed success, but to me they are surplus to requirements… And there is another difference between McCarthy’s work and mine. I see the subject matter of my sculptures as very hard. A body that turns into a tree or a branch is only bearable because of a certain aesthetic… And herein lies a second, more specific similarity with the work of Bacon, who showed his paintings behind glass, in a beautiful wooden, sometimes gilt frame. He built in a sort of ‘soothing circumstance’ to make his subjects accessible. I try and do the same by using blankets, or socles with a lovely patina.

- In the Pietà you are currently working on, one of the two figures suddenly acquires two backs (see ill. on p. 52-53) and in another sculpture we see a double backbone. That is a more sculptural way of making the composite character of the sculpture felt than just keeping the needles. After all, you’re not concerned with illustrating an idea, but with a sculptural approach to an experience… You say that your work and McCarthy’s take the same fears and pain as their starting point. To me that is less fascinating than the fact that McCarthy also works with holes, wormholes and hollows. One of his first works was a window he cut out in his windowless student digs; later on he worked with an H-shape configuration derived from the square pipes of an air-conditioning system, and now he makes inflatable, hollow blow-ups of existing forms (for example, a sculpture by Henry Moore) into which he drills holes. The sculptures look like structures around those holes. In fact, his exhibitions seem to take place inside our body or head, as if they are no more than the shadowy occupants of a wormhole. I told him his work put me in mind of Proust’s description of dreams as “illuminated bowels”. “Nice image”, he replied, “I once made a work that was set inside the stomach of a chipmunk…”

De Bruyckere: I found The Garden at the S.M.A.K. unbearable.

- Why?

De Bruyckere: To begin with you have that film set which he recuperated from a sort of Bonanza-like television series. I do like those sort of reversals of use. In The Garden he has two men, who might well be the heroes of that sort of television series, screw a tree and the ground. I find that pitiful and painful. You feel so ill at ease… like a voyeur… looking on as the father screws the tree and the son the ground. For me a tree is a symbol of life, a fantastic icon. I was very uncomfortable walking round and through the garden, with the sound of that mechanical screwing. And then you arrived in a space where two sexless, wax dolls were lying on a table… They had formerly served in The Garden, and their fucking mechanism was broken… A really painful image…

- You both pay a great deal of attention to the socles. For example, he makes a wonderful socle by joining ordinary tables together with tape. Your socles are superb too. For example, I really like that double sculptor’s socle: two revolving modelling tables placed one over the other.

De Bruyckere: Yes, all my life I have collected beautiful objects which I gradually started to use as socles.

- In ‘Schmerzensmann V’ (Man of Sorrow V) the iron pillar looks quite solid by comparison with the wax figure.

De Bruyckere: There are five of these sculptures. They were made for two exhibition spaces with a mezzanine. I wanted to make sculptures which looked good both from the ground floor and from the mezzanine. The posts are wide because they allude to the traditional statue representing a hero on a column. They came from an old, dilapidated station. But those shabby, rusting poles to which warped, tortured bodies cling, are a far cry from the heroism of traditional sculptures.

- The hero is slumped round the column?

De Bruyckere: Yes. One of the two exhibitions took place in London and I kept thinking of Nelson’s Column. 

- Could you give another example of a sculpture inspired by a socle?

De Bruyckere: The Pietà you see here was originally created for a niche. But during the sculpting process I had to replace the niche by another socle. The niche didn’t work.

- Was it too prominent? Did it give the sculpture a too official status?

De Bruyckere: Yes… First we made a female figure. Then we tried to place a character on her lap. It didn’t work. Then we placed this second character next to her. But it still didn’t work. However, as soon as I removed the figures from the niche and placed them on another socle, I started to concentrate on the rear side of the sculpture and that’s when the split back came about, as if the second character had doubled to surround the first. It was also clear that three legs were enough. Eventually I made the first character a man. The woman’s breast was superfluous. I am really pleased with the rear side of the piece. The backs look like two crumpled paper bags. Actually the sculpture became less and less figurative, so there are fewer inessentials to distract the attention away from what I want to convey. For me the sculpture is about two people comforting each other, not about men or women. 

- That’s also why the characters don’t have faces, like the horses. One of the things I particularly like about your horse sculptures is that they are not repellent despite the absence of a face.

De Bruyckere: The horses’ bodies were taken from casts of dead horses. The heads of those corpses are awful to look at, I don’t want to show them. The human figures don’t have faces because I want to avoid a situation whereby the viewer only looks at the face and sees the rest of the sculpture as incidental. I want my sculptures to conduct a dialogue with the viewer for their completeness, not for their face. It seems to me that faces make sculptures too accessible.

- Let’s go back to the Men of Sorrow.

De Bruyckere: Making those sculptures was an overwhelming experience. The fact that those Men of Sorrow are affixed to poles high above the ground meant they had to be larger than life. Consequently, their bodies are made up of casts of horses’ carcasses. Putting them together was really tough, both physically and emotionally. Up and down the whole day with a steeplejack. And then those enormous horses’ bodies! After a while, it’s more than your body can take, but you are in charge and so you have to keep going, both mentally and physically… I have already told you that the Men of Sorrow started out as sculptures for high-ceilinged exhibition spaces with a mezzanine. I like the ambiguity of those sculptures. There are parallels with the three figures on Mount Calvary. Schmerzensmann V is the most phallic. On one side he has grown round the pole, on the other side he is open, more feminine. But perhaps I shouldn’t point these things out; I wouldn’t want to discourage the viewer from attaching his or her own meaning to my sculptures. For me there is no story, no unequivocal meaning. It’s good if my sculptures start to mingle with other events and if people see unexpected things in them. If they also arouse emotion or provide comfort, I’m very glad.

- Your sculptures seem to be increasingly naked. There is something very human about them because of the flesh-coloured wax, but also something very inhuman and nocturnal. They are very hard. Is that your experience too?

De Bruyckere: Yes, I agree, they are very hard. 

- You make things you find unsettling. Why do you do that?

De Bruyckere: I don’t set out to do that; those sculptures surprise me. Just as I like the incredible freedom of watercolours or painting in with wax, I find not being in complete control of what is happening very liberating. Seeing what you are doing is restrictive… But my sculptures are not only hard; I hope they also offer some sort of comfort or sense of security. Somebody once told me they found solace in one of my sculptures. I can’t imagine a more wonderful compliment! I try to make sculptures which are both frightening and comforting. Like the blankets. They create a feeling of warmth and safety, but they also have connotations of oppressiveness and suffocation.

- Like in the sculpture with the figure on an upside-down washtub? We see the figure’s legs, but its head and upper body are wrapped in a blanket…

De Bruyckere: Some feminist authors see the upside-down washtub as a plea to housewives to end their so-called oppression, but that was not my intention of course. I don’t like that sort of narrow-minded approach to feminism. And my work has no narrative, illustrative or anecdotal content.

- You used the tub because you needed a socle.

De Bruyckere: Yes, of course.

- You work with a female photographer and a female designer. Is there a particular reason for this?

De Bruyckere: I also work with three women in the workshop: Nele, Annelies and Leen. Leen and Annelies are 23, Nele is 33 and I am 43. I like working with people who are younger than me. They know different things and they notice different things when they’re out and about. When we were on our way back from Lucerne recently, I arranged to stop in Colmar to look at Grünewald’s altarpiece, which is a great source of inspiration for me. One of my assistants found the image too hard. I find the differences in our reactions enriching… But to return to your question about the reason for working with women… At one time we had a young man helping us, but it didn’t work. We go about what we do quite openly. We talk to the sculptures. We talk about ourselves. I believe we should tell those sculptures lots of things so that they can do without us later on. But that young man found this threatening. He was not at ease, so we constantly had to restrain ourselves. You create a large male body and you make jokes about it. But with a man there, you can’t do that. He immediately thinks you’re laughing at him!

- What do you think of my suggestion of not approaching your sculptures from the underlying themes or feelings, but from their form?

De Bruyckere: It’s the first time a writer looks at my work starting from the work itself… The approach is refreshing and it fits in very well with the way the works come about, because in fact they all derive from each other. One sculpture originates from another… For example, you could look at the different ways blankets are used in my work and how they lead to new sculptures.

    In 1999 I made that sculpture of a female figure on an upside-down washtub. The blanket became a second skin, which is sewn round the body like a straitjacket. The figure is not a girl, but a grown woman with a short upper body. That sculpture led to another called Aanéén-genaaid (Sewn-together), which is made up of separate elements: broken gypsum casts of limbs which I painted with wax, like dripping candles. The old felt blankets I used for it don’t have a pattern because I wanted them to look as much like skin as possible, to have the texture of skin.

    However, I am now using the blankets in a different way, for example to support a figure’s arm. The blanket protects the arm from the rough wooden socle… Recently I made works using very large display cases. Behind the distorted, antique glass, you see sculptures in the shape of trees or branches. The trees are very nearly the colour of human skin, so you end up with something fragile. Because the antique glass distorts your view, a couple of doors are left open, inviting you to look inside. I don’t want people to see the sculptures as trees, but as strange, vulnerable beings. The vitrines have a shelf at the bottom on which I placed three piles of blankets. It looks as if they are shielding and nurturing the roots of the trees… I also refer to those blankets as a “soothing circumstance”, because they can sometimes lead us to a less harsh reality.

    After the sculptures with the blankets I began to work with figures with long hair. The hair took over the role of the blankets. In response to a title – not chosen by me – for a group exhibition, critics started to compare those sculptures with Mary Magdalene but that was definitely not the intention. The hair serves the sculptural purpose of covering the face and the nakedness, that’s all…

    Then I produced the hanging figure (see ill. on p. 46-47). While I was making this sculpture, in 2002, I became aware of the need to leave out what was superfluous… I really wanted to show that hollow body, which, to put it crudely, is just flayed skin hanging from a hook. The thickness of the hook underlines this. The Men of Sorrow stem from this sculpture. 

    Another example is the evolution of the used parts of bodies. I made San S., my sculpture based on the St Sebastian motif, using casts of women’s legs. Until then I had only worked with casts of women’s bodies. It’s different. I could never for example wrap a blanket round a male body. I would never have placed a man on an upside-down washtub either. I love men. But only after San S. did I think I might be able to work with casts of male bodies… So you see how my work continues to develop… 

- You said that one of the purposes of the blankets and the long hair was to hide the faces, because you believe faces draw attention away from the sculpture as a whole…

De Bruyckere: In a sense that is also the origin of the hole in the Pietà we’re working on now: it shows where the head would normally have been. The hole is functional, because I don’t want to make a sculpture that conjures up an image of a decapitated body. I haven’t yet found a plastic solution for a human head without a face. But I’ll have to come up with one at some stage; I can’t go on postponing it. 

- Hence the images on the wall of Judith and Salomé with their respective trophies?

De Bruyckere: Yes, I am currently trying to work out how to make sculptures that consist only of heads.

- I would like to go back for a moment to the question of whether the holes in your sculptures are purely the result of the evolution of those sculptures, or whether perhaps they derive from a sort of extreme awareness of black holes as part of reality. I am thinking, for example, of the hero of Kafka’s novel ‘The Trial’, who discovers a black opening between the foliage of a sculpted pulpit and puts his hand into it for a moment, but quickly withdraws it out of fear. 

De Bruyckere: I am sure that it has to do with a way of observing and feeling which is much older than my conscious drawing and sculpting activities. It has to do with an experience of fear which dates from much longer ago… An experience which certainly influenced me was my first pregnancy, which at times felt like an alarming adventure with an unpredictable outcome. Aanéén-genaaid makes you think of a pregnant woman, but it could also be a character that is lived in by a parasite… For me the hole in the Pietà is more about drawing attention to the fact that it is completely hollow than about the hole per se…

- The painter Robert Devriendt once told me that as a child he watched a cow being cut open membrane by membrane for a Caesarean section. He had been shocked to see that the cow was hollow and dark inside. I don’t think he became a painter because of that experience, but I do think that even as a child he looked at things as the artist he later became.

De Bruyckere: That’s extraordinary! Witnessing a Caesarean operation was a dramatic experience in my youth too! As a child I was absolutely determined to see a calf being born and eventually I was allowed to. I was not shocked by the gaping opening, but by all the blood the cow lost… I had always wanted to be a vet – until that Caesarean… On the other hand, I’m the daughter of a butcher and I should be able to cope with blood… My father’s butcher’s shop was the scene of some fascinating images which have certainly influenced me. The men who delivered the meat wore white smocks which were red with blood. The animals were stripped of all their dead weight; their head and skin had been removed. They were large and hollow half beasts…

- I wouldn’t know what to add to these words…

De Bruyckere: You have boned not only my work, but also the maker! 

Montagne de Miel, March 3rd 2008