The Belgian artist Berlinde de Bruyckere (Ghent, 1964) is known for her impressive sculptures, installations and drawings. Her work centers around concepts of the body and mortality.
During the first wave of the corona pandemic, amidst the shock, fear and the endless stream of distressing images, she found solace – unexpectedly – in a traditional image. A renaissance painting depicting an angel, archetypically as the bringer of comfort, relief and deliverance.
Her subsequent inquiry into this motif, both poignant and tender, resulted in her work titled: Sjemkel and Arcangelo which was presented at her exhibition Angel’s Throat in The Bonnefantenmuseum (Maastricht, NL) in 2021. Now, almost two years into the pandemic, if we look anew at these pieces, what do we perceive? And how do they continue to relate in our current context?
Ambivalent feelings; skin, wax and blankets
Berlinde de Bruyckere’s career had a flying start when she was awarded the Young Belgian Art Prize in 1989, three years after graduating the Saint-Lucas Visual Arts School in Ghent (BE). Since then, her artistic practice has been honored with solo exhibitions at home and abroad, prizes and two participations at the Venetian Biennale (IT).
The work of De Bruyckere initially appears strongly figurative, but on closer inspection multiple meanings emerge; evocative of warmth and closeness, but also, ambivalently, feelings of isolation, and aversion. In her work she makes frequent use of organic materials, such as wax, tanned horse skins, and woolen blankets; which she prepares by exposing them to the elements for years before incorporating them into the sculptures.
This process of retarding the raw materials adds depth to her work and in the presence of these pieces one is aware of their impermanence. The very fabric from which they are made seems to breathe a fragile life, albeit in gradual decline towards disorder. They are not static, final works and like sentient beings they remain subject to entropy and the invisible influences of decay.
Here you can look at an artist portrait of Berlinde de Bruyckere made by the Bonnefantenmuseum for the exposition Angel’s throat.
Superimposed over the backdrop of our dominant, contemporary social norms such as; immaculate sanitation, accelerated consumerism and the relentless individual pursuit of ultimate happiness, her work at first comes across as shocking, inhospitable and uncomfortable, it is only after protracted contemplation that one is rewarded with the slow-burning warmth of serenity and consolation.
Iconography of an angel in the context of the pandemic
De Bruyckere’s frequent references to classical literature, mythology, art history, and particularly to Christian iconography, are deliberately dissociated from any liturgical context and are rather utilized to relate palpable conditions such as tenderness, suffering and solitude. During the corona pandemic the motif of the delivering angel became the unifying idea and reoccurring mode of her expression.
Cristo morto sorretto da un angelo (1502-1510) by the Italian painter Giorgione. Private collection.
In a piece that she wrote for a Belgian newspaper (De Standaard) at the beginning of the pandemic “If I look for an art piece that can give comfort at this time, I find relief in The Cristo morto sorretto da un angelo (The dead Christ supported by an angel) (1502-1510) by the Italian painter Giorgione.” De Bruyckere writes that she no longer sees Christ in that corpse in the painting, but predominantly the angel who is holding the corpse with his far too small, frail hands.
This evocation brings forth in her compassion for the victims of corona virus, dying in solitude with only other sufferers beside them. She continues redemptively; “Fortunately, there are angels. I see them everywhere these days,” she explains. “I chose this painting with them in mind. The angel in the painting has big, dark wings. Warm wings that can cover the corpse and carry it to another place.”
Artistic research into the bearer of a burden
To De Bruyckere the angel is primordially archetypical. Fore-mostly, in its manifestation as the guardian angel, it is most applicable to Giorgione’s painting. In its soft emanation we discover a sanctuary from fear, embraced, carried and sheltered by those dark wings.
Berlinde De Bruyckere, SJEMKEL I, 2020. Bonnefanten. ©Mirjam Devriendt
Inspired by this work by Giorgione, De Bruyckere began experimenting with casts of animal skins in the creation of wing shapes, which she combined with textiles she had collected from flea markets in France over the years. The skins of the sculptures of this work Sjemkel (2020), hanging on the wall are draped over with woolen blankets.
They look like cloaks that have been recently worn; the warmth of the previous owner still lingers inside as they wait for someone else to try them on. Each has its unique contours, shaped by its own weight and distinct in its material composition. The uncertainty of the environment through which these cloaks have moved combined with their physical weight bear heavily, like a burden on the shoulders.
This powerful artistic research depicts the incredible solitude and suffering that has characterized the corona pandemic, especially in the first wave in which caregivers had to carry on, despite the risks and isolated from the rest of society which was in lock-down.
Vulnerable due to continuous pressures
The work in the angel series that touches me the most is; Arcangelo (2020). This sculpture is constructed of several layers of wax of different colors. The draped cloak, depicted in a wax cast of an animal skin wherein pieces of fur can still be seen serves again as the metaphor.
Standing high on pedestals the dual figures that constitute the piece appear to shift shape as I move about the room. Their presence is looming and I can almost feel the heaviness of the animal skin draped over a human form as they levitate above me. The head and shoulders are slightly bent; looking closely I can see long toenails, untrimmed and yet just barely touching the top of the pedestal. On the knees I see bruises; did they just fall and get back up again? For how long can they bear the burden? Are they really immortal?
Berlinde De Bruyckere, ARCANGELO III, 2020 ©Mirjam Devriendt
De Bruckeyre makes a strong case that there is a limit to what those who carry and protect us can endure. Particularly during the pandemic the continuous pressure placed upon the human and material resources in our systems of care has exposed our vulnerability to exhaustion and fallibility.
Again this fall, ICU admissions are on the rise, at the same time the number of caregivers is decreasing, and absenteeism is high. Given the precarious situation that continues to unfold, can we still put our faith in the neo-liberal notion of self-reliance that dominates our social discourse? What if, in following De Bruyckere’s metaphor of angels – caring for the untouchables – the angels have flown and there can be no deliverance? With no one left to fit the cloak, what will befall our society?