Prostrate archangels, recumbent figures of meat and wood… Daughter of butchers, the Flemish Berlinde De Bruyckere creates these powerful wax works, symbols of the torments of the time, in a former religious school. Montpellier hosts its first retrospective in France.
An impressive trunk, perforated with beams, uprooted on bronze wedges. In Ghent, in the studio of Berlinde De Bruyckere, 58, a dead tree has become a martyr, like Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows. “For him to turn into a saint, I had to commit cruel acts towards him”, whispers the Flemish visual artist, who in a meadow in Burgundy found and molded this moribund elm tree. A giant debarked by herds, pecked by birds, whom she has transfigured into this immense wax saint, moving and powerful.
Today this San-Sebastian des champs is one of the fifty pieces exhibited at the MO.CO. of Montpellier, for “Piller | Ekphrasis”, the first major retrospective dedicated to the artist in France. Recumbent figures with half-meat, half-wood bodies. Archangels transfixed under skin capes. Carnal harnesses-vulvas. Eros and Thanatos. “You either love my work or hate it, maybe because I hide nothing from the existential questions that torment me”, confesses the artist, with a touch of concern about his reception, here, in the south of France.
Many of her sculptures have traveled there in the shelter of heated containers, Berlinde De Bruyckere’s works being sensitive to the cold, a bit like living beings. Because her preferred material remains wax, with which she molds indifferently, and as closely as possible, trees, dead horses or human bodies. “Initially, I was looking for the most realistic way to recreate a woman’s legs and feet. »
Pink pans and drippings
In the 1990s, women-blankets were born, whose bare legs escaped from a canopy of colored wool, ambivalent silhouettes of which we do not know what they hide or protect. Subsequently, the wax never ceased to amaze the visual artist, who, in her Ghent studio, dedicated an entire kitchen to melting and molding: the pans are stacked there on a worktop, the floor studded with pink drips. There are also cushions to keep the mussels warm. As for the hands of Berlinde De Bruyckere, they bear the burns caused by the spurts of paraffin. “This gives me great freedom. I always start from reality, but it’s the deformation that inspires me next. And the wax gives me the possibility to infinity. » Once the piece is out of the mould, the sculptor has plenty of time to bend, stretch, position as she pleases. But for a short time: barely two minutes. “If it doesn’t suit me, I can recast as much as I want. »
Painting, too, for the one who, an arts student at the Saint-Luc school in Ghent, had received the prize for young Belgian painting at the age of 17. Inside her moulds, she blindly superimposes up to fifteen to twenty layers of pink wax, sometimes black, “to reveal a vein”. This process gives his creations a unique moire, a translucent skin, close to ours. To the point where the inanimate bodies of his works seem to throb gently. In the draperies, tufts of hair remain captive here and there—those from the bovine skins that she collects at the slaughterhouse in Anderlecht. Since 2019, she covers the shoulders of her Archangelos.
As his work moved towards abstraction, the global pandemic marked the return of the human figure to his studio: as the Covid-19 descended on the world, the artist found solace in a canvas by the Venetian painter Giorgione (1477-1510), one of the great Renaissance masters she loved. “A Christ Supported by Seraphim. They made me think of those carers who take care of the dying, those people who disappeared in isolation, without the affection of their loved ones. I felt that I had to work on the character of an angel. » In Montpellier, seven of them welcome visitors, including a trio created especially for the place. For the first time, they lean on the slender legs of the plastic artist’s children.
Poetry, a refuge
The result is three creatures as if posed on tiptoe above a wooden base, between landing and taking off. A lightness imbued with gravity for these angels with their faces camouflaged by a hood of fur. “You recognize someone by their face.. This is why I never show the heads, which are identifiable. So these angels can keep secrets. » Since 1987, the artist has been creating in the austerity of a former religious school, her on the ground floor, her husband and lifelong companion, the visual artist Peter Buggenhout, on the first floor. They discovered the place by walking hand in hand, at the end of the street where his parents’ butcher shop was. For a year, they restore it with school friends. “It gave me the independence and the space to create, the possibility of closing the door on a work that I couldn’t finish to come back to it later”, explains the one who, with her short hair, her small glasses, has the stern look of a boarding school director.
But in the classrooms, stuffed foals are frozen in a sacrificial posture. On the walls, she has long pinned news images. Famine, genocide. ” I stopped. Their overflow, their repetition became unsustainable. However, I have them in mind when I create. » The artist finds refuge in poetry. “Another entry to understand my work. » She is delighted that the South African author Antjie Krog has agreed to accompany the catalog of the MO.CO exhibition. of his verses. “See how the skin/rumbles outwards”, can you read there. The tender and brutal flesh of Berlinde De Bruyckere’s creatures seems to have this power.
Berlinde De Bruyckere. Loot | Ekphrasis”, until October 2, MO.CO., Montpellier (34).
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Summer exhibitions: the wax and flesh sculptures of Berlinde De Bruyckere to see in Montpellier
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