The current exhibition by Berlinde de Bruyckere (b. 1964) dwells upon the complicated layers of material that intermittently conceal or reveal bodily forms. Berlinde de Bruyckere: It almost seemed a lily, Museum Hof van Busleyden, Mechelen (until 12 May 2019) includes 31 works includes sculptural objects/assemblages, drawings by the artist and Enclosed Gardens (a number of religious constructions from the late Renaissance period) loaned from the permanent collection De Beata Vita Foundation. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.
The exhibition consists mainly of new work by de Bruyckere, made between 2008 and 2018. The assemblages utilise materials including wallpaper, wood, fabric, wax, lead-sheathed electrical wire and epoxy resin. Wax as an ideal flesh analogue. Sometimes it is tinted, colour showing translucently through semi-opaque layers. Casting seams are apparent, with no concealment. Nails attached casts to wood are apparent. Some larger pieces made for this exhibition are partial body casts arranged into ersatz lilies. The material in this exhibition covers some familiar territory in terms of type. The artist prefers to use materials that have a pre-history and these constructions include such materials. The cloth and electrical wire in old-fashioned lead wrapping are typical, salvaged from modest sources. Decorative fabrics have been saved from destruction to play a part in de Bruyckere’s composite objects. Blank pages from old books are the artist’s preferred supports for drawing on.
De Bruyckere’s art frequently includes religious imagery. The idea of the suffering and sacrifice of Christ is compared to the mute suffering of animals – the slaughtered horse in particular. The pathos of pain is one of the cores of de Bruyckere’s art. As she writes:
I connect the petals of the lilies to images of skin, of flesh; their fragrance to lust and pleasure; their unsavoury smell while wilting to ephemerality and pain. This intense scent brought to mind the skin traders’ workshop in Anderlecht, the odour of fresh cow skins.
She also notes that her art naturally defaults to 1:1 scale, with casts and skins used at their original scale. When it came to making her own lilies she decided to use casts of herself manipulated rather than anything smaller.
[Image: Berlinde De Bruyckere, ‘It almost seemed a lily IV, 2017-2018‘, 2018, wood, wallpaper, wax, textile, lead, epoxy, 281 x 238 x 40 cm. Photo: Mirjam Devriendt. © Berlinde De Bruyckere. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth]
De Bruyckere chose to exhibit her pieces beside the Enclosed Gardens – cabinets including pictorial scenes, originally made for a nunnery in Mechelen.
For centuries, wooden cabinets filled with a mixture of artefacts adorned the cells of Mechelen’s Augustinian Sisters. They were made in the first half of the sixteenth century, in and around the convent of the Hospital Sisters. This lay within the city walls of Mechelen, a few streets away from the palace of Margaret of Austria, Governess of the Netherlands. For the Hospital Sisters, whose main tasks were to care for the sick and elderly and to manage the hospital, the Gardens were a microcosm of the wider world.
There are seven extant oaken cabinets containing polychrome sculptures made in various materials that exist today. The retables (or shallow dioramas of composite materials to form religious scenes) depict enclosed gardens occupied by religious figures including Madonna and Child, saints, crucified Christ, unicorns and others. The dioramas are highly decorative, including intricate beadwork, embroidery, sewing and painting, including semi-precious materials. The makers’ names of the Enclosed Gardens are unknown and they are likely collaborative pieces. The inclusion of Renaissance art is not a new aspect of the way the artist has presented her work. A former exhibition in London included paintings by Luca Giordano.
The accumulation of de Bruyckere’s objects into shallow assemblages mirrors the accumulation of details and historical repairs of the ancient Enclosed Gardens. These Enclosed Gardens were prompts for meditation and sites of imaginative pilgrimage for the nuns who could not travel or leave their charges to make actual pilgrimages. There is a definite closeness between these retables and the reliquaries that were so common in Catholic countries in the period. The restoration of the Enclosed Gardens coincided with the exhibition and the catalogue illustrations of close-up photographs of the repairs of elements parallel the details of de Bruyckere’s sculpture. The delicacy of the tiny artificial flowers echoes the delicate stitching and woven patterns of de Bruyckere’s partially sewn fabrics.
Casts of skins reveal the imperfections of the uncured pelts. Bound forms under glass cloches have the air of injured deformed beings cared for despite their imperfections. They are kept decent and warm with shabby scraps of cloth sewn around them. They are half infants, half phalluses. They evoke pity and disgust as hybrids or mutants. One could also associate these beings with mummified children or baboons found in Egyptian tombs.
[Image: Berlinde De Bruyckere, ‘Stamen, 2017-2018’, 2018, wax, textile, iron, wood, glass, epoxy, 109 x 44 x 44 cm. Photo: Mirjam Devriendt. Both: © Berlinde De Bruyckere. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth]
The embroidered lilies of the retables are related to the lily symbolically depicted as being delivered by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin on the occasion of the Annunciation in Christian iconography. It is the symbol of divine blessing and also the sexual organ of a plant. There are drawings of genitalia by the artist. In these drawings, there is little impression of fully functional body composed of parts infused with lividity, capable of tumescence and naturally in a state of moistness. We are encountering anatomy as formerly functioning body as a pathological specimen or butchered beast. (Some pictures include lily leaves drooping beside the penises.) Just as obsolete materials sourced from old buildings have an air of tiredness and redundancy, so de Bruyckere’s drawings have similar qualities. These are anatomical fragments that have been exhausted of their natural functions and detached from their possessing entity. Drawings of genitalia makes direct the simile of the flower as genitalia as flower. Her drawings have – despite their sometimes loose and sketchy qualities – a certain static character. The labile aspect of genitalia – its changeable character – is not present in the drawings, evading something that defines that part of the anatomy.
The catalogue consists of six large-format unbound sections and an index in a folder. The sections are: I. Enclosed Garden, II. It almost seemed a lily, III. Stamen, IV. Nest, V. Petals, and VI. Santa Venera. The texts by the artist and a few experts are brief but informative. The large page size allows us to “get close” to the art, viewing details as well as whole objects. The format is attractive though the light cardboard portfolio does not seem robust.
This exhibition further deepens the artist’s complex, fruitful and ambivalent responses to the Low Countries’ tradition of religious art. De Bruyckere is the direct inheritor of the Flemish and Netherlandish religious artists without being explicitly devotional. As with Francis Bacon, de Bruyckere intelligently and sensitively reanimates the forms of sacred art whilst keeping her views on deism and theism to herself. She remains one of the most accomplished and serious artists of our age.
Berlinde de Bruyckere, Barbara Baert, Lieve Watteeuw, Berlinde de Bruyckere: It almost seemed a lily, Hannibal, 2018, card folder with loose sections, unpag., €59, ISBN 978 94 9267 777 8 (Dutch/English bilingual text)
© 2019 Alexander Adams
View my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art