Berlinde de Bruyckere

Twisted limbs


Readers of this blog will know that I have written about the artist Berlinde de Bruyckere after discovering her at the Venice Biennale last year. Her vast piece, Cripplewood, had a profound effect – its twisted and injured limbs were crammed into the claustrophobic, church-dark space of the Belgian pavilion. As I wrote at the time, de Bruyckere began the piece after encountering a massive tree that had been uprooted by a storm and had fallen in the middle of a road. From this she imagined a ruined cathedral, its roof vault collapsed in on itself.

The current show at SMAK in Ghent includes this piece. Inside a light, large gallery, it has a very different impact. Still powerful, but this time the tree is visible to us, and we can see the trauma of its bloodied surface, its construction (wax, formed to resemble wood). It becomes more of a vast supine monster than felled tree, reaching its strange tentacles into the far corners of the gallery. Exposed to us in the harsh white, we see trauma made plain; stretches of grey laced with red.


Trauma is the word I carry with me through the rest of the show. Here is the body bent over itself, as if trying to protect its delicate case, or the body jerked into an unnatural pose, pain coursing through every sinew. The pose is often one we recognise: de Bruyckere grew up in the city that gave us Van Eyke’s altarpiece, the centre of Netherlandish religious art, less beautiful and golden-hued than the Italian painters, more earthy and earthly; Christ resembles any ordinary man, he bleeds, we read pain in his face.


The other great influence is butchery. The artist’s father was a butcher and a recreational hunter, and she retains a childhood memory of animal carcasses strung up, exposing their inner workings. Into her monochrome palette one colour comes streaming: red. It’s the red of fresh blood, bright and horrible.

It is difficult to forget that this is the centenary of WWI, and scattered around the Belgian countryside are the grand cemeteries of that war. In de Bruyckere I’m also reminded of the sketches of the official war artist Henry Tonks, that displayed the most gruesome injuries (Tonks had trained as a doctor before he became an artist) but still managed to capture the humanity of his subjects, in their eyes, their composure. Having said that, the faces of de Bruyckere’s subjects are obscured; it’s the body that speaks.


It seems a strange thing to say, but the work is also beautiful. There is a delicacy and grace, especially in the drawings, where the pencil passes over the paper like a whisper. 

This is a stunning and harrowing show. Having recently blogged about the Schiele exhibition, and the Nakeds at the Drawing Room (and having recently run a writing workshop for the Tracey Emin show at White Cube) it feels as if this is the culmination of thinking about the body and how it is exposed. I will be thinking about this work for a long time to come. 



I started my Biennale round-up with the Netherlands, and now I am moving to Belgium, the Netherlands’ neighbour, not just on the map, but in the microcosm of the world that is the Giardini – a small Low Countries coalition. And so I move from Mark Manders to Berlinde De Bruyckere. 

What links them for me, apart from the fact that they are of the same generation (and roughly the same age as I am) and that they both live and work in Belgium, is something to do with mood. For their respective installations, both artists are utilising found materials (there were a lot of found materials this year, as if artists are busily raiding junk shops and skips in the face of austerity), but these materials are transformed to represent something vast and wordless, a sense of failed promise, as we are presented with things that are broken, impossible to mend. 

De Bruyckere’s work often concentrates on the human – the body contorted, twisted into a shape which is not physically possible, but expresses the cry of suffering, like Francis Bacon in 3D. She is sometimes referencing the grim crucifixions of the Netherlandish Renaissance, or the Belgian battlefields of the first World War, but there is also something of the way we live now, often in terror and in fear. 


In De Bruyckere’s Biennale installation, there is a single massive felled elm tree that crowds the gallery floor, so huge it occupies the whole of the pavilion. Whereas the Scandinavian pavilions displayed trees that were standing, healthy and in growth, De Bruyckere’s tree appears dead, toppled to horizontal, with branches that look like broken and bleeding limbs, wrapped in hessian. The tree is ill, pale, it doesn’t feel solid; on closer inspection you realise it’s made of wax, as if it might melt into nothingness, its limbs are the colour of flesh. The pavilion is dark; De Bruyckere has blocked out the light with hessian sacks. No light can come in; this is a netherworld, a haunted forest. 

The first inspiration for the work came when the artist was driving through France after a storm and encountered a massive, uprooted tree in the road. De Bruyckere said that ‘the image came to mind of a collapsed cathedral, the roof vault thrown to the floor.’ 


The artist wrote to the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee about the tree. He in turn wrote the following piece for the show, a meditation on its name: 


Cripplewood is not deadwood. Deadwood: in the mythology of the American West, the town of failed hopes where all trails end. Cripplewood, by contrast, is alive. Like all trees, the cripplewood tree aspires towards the sun, but something in its genes, some bad inheritance, some poison, twists its bones. 

The lexical tangle around ‘kreupelhout’ – cripplewood – gnarlwood (gnarled, knurled, knarled are all the same words in variant forms):

  1. kreupel – kruipen – creep – crouch – crutch (kruk)
  2. gnarl: gnarled, snarled (knotted)
  3. snarl: 1. a snare (trap); 2. a tangle, knot (of hair)

The cripplewood tree that cannot straighten itself, that grows bent at a crouch; from whose limbs we get crutches for those who can only creep; a tree of knotted limbs, gnarled, snarled. 

Knots are of two kinds: the rational kind, creatures of human reason, that having been tied can be untied; and the kind that occur in nature, for which there is no loosening, no solution, no oplossing. 

‘Cripple / kreupel’: a word no longer in polite use. Rejected as unclean, it is dismissed back from the world in which it came and to which it belongs, a world of hovels and tenements, of open drains and coal cellars and horse-drawn carts and starving dogs in the streets. An unwanted word, pressed back, repressed, buried. The cripplewood tree grows out of the buried past into our clean present, pushing its knotted fingers up through the grate / gate behind which we have shut it. 


The whole pavilion becomes that coal cellar, a deep dark place where things are shut away and allowed to rot. Not out of place in the great city of decay, which has its dark corners and sad entanglements.

Coetzee says of De Bruyckere’s work, ‘her sculptures explore life and death – death in life, life in death, life before life, death before death – in the most intimate and most disturbing way. they bring illumination, but the illumination is as dark as it is profound.’