Berlinde de Bruyckere

The Embalmer

And yet solace

Thomas Häusle

Berlinde De Bruyckere brings suffering, pain and the past before the curtain. She shows us the martyred body. In surreal, crippled postures, hanging from gallows and iron frames, wounded and maltreated, De Bruyckere’s bodies seem formed by endured torment, to confront us with all the pain in the world. Shocked and moved, we are left alone with the images, which burn themselves into our Memory.

The intensity and immediacy of the impression dominates and overshadows for the moment every other perception and feeling. Only little by little do we actually begin to see, to reflect and to recognise the existential questions that De Bruyckere formulates and the answers her art offers. In the intense involvement in the works, the effect tilts from shock and unease at the edge of disgust into the perception of their beauty, which leaves us pensive. The silent wish of the artist to give solace with her work becomes comprehensible and begins to attain fulfilment.

De Bruyckere produces an emotional ambivalence that challenges us. In the contemplation of her works, we are moved into a space of dialectical knowledge mediate between rejection and attraction, cruelty and beauty, suffering and solace. 1


“Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses.”

Francis Bacon

At the age of five, De Bruyckere went on the run, as she has herself has put it. 2 She fled from the cruel reality that then consisted primarily in the walls of a boarding school run by Catholic nuns. She fled into drawing. In her graphic imagination everything is possible, the oppressive surroundings can be creatively and redemptively transformed. The imagined and drawn world became a redemptive space of projection and transformation. Today her drawings are still oriented more strongly and intensely inward than towards bodies and objects; they are a reflective medium and emotional mirroring. The influence of the world of Christian images and thoughts on De Bruyckere likewise began to develop in the Catholic environment of her schooldays. This influence still marks the imagery and the visual inspiration of her work.

De Bruyckere’s works evolve and develop on the basis of various inspirations. These are mainly a highly personal combination of art historical, metaphysical, contemporary and psychological self-reflections. The process of development often takes place, moreover, in a discursive exchange with persons who are key figures for the respective work. For example, in a correspondence with the Nobel Literature Prize laureate J. M. Coetzee, De Bruyckere sharpens her view again and again during the development of the large-scale sculpture Kreupelhout / Cripplewood 2012–2013, corrects the forms, questions the impression and tests the effect. In a complex process of genesis, she gradually feels her way into the work, both intuitively and intellectually. The real body, in its actual form and dimensions, forms thereby the starting point of the objects’ materialization. But the genesis never becomes a realistic depiction. Bodies are deformed, broken, wounded, transformed. De Bruyckere consistently avoids assigning the pain to a specific person and the viewer has the possibility of distancing himself from the work. It is only the deformation, distortion, alteration and the removal of all elements which allow the possibility of identity and recognition, the removal of personality and personal traits, that impart to the objects their effect. In this way, the strange, the frightening, the menacing emerges, but also the universal. The bodies develop their unique quality as a projection space for our fears, doubts, pains and questions precisely because they are so alien and unrecognisable, thus enabling identification and making it possible for us to see and recognize ourselves.

As radically as De Bruyckere removes the facial features of her figures, so too she also avoids the elaboration of sexual characteristics. She presents her bodies to us as asexual hybrids, who have become the expression of an anonymous, universal suffering, not an individual one. Our existential questions of suffering, pain and the past are emancipated from specific figures and become the same for everyone.

As shocking as De Bruyckere’s work may seem, there is no blood; the wounds are stitched, the suffering has yielded to the future. The horror is history; it has done its violence; and the body in its lifelessness already finds itself in a kind of renewing metamorphosis.

The artist seeks in her images visual correspondences to her imaginations, feelings, ideas and questions, develops these influences and brings forth from them independent works. Every object tells its own story, stands vicariously for collective phenomena, universal and existential questions about the conditio humana, the conditions of human life.


“Body as the theatre of emotions.”

António Rosa Damásio

In 1999 the award-winning In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres commissioned De Bruyckere to commemorate the victims and horror of the First World War. Archive pictures of dying and mutilated horse carcasses had burned themselves into her consciousness.

In the Belgian city of Ypres, the First World War showed itself from its most inhuman and cruellest side. To break the city’s resistance, Ypres was made the scene of the first extensive use of poison gas. To this day the term “yperite” is synonymous with mustard gas.

“I’ve never heard horses groaning and can hardly believe how it sounds”, wrote Erich Maria Remarque in 1929 in his novel All Quiet on the Western Front. “It’s the wailing of the world, of the martyred creature, a wild, horrible pain that groans out of their mouths …”3. The same pain is felt by De Bruyckere and, moved by the fate of countless nameless horses in the First World War, she has focused for more than ten years on the body of the horse as a metaphor and means of expression in her artistic work. “You want to get up and run away, no matter where, only so you don’t have to hear the groaning anymore”, continued Remarque. 4 De Bruyckere does not run away; she takes flight into her artistic work and imagination. What drawing had to achieve at the beginning of her artistic work is now demanded of the horse’s body. It becomes a field of projection for personal emotion and the medium of confrontation.

In war, horses are even more so than human beings victims. Although man in De Bruyckere’s works is also represented in the role of the victim, he is likewise always the perpetrator. But for De Bruyckere this is not about a culprit, accusation and the assignment of guilt. It is rather a matter of finding and providing solace through the suffering and pain that is treated in her work.

The horse as innocent, essentially collateral victim moves into the focus of De Bruyckere’s work. Because of its fundamental guiltlessness, we experience the pain in the works more strongly and immediately. De Bruyckere also had the feeling that alone the dimensions of the horse’s body made the suffering and destruction more easily comprehensible. Her horses cannot stand on their own; they lie or hang. The lifeless bodies of her most recent works are stretched on gallows and raw metal frames that wrest them as it were from the sad ground of reality and give the impression of plinths or frames. Large as life and cruelly bound by the legs, the bodies of the horses are attached to raw metal racks. These iron supports are inspired by the stainless steel racks of industrial hide processing. Directly after the separation of the skin from the animal’s body, the horses are covered with salt so as preserve them for the short-term. As the “female counterpart” to the steel, as De Bruyckere has put it, the skins are attached to metal frames and hung up. For De Bruyckere, this is the phase in which the skin of the living animal relinquishes its function to come back to life as hide.

This scenery quotes in fact the gigantic, industrially operated slaughterhouses of the artist’s Belgian home. Raised the daughter of a butcher, De Bruyckere does not, however, ascribe to this association any influence or significance in itself. She draws on images from her personal world of experience. As usual, the bodies seem to be faceless and sexless, and yet appear intact in the exhibition space, without visible wounds. The dead hide looks glossy, alive and carefully groomed.


“Suffering has meaning only when you become yourself other.” Yehuda Bacon

De Bruyckere’s entire œuvre explores questions of being, which are differently posed and differently presented, yet repeatedly lead to the same conclusion. The horror does not cease – this is the unmistakable message with which we have to live. But in horror there also lies much beauty. 5 This ambivalence oscillating between suffering and redemption, between horror and beauty, De Bruyckere solves in an existential dialectic. She transforms pain into beauty, death into the condition of life. “It’s always about the spiritual state of man, which comes to light through the visible body”, De Bruyckere has said of her own work. 6

To master life does not mean to hold it at arm’s length from suffering and pain; it means rather the always recurrent letting-be and surmounting of pain and suffering; no happiness without unhappiness, no joy without suffering, no life without death. There is hardly another artist who makes us recognise as movingly, disturbingly and shockingly this fundamental dialectic of human existence as De Bruyckere does in her objects and drawings. “De Bruyckere’s picture of man is existential. It is shocking and moving at once. It demands exertion and repels. … In the literally stirring depictions of suffering, she combines moments of pain, but also of pleasure, of shame, and sometimes also of comedy and sadness. De Bruyckere puts the viewer in changing emotional states between revulsion and dismay.” 7

It takes courage to face pain and suffering, to admit weakness and accept it as part of ourselves. This courage De Bruyckere demonstrates in her work and demands it also in its reception. The wounds that De Bruyckere opens show physical horrors that always signify mental ones. Vulnerability is above all a sign of life, pain proof of vitality. “Here I am vulnerable, here it is painful – but I try not to protect myself, not to deny, not to hide; I accept and embrace it and through this I first become myself.” 8

“In suffering”, wrote Viktor E. Frankl, “man can realise the most human in himself”9. For Berlinde De Bruyckere this means above all one thing: “I always have the hope that my work will give people solace”. 10




1 Cf. Berlinde De Bruyckere, interview with Hans Theys, “Über Zweifel und Offenheit, Lucas Cranach den Älteren und die Farben Rot und Grün. Ein Gespräch mit Berlinde De Bruyckere” (i.e. On Doubt and Openness, Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Colours Red and Green. An interview with Berlinde De Bruyckere), in Mysterium Leib. Berlinde De Bruyckere im Dialog mit Cranach und Pasolini, exh. cat., Stiftung Moritzburg – Kunstmuseum des Landes Sachsen-Anhalt, Halle/Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern/KUNSTHALLE Wien, project space, Wien, ed. Cornelia Wieg, München 2011, p. 19.

2 Philippe Vandenberg & Berlinde De Bruyckere. Innocence is precisely: never to avoid the worst, exh. cat., De Pont Museum, Tilburg, Milan 2012, p. 130.

3 Erich Maria Remarque, Im Westens nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) (1929), Berlin, 1955, p. 184.

4 ibid., pp. 50–51.

5 Cf. Berlinde De Bruyckere, interview with Ali Subotnick, in Berlinde de Bruyckere. Schmerzensmann, exh. cat.,. Hauser & Wirth, London, ed. Michaela Unterdörfer, Göttingen, 2006, without page number.

6 See footnote 1, p. 13.

7 Berlinde De Bruyckere. Leibhaftig / in the Flesh, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Graz, Graz, eds. Katrin Bucher Trantow, Peter Pakesch, Köln, 2013, pp. 102–103.

8 Berlinde De Bruyckere in …XXX.

9 Viktor E. Frankl, Der Wille zum Sinn, Bern, 2012, p. 191.

10 See footnote 1, p. 19.


Between worlds

Herta Pümpel

“Death is the origin and centre of culture. Death – that means the experience of death, the knowledge of the finiteness of life, the rituals concerning dying and mourning, the vestiges of the grave, the survival of the dead, the community of the living with the dead, the symbolic exchange between the worlds of the living and the dead, the pursuit of continuance in any form, of any traces and effects and of more time.” [1]

In contemplating the works of Berlinde De Bruyckere, we become attuned to mental states that are transformed from the deepest, innermost horror into a mindful devotion to suffering and death. This act of transformation does not occur deliberately; it is rather the effect of the artist’s compelling stance and the result of her method.

The title of the exhibition, The Embalmer, draws our attention to the similarities of De Bruyckere’s transformative processes to those of the ancient Egyptian burial rites of embalming, in which the irreversibility and finality of death is transmuted into its salvific opposite by means of ritual. Unlike in other cultures, which consigned the decay of the dead body after the departure of the soul to nature, the Egyptians took this process of transformation in hand and prepared the corpse for eternity by surgical, chemical, magical and ritual means. In this ritual the dead underwent various processes of “transformation” so as to be subsequently released into a new status in eternity. De Bruyckere’s method seems to be a contemporary interpretation of this; it consists in a process of many successive steps, carefully applied techniques, almost rituals, and selected materials. In this approach, which traverses the various phases of her art and is comparable in its transformative procedures to the work of the embalmer, De Bruyckere acts herself as an “embalmer” who cleanses the bodies of her objects, preserves and binds them, and so opens for them the possibility of gliding into other spaces, interstices.

The horse-object Inside Me (2008/2010), whose hide shimmers vividly in the light, is a dead animal. The body, bound together by the legs and suspended from an iron framework, is open laterally; the ribs are visible, the viscera have been removed. De Bruyckere’s procedure is invariably similar: from the body of the dead animal she makes a cast of synthetic resin – a way of working which, as Caroline Lamarche describes, the artist has long practiced: “since her adolescence she had been taking refuge in an isolated room where she made wax figures based on bodies both living and dead”.[2]

From the dead animal is made a silicon imprint and, in a second step, a cast of epoxy resin. The body is covered with genuine tanned horsehide, and then the surface is processed to create ultimately a contemporary metaphor. Not a dead body is preserved, but rather a completely artificial entity is created, which is a complex representative of the once living organism. The object breathes the ambivalence of living and dead. Here the allusions to the ancient Egyptian burial ritual become clearly visible: in the ancient Egyptian culture “the dead body is a membra disiecta and, as such, a metaphor, a metaphorical image of death, which serves as a foil for the image of life, into which the dead body is to be conveyed through embalming”. [3] After the initial phase of cleansing and the removal of the internal organs, the corpse was salted and dried for a period of forty days, then anointed with oils and the thoracic and abdominal cavities filled with resins, linen and sawdust. Thus conveyed in a state of preserved integrity, the mummy was equipped for the afterlife with magical protection in the form of numerous amulets. As special protection, the body of the mummy was wrapped in linen bandages inscribed with texts from The Book of the Dead.

Blankets, cloths and linen bandages have a central place in De Bruyckere’s work. In one of her major works, Kreupelhout / Krüppelholz (i.e. Crippled Wood) (2012/2013), cloths lace together logs, bind together limbs – protect and hide at the same time – and recall the linen bandages of Egyptian mummies. The linen fabrics of De Bruyckere’s installations testify to a history of use that has been maintained for generations. They embody the historical thread of long past events and human fates, amongst which De Bruyckere produces real and ideal connections in the newly created parts.

The Egyptian ritual of embalming is about curing the state of dismemberment and decomposition that begins with the stopping of the heart and the circulation of the blood. Ritual and chemical means substitute for shell of the body a new, symbolic connectivity. Death is seen as decay and isolation; life defined as connection. Egyptian society sought to see the world not with a dissecting scrutiny but rather with a connecting and “embalming” gaze, to restore a form of community between the dead and society and to reintegrate the former into the communal structure and the cosmic whole. In this interplay of dismemberment and joining together, the ancient Egyptians recognized death as the principle of dissolving, isolating decay, and life as the converse principle of connecting, unifying and holistic ensoulment. “Thus there is something deathly and death-like in everything that isolates, and something vivifying in everything that connects. Even the individual human being is seen as a member of a whole who is alive only to the extent that he is connected to others. The principle of this connection is the Egyptian idea of justice.” [4]

De Bruyckere’s method of work is also a craft and its substance associated with the concepts of joining together and connecting; the background provided by the historical description of the ritual of initial decomposition and curing reconnection enables us to see the similarities. Joining together means not only restoring the body, but also integration into a social environment, into a group and, beyond this, into a communal memory that is borne by a stance which is literally described in Egyptian as the “approach of the heart”. Justice in ancient Egypt was defined as a social principle, and this responsible view of the comprehensive whole is also the tenor of De Bruyckere’s art. Ultimately, she brings forth an “aesthetic act of composition … in close companionship with death and in opposition it” [5], a compelling contemporary translation of an alternative world, which is not the world of appearance but of spirit, fantasy, imagination, longing and remembrance.

It is the oscillation between worlds that the engagement with De Bruyckere’s works makes so fascinating. Some processes in her work seem to be parallel to those of ancient Egyptian philosophy and its cult of the dead, the visualization of existential experiences or feeling our way into worlds beyond the earthly which make it possible to sense death as a limit “that is not hermetically sealed but can be traversed in both directions in the mode of culturally regulated border traffic”. [6]

Other processes, however, arises independently in the genesis of her own creative process – for example, the selection of animals as the basis and carrier of her objects, the treatment of the body, the production of an epoxy resin imprint, the delicate handling of the hide surface and, above all, the conceptually determined physiognomic alterations of her objects. De Bruyckere creates human torsos without heads, gives her created animal objects no distinguishing facial features, no nostrils, no eyes, so as to focus on suffering. Here her intention clearly diverges from that of the Egyptian cult of the dead, which was expressly individualised.

De Bruyckere too succeeds in integrating death in an overarching concept of life, as a continuation of life by other means, chosen by her. Her art conveys the aspect of border crossing and limit experience, without speculative metaphysics, relying completely on the materiality of her work.


Translated by Jonathan Uhlaner


[1] Jan Assmann, Tod und Jenseits im alten Ägypten, München 2001, //p. 1//.

[2] Caroline Lamarche, Romeo My Deer, 2012

[3] Jan Assmann, p. 40 “Membra disiecta” (lat.) means “scattered limbs” and is a fixed term to describe parts of a whole that have been torn out of their original organic order.

[4] Ibid., p. 39

[5] George Steiner, Grammatik der Schöpfung, München/Wien 2001, //S. p. 329

[6] Jan Assmann, see footnote 1, p. 17.



Ausstellungsansicht, Detail
Ausstellungsansicht, Detail


Art Booklets for students, teenagers and adults.


Berlinde de Bruyckere
The Embalmer

Katalogdokumentation zur Ausstellung an zwei Orten mit Fotos und Texten von J.M. Coetze, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Rudolf Sagmeister, Thomas Häusle und Herta Pümpel.
Herausgeber Kunsthaus Bregenz & Kunstraum Dornbirn
Deutsch/ Englisch, 231 Seiten, Hardcover
ISBN: 978-3-86335-709-2