The human body in its vulnerability is the central theme of Belgian artist Hedwig Brouckaert, her motif of preference being its parts and fragments. The body fragment has been a “Metaphor of Modernity”1 ever since the 19th-century, when the dismembered body (and thus the real or symbolic violence it is subjected to) was elevated to a subject of its own, making it worthy of art, as exemplified by Auguste Rodin. Disintegrated, incomplete and/or anatomically incorrectly-assembled figures fill Brouckaert’s sculptural world. Her figures, often tragicomically deformed, reveal to us that the artist is wholly familiar not only with the basic vocabulary of sculpture in classical modernism (especially Rodin, Brancusi, and Giacometti), but also with the surrealistic rephrasing and paraphrasing of the body syntax of, say, Hans Bellmer. But a basic difference between Bellmer’s erotic obsessions and Brouckaert’s works is her emphatically anti-psychological, conceptual approach. In her work, the disintegration of the body metaphorically stands for the fundamental experience of the dissipation and fragmentation of subjectivity and the world in our (post-) modern media and science-based societies. An “intact” body image as evidence of one’s integrity is wishful thinking at best, considering the myriad of heterogeneous discourses, interests, and influences that constantly determine and manipulate our knowledge and perception of our own bodies. (This most likely applies to the female body in particular.) A downright industry has developed to advise us daily in theory and practice on the effects of our body language, health matters, clothing, looks, and fitness, in order to enhance our charm and success. Be it biology or genetics, medicine or cosmetic surgery, nutrition, feminism, fashion or cosmetics, aesthetics and art history, sexology, pornography, advertising, sports, religion or the omnipresent pop culture etc. – the most varying discourses about the body exert influence on us, suitably refined and circulated by the mass media through diverse channels.
Since 2005 Hedwig Brouckaert has been working increasingly in the medium of drawing, her central theme being the body and images of the body in the media. In her “Judith” series Brouckaert first took up this theme in the form of a subject familiar in Christian iconography, also popular in feminist theory.2 Judith, bearing the severed head of Holofernes in her hands, is the personification of the ambivalent desire for the other. The fragmentation of the male body, his “castration”, seems a prerequisite for phantasmatic completion of the female body in this classical theme of the gender battles. Brouckaert’s heroine, apparently not very biblical, appears blood-free and dreamily light-hearted. The polka-dot pattern of her airy summer dress spills decoratively onto her sword. The oversize head of actor Johnny Depp, apparition-like next to her, makes clear that these are extremely contemporary fantasies and wishful projections.
Hedwig Brouckaert enters new iconographic territory with her “Hospital” series, also done in 2005. These drawings work with motifs taken from old nursing textbooks. Its theme is the fact that, in order to gain concrete knowledge of processes within our own bodies, we need help from specialists and the use of apparatuses that look into us from the outside. One of the drawings of this series shows the contours of a woman standing on oddly-turned legs amidst lights, their rays piercing her like the arrows of St. Sebastian. She seems defenseless and lost in an allover structure of red dots in watercolor that infect the entire page like externalized symptoms of illness resembling a skin rash.
Following the covetous fragmentation of the body in the “Judith” series and its traumatic dismemberment and treatment as a thing in the hospital world, Brouckaert next addresses a different form of manipulation concerning self-perception and feelings towards the body, specifically the kind found in magazines and advertising. For her “Magazine” series, the picture material she uses comes from fashion and lifestyle magazines, such as specialist magazines for golf or lingerie catalogues, but also political and scientific magazines. The artist pores over such magazines in search of certain motifs (faces, poses, etc.), which she then arranges on the page according to her own rules. In doing this, she limits herself to tracing human figures, excluding status symbols such as cars, homes, or furniture. The collage-like method of combining and layering figures, which she had already used occasionally in her “Hospital” series, has been carried to an extreme here. The drawings, up to two by three meters in size, traced using black or colored transfer paper, emerge as panoramas, containing hundreds of individual motifs taken from the magazines and traced over one another. In an age of photocopying and of digital scanning, this seemingly antiquated reproduction procedure of tracing by hand is what determines the aesthetic appearance of these drawings to a great extent. The reduction of the schematic outline serves to make the motifs abstract, stripping them of their individuality and reducing them to stereotype poses. Fashion accessories such as stiletto heels and handbags immediately signalize the origin of the figures from the picture repertory of the respective magazines. What we normally take in successively when leafing through magazines has been supplied here all at once on the page in an extreme density of information. The consequence of it all is that large portions of the drawings may only be deciphered concretely with much difficulty or not at all, and that the motifs are so densely superimposed that a sort of visual noise comes about, a chaotic web of countless, overlaid lines.
Brouckaert’s interest in the overlaying is to still the completely redundant messages of the magazines that more or less strongly influence our perception of the world and our (ideal) notions of the beauty of the body and our quality of life. In her studio there are magazines that she has completely whited out, page for page, thus making them “quiet”, neutralizing them optically. This is an almost ritual act, the goal being resistance against the overpowering media images and their efficiency. The artist is certainly not concerned here with simple media criticism or with feminist censorship of cliché notions. Rather this is the definition of an artistic attitude that rejects escapism, going on to reflect upon our world at a higher, intellectual level. By transposing the visual information from the magazines into her own graphic medium and accumulating it in such a way that it is paradoxically strengthened and negated in its statement at the same time, she arrives at a particular type of aesthetics derived entirely from out of the drawing process. In conversation Brouckaert referred to the clusters of lines, at times flatly condensed, as “holes”, which “through [the magazine pictures] lead to something that is more real than these”. It seems to me that we need to understand the concept of the real as multi-layered here, in a meaning encompassing both form and content, in order to grasp the entire aesthetic substance and the intellectual depth of Brouckaert’s drawings.
On the one hand, the artist is concerned with the reality of the artistic picture, which sets itself apart from the beautiful appearance of the magazine photographs and their glossy surface effect. The specific aesthetics of the “Magazine” drawings manifests itself in the tension between order and chaos, between conceptual logic and unpredictability, as well as in the rhythmic change between the parts drawn with unbelievably heightened intensity and the empty spaces on the paper. Brouckaert’s drawings function precisely in the border area between figuration and informal abstraction, centered between the reference to contents and the autonomy of the means of portrayal. Brouckaert contrasts the advertising and lifestyle pictures, along with the pose-types found in political image projection, with the material presence of the picture and a physical working process. This can be seen most clearly by the furrowed paper, which bulges and loses its form under the burden of hundreds of lines.
On the level of content, it is helpful to think of the concept of the real as it has been worked out by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. There the real means something conceptually incomprehensible, unconscious, something suppressed that threatens normality, a kind of horror or traumatic scare. This dimension also reveals itself in Brouckaert’s “Magazine” series in a manner often touching upon the grotesque as well as the comic. The form of the head consisting of countless individual faces, which emerges in one of the drawings called “The New York Times, Dec.30, Oct. 16…” for example, seems mysterious and threatening, like the body of the “Leviathan”, its own body consisting of human bodies, in the famous frontispiece etching of Thomas Hobbes’ political treatise.3 The ghostly “Magazine Figures (blue)” appear sublime and horrible, like those Indian deities with so many arms. Their faces covered with undulating lines like disheveled masses of hair cause us to think of antique goddesses of revenge – or certainly more known to today’s public – the zombies in Japanese horror films.4 Behind them, the visible, elegantly-spread legs of the women with their fashionable shoes and the sportily-casual men with their golf clubs lend their ghostly procession an at once anachronistic and subtly humoristic character.
What is particular, and in my opinion, entirely convincing about Brouckaert’s drawings is the fact that, because they do nothing other than propagate familiar, popular picture material, they expose their repressed cause at the same time. It is the fact that our corporeal existence is something we will never totally comprehend, a mystery that can never be wholly solved and at whose core the horrors of vulnerability, illness, and death lie, which makes this need for pictures of wholesome bodies necessary in the first place. It may be that art, too, has no origin other than the urge to come to terms with the finiteness of our existence. When works of art reflect precisely this, they gain philosophic depth.
One of the most important literary testimonies to the increasing aesthetic consideration of the body fragment in the 19th century is Honoré de Balzac’s tale “Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” (1831). Here the masterpiece of the painter Frenhofer reveals itself to its curious viewers as an unreadable chaos of colors and forms which are layered on top of each other, from which only the painted foot of a woman emerges as recognizable: “On drawing nearer, they spied in one corner of the canvas the end of a bare foot standing forth from that chaos of colors, of tones, of uncertain shades, that sort of shapeless mist; but a lovely foot, a living foot! They stood fairly petrified with admiration before that fragment […]”5 By contrast, in Hedwig Brouckaert’s works it is the beauty of the body, reduced to cliché, which dissolves into the mysterious presence of inextricable webs of spun lines. I presume the artist is also concerned with beauty, but it is rather the beauty of conceptual harmony, or to risk the word, truthfulness, and less the beauty of optical complacency. Neither do Brouckaert’s works expect us to be petrified with admiration when facing them. For that they are much too intent on setting into motion our admiring sight and thought.
Peter Lodermeyer is Art Historian and freelance author.
Translated from German by Elizabeth Volk.
1 Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces. The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity, London 1994.
2 Concerning the iconography, see Jutta Seibert, “Judith”, in: Lekon der christlichen Ikonographie, vol. 4. columns 454 – 458. On feminist theory, see for example, Mary Jacobus, “Judith, Holofernes and the Phallic Woman” in: M. J., Reading Woman, New York 1986, p: 110-136.
3 Horst Bredekamp, Thomas Hobbes, der Leviathan. Das Urbild des modernen Staates und seine Gegenbilder 1651-2001. 2nd edition, Berlin 2003.
4 I am thinking here especially of the „Ring“ films of Hideo Nataka.
5 “En s’approchant, ils aperçurent dans un coin de la toile le bout d’un pied nu qui sortait de ce chaos de couleurs, de tons, de nuances indécises, espêce de brouillard sans forme; mais un pied délicieux, un pied vivant! Ils restèrent petrifies d’admiration devant ce fragment […
by Peter Lodermeyer