Philippe Vandenberg working in his studio in Molenbeek, 2008. © Jean-Pierre Stoop
The work of the eminent Belgian painter, draftsman and writer Philippe Vandenberg is characterised by an inner quest in which various literary, philosophical and art-historical references induce a temporary state of wonder. Using images, words and symbols, Vandenberg challenged the ethical context of the artwork. In so doing, his paintings and drawings remain rooted in the here and now, while also establishing a visually recognisable dialogue with the society in which they were created. Over the years, he endeavoured to transcend the tangible and to convert paint into light. In the works of Vandenberg, universal themes such as war, religion, movement, sexuality and death are crucially transformed.
Philippe Vandenberg was born in 1952 as Philippe Vandenberghe. He grew up in Sint-Denijs-Westrem (a village near Ghent), in a bilingual family and spoke both French and Dutch at home. His mother was descended from a family of brewers, his father was an engineer and was to become the mayor of his home town. With his younger sister he was raised surrounded by the dogs their parents bred as a hobby.(i) Distancing himself from his troublous bourgeois family, he changed his surname to Vandenberg in 1982. He started to draw on a daily basis at a young age. When visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent as a teenager, Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross made a lasting impression, as did the works of Gustave Van De Woestijne and Constant Permeke. (ii)
Philippe Vandenberg drawing as a child in his parent's house. © Unknown
Vandenberg studied literature and art history at the University of Ghent from 1970 to 1972. He also attended classes at the Royal Academy of Art in the same city, against the wishes of his parents. Enrolling full-time in 1972, Vandenberg trained under Jan Burssens and followed a curriculum that emphasised life drawing and still-life painting. One of his fellow students was Thierry De Cordier, with whom he shared a love of art, literature and philosophy. Together with him or with other fellow students he visited exhibitions of work by Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso and Joseph Beuys, and would discuss the œuvres of their favourite writers, (iii) such as Hugo Claus, Louis Ferdinand Céline and Allen Ginsberg.
A year before graduating in 1976, Vandenberg married Véronique D’Heygere, who became his favourite model for painterly depictions of the female nude. Their daughter Hélène was born in 1977 and their son, Guillaume, followed a year later. During a trip to New York in early 1978 he discovered the paintings of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Marc Rothko. Several months thereafter, Vandenberg moved in with Mieja D’Hondt, who would in turn become his main model. He visited Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum in 1980 and travelled to see the works of Francisco Goya and El Greco in the Prado in 1981.
Philippe Vandenberg working on bathing scenes of Mieja D'Hondt in his studio in the Hofstraat in Ghent, 1981. © Ip Man
The renewal of interest in painting at the beginning of the 1980s, which coincided with the emergence of the Neue Wilde in Germany and the Transavanguardia in Italy, brought Vandenberg’s work into the spotlight. In Picturaal I at the International Cultural Centre (ICC) in Antwerp (1981), a group exhibition of work by emerging Belgian painters, he showed a series of figurative Kruisigingen (Crucifixions). For these works he was awarded the Prix Emile Langui for painting at the Prix Jeune Peinture Belge that same year, leading to a one-year residency in the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris.
In 1982, Vandenberg radically re-evaluated his work. Inspired by the dramatic passion of the Old Masters and the sense of space in the work of the Abstract Expressionists, he made his so-called Splinter Paintings. For these canvases, he deconstructed the human figure in his crucifixions into black and white shapes that he arranged in rhythmical grids. Vandenberg exhibited the paintings that same year in the group show La Magie de L’Image at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. In 1983, he and Richard Foncke (who later became his dealer) exhibited the cycle De Geboorte (Birth), painted following the birth of Mo, his son with Mieja. Foncke represented the artist for over two decades. In 1986, Vandenberg had a solo show in New York at the Denise Cadé Gallery, which resulted in the acquisition of a painting by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. After discovering the work of Philip Guston in New York his paintings became ever more radical.
Philippe Vandenberg with his children Guillaume, Mo and Hélène (from left to right), ca. 1983. © Mieja D’Hondt
In 1988, Vandenberg moved his studio into an old factory space in the Stokerijstraat in Ghent. Despite his growing success at this time, he felt oppressed by the art market and the opportunistic stance of certain critics. That same year, he exhibited for a second time with Denise Cadé. He subsequently travelled to Southwest America where he was affected by the subjugation of the indigenous population. It was during this period that he began to use motifs from the graffiti art he came into contact with through younger friends, as well as images distilled from his children’s comic books.
Vandenberg, who was critical of twentieth-century political history in general, became particularly concerned about contemporary events, such as the Persian Gulf conflict, heightened Arab-Israeli tensions and the crumbling of the former communist states. In 1989, he introduced crude references to world politics into his work. Radicalising his tendency towards the burlesque, his paintings were crowded with swastikas, portraits of political or religious leaders, such as Yasser Arafat and Ayatollah Khomeini, copulating men and women, and men carrying dollar bills. This was also the year in which Vandenberg commenced what would become a series of drawing-books, the earliest of which are filled with pictures of war crimes and dictators. Many collectors failed to understand the dramatic change of direction that Vandenberg had taken with these paintings, which were first exhibited at the Forum Gallery in Ostend in 1989 and the Galerie Albert Baronian in 1990. Several art critics rejected the works outright.
Philippe Vandenberg in his studio in the Hofstraat in Ghent, 1984. © Walter De Mulder
Vandenberg faced a number of setbacks in the early 1990s: the euphoria surrounding the new wave of painting had died out, the art market had collapsed, and the New York gallerist Denise Cadé stopped showing his work. He broadened his horizons by travelling around Europe on his motorbike and visited, amongst other sights, the cathedrals of Chartres and Vézelay. The artist also travelled to South America with Mieja in 1991. That same year, he began to use motifs derived from Christian iconography, as evidenced by his intense renditions of Ecce Homo or the suffering Christ. These works, together with dense portraits of family and friends, made between 1992 and 1993, were shown in his exhibition entitled De Kruisigingen at Campo Santo in Ghent. In 1994, the painter returned to Toledo to see the works of El Greco and immersed himself in the Book of Job, the Book of Revelation and the writings of the Christian mystics. Concurrent with his experiments in poetry during this period, writing was granted an autonomous role within his creative practice.
Philippe Vandenberg working on his blood drawings, 1996. © Unknown
In 1995, Het zevende zegel (The Seventh Seal), one of his first large-scale ensembles, was shown in JOB XIII, 12, an exhibition curated by Jan Hoet for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent. It marked the reconciliation between the artist and the curator, after the latter had publicly disavowed his work in 1989. (iv) Vandenberg also exhibited his work in two other public institutions in 1995: at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam (In de verborgenheid van het icoon) and in a joint exhibition with Markus Oehlen at the Museum D’Hondt Dhaenens in Sint-Martens-Latem. On the occasion of the latter presentation he published the artist’s book De Stand der Dingen (The State of Things), comprising poetry and lithographs on the theme of the snake and the hand. (v) De zeven tochten naar het Heilig Graf (Seven Journeys to a Holy Sepulchre), a lecture written in 1995, heralded the start of a series of essays reflecting on his practice and the fate of the painter. (vi) In terms of his œuvre, 1995 was marked by two radical gestures: he overpainted earlier works with unctuous layers of black paint, resulting in the Grandes noires (Big Blacks), and used his own blood to make drawings.
Following the end of the relationship with Mieja in 1996, the artist visited Indonesia. He would travel more frequently over the coming years. Inspired by the crucial interventions of 1995, he continued to work on ensembles. Le Cannibal en Larmes (The Cannibal in Tears), a series of blood drawings, was succeeded by L’esprit est voyageur, l’âme est vagabonde (The Spirit Is a Traveller, The Soul Is a Vagabond). In the latter ensemble, which was first shown at Albert Baronian in 1997, he combined word paintings with panels populated by fairy-tale characters and Old Testament figures. Vandenberg travelled to Laos and Thailand in 1997 and visited Cuba in 1999. Marseille was another favourite destination, where he was represented by Galerie Athanor between 1997 and 2001. Always an avid reader, he immersed himself in the works of Elfriede Jelinek, Georg Trakl and Paul Celan during this period. His text entitled Op weg in een kooi is een man, zijn handen rood (On His Way in a Cage Is a Man, His Hands Red) was published in the catalogue to Œuvre 1995-1999, a seminal five-year survey exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp (MUHKA). (vii)
Philippe Vandenberg writing in his studio in the Stokerijstraat in Ghent, 1999. © Walter De Mulder
In 2000, Vandenberg accepted a one-year teaching position at The Royal Academy of Ghent. The deaths of Marc Maet and Jan Burssens, both close friends and fellow artists, affected him deeply. In 2001, depression and substance abuse led to the first of many stays in hospital. The same year he completed a series of portraits that he had originally started in 1999. These included depictions of Ulrike Meinhof, a leader of the Red Army Faction, the writer and dramatist Antonin Artaud, and a number of self-portraits. At the same time, he also painted the cycles L’Ennemi Intérieur (The Enemy Inside), In Memoriam Ulrike Meinhof and Étude pour Artaud (Study for Artaud), which depict the subjects of these paintings being violently attacked.
From 2001, he began to focus on symbols, such as the cross and the swastika, and his paintings and drawings became more geometric. A particular highlight is the series of etchings entitled Exil De Peintre (The Painter’s Exile) from 2003, which Vandenberg published as a book and presented in an exhibition of the same name at the Caermersklooster in Ghent. Both were accompanied by his essay La Lettre au Nègre (Letter to the Nigger), written during one of his many visits to friends in Paris and Morogues. (viii) A cinephile, he was a loyal visitor to the local cinemas in the French capital, devouring films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Andrei Tarkovsky and Michael Haneke. The poem Pelgrims Keel (Pilgrim’s Throat), which he wrote during a stay at a hospital, was presented in the Dr Guislain Museum in 2004. (ix)
Philippe Vandenberg retrospectively signing his works, 2002. © Arpaïs Dubois
Vandenberg’s long-time gallerist Richard Foncke died in 2005. The painter left Ghent for Brussels, where he bought a studio in Molenbeek. Teaching as a guest professor in Romania he met the artist Oana Cosug, with whom he was briefly married, and made his Bucharest Drawings. As in the mid-1990s, he started to overpaint older works, resulting in grey, orange and yellow monochromes. Another intervention was his use of words, regularly appearing throughout his œuvre. On the surface of some of these canvases he painted schematic letters, enigmatically stating K.A. or the sentence L’important c’est le kamikaze (The Importance Is the Kamikaze). This latter phrase was also the title of his 2006 exhibition at the Musée Arthur Rimbaud in Charleville-Mézières in France, where he showed the cycle for the first time. Comparable sentences, such as Il me faut tout oublier (I Must Forget Everything) or Kill Them All, would appear in his œuvre until 2008, often painted and drawn on discarded materials such as wooden panels or found paintings.
Vandenberg continued to work intermittently on alternating geometric, figurative and monochrome cycles. These image schemes, which he used throughout his career, began to converge: letters became geometrical grids, figures were included in abstract compositions, and monochromes served as backgrounds for words. His Molenbeek Drawings from 2007 are key examples of this tendency. In one of the drawings, which Vandenberg mockingly entitled Le Carousel, cuboid forms with legs circle a central figure under the inscription Dieu me la dit (God Told Me So). This motif served as a starting point for a cycle of large-scale paintings and also appears in the Sint-Jans Suite (Saint John Suite), a series of etchings that he based on his drawings. The artist had his last overseas exhibition at the Envoy Gallery in New York in 2008. The following year, in the exhibition Visite, his œuvre was presented in a dialogue with the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, the institution that had first ignited his passion for art. During the last year of his life, Vandenberg worked on the series of paintings Le Départ (The Departure). He committed suicide in 2009.
Philippe Vandenberg in the Museum of Fine Arts of Ghent during his exhibition Visite, 2008. © Michel Burez
i. Philippe Vandenberg, “On His Way in a Cage Is a Man, His Hands Red”. In: Philippe Vandenberg: Œuvre 1995–1999, ed Florent Bex. (Antwerp: M HKA – Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst, 1999), 300.
ii. Research undertaken in the context of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (2007–2017) led to the conclusion that Christ Carrying the Cross is not by Hieronymus Bosch. Based on infrared analyses of the underdrawing and stylistic comparisons, the work is now attributed to a close follower. See: Matthijs Ilsink, et al., Hieronymus Bosch: Painter and Draughtsman: Catalogue Raisonné. (Brussels: Mercatorfonds, 2016).
iii. More specifically they visited the exhibitions of work by Francis Bacon in the Grand Palais (1972), Pablo Picasso at the Palais des Papes (1973), and saw a performance by Joseph Beuys at Documenta VI (1977).
iv. Hoet’s critique was formulated in: Mark Van Dyck,, Dorien Van Der Brempt and Jan Hoet, Monologen met Jan Hoet. (Leuven: Kritak, 1989).
v. Philippe Van Dyck, “De Stand der Dingen”. In: De Stand der Dingen, unpag. (Ghent: Self-Published, 1995).
vi. Philippe Vandenberg, “De zeven tochten naar het Heilig Graf”. Lecture, Kunstschool Heilig Graf, Heilig Grafinstituut, Turnhout, December 1995. This lecture was later published as: Vandenberg, Philippe, “Seven Journeys to a Holy Sepulchre”. In: Philippe Vandenberg: Œuvre 1995–1999, 1999, 271.
vii. The essay was originally a lecture: Philippe Vandenberg, “Op weg in een kooi is een man, zijn handen rood”. Lecture, Stichting Psychoanalyse en Cultuur, Oud-St.-Jan, Bruges, 17 October 1998. The essay was later published as: Philippe Vandenberg, “Op weg in een kooi is een man, zijn handen rood”. In: Philippe Vandenberg: Œuvre 1995–1999, 1999, 33–44. The same publication includes an English translation of the essay: Philippe Vandenberg, “On His Way in a Cage Is a Man, His Hands Red”. In: Philippe Vandenberg: Œuvre 1995–1999, 1999, 292–304.
viii. Philippe Vandenberg, “La lettre au nègre”. In: Exil de Peintre, unpag. (Ghent: Ergo Press, 2003) and Philippe Vandenberg, Lettre au Nègre, exhibition leaflet (Ghent: Caermersklooster, 2004). An English translation of the essay was later published as: Philippe Vandenberg, “Letter to the Nigger”. In: Philippe Vandenberg “L’important c’est le kamikaze” Œuvre 2000–2006, ed. Alain Tourneux, 143–151. (Charleville-Mézières: Musée Arthur Rimbaud & Ghent: Online, 2006).
ix. Philippe Vandenberg, “Pelgrims keel”. In: Pelgrims Keel, unpag. (Kessel-Lo: Literarte, 2003).