A Glass Splinter that Cuts, A Plot of Uncultivated Soil, Felicity Lunn (2018)

“I see drawing as a form of preparation, as stages along the path that the large paintings will ultimately have to travel. Drawing dominates my life and enables me to function within the system…”
Philippe Vandenberg (i)

Considered one of Belgium’s most significant painters from the late seventies until his death in 2009, Philippe Vandenberg was also a prolific and talented draughtsman. He used drawing as a process of exploring themes and formal concerns that he would subsequently translate into paintings. From the mid-nineties, however, Vandenberg increasingly started to draw, primarily using pencil, ink, gouache and watercolour. Most of his drawings after 1982 are more than preliminary studies and can be considered as autonomous images.

Vandenberg’s early childhood encounters with religious painting and the Old Masters at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent inspired him to become an artist. However, it was through drawing that he sought solace from the predicaments of family life and the quandaries of traditional education. Vandenberg acknowledged, on a number of occasions, not only the security that drawing gave him as a child, but also its on-going role in maintaining a fragile balance with a world that he experienced throughout his life as turbulent and chaotic. (ii) These early drawings mostly consist of carefully executed depictions of animals that, though conventional, are impressive in their perception of anatomy and movement. Dogs, in particular, were an important subject of his childhood drawings and continued to be during his professional training, even forming his graduation project in 1976. (iii)

Vandenberg drew continually throughout his life, making both large and small-format drawings. Whereas painting was necessarily a grander statement, drawing for Vandenberg had a mystical, almost religious quality, offering a more immediate form for producing images, especially when painting was faltering. (iv) Although Vandenberg candidly, and perhaps with a hint of provocation, gave ease of transportation and boredom as reasons to draw, he acknowledged on many occasions the impetus it gave painting and the attractiveness to him of its material reduction in contrast to painting’s materiality. (v) It was a private activity in comparison with the need, in his view, for a painting to be seen by others in order for it to exist fully. (vi) In a film on Vandenberg, shot between 1999 and 2004 and published in 2005, the artist states that drawing was based on an exploration of almost subconscious thought processes, whereas painting attained a certain independence: “I often happen to paint canvases that go against the grain of my present attitude…”. (vii) Although the drawings at times appear rudimentary and swiftly executed, the recording demonstrates the artist’s surprisingly slow and tentative application of pencil to paper. It was his habit to hold the pencil unusually far up the shaft, similar to the way a painter holds a brush, resulting in uneven, wobbly lines that he repeatedly corrected whilst leaving previous marks. Whereas the time he spent on actually applying paint to canvas was much less than the hours he needed to think and to form his ideas, the film suggests that when he drew, the processes of reflection and production ran parallel.

Vandenberg’s main media for making drawings were, from 1996, watercolour and pencil, before which he mostly used ink and gouache in combination with pencil. For a short period between 1995 and 1996 he also drew with his own blood. Made on thin paper, most of the sketches exist exclusively in graphite pencil. One of Vandenberg’s recurrent techniques in drawing in the period 1996 to 2001, however, consisted of filling in delicate graphite contours with transparent layers of watercolour in jewel-like colours. His evident pleasure in experimenting with colour indicates the strong ‘painterly’ component of the drawings. At the same time, the draughtsmanship in the paintings is often as significant as the brushwork: in a similar process to the drawings, Vandenberg created dark contours to depict the image that he then filled in with colour or superimposed as line drawings on an abstract background (Fig. 1). Formally and stylistically, the works on paper show numerous parallels to the paintings that he was producing concurrently, allowing us to infer that his output in the two mediums are different facets of the same attempts to express himself.

Fig 1. De graver (The Digger), 1997-1998, Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 cm.

One of the most important themes in Vandenberg’s oeuvre from 1996 until 2001, and then from 2007 until 2009, and that he returned to at different periods in both paintings and drawings, was the human figure, engaged in strange rituals at best and barbaric acts at worst. While the artist attempts to transcend bodily materiality in his painterly depictions of flesh whilst expressing vulnerability (viii), in the watercolours of similar horrific scenes, the delicacy of the line drawing filled with transparent layers of colours is a poignant metaphor for the unscrupulous but physically fragile nature of humans. Yet in drawing, Vandenberg first and foremost found a means for a more immediate release from his own inner turmoil: “Even more than painting, drawing is, for me, a type of security valve, an escape outlet for temporary moments of enormous love, violent anger, aggression, tenderness…” . (ix) The drawings express humiliation and cruelty in images involving both humans and animals. Certain animals recur in both paintings and drawings, in particular, turtles, hares, birds, donkeys, and lions. However, it is in works on paper that he most often combines dogs and people, as a metaphor for his empathy with the human condition on the one hand and the deep pessimism it provoked in him on the other (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2. No title (Le regard [The Look]), 1999, Watercolour and pencil on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm.

Following on from the drawing-books on war he made between 1989 and 1990, in 1994 Vandenberg began to fill hundreds of books with drawings on an almost daily basis. This practice became even more central in the second half of the nineties and also gave him the opportunity to work abroad, on his travels to Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, and Cuba from the year 1996 onwards. These are usually chronological and most of them are devoted to specific motifs and forms that he explored in repetitive variations. Although he had always drawn concurrently to his painting practice, in this period Vandenberg’s drawings became more intimate, taking on not only a diaristic approach but also an almost automatic character, reflecting the wish he expressed in his writings to not remember or reflect any more than was necessary. Indeed, within this new evolution, the use of text as both a thematic and formal component gains unprecedented prominence. In the case of several large-format drawings made in 1995–1996 (Fig. 3, Fig. 4), the text is partially obliterated by the superimposition of a large black geometric form, recalling the almost monochromatic paintings executed immediately before this period (Fig. 5). In a number of paintings, individual words or phrases are combined with images, such as Aimer c’est flageller I [To Love Is to Flagellate I]. In others, they are the sole subject of a work, for example the word ‘honte’ (shame) that the artist depicted several times, both in oil and in blood, the command Patience Death in the painting No title, ca. 1998– 1999 (Fig. 6), or ‘Il me faut tout oublier’ (I must forget everything) in the Petite étude svastika [Small Swastika Study], 2002–2003 (Fig. 7). As the words themselves indicate, the text-based paintings are some of Vandenberg’s most pessimistic expressions of the human condition. Particularly potent are the variations of the word ‘Kamikaze’ in the series L’important c’est le kamikaze (The Importance is the Kamikaze), 2004–2005, some of which are older paintings that the artist overpainted to make these works. Appearing in its entirety or as the abbreviated form KA or KA.M., the nihilism of the word corresponds with the monochrome grey, yellow or orange roughly textured background. These paintings were followed, towards the end of Vandenberg’s life, by the cycle Kill Them All, the bleakest of commands depicted against a surprising variety of backgrounds, including a vigorous abstract work (No title, ca. 2006–2007 [Fig. 8]), and overpainted on a conventional landscape that Vandenberg had bought at a flea market.

Fig. 3. No title, 1995-1996, Gouache, charcoal and pencil on paper, 73 x 110 cm;

Fig. 4. No title, 1995-1996, Gouache, charcoal and pencil on paper, 73 x 110 cm

Fig. 5. Grande noire I (Large Black I), 1992-1995, Oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm

Fig. 6. No title, ca. 1998-1999, Pastel on wood, 23 x 25 cm

Fig. 7. Petite étude svastika (Small Swastika Study), 2002-2003, Oil and charcoal on canvas, 50 x 40 cm

Fig. 8. No title, ca. 2008, Oil and charcoal on wood, 23 x 33 cm

The phrase Il me faut tout oublier was repeated several times in the extensive series of large-format drawings that Vandenberg made in 2005–2008, together with other instructions such as ‘Kill them all and dance’. Executed in primarily pastel on paper, these works are concurrent with the Kill Them All cycle of paintings, but in their quantity they demonstrate Vandenberg’s need for drawing as a kind of ritual incantation. The words reflect his longing to exclude the knowledge he had accumulated during his life and to begin anew each time he started a painting. Aware that the desire was futile, the expression Il me faut tout oublier was Vandenberg’s ultimate cry of distress. The texts are created in irregularly sized letters, drawn so that in each case the phrase fills the page. Although the presentation of the series as a block on the floor at his exhibition Visite at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent emphasised the obsessive repetition of rage and aggression, in many of the pastel versions each letter is executed in a different jewel-like colour. Less strident than the painted versions, the drawings more subtly communicate Vandenberg’s emotional states that swung between despair and joy, anger and compassion. (x) This is also the case with another series of large-format drawings he made only a year after the letter drawings were completed, in which the colourful and more optimistic message ‘Un grand amour suffit’ (A Great Love Suffices) dances across the paper, in contrast with the second variation the artist made that declared ‘Aucun grand amour suffit’ (No Great Love Suffices).

In 2002–2004, Vandenberg turned to abstract forms as a means of understanding and developing their formal and symbolic potential in his work. It is in these works that the relationship between the paintings and drawings is closest. Certain structures are almost identical in the two media; others, though developed in similar ways, are adapted to the materials. Some of the paintings are characterised by combinations of monochrome blocks of colour, primarily in grey and black, that are broken by fine white lines, or entirely black paintings demarcated by a grid of white pastel lines (Fig. 9) Several contain a swastika, either drawn over the blocks of colour or more subtly incorporated within the divisions between them (Fig. 10). The small-format paintings are much closer in style to the drawings of this period in their compositions of networks of fine lines in an all-over pattern on the canvas, the smaller areas of jewel-like colour abutting each other (Fig. 11); in others, the composition is reduced to single vertical lines, usually in pale blue, on an impasto white background (Fig. 12).

Fig. 9. No title, ca. 2003, Oil and pastel on canvas, 210 x 200 cm

Fig. 10. Cycle "Exil de peintre" (Cyle "The Painter's Exile"), Oil and pastel on canvas, 50 x 40 cm

Fig. 11. No title (From the book No More Life No More), 2004, Watercolour and pencil on paper, 46 x 37 cm

Fig. 12. Z.T. (Untitled), 2002-2003, Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm

In the drawings, the vocabulary of forms and patterns was more extensive, demonstrating that it was on paper that Vandenberg experimented most with the possibilities of abstraction. Combinations of continuous and broken lines echo the related groups of paintings (Fig. 11, Fig. 13, Fig. 14), while the monochrome blocks of colour in the latter are replaced by groups of trapezes (Fig. 15, Fig. 16). However, it was above all through the continuous repetition of a group of symbols that Vandenberg analysed, modified and developed his themes. The cross and the circle – an exploration of the traditional metaphors for hope and salvation – recur in Vandenberg’s figurative work as crosses or walled enclosures respectively (Fig. 17). These figures appear repeatedly in the pages of the sketchbooks as either crosses composed of one or more swastikas (Fig. 18), or as grids or wheels (Fig. 11, Fig. 13, Fig. 14).

Fig. 13. No title (From the book No More Life No More), 2004, Watercolour and pencil on paper, 46 x 37 cm.

Fig. 14. No title (From the book No More Life No More), 2004, Watercolour and pencil on paper, 46 x 37 cm.

Fig. 15. No title (From the book No House No Home No More Life), 2004, Watercolour and pencil on paper, 46 x 37 cm

Fig. 16. No title (From the book No House No Home No More Life), 2004, Watercolour and pencil on paper, 46 x 37 cm

Fig. 17. Étude pour l'assassin (Study for the Assasin), 1997, Oil on wood, 63 x 89 cm

Fig. 18. No title, 1997, Watercolour and pencil on paper, 42 x 29.7 cm

It is significant that in many of Vandenberg’s works, in both media, the path acts as an important iconographic, visual and thematic subject. In the figurative paintings, paths lead figures across landscapes (Fig. 19, Fig. 20). In the drawings, the road or path is expressed primarily and repeatedly as a labyrinth, a symbol of Vandenberg’s constant fear of creative impasse. (xi)

Fig. 19. Aimer c'est flageller I (To Love Is to Flagellate I), 1981-1998, Oil and charcoal on canvas, 152 x 302 cm

Fig. 20. Les porteurs (The Bearers), 1998, Oil, acrylic paint, pastel, charcoal, tape and pencil on canvas, 92 x 126 cm

The legacy of Vandenberg’s art is defined equally by his paintings and drawings. As he himself made clear, the two media met different artistic needs that he kept in productive tension: “One does not catch a drawing by the tail: it either is or is not. A drawing is a pure sparkle, a glass splinter that cuts, while a canvas is rather a plot of cultivated soil: we may till it over and over again, leave traces interspersed with our wandering towards uncertain destinations…”. (xii) What is certain is that Vandenberg grappled in both painting and drawing with the same horrific or life-enhancing themes in his search for the absolute.

i. Ronny Delrue, “Rembrandt is my Mother: Philippe Vandenberg in Conversation with Ronny Delrue”. In: Absence, etc., edited by Wouter Davidts (New York: Hauser & Wirth Publishers, 2017), 101. This interview was originally published as: Id., “Philippe Vandenberg”. In: De gecontroleerde ongecontroleerdheid bij het tekenen: Ronny Delrue in gesprek met Luc Tuymans, Anne- Marie Van Kerckhoven, Roger Raveel, Katleen Vermeir, Kris Fierens en Philippe Vandenberg, edited by Hannelore Duflou (Brussels: Mercatorfonds, 2011), 230–279.
ii. Vandenberg stated that “Compared to the menacing chaos that unfolded beyond the sheet, it brought me peace. I still endeavour to find that sense of security within the structure of the square…” In: Id., “Rembrandt is my Mother: Philippe Vandenberg in Conversation with Ronny Delrue”, 2017, 91.
iii. The artist was painfully aware that the themes of his childhood drawings, the “violence and distress signals” remained in his mature work: “Each drawing is a message, each drawing comes from above, each drawing is a key”. In: Philippe Vandenberg, Pilgrim’s Throat, (Unpublished, 2003), unpag. This essay was originally published in: Id., “Pelgrims keel”. In: Pelgrims Keel, (Kessel-Lo: Literarte, 2003), unpag.
iv. His draughtsmanship was described in quasi religious terms: “I draw and I am the drawing, and I lose myself in the drawing…, I breathe the drawing, nothing can save me other than the drawing…” In: Jan Vanden Berghe, “Horrible Possibilities: Drawings by Philippe Vandenberg”. In: Philippe Vandenberg: Reflections on the Drawings (Brussels: Estate Philippe Vandenberg; Tilburg: De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, 2012), 121. This citation originally stems from his correspondence with fellow artist Karel Dierickx: Vandenberg, Letter to K.D., August 1997. For his ideas on the intimacy of drawing read: Delrue, “Rembrandt is my Mother: Philippe Vandenberg in Conversation with Ronny Delrue”, 2017, 96.
v. For his ideas on the correlation between boredom and creation read: Ibid., 99–101. About the impetus drawing gave to painting Vandenberg wrote: “The painter may be aided by the shining shattered traces of the drawings he scatters about as he winds his way through”. In: Id., “The Song of the Finch”. In: Philippe Vandenberg “L’important c’est le kamikaze”: Œuvre 2000– 2006, edited by Alain Tourneux (Charleville-Mézières: Musée Arthur Rimbaud; Ghent: Online, 2006), 115. This essay was originally published as: Id., “Le chant du pinçon”. In: Philippe Vandenberg “L’important c’est le kamikaze”: Œuvre 2000–2006, 2006, 29–49. On the material reduction of drawing, as opposed to painting he stated: “On the one hand, matter makes us live, on the other it impedes us from soaring away. … It explains my great love for drawing. In a drawing matter is reduced to a minimum.” In: Gérard Berréby, “What Counts Is Kamikaze”. In: Philippe Vandenberg “L’important c’est le kamikaze”: Œuvre 2000–2006, 2006, 105. This interview was originally published as: Id., “L’important c’est le kamikaze”. In: Philippe Vandenberg “L’important c’est le kamikaze”: Œuvre 2000–2006, 2006, 11–27.
vi. About the opposition between painting and drawing in terms of their publicity and intimacy Vandenberg stated: “The canvas exists only when it is being looked at …. For the magic of the painting to produce its effect, the existence of a third party is required so as to deliver the artist from it.” In: Id., “What Counts Is Kamikaze”, 2006, 96.
vii. On the subconscious process of drawing he wrote: “For rather than developing in parallel with the attitude, the work is either ahead or behind.” In: Vandenberg, “The Song of the Finch”, 2006, 121, and: “For a canvas…. has an almost generous flexibility permitting the unforeseen that lets the painter stand a chance…. Never so with drawing. A drawing is inflexible and offers just a single possibility, a single chance. One does not catch a drawing by the tail: it either is or is not. A drawing is a pure sparkle, a glass splinter that cuts, while a canvas is rather a plot of cultivated soil: we may till it over and over again, leave traces interspersed with our wandering towards uncertain destinations, until the right direction is found and truth attained, expressing what might be the reality of our condition.” In: Ibid., 113. The film of Vandenberg in the process of drawing: Julien Vandevelde, Een schilder is als Œdipus onderweg (Ghent: Cavalier Seul, 2005).
viii. “How to paint the flesh and make us forget its materiality, and at the same time, emphasise its fragility, its wounds, its erotic force, its luminosity…” In: Berréby, “What Counts Is Kamikaze”, 2006, 106.
ix. “Even more than painting, drawing is, for me, a type of security valve, an escape outlet for temporary moments of enormous love, violent anger, aggression, tenderness… Expressing cruelty means, for me, building up a sort of resistance to the horrors that devour me. If I can give the horror expression, I’m momentarily set free from this compulsive thought.” In: Vanden Berghe, “Horrible Possibilities: Drawings by Philippe Vandenberg”, 2012, 87–89. The original source of this citation is the documentary: Vandevelde, Een schilder is al Œdipus onderweg, 2005.
x. “The texts are sometimes like wishes, incantations or formulations of a prayer… The word is also a form. You can paint and draw a word or phrase in the same manner that you would a flowerpot, nude, or landscape.” In: Delrue, “Rembrandt is my Mother: Philippe Vandenberg in Conversation with Ronny Delrue”, 2017, 99.
xi. “The certainties that drive the painter to create should be mutating perpetually, adapting to the evolving needs of the canvas. If not, painting slides into printing.” In: Berréby, “What Counts Is Kamikaze”, 2006, 97.
xii. Vandenberg, “The Song of the Finch”, 2006, 113.