Horrible Possibilities: Drawings by Philippe Vandenberg, Jan Vanden Berghe (2012)

 ‘The nigger paints himself. He also paints the other. But it is no different: the other is always just himself, the other is always me.’ (i)

The drawings of Philippe Vandenberg, which I discuss in this text, were selected by the artist Berlinde De Bruyckere for the joint publication Philippe Vandenberg/Berlinde De Bruyckere. Innocence is precisely: never to avoid the worst. (ii) They were made in 1996, a year that marked both a personal and artistic turning point for Vandenberg. It was a time of feverish creative impulses, in which his system of symbols became increasingly more autonomous and concrete, and this in a very unique and highly authentic way.

The drawings of torture and humiliation, of lust, murder and death are incredibly complex. They can be subdivided into approximately four categories: 1. drawings that are directly inspired by existing religious works; 2. drawings that might be linked entirely, or partially, to religious themes; 3. drawings which can refer to religious themes, but which are clearly transposed to another, multilayered reality; 4. drawings of explicit sexual behaviour in which, at first sight, there are no signs of violence. What can be sensed intuitively can only be expressed in words with great difficulty. The intention of this text, therefore, is to try and situate these particular drawings within a wider context.

I. The context

From indoctrination towards personal interpretation

Philippe Vandenberg – then still Vandenberghe – grew up in a predominantly, often rabid, Roman Catholic Flanders. At that time, there was no talk of secularisation, and ‘aggiornamento’, the adaptation of the church to the changed times, had not yet been spoken of. Although Philippe received a Catholic education in school, and also took his First and Solemn Communion, these events might have taken place, for the most part, out of social considerations. Rather than being anti-clerical, the Vandenberghe-Schamp family was more a-clerical. His father was the last Mayor of Sint-Denijs-Westrem, which was then a district of some 5,500 inhabitants, before it merged with Ghent in 1977. He was member of the PVV, the Liberal Party, which at that time was dominated by freethinkers. Philippe’s distance from the Catholic doctrine therefore undoubtedly began at home. As his second wife Mieja D’hondt commented: ‘For him, there was already a gap, a distance which allowed him to take up Catholic symbols more easily and to interpret them himself, according to the needs of his troubled soul.’ (iii)

Images of Catholic ideas were omnipresent during Philippe’s childhood: in almost every household one could find at least a couple of crucifixes, religious prints or a statue of a saint, in and around churches crosses and statues of saints were installed all over the place, just as an image of the crucifixion hung on the wall of every classroom and courtroom… Vandenberg quickly realized how powerless these icons had become. From the moment that the mass media gained influence and importance, society was deluged with images. Consequently, society increasingly ignored their deeper meaning. Just as in the magic realism novel Malpertuis by the Flemish author Jean Ray, (iv) one of Vandenberg’s favorite books since he first read it at the beginning of the 1970s, blind and rock-solid faith was diluted, little by little, until the once rare and precious icons lost their charismatic expressive power. It was Vandenberg’s triumph that he was able to give these icons a renewed, universally human meaning, in a manner that compels the beholder to ‘look’ anew – even if in horror.

The art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) examined the extent to which the inherited ‘cultural psychological’ qualities of antiquities are preserved over the course of centuries. Initially, he focused on the ways in which this legacy, loaded with archetypes, survived during the Renaissance in mythological and religious depictions. Later, he extended this research to his own time. (v) In Vandenberg’s work, we find an almost paradoxical detail: formally he retains the legacy, but renders it timeless. Just as in certain etchings by Goya or Ensor, his drawings exceed all ideological, doctrinal and even historical restrictions. He carries the themes back to the source: that of the deepest, but also most heartrending empathy with the human condition, la condition humaine, which is part of his research. ‘Ecce Homo’: Behold the Man, humanity, this world we all share… In a syncopated reiteration he tries to grasp a horror that is all too tangible. There is no one who can pretend that he doesn’t have the slightest chance of encountering it one day.

Although the word God emerges countless times in his paintings, drawings and texts, Vandenberg considered himself an agnostic. To him, it was not unacceptable that a higher, unknowable, power existed in the universe. But if a God existed, then it was not one that owed anything to humanity – it was a completely indifferent God, unattainable, forever absent, perhaps nothing more than a collective figment of the imagination. (vi) His drawings inspired by religion are thus frequently a call in the desert, a defiant screech for attention and confirmation to a higher entity that might or might not exist. It’s not so much a brutal settling of accounts with a Catholic education, but rather a chafing cry of impotence that is both individual and collective. Primarily, however, they are a reckoning with an unscrupulous cruelty, an unbridled destructive urge, and the blindness that is so typical of all those who claim total certainty.

Death and the erotic

In his essay Les larmes d’Eros [The Tears of Eros] (1961), Georges Bataille examines the dark link between death and the erotic. (vii) His starting point was that simple sexual activity has a different connotation to the erotic, the latter being an activity that possesses a certain ‘diabolic’ aspect, and which is only proper to humans. According to Bataille, the ‘diabolic’ in human sexual activity – inextricably associated with angst, and a term that only gained its full meaning with the arrival of Christianity – proves the extremely close link between death and the erotic. (viii) He tried to show that a similar connotation is even to be seen in the cave of Lascaux, more specifically in the painting of ‘the man with the bird head’ (c. 13,500 B.C.). On the ground, in front of a disembowelled bison with bulging guts, a figure lies alongside a staff that bears the insignia of a bird. A broken javelin rests at his feet. The hunter (or shaman) has obviously overpowered the bison, but with fatal consequences. Just as enigmatic as the bird-like head of the hunter is his erect penis. (ix) By means of many examples taken from art history, Bataille demonstrates that images of death and violence often go hand in hand with evidently erotic connotations.

Fig. 1 The man with the bird head, c. 13 500 B.C., Lascaux

Extreme horror and divine ecstasy

A related topic in Bataille’s Les larmes d’Eros is the potential for transcendence that can be
found in the most horrific pictures. The contemplation of that which is most repulsive can
lead to a majestic state of insight. (x) In his studio in Molenbeek, Philippe Vandenberg kept a framed reproduction of an image that Bataille also discusses in great depth. (xi) It is a
photograph that was taken in Beijing in 1905, and which belongs to the most terrifying
images that the ‘eighth art’ ever produced. It shows the public execution of a murderer
condemned to the sentence of the ‘hundred pieces’, a slow death in which the convict is cut
into pieces whilst still alive. Bataille discovered the image via the monumental Le Traité de
psychologie (1923-1924) by Georges Dumas, who used the photograph to illustrate the
meaning of the term ‘horripilation’: the phenomenon when body hair bristles. (xii) Dumas also
noted the unmistakably ecstatic facial expression of the convict.

Fig. 2 Leng-Tch'e, 1905, Bejing

Bataille received a copy of the photograph in 1925 as a gift, and the mystery of this face in exaltation haunted him for many years. (xiii) In 1938, he came to the following conclusion during a meditation session: ‘In the violence of the image lies a boundless capacity for inversion … My purpose is to illustrate a fundamental connection between religious ecstasy and the erotic – and in particular sadism. … What I suddenly saw, and what imprisoned me in anguish – but which at the same time delivered me from it – was the identity of these perfect contraries, divine ecstasy and its opposite, extreme horror.’ (xiv) Bataille’s conclusion completely accords with the ‘sketched conclusion’ in the drawings of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Vandenberg. Both the original painting and the drawings show facial expressions that match the ecstatic expressions of the inhumanly treated murderer.

The Marquis de Sade

The torture scenes by Philippe Vandenberg feel like an outpouring of total excess that goes beyond all comprehension. In one indivisible amalgam, they depict images of sadistic lust and a resigned, perhaps masochistic, submission, of fanatical destructive urges and unrestrained death wishes, of ecstatic elevation but, above all, the most extreme depravity of which mankind is capable. The most atrocious possibilities stand equal to the most extreme madness.

During the 1999 MuHKA (Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp) retrospective dedicated to Vandenberg’s work of the five preceding years, the museum staff found it almost unbearable to face this seemingly unconcealed sadomasochistic universe on a daily basis. (xv) But to what extent is his shocking oeuvre connected to the Marquis de Sade’s raging writings? Are there similarities between the two characters?

It has been said often enough that De Sade had a life-long obsession with the transgression of all limits of morbidity, of which his books offer the cruel account. Yet his work sometimes has an ironic, and even a comic, undertone. As Georges Bataille remarked in Les larmes d’Eros: the Marquis could laugh! (xvi) Those who knew Philippe Vandenberg well knew that he also possessed a great sense of humour that, if sometimes scornful, was generally mild and tended to put things into perspective. In the drawings of the torture scenes, however, there is no place for irony, because the subject is too loaded, the exorcism ritual too important and the need for expression too urgent.

The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) spent a total of thirty years in prison as a result of his debauchery. In solitary confinement he was tormented by recurring dreams of terrible shrieks and bloody bodies. The only way that he could endure the unbearable prison regime was to propose an equally unbearable form of human existence in his imagination. (xvii) When locked up in the Bastille, where the guillotine had been set up in the inner courtyard, he heard the ghastly cries of the convicts and witnessed the removal of the bloody, decapitated corpses. The works of De Sade are undoubtedly, in part, the result of his lawless adventures but, above all, they are the product of an unbridled imagination. In total isolation, and with such horrors before his eyes, a delirious fantasy was his only means of escape.

In Vandenberg’s drawings we find a similar form of psychological processing. In an interview with Julien Vandevelde about the role drawing played in his life he said, amongst other things: ‘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.’ (xviii)

There is something else that he had in common with De Sade: he was sexually obsessed and mental cruelty was not unknown to him, especially in his relationships with women. In a letter he writes: ‘Only through cruelty can I purify myself, a cruelty that cloaks my life and the hopelessness of love.’ (xix) This continuous, disorganized shuttling movement between tender complicity and obstinate, rock-hard refusal meant that lasting love affairs were absolutely impossible. To a great extent, herein lies the essence of Vandenberg’s dramatic life. Overcome with regrets and contrition, he sometimes tried to reverse the situation but, generally speaking, there was no way back. (xx)

And it is precisely this that forms the most substantial difference between Vandenberg and the writer of 120 Days of Sodom: De Sade never knew remorse. For him, the ideal republic would be a whole-heartedly atheistic society, in which lechery was favorably approved and fulfilled the necessary conditions to guarantee the birth of strong and vital citizens. They had to be able to accept the darkest side of mankind in order to profit without remorse. De Sade calls for evil and he preaches human irresponsibility and the necessity of crime. (xxi) This nihilistic, basically immoral attitude to life, which is exclusively predicated upon giving unrestrained full rein to even the most extreme human passions, is miles away from the world of Philippe Vandenberg. Trying to take advantage of someone else’s misery was, to him, unthinkable. If he was cruel, then this was particularly related to a merciless inner maelstrom boarding on blind madness that caused him to sweep away everything on his path. Each obstacle and every opposition had to yield before the art of painting, which was his only possible mistress. At times, she was almost tangibly present but equally, and just as often, she was an arrogant femme fatale. Whereas the dialogue between painter and canvas initially permitted a youthful joy, this slid over the course of the years to the ghostly depths of necromancy.

The scenes of martyrdom have an obvious diabolic, demonic character. They are the depiction of something that is almost beyond conception, of an unbridled fantasy, but equally the manifestation of our deepest and most ancient human fears: of which almost nobody dares to think or, if they do, they turn away in disgust. At the same time, he was aware that a drawing is ‘but’ a drawing, a portrayal that is only capable of reflecting the indescribable horror of naked reality to a limited degree. Thus he writes: ‘What is the hell of Bosch, compared to the documentary footage of the victims in Africa? What is Guernica if not a splendid painting about a terrible news item, of which the real images are possibly too horrible to be seen…? For this reason I think that it’s rather meaningless, even impossible, to paint “reality” based on reality. But it might be possible, via a detour that tricks reality, sails around her, without her seizing me. As a matter of fact, the horror that I try to catch in some of my work has more to do with intimate “internal” conflicts and battlefields… than with great compassion or generosity with, and for, la condition humaine.’ (xxii)

The drawings are an infernal, obsessive journey into the space of the drawing paper, or to put it better, the medium of the drawing paper, and this without reservation or embellishment. Drawing evil is to grasp it; captured on paper it loses its power. The drawings become fetish images that temporarily keep the demons in check, offering protection against a menacing, frequently inhumane, outside world. In an interview with André Malraux, Picasso related that after he discovered the art of black Africa in 1906, everything which he made afterwards was the result of a kind of exorcism: ‘If we give a form to the spirits, we become independent. The spirits, the unconscious (which wasn’t much spoken of at the time), the emotional, they are all the same. I understood then why I was a painter. Les demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that day, not because of its form, but because it was my first canvas of exorcism – yes, absolutely!’ (xxiii)

II. The drawings

II.1  Drawings that are directly inspired by existing religious works

In After the Entombment of Christ – Caravaggio, 1996, (xxiv) a series of sixteen drawings after The Entombment by Caravaggio, (xxv) the central theme is death and the final departure of the deceased. The dark background in Caravaggio’s painting has been replaced by an exotic landscape. What is notable about the succession of drawings is that the gestures and the facial expressions of those left behind change so little. Only the figure of the dead Christ undergoes a complete metamorphosis. The head becomes a terribly beaten skull, a death’s-head, a repulsive grimacing mask; the body becomes a carcass. Whereas Caravaggio pursued a realism that his patrons still found acceptable, Philippe Vandenberg opts for the extreme without hesitation. He portrays the irrevocable, implacable Death, he screams out his disgust at decay and man’s inability to change a single thing about this condition.

Fig. 3 Caravaggio, The Entombment, 1602-1603

Whoever scrutinises the features of Christ being carried to his grave in the original painting, will perhaps notice that there exists a certain resemblance with the physiognomy of Philippe Vandenberg. It is certainly possible that he projected the circumstances of his own life in this series, as he did so often. Just as James Ensor and the old Picasso depicted themselves as a death’s-head, the drawings become a mirror of his own rebellious upheavals.

And then there are the dogs, the centuries old characters in so many drawings and paintings. Once, they were symbols of sincerity and faithfulness, but how often do you find them as seemingly impassive observers, unashamedly nestling in the scene? They are witnesses to human behaviour that deviates from the trusted patterns, and their disconcerted dog’s souls watch their masters, not knowing how to react. (xxvi) If something comical hides within, it is restricted to the pitying smile and the awareness that, in spite of a bond of thousands of years, the gap between human and animal conscience remains basically unbridgeable. Or as Leonardo da Vinci expressed it once: ‘Truly man is the king of animals, because his cruelty surpasses theirs.’ (xxvii)

The series After The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus – Nicolas Poussin, 1996 and After The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian – Antonio Pollaiuolo, 1996 are based on scenes of martyrdom from the Roman Catholic tradition: a series of nine drawings is inspired by The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus by Nicolas Poussin, (xxviii) and a series of ten by The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo. (xxix)

Fig. 4 Nicolas Poussin, The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, 1628-1629

In contrast to Vandenberg’s drawings, the original paintings bear no traces of explicit sadistic
or masochistic lust. Strengthened by his faith, Saint Erasmus submits to his indescribable
martyrdom with a resolute, barely restrained face; his executioners accomplish their sinister
task in all professional seriousness. The torturer’s predominant feelings are those of hatred
and revenge and they hold on to their opinions fanatically, but also experience fear – that of a
threatened loss of power or ideological authority. (‘Hatred, the firstborn of fear’, as
Vandenberg writes.(xxx)) The archers in the painting by Pollaiuolo also carry out their task
mechanically, well nigh unmoved. Saint Sebastian is a defenceless and passive target. As he is
tormented, his eyes look upwards towards heaven and his lips are silent…

Fig. 5 Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, 1473-1475

The violent drawings of Vandenberg are completely different. In a sort of delirium, he pulls
out all the stops. Saint Erasmus screams in pain, the executioners carry out their repulsive job
with joyful laughter. In one drawing, an executioner has an erection, and in another – as a
supreme humiliation? – so does the victim. There is not a shred of self-control; the last grain of moral consciousness has been thrown overboard. Just as in Ensor’s work the sun peeps
through sombre clouds in several of the drawings: sometimes arrogant, annoyed even and
then almost weeping. The sky is a witness but it never intervenes.
In the series after Pollaiuolo, we see similar confused and alarming themes. In a number of
drawings, Saint Sebastian glances ecstatically at the sky; in others, he hangs his battle-weary
head. The original pose, in which the tortured Saint is tied to a tree with his arms behind his
back, has undergone a metamorphosis. The truncated tree becomes a crucifix upon which he
is hung and bound with outstretched arms. The image of Saint Sebastian flows over into the
image of the crucifixion in memory of everyone throughout the course of human history who
has undergone or must still submit to this terrible punishment, not just on a physical but also
on a psychological level. Then there are the enigmatic sexual connotations. In a number of
drawings, one of the archers has an erection and the martyr has an erection in all of them, but
he also ejaculates. In the background of one drawing, a couple copulates on all fours like a
pair of dogs.

II.2. Drawings that might be linked entirely, or partially, to religious themes

The iconography in La Dame aux lions, 1996, a series of eight drawings of a woman who falls
prey to male lions, undoubtedly refers to the Biblical tale of the prophet Daniel in the lion’s
den, or to the slaughter that took place in Roman arenas. (xxxi) They might also be related to the
unknowable and unrelenting destiny, the inescapable and mysterious power of Moira
(personified as a woman in Homer), to which even gods submitted. (xxxii) In four of the drawings, a naked woman lies in the grass and, wounded or already mutilated, is
violated by a savage lion with seven tails. (xxxiii) In the nocturnal sky, the moon shines in its first
quarter. The woman screams, the lion goes berserk. In one drawing, he looks at us with a
defeated, sad gaze. These drawings belong to the kingdom of nightmares, of the blackest
poetry, of the grimmest fairy tales. They could not be more different to the colourful, naïve
and poetic La bohémienne endormie (1897) by Henri Rousseau (‘Le Douanier’), (xxxiv) where even the full moon laughs; they are more related to Goya’s cannibals, Blake’s dark mysteries and
the macabre dreams of Füssli, Doré and Redon. (xxxv)

Fig. 6 Henri Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897

In these four drawings we are confronted with an alarming duality. The destiny of the lion, who clearly displays anthropomorphic characteristics, is just as inescapable as the destiny of the victim. When he looks at us helplessly in one drawing, then it is as though begging for forgiveness. The entire image can be taken as a kind of self-portrait of the artist, himself torn between his most extreme feelings. At a certain point in his life, these feelings of compulsive destruction (also with regard to himself and to his work) brought him, more than once, to a hopeless situation. Although conscious of being both a perpetrator and a victim, he was unable to offer any resistance to his destructive urges.

In the remaining four drawings of the series, several lions attack an upright naked woman. Thematically, they are closely related to the other four. What is missing here, however, is the dark poetic symbolism, or the mysterious link with the world of dreams. The drawings could be taken as simple illustrations of events in a Roman arena, had the explicit link not been made, once more, between physical and sexual violence. 

II.3. Drawings which can refer to religious themes, but which are clearly transposed to another, multilayered reality

Erotic Drawings / Indonesia, 1996 contains a series of fifteen drawings, in which a naked, gagged woman is maltreated and abused in the most barbaric manner. With an apparently paradisiacal, exotic location as a background, samples of the most extreme human aberrations are shoved beneath our noses. In a sixteenth drawing, which concludes this series, a gagged man, perhaps not unwillingly, is orally satisfied. This tableau seems more like a sex game then a torture scene. The meaning of this is not unequivocal: perhaps the gagged man isn’t forced to submit to fellatio and it is he that forces the woman to perform oral sex…

Of all the series, this is the most diverse but perhaps also the most complex and most confrontational. In the drawings inspired by Christian thinking, we can still fall back upon a deeply human context to a certain extent. In the ‘lion drawings’ a dark, but not inaccessible, symbolism allows us to examine them from the perspective of dreams, or as melancholic poetry. In the scenes with the tortured woman we are, however, assaulted by confused, extremely shocking images of a rawness that, in my opinion, has no equal in all of art history.

To those who might think that the ulterior motive of these drawings is to consciously scandalise (by analogy with, for example, the Hollywoodesque inferno of McCarthy, the erotic ‘earthly paradise’ photographs of Koons, or the commercial pseudo-erotic of Delvoye) let it be said: Philippe Vandenberg never lied in his work! The situation in which he found himself, mentally and socially and physically, penetrated everything he made. There wasn’t a hair on his head that thought of shocking deliberately, or of obtaining easy attention through scandal and provocation. If he really wanted to shock someone then it was, in the first place, himself. His drawings are an exorcism ritual in order to drive out the demons that were ranting in his soul and mind. De Sade, Goya and Vandenberg: what unites them is the ghostly image of exorbitant suffering.

Fig. 7 Francisco Goya, La degollación, c. 1800-1814

In the drawings of the tortured woman, we feel the three-fold presence of the artist. As an expeller of evil he is the High Priest of the exorcism ritual (after all, he makes the drawing). Secondly, however, he is also the participant who, no less torturer than victim, undergoes the exorcism. In the third place he is, above all, the observer who records, so to speak, the incriminating testimony of the most dreadful aspects of the human species. As both recorder and viewer, he doubles the meaning of his drawing. How closely this world approaches that of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whom Vandenberg so deeply appreciated. Céline believed that literature, in its humanist approach, had left out human perversity and always depicted man as more beautiful than he really is. ‘Il faut noircir et se noircir’ [one must blacken and blacken oneself]; this is the author’s motto. (xxxvi)

In the drawings that focus on the tortured woman, the symbolism changes constantly and the religious and profane flow into one kaleidoscopic hallucination. I will isolate certain motives, which return repeatedly, in order to give an impression of the kind of interpretations to which the drawings can lead.

Man on a rock: this character, which is very reminiscent of a figure in a painting by Goya, (xxxvii) is a symbol of helplessness and sorrow. Hovering between abomination and selfishness, he is a personification of the desperate artist and of the implications of his (self) destructive inclinations.

Angel: in some drawings, which seem to depict a nocturnal vision, angels flog the tortured woman either singly or in pairs. This might represent an avenging angel, but another interpretation, which dovetails neatly with the psychology of Vandenberg, would be that after the punishment comes the atonement; the angel brings temporary relief, a momentary deliverance in a world disrupted by obsessional thoughts. Innocence has once again been paid off. In relation to this, Vandenberg wrote the following in 2005: ‘Is it that conflict dominates me or, on the contrary, is it that I provoke conflict because I’m only able to create in conflict situations? The conflict, the trauma that results, the agitation with which it is paired, and the innocence that must be “repurchased” become just as much the mothers of the oeuvre.’ (xxxviii) Previously, in 1997, he described his wrestling with the angel: ‘The wrestling with the Angel is a terrible fight, primarily because the Angel continuously changes its countenance: exterminating, purifying, the one who offers protection, the one who punishes and expels us from paradise, the one who loves me and helps me and also the one who, like Prometheus, guards and prevents me – thanks to my paintings – from escaping the/my human condition, that crushes me on earth like a miserable cockroach. On top of this still, comes that most frightening moment when I realise that the Angel, the intangible and particularly invincible Angel, whom I am obliged to face and submit, is inside me, is myself … (xxxiv)

Fish: both a man and angels appear with a fish in their arms. In the early 1980s, Vandenberg frequently used the motive of the man with the fish in his paintings. The fish seems to function as a symbol for the ‘gift’: the gift of nature to mankind, but also the gift of the fisherman to his wife and children. The recipient can humbly accept the present but can also devour it like an irrational animal in an act of crazy gluttony. By extension, the fish is also a symbol for ‘rescue’ or ‘mercy’. Florent Minne considered the fish symbol to be an associative evolution of the phallus motif and explained how, in Vandenberg’s paintings, one plastic form sometimes appeals to another. (xl) When I asked Philippe Vandenberg if there was a link between his scheme of symbols and that of, for example, alchemy or the tarot, he said that the symbols in his drawings and paintings had, in the first place, a purely individual meaning, but that in their further development they could adopt a universal character. They frequently took on a life of their own, especially when being drawn, and it was not unusual that he only understood their deeper meaning much later. They were part of the mystery of the creative process. (xli)

Animals: there are two kinds of dogs, those witnessing the torture scenes and those that assault the tortured woman. In the first case, they embody an uncomprehending innocence; in the other case they are irrational instruments in the hands of an unsparing barbarism. Furthermore, on several occasions, we see one or two ducks as witnesses, several types of waterfowl and, on one occasion, a little monkey. The dogs are a reference to the dogs that his father bred; the masturbating monkey to the monkey that his mother kept in a cage in the living room.

Nimbus: in one instance, there is a nimbus above the head of the male witness to a torture scene. This is reminiscent of a statement by Vandenberg who, as a child, wondered why he himself wasn’t God. (xlii) In school, he learnt about the existence of an omnipotent, all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipresent and eternal God who, above all, is infinitely good and equitable. The child cannot help but wonder why God, in his inexhaustible goodness and all-seeing omnipotence, doesn’t intervene, but also why it is only He that is omnipotent and all-seeing: to what does he owe his God-like superiority, and why have I been helplessly handed over to the cruelty of the world that is His creation? As a sense of logic awakens in the indoctrinated but not yet understanding child, it isn’t such a naïve question.

Cross: in some instances the tortured woman has not been tied to a tree or to poles, but explicitly to a cross. The woman exclaims in suffering and in her abandonment appeals to the heavens for the justification: ‘Eli, Eli lama sabachthani? – ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’. Why have You granted my extradition to my torturers? Why have You decided that I must remain?

Sun and moon: in some cases, scenes take place under a sickle moon (on one occasion even three sickle moons), which indicates the visionary character of these drawings. They belong to the world of the feverish dream, the terrifying nightmare. Other drawings suggest a sunny, exotic, paradisiacal looking landscape that forms a stark contrast to the shocking torture scenes. It emphasises the fact that, because of his unscrupulous cruelty, man has been expelled forever from the Garden of Eden. If heavenly places do exist on earth, then they do not offer the slightest guarantee that barbarity will never strike, or has not already struck. Trapped in his blind self-satisfaction, man imagines himself the master of the sun and moon, mountains, trees and seas and accordingly (also) doesn’t shy away from mercilessly violating and exterminating his own kind.

Cactus: this prickly plant seems to be a sinister symbol for the phallus and reinforces the lugubrious, threatening atmosphere of the torture scenes.

II.4. Drawings of explicit sexual behaviour in which, at first sight, there are no signs of violence

In four drawings also gathered as Erotic Drawings / Indonesia, 1996, a woman orally satisfies a man. They belong more to the tradition of erotic drawing. In two of them, the man lies back, relaxes and enjoys himself. The surroundings are paradisiacal and there seems to be no evident coercion involved. Whereas a couple of cartoon-like ducks look on in surprise or bewilderment in the first drawing, in the second they participate with abandon. In one of the two other drawings, there is an atmosphere of greater tension and the lovers keep their eyes rammed shut: the climax – ‘the little death’ – is close. A duck, on the bottom left, is the only creature whose eyes remain open and he roguishly winks as if in acknowledgement of the enforced voyeurism of the viewer. The humour in these drawings is a direct indication that Vandenberg was aiming for a little more levity. If we didn’t have knowledge of the other drawings, we wouldn’t consider them as anything more than ‘naughty’ illustrations.

In the fourth rudimentary drawing, the man is satisfied whilst standing up. The atmosphere is more menacing, the relationship more ambiguous. In the background, a cross rises up on a burial mound. Here, we are reminded of the brief ecstasy of sexual excitement: ‘memento mori’ – never forget that death is waiting for you. Once again, the link is made between human lust and death.

Philippe Vandenberg and the erotic drawings: besides portraying his obsessions, this type of drawing can also be seen as a component of his ceaseless rebellion against all forms of moral authority. Also seen in the context of his own increasingly extreme conduct in life over the years, the drawings are, in part, a reckoning for all the frustrations that a reactionary indoctrination had burdened him with for life. ‘All of us are the crucified’, Vandenberg wrote. (xliii) Man is not only a victim of his own complexity just once; everyone, in one way or another and at a certain moment, is deliberately abused and therefore humiliated via power systems, be they ideological, political, economic or social.

III. Technical aspects

All of the drawings were made on thin sketch paper with a simple graphite pencil. They often seem deceptively simple and, upon a superficial viewing, rudimentary, if not clumsy. Philippe Vandenberg shook off all previously postulated standards, and all of the baggage that might weigh him down, in order to obtain an essence that has seldom been equalled in the history of drawing.

In a letter from 1997 he wrote: ‘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 … The further I go – the more unknown, the more terrifying, the more marvellous the emptiness of my horizons –the simpler the drawing and the freer, the more perfect and stripped of flesh the drawing becomes. The drawing becomes the skeleton of my thoughts, of my feelings. Through the most banal, most innocent pencil (No. 2, a stick between my fingers!) on that cheap, blank paper (90g/m² to carry a world), outside of my doing, beyond my submission, the lines carved down, laid down, mowed down, turn themselves, break themselves, caressing and eroding the countenance of the space in which I release them.’ (xliv)

The drawings of Vandenberg can, in essence, be seen as a feverish quest for release. As though trapped in a dungeon, he unceasingly examines all possible (therefore also inner) escape routes. His incantatory repetitions are like the dogged scratching away of mortar from between the stones: the intrusive force that gives shape to his obsessions is just as powerful as the pressure on the file that must saw the bars. The drawing keeps him alive, embodies his rebellion, and is his only possible defence. Without the drawing, he is doomed to languish in defeat.

In their speed and directness, Vandenberg’s drawings often find stylistic connections with, in particular, the more schematic drawings of Rembrandt, whom Vandenberg called his ‘mother’. (xlv) Simplicity of medium, directness, visionary spontaneity and precision, the capacity to distinguish between essential and incidental, the feeling for spatial suggestion, composition, contrast, rhythm and location: these are just a handful of the similarities between the two artists. It is their expressive strength, especially, that goes beyond everything; the dynamism of the depiction and their linear execution, the inner – everlasting – tensions in the drawing that truly bind them. Rembrandt is the draughtsman and painter of all that is inner, of the emotion, the one who is able to fix the indivisible moment in which spirit and soul reveal themselves. We see the same in the drawings of Vandenberg. In his interpretations of Caravaggio’s Entombment, for example, he exceeds the master, as it were, in what he captures of the mental state of the mourners. We can read the psychological situation of the characters in each of his drawings, be they people or animals. It is not only their facial expressions that betray their deepest inner emotional life, but also their body language.

Without the honesty and the emotional involvement which Rembrandt and Vandenberg share in the very first place, this would be impossible to achieve.

Fig. 8 Rembrandt van Rijn, The Last Supper (After Leonardo Da Vinci), c. 1635

IV. To conclude: Vandenberg, a Céline of Belgian painting?

Philippe Vandenberg, a huge admirer of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, has much in common with the writer of Journey to the End of the Night. (xlvi) He too creates his own myth, not on purpose, but rather through continuous inner confusion. Just like Céline (pseudonym of Louis Destouches) a certain kind of theatricality is not strange to Vandenberg. He too possessed the tendency to blow facts and details out of proportion, to exaggerate reality, and to bend these into a personal apocalyptical and feverish delirium. In so doing, he translated all his obsessions, his indignant rebellion, his despair and his anger, but also his tenderness, his constant pain, love and grief, into another, no lesser reality. This reality, his reality, that cannot be defined, that is outside of any flow, ideology or even civilisation, he remoulded, re-formed and synthesised into a higher truth, in which emotion, directness and lucidity become one.

He also shared with Céline a notion that his life was completely governed by an unending sense of misfortune. He too was possessed of a form of destructive pleasure that only allowed him to function in periods of crisis, collapse and decline. Both knew the tragic, tough feeling of what it meant to be fundamentally alone.

In the drawings shown here, the reality that Vandenberg serves up is far from pleasant. It confronts us with the darkest aspects of the human existence. A reality in which man inadvertently closes his eyes, or looks the other way. Yet a considerable part of the world’s population is faced by this reality on a daily basis, either mentally or physically.

From this point of view, we can call the oeuvre of Philippe Vandenberg unique. I know of no other contemporary artist who has submitted so many consistent and vigorous reports on the most alarming aspects of the human state. The work of Vandenberg is often considered to be extreme. He himself wrote many times about his so-called ‘artistic extremism’ that, without a shadow of doubt, is nothing compared to the atrocities of real life. By any measure, these images are harmless… That they are able to move the viewer so strongly shows how powerful they are. In an era in which man is deluged with ready-made ‘visual information’ on a daily basis, this can only be considered a tour de force. People today, it seems, are only touched by shock tactics, if they are directly confronted with the bare facts. Just as Céline himself expressed it: ‘The sad hour always comes upon which Happiness, that absurd and fantastic trust in life, makes place in the human heart for Truth.’ (xlvii)

Philippe Vandenberg and Jan Vanden Berghe considered themselves to be blood brothers. They met in the painting studio of Jan Burssens at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, where they studied together for a time. Throughout the thirty-six years of their friendship they had innumerable conversations that were frequently inspired by philosophy and, of course, also concerned art. Until the end of 2010, Jan Vanden Berghe (1950) was a teacher at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent.

The author wants to express his deepest gratitude to the Philippe Vandenberg Estate and especially to Hélène Vandenberghe. She provided him with the essential material, without which the preparation of this text would have been more complicated. In particular, copies of a certain number of unpublished letters proved to be of enormous value.

Observations: In the original text and notes, the author translated as many of the quotes in foreign languages as possible into Dutch. This also applied to the letters and texts of Philippe Vandenberg, which were partly written in French. In this version, these have been translated into English from the Dutch, with two exceptions: quotations taken from the artist’s texts collated in Œuvre 2000-2006 have been taken from the English translations provided in the book, and those of Georges Bataille from Les larmes d’Eros, have been taken from the English edition: The Tears of Eros, City Lights Books, 1989. Own testimonies are referred to as ‘conversations with Ph. Vandenberg’. Where the author quoted from Dutch publications in his original text, the translator has provided references to English editions.

Notes

i. Philippe Vandenberg, ‘Letter to the Nigger’ in A. Tourneux (ed.), Philippe Vandenberg – Œuvre 2000-2006, On Line & Musée Arthur Rimbaud, Ghent & Charleville-Mézières, 2006. p. 55, English translation on p. 147. Original text, Paris 2003. On the basis of this text, the Zarakoff brothers also realised a short film in 2004, La Lettre au Nègre, directed by Raphael Kolacz and Guillaume Vandenberghe.
ii. In the publication Philippe Vandenberg/Berlinde De Bruyckere. Innocence is precisely: never to avoid the worst, Skira Editore, Milan, 2012, Berlinde De Bruyckere combines the drawings of Philippe Vandenberg with her own. The Skira book contains the complete selection, but a number of these drawings are also reproduced here. The book forms the introduction to the exhibition of the same name in the De Pont Museum for Contemporary Art in Tilburg (2012) and La Maison Rouge in Paris (2014).
iii. Telephone conversation with Jacqueline Vandenberghe-Schamp, mother of Philippe Vandenberg, 14 January 2012; e-mail Mieja D’hondt, 13 January 2012, to Hélène Vandenberghe, Philippe’s daughter from his first marriage to Véronique D’Heygere.
iv. Malpertuis, histoire d’une maison fantastique (1943) was originally written in French and appeared in a Dutch translation by the Flemish magic realism writer, Hubert Lampo, in 1970. It is translated into English as Malpertuis, Atlas Press, London, 1998.
v. See, amongst others, Matthew Rampley, ‘From Symbol to Allegory: Aby Warburg’s Theory of Art’, The Art Bulletin 79, nr. 1, March 1997.
vi. Conversations with Ph. Vandenberg.
vii. Georges Bataille, Les larmes d’Eros, Editions Jean-Jacques Pauvert, Paris 1961.
viii. In French, the human orgasm is also defined as ‘la petite mort’ [the little death], an expression that originates from the French doctor Ambroise Paré (1510-1590).
ix. See also Annette Laming, Lascaux, Pelican Books/Penguin Books 1959, pp. 95-96, ill. 35.
x. Tantrism has long recognised this fact. At the site of a cremation certain followers perform the nocturnal savasana rites. By meditating on human remains, desire for an invariable reality is sharpened. The yogi himself becomes the stake upon which the phantasms, that chained his conscience to the misleading world of appearances, are burned. Compare, amongst others, Ajit Mookerjee, Tantra Asana, Une voie de la réalisation du Soi, Editions du Soleil Noir, Paris 1971, p. 63.
xi. The Tears of Eros, City Lights Books 1989, p. 204.
xii. Georges Dumas (ed.), Le Traité de psychologie (1923-1924). This was the first comprehensive French work on psychology. Le Nouveau Traité de psychologie published between 1930 and 1949 was 3,500 pages longer than the first edition. In this work, Dumas wrote that the interpretation of the brutally tortured man’s facial expressions in this exceptional case falls outside of every calibrated framework of explanation. Compared to faces that show familiar expressions of average levels of agitation, here the psychologist is nevertheless placed within an unexplainable paradox. Compare, amongst others, Simon Elmer, The Colour of the Sacred, Georges Bataille and the Image of Sacrifice, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, London 2012, p. 50 ff.
xiii. The image that Bataille was given was the fourth of series of five photographs that were taken during the execution. In 1932, the complete series would be incorporated into the second part of Dumas’ Le Nouveau Traité de psychologie.
xiv. The Tears of Eros, City Lights Books, 1989, p. 206, my own italics.
xv. I’d already heard this rumour whilst the exhibition at MuHKA was still running. An interview by Jan Braet with the children of Philippe Vandenberg confirms it: In de naam van de vader [In the Name of the Father], Knack, 23 November 2011.
xvi. The Tears of Eros, City Lights Books, 1989, p. 105
xvii. Id., p. 111.
xviii. Een schilder is als Oedipus onderweg; reflecties van Philippe Vandenberg [A Painter is Like Oedipus on the Road – Reflections of Philippe Vandenberg], a film by Julien Vandevelde, published on dvd, Cavalier Seul, Ghent 2005, chapter 12. See also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQdx0Dh8A3c
xix. Letter to C., Marseille – Nice, December 1997/2 January 1998.
xx. Conversations with Ph. Vandenberg; conversation with Oana Cosug, the Romanian artist with whom Vandenberg was married from 2006 to 2008; conversation with Hélène Vandenberghe.
xxi. Pasquine Albertini, Sade et la république, coll. ‘Ouverture Philosophique’, Editions L’Harmattan 2006, p. 42.
xxii. ‘Le triomphe de l’accident’, diary fragments 2005.
xxiii. Picasso about his first important confrontation with primitive art, which took place in the Trocadéro, Paris. Cited in Jean-Louis Ferrer (ed.), L’aventure de l’Art au XXe siècle, Chêne-Hachette 1988, p. 81.
xxiv. Titles were taken unaltered from the publication Philippe Vandenberg/Berlinde De Bruckere (see note 2).
xxv. Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571-1610), The Entombment (1602-1603), Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City State.
xxvi. As we will see later, Vandenberg was a huge admirer of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, with whom he had more than one quality or characteristic in common. ‘For Céline animals are, first of all, beings which do not speak, which do not lie. The advantage they have over people is their grace, their mysteriousness, their intuitive knowledge of things, a form of innocence. They offer people a weak echo of a lost paradise. … Céline’s famous house cat Bébert remained for him, in the first place, an obvious, unbearable proof of human shame and man’s double, both mental and physical, wickedness.’ Frédéric Vitoux, Het leven van Céline, Open Domein no. 20, Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam 1988, Dutch translation by Jan Versteeg, p. 344 (English edition: Fréderic Vitoux, Celine: A Biography, Marlowe & Company, New York, 1994).
xxvii. Cited in Philip Kapleau Roshi, To Cherish All Life, A Buddhist Case for Becoming Vegetarian, Harper & Row, San Francisco 1982, p. 82.
xxviii. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus (1628-1629), Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City State; copy in Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome.
xxix. Pollaiuolo (Antonio del Pollaiuolo, c. 1432-1498 and Piero del Pollaiuolo, c. 1441-before 1496), Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (1473-1475), National Gallery, London.
xxx. Letter to C.Y., Ghent, 6 October – 3 November 1997.
xxxi. Compare, for example. Elaine Pagels, De Gnostische Evangeliën, Gaade & Co, Amerongen 1985, chapter IV: ‘The Suffering of Christ and the persecution of the Christians’. Pagels examines an event from the early Christian period known as ‘the martyrs of Lyon’ (177 AD). The economic situation meant that provincial cities, in particular, had to save on the recruitment of professional gladiators. At a certain moment Christians were fiercely hunted as a cheaper contribution to recreation.
xxxii. Years ago, Vandenberg and I conducted a philosophical conversation concerning a dreadful news item in the newspaper: as two women crossed a wooden footbridge on a visit to a zoo, the bridge collapsed, right over the lion park. One lady was torn apart by the lions; the friend, who was savaged, was saved. We spoke about the imperative nature of destiny; had a fortune-teller predicted to the woman who’d perished that she’d be torn apart by lions, she would have laughed in disbelief. What destiny has in store for everyone (including the lion) is inescapable, the common term ‘chance’ can therefore be questioned: the possibilities limit themselves to one…
xxxiii. Seven can mean, among others, fullness, perfection and the conclusion of a cycle. In the Bible, the number has a magical meaning and stands for power. Seven is also, however, the number of the devil, who tries to imitate divine perfection. The seven tails of the lion indicate its diabolic character, and its inherent destructive superiority. See also: Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des symboles, Ed. Seghers and Ed. Jupiter, Paris 1974, vol. 4, pp. 170-179.
xxxiv. Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), The Sleeping Gypsy (1897), MOMA, New York.
xxxv. An ensemble of drawings, Le cannibale en pleurs, belonging to the Flemish Parliament also includes the theme of the seven-tailed, violating and devouring lion. One drawing contains the text (translated from the Dutch in the author’s original text): ‘when the lion will come, without a sound, don’t be frightened my love, he will not tear you, he will caress you with his seven tails in air’. But in the same drawing we also witness a helpless woman being devoured and violated.
xxxvi. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Dood op credit, Rainbow Pockets 303, Meulenhoff, Amsterdam 1997, translation and afterword Frans van Woerden, p. 790 (Mort à crédit, Denoël & Steele, Paris 1936). For an English edition of this book see: Death on Credit, Calder Publications Ltd, London, 1989.
xxxvii. Goya (Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, 1746-1828), La degollación (also called Salvajes asesinando a una mujer or Salvajes que degüellan a una mujer), c. 1800-1814, private collection. The Prado Museum in Madrid has an almost identical smaller contemporary copy.
xxxviii. ‘Le triomphe de l’accident’, diary fragments 2005.
xxxix. Letter (written in French) to L., Ghent/Antwerp, 13 December 1997.
xl. Florent Minne, Philippe Vandenberg, Visions 2, Het gevecht met de engel, Foncke Editions, Ghent 1984.
xli. Conversations with Ph. Vandenberg. That Vandenberg’s symbols led their own life can be confirmed in a letter (written in French) to L., Ghent/Antwerp 13 December 1997. In this, he writes: ‘I cultivate the mystery and my ritual is the picture, the fictitious: where does the king sail to in his small boat? What does the bear want? Who are the hares? What happens to the boat that hangs in the mountains? Is God hiding between the clouds? Is love colder than death? Deep inside myself I know the answer, but I cannot formulate it, not for myself, nor for the others. Only by means of the image can I show the mystery, by means of resemblances that are carried by painting.’
xlii. Letter to K.D., 20 April 1997.
xliii. ‘… Afterwards I painted the disintegration, not only of my achievements, but my personal disintegration, i.e. the struggles, … the crucifixion (all of us are the crucified); afterwards the doubts started to rise, the fear and its bewitching power – they never let me go…’. Letter (written in French) to L., Ghent/Antwerp, 13 December 1997.
xliv. Letter to K., August 1997.
xlv. ‘… I always say: Rembrandt is my mother. I have been partly educated by Rembrandt. I remember, as a sixteen-year-old, going to the Rijksmuseum, full of expectations. The Night Watch and the portraits, they were a revelation to me. I had then, as it were, a conversation with Rembrandt, a conversation with that man behind the painting …’ Ronny Delrue, Het onbewaakte moment, De gecontroleerde ongecontroleerdheid bij het tekenen (conversations between R. Delrue and seven artists, including Philippe Vandenberg, and a conversation between Hans Theys and R. Delrue), Mercatorfonds, Brussels 2011, p. 238. Compare: Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), The Last Supper (after Leonardo Da Vinci), c. 1635, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
xlvi. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Voyage au bout de la nuit, Denoël & Steele, Paris 1932. English edition: Journey to the End of the Night, Calder, London, 1988.
xlvii. Het leven van Céline (see note 26), p. 195. For an English edition see note 26.