Philippe Vandenberg: The Fight with the Angel, Florent Minne (1984)


Painting as a challenge

“Je n’aime pas les hommes. J’aime ce qui les dévore.”
A. Gide, in Le Prométhée mal enchaîné.

“As a painter I try to reach my own dead-line and to express it. Each successful work moves the dead-line. That is evolution. Painting is fighting the angel. You make a fight you can’t possibly win but that strengthens you for the next one. The day you make way for it, you’re dead as an artist”.

Vandenberg paints from a longing for transcendence. His art is driven by a need of progression and even transgression. It is in essence a process of searching, testing and transition. In this conquering activity definitions and conclusions have no chance to survive. They are replaced by explorations and investigations. Painting is a challenge, a reclamation, a boring to new sources, a fight for expression. The artist scouts, makes plans and explores. His activity consists of ever moving and testing the limit, ever pushing forward the end. In no case this transcendental longing is allowed to give birth to illusory conceptions. It has to result in strong, tense and intense figures.

It would be wrong to reduce this urge to the romantic myth of the artist’s spleen. Vandenberg doesn’t paint from the vexing feeling of a lack. In a sober and lucid way, he realizes the need to fight and never to give up. His restless urge to pushing forward and modifying the means of expression and the figurative models, is driven by a hybris that confirms life. Prometheus lives in a studio and the eagle haunts in his immediate neighbourhood.

“l don’t trust painters who like to paint. As a matter of fact, this actual romanticism about “the act of painting”, this brushing that sets free, these enormous lyrical and epic outpourings dropped on the support without no more, are nonsense. l don’t trust painters who like to paint, who like to toil and moil in the paint, who like the smell etc … It is too difficult, too painful, too grimy to like it. I do it because it is the only answer I can give to life”.

The rejection of an art that is stagnant, that remains on the safe side, is fed by a vitalistic impulsion. To Vandenberg, painting is a life-intensifying act (I need my painting in order to love life). As this modeling process daims the utmost limit, he experiences this activity as an event during which life realizes itself at most as a powerful impetus.

In order to keep this urge going, the painter has to free himself constantly from the protective laws of settled pictorial attitudes. He has to fight memories, routine and virtuosity. For discovered models that get permanent, would regulate the intensity of life – and of art as a mirror and as expression of this life – regularize and henceforth weaken it. Painting can only exist as an open and dynamic process, as a growing and driving organism, in which vital inspiration shows itself as a positive power and as a perpetuum mobile. No wonder Vandenberg has no touch with cerebral, analytical art as a negation of life. He accepts it but it doesn’t stimulate him for this kind of art creates restrictions and has broken contact with the nature of life.

The exclusion of restrictions is also decisive to his attitude towards the “masters”: the doctrines of masters who considered their activity have the sickly charisma of fascism. They are mortal to each lucid artist. They are just as sterile and useless as the works coming forth from them. As a matter of fact, works leading to doctrines are master-pieces, those following them are plastically deficient. The greatest masters never impose any restrictions, on the contrary, they create space. A good teacher chases away his followers for they are lost a priori. The late and especially the last Picasso belong to the most fertile and most enlarging works of the twentieth century without being pedagogical paintings.

Van Gogh was a more complete painter than Cézanne. He let the problem of painting dash through his entire body and not on/y through his mind. You don’t look at a painting of Van Gogh, you experience it. Since Cézanne, painting evolves in the direction of the two-dimensional and the epic (perspective has a literary aspect). The intellectualisation caused a general refusal of the three-dimensional and the epic. Painting has become an enormous lab, that imposes new restrictions and phantasms to the painters through liberations, ruptures and the resulting dogmas.

“I am as free as I decide myself; as a painter I don’t have to justify myself nor do I have to consider other people. Cézanne is finally dead, I rehabilitate Delacroix and I leave them all”.

The vitalistic urge to freedom, authenticity and intensity is a continuous pictorial attitude. It animates, sensualizes and ferments the whole painting-process of Vandenberg. We can trace this restless impulsion in many factors that constitute the picture.

A directly perceptible trace of this vital “Trieb” is found in the energetic tone of his paintings (in their tenuto-, deciso,- and eroico accents). It shows in the explosive composition, in the elaborate tactility and in the rhythm of his canvases. But the drive, the impulsive discipline is also the modus in the non-immediate and deeper-lying dimensions of his art. Many aspects of his works can be considered as particular elements : the discovery of and the working on the motive, the whole working-process of setting, resetting, painting over till the phase that finally “makes” the picture (the work in progress), the tactics of confronting and revaluing works forming one group, the testing of pictorial diagrams, the search of an autonomous deconditioned language and the whole internal evolution. In all of them the “fight with the angel”, works as a driving force. These analysable sequences directly cause the “haptic-suggestive” impact of his canvases.

Throughout this drive, Vandenberg learns a lot about himself. No doubt his restlessness, his temper and his fears straighten out. However, his art cannot be reduced to direct self-expression. Concerning the artist’s personality, we can only recognize egotistical-emotional profiles as a kind of watermarks in the organization of his paintings, in their particular conception as well as in their total evolution and history. As painting is a life-confirming activity to Vandenberg, (the fight is the proof that I live.) We can read the authenticity of the fight in the merciless and hot tempered expressivity of his canvases. For self-deceit can never bring forth intensity.


From narrative painting to a
vitalistic pictorialism

Since the end of the seventies, the works of Vandenberg have gone through an enormous evolution. Except for the 1981-1982 period, forming some kind of an axe, during which all the pictorial elements from the classical legacy are systematically torn open to be tested like independent operators, nothing moves in a straight line. Only the artistic act compels his art. With as a starting-point, the limitless possibilities of painting as an immediate and intuitive experience, each cycle comes into being by experiment.

Vandenberg makes his bow in an anecdotical-descriptive style, characterized by a baroque concern for details and a striking bright light. This clean art leaving room for ironical accents, is replaced during his academy-period by an almost exclusive interest in the human body. He works on feminine nudes for many years. By depicting this figure, Vandenberg learns to conquer the technical problems of his métier. It allows him to measure himself with the masters of art-history. He starts painting schematically composed canvases, filled with large colour-planes à la Cézanne. Others are bathing in a dusky-mauve light à la Munch and à la Goya.

Once the lessons from history are assimilated, an ever growing need to a personal style arises. His paintings get a crude touch. The draw becomes abrupt, sharp and turbulent. It tries to free itself from the figurative model. A dynamic stroke of the brush activates the whole figure. Pose evolves to turbulent gesticulation. Figures stretch out, stand up in ecstasy. Sonority gets somber. A fierce expressionistic style leads to a gradual desintegration of the classical figure. By a more energetic stroke, there is a danger of falling into virtuosity. In “Kruisigingen”, a series of studies to Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St.-Peter, Vandenberg tries to break with it by painting the figure upside down as is brought along by the theme.

At this stage of his evolution, Vandenberg experiences the legacy of traditional schemes as false, not because they are anachronistic but because they close in the artist in stereotyped expression and because they are totally unadapted to the dynamism of the pictorial process.

After a period of reflexion on bis work, a personal language breaks up for the first time. “Paren” (1982), painted in black-and-white acrylics on paper, is an assault on figuration, an expressive rush against recognizability. The human figure is painted in a brutal, occasionally lashing gesture. The mass of the body that fills the canvas to the utmost edge, is broken open by tatters of contrasting black-and-white brushes. The figures no longer have faces. They are anonymous carriers of shapes fallen apart to separate pieces. The plasticity and monumentality of the human body are slaughtered in wide and eruptive gestures to the limit of total defiguration. In this distorting but freeing composition, Vandenberg discovers bis own rhythm. It suits his personal impulsion.

Further evolution is now only possible by calling in question all presuppositions implied in the actual models. Vandenberg has to find a frame within which textural characteristics of paint, rhythm of the composition and the motive can meet freely in a new relation.

In the desintegrated “Schervenschilderijen” (1982), these pictorial components get a new autonomy on the basis of the dynamism of the act of writing. Vandenberg fills the canvas to the very edge with a conglomerate of small loose shapes, applied in short and driven touches. The motive is completely torn apart in the co-ordination of stretched, angular and lumped rhythms. Together with a supporting staccato-stroke and an informal draw, this leads to a pattern of gestures, a pictorial diagram of lines and zones, of punctuations and movements, of signifying and non-signifying shapes. The colorite is still somber, contrasting grey, black and white, while the painter’s motory gradually becomes more and more energetic. The canvas becomes a clew, a whole of independent colour-movements and lines that passionately collide with and emphasize each other. Integrated in this picture is the figure, mutilated, dislocated and scalped.

At this stage of disintegration, two ways lie open. Abstraction, composition based on informal graphic symbols and concrete colour-proportions is one possibility. But these formalistic exercises are rejected by Vandenberg as too empty, too cerebral and too alienated. He prefers the other way : one of an obstinate evocative “Figuur”, which, purified of primary figuration, doesn’t deny recognizability, but which personifies it by intensifying it in a sensitive-emotional way to an original and strong conception, in conformity with the painter’s vitalistic and intuitive activity. In order to manage this, he uses the expressive power of purely pictorial means, which are rendered a far-going degree of autonomy. The painting thus develops on the cross-road of recognition and abstraction.

Moving on the verge of abstraction, Vandenberg searches for an integration of shapes that can be decoded as figures. He finds them in a pattern of linked rhythms that refer to each other and that evoke the structure of “biomorph” figures. With the theme of birth “De geboorte” (1983), as a starting-point for recognizable figuration, a series of paintings come into being, in which the earlier shapes are rounded off, the picture is less crumbled and less divided, and the repetitive structure is replaced by a series of stretched, entangled and crowding out figures.

In “Gevechtscyclus” (1983), these shapes grow out to bigger pictorial components. The dominating motive is now one of figures that crush and fight each other. The clew of flaring beings with black contours represent a dramatical event of wrestling and fighting like cocks. In these horny, entangled shapes put at right angles to each other, one recognizes arms, legs, heads, bands. This turbulent event is supported by the tension between light and dark, with a few pink accents.

Gradually the shapes grow bigger. From the figuration of these crushing figures Vandenberg chooses at this stage a few biomorph details : an arm, a band, a phallus, a head. By means of these few elements brought together in a new configuration, the fight is theatricalized. In their cruciform, diagonal formation, they dominate the whole canvas in an aggressive way. Within the rough black contours, the tactility of the matter gradually increases. Along with the growth of the shapes, the problem of their volume arises. As they fill and strain the whole painting, they can no longer be treated as two-dimensional. Their influence starts to depend on the power of their volumetrical characteristics. The third dimension inevitably has to come in.

In the series of “De Greep” (1983-84), the painting is reduced to an ensemble of a few big round shapes with a monumental presence against a blue-and-grey background. To densify this group of conical and swollen volumes, Vandenberg uses a suggestive perspective. In addition, each shape is intensified by a differentiated and harmonized play of colour-tactilities and tonalities. Within the contours of each volume, there is an abstract pattern of informal colour-bars, subtle tonalities, textural effects and rhythmical accents.

The same concern to make the texture of the canvas vibrate, dominates the cycle of “De Handen” (1984), the so-called “Sangre de toro” paintings. Here however, the vibration of the matter follows the movements of a complex perspective flight in different directions. At first the band lies open in profile as a kind of primitive sign, painted in an eruptive draw. Soon it inclines to the depth of the canvas. To increase the tangibility of the shapes, Vandenberg rips apart the figure. He cuts it across and mutilates it to chopped off stumps. The mutilation brings along new possibilities for the three-dimensional effect of the figure. Circular stumps fly to the depth of the painting in a suggestive raccourci, away from the plain circular sections of the hand put in a formation parallel to the surface of the canvas. The mass of the hand is now rendered an abstract and alienating presence. This effect is emphasized by an energetic and broad brush, and by a colorite of flesh-coloured red, strong eruptive white, flaring ochre and majestic blue.

The recent cycle of “De Viseters” (1984), with the relationship between man and fish as figures, has grown from a series of variations on a still life with glass, bottle and fish. By testing new compositions with these shapes, Vandenberg tried to solve the problem of mutual tension between different pictorial elements. And by involving the head into the composition, a new psychological dimension was created. The relationship was sharpened by the aggressive connection in a diagonal formation, of the man’s hot-tempered and grim expression to the figure of the fish. The colours are brightened in harmony with the crude and wild complexion of the figure. The palette, before reserved and tonalistically well-balanced, now shows sharp and bright accents : bright yellow, acrid green and hot red. The big shapes of head, hand and fish gained ground upon a nameless background of rhythmic sequences, coagulations of matter and stratifications of colour: They are biologically and organically layered. Thanks to this co-operation of “materiologies” and “texturologies”, Vandenberg succeeds in lending his big shapes a vibrating epidermic force.


The working process

The observer of Vandenberg’s recent paintings is in the first place confronted with their haptic-suggestive force. They inevitably mobilize our senses. At this first confrontation, we can’t escape a variety of stimuli that lie in wait for us throughout the variegation of the texture, the layers of the matter, the driven rhythm and the colours and shapes brought out in full. This sensory absorptive power of Vandenberg’s paintings is due to their physical, epidermic intensity. For the canvas shows a complex and varied stratification of tactile visions that cover, cross, push and intensify each other and that determine the impact of the painting in their coagulated, accumulated and co-ordinated operation.

When we start to read the painting, re-read and investigate it closer, throughout the conglomerate of informal stimuli and definable shapes, the ultimate picture soon turns out to be gained on many temporal, over and over resumed stages that finally took their definitive position and significance in the painting. A Vandenberg painting is without doubt a piece of work, a process of setting, reorganizing, painting away, bringing into prominence, of pushing aside, of resuming again, of association and emphasis. It develops from a mixture of desire and refusal, of trial and self-assurance. It shows itself as an experimental “poieto” bent on the elimination of impertinence and shortage of tension. The realization of the final stage consists of bringing together all “temporal” aspects of the working process and accentuating them in a solid globalizing form. In this context it is worth noting that Vandenberg succeeds in the ultimate expressivity of the painting by conquering, by means of a minimum of assertive and convinced strokes, the final profile of the motive on many earlier working-pieces, considered as provisional up till the moment of completion. Hand, head and fish are defined by their firmly started contours that encircle planes of purely informal art or by their local thickness that instills life into the shape. There is a distinctly perceptable tension between these few rough and decisive strokes and the rest of the painting, between the stage that ultimately “makes” the canvas and decides on its expressivity and as Vandenberg says “has to come along in one spasm”, and the long preceding working-process. This clear tension between brevity, the limited duration of the completing operation and the long process of organizing, reorganizing, setting and re-setting, painting and painting over, is one, along with the accumulation of the working stages lending the painting the density of its history, of the determining factors of the power of Vandenberg’s paintings.

“Painting is a painful alternation of hope and despair, of destruction and creation, of insanity and lucidity. There is no emergency exit”.

Inspiration comes while the painter is at work. With Vandenberg everything happens on the canvas. The motive is eventually approached by drawings but Vandenberg never works on direct preparatory studies. The painting is intuitively pushed into a certain direction, the power is the inescapable urge to a stronger expression. The gradual realization of shortages makes the painting progress. In this effective elaboration a few accidental moments arise : the eventual running out of one colour into another resulting in a new unexpected one, the appearance of recognizable shapes in a mass of unrecognizable tactilities. But these accidental moments are never absolute. They are manipulated in function of their new pictorial perspectives.

This experimental activity working like a kind of perpetuum mobile, stops when the painter concludes that the tension between matter, colour, motive and composition is at its strongest and when he intuitively feels that continuing would only weaken the result.

“The decision to stop painting can be the most important moment in the whole creative process”.

This finishing touch in the evolution to maximal intensity, evidently leaves behind its traces in the totality of the picture. It has to be able by means of its efficacity, to lend the many “precarious” stages their final resonance.

In order to increase the efficiency of “the work in progress”, Vandenberg works in series (the series of “Het Gevecht”, “De Hand”, “De Fallus”, “Viseters”). A similar pattern is tested in a series of different paintings. In this technique of gradual evolution, the canvases inspire and revalue each other, in a mutual confrontation of force and shortages. It is a stratagem, a ruse to circumvent dead ends, to destroy preconceptions and classical forms and to avoid copies. It helps the painter on his way to the authentic picture.

It is clear that for this kind of experimental painting, only oils can be used. By their transformable, malleable and smooth characteristics they allow the painter to start the working process over and over again, and to work with wet paint on a wet support. Vandenberg gradually builds up his colours by painting one layer upon the other. The worked physical tactility is thus linked to colours Vandenberg would never realize without this material. The non-organic acrylics are totally inappropriate for this way of working by their stiff, covering and artificial texture.


The motive

From the start onwards, Vandenberg has always painted the human figure even if it was limited to a band, a stump or a phallus. However we can’t possibly conclude that the motive is a purpose in itself. Except for his first paintings – when he chose the nude as a fundamental historical motive – in order to turn upon and measure himself with the masters of art-history – the motive is rather a means, a way to something else.

The painting activity has been defined as a searching process that energizes itself. When the painter thus chooses or rather “finds” his motives, this happens from their capacity to suit in the painting process. The motive has to be congruent to the intense working-process, to the fight for expression. It has to allow the composition to be built with an autonomous pictorial power. The motive has a plastical importance rather than it is a subject.

When Vandenberg searches for signifiers of intensity, it is not to be wondered at that he finds them in the human body. Some positions of the human body are extremely appropriate to powerful evocation of situations on the limit. Crucifixion, fight, beheading, birth, copulation are moments of great evocative and suggestive intensity. The event itself looses its narrative and illustrative aspect and condenses to general dramatic tension. The same urge for expressivity inspires paintings with an outspread hand, which is a pre-eminently evocative sign. Erotism renders the figures of man . and woman the greatest possible expressivity, and when Vandenberg wants to show the fish-eater at his strongest, he lets him show his teeth.

The gradual development of the canvases sometimes brings along that the motive is born together with the painting itself and that it can change during the working process. Especially in the 1982-1983 paintings when figuration and abstraction were very close to each other, it could happen that a certain motive called in another one. A nude could gradually evolve to a crucifixion changing on its turn to copulating figures. One painting could also bring along another one by their common signifyers or by a similar frame. The series of the fight and the first phallus-paintings for instance were both organized on the same scheme of shapes crushing each other. Finally also a plastical shape can lead to another one. The phallus for instance repeatedly pops up in Vandenberg’s paintings, before it is worked out as an independent figure. Later on the figure of the fish evolves from it by association. Being of no primordial importance, the motive can develop in different ways. It only forms the pictorial concrete result of a constructive search for a plastically strong figure.


Painting as Ausdruckkunst

“Evidence can become disastrous. Evident paintings – firmly composed with perfectly supporting colours etc… – have to be destroyed during the painting process. They are boring and sterile. A good painting makes you shiver, makes you doubt if the result is right, if it has to be kept that way, if the painting still “holds”. You have to be vexed.

Dissonant paintings fascinate me, i.e. paintings that, without becoming bad ones, move and stretch the laws to which a good painting must answer. It only depends on me how far I can go, how strong I am to accept it or not, to stop or to go on. In the end the moment you decide to leave the work as it is, is the most important of the whole working-process.”

The sanguine, explosive and vehement resonance, ringing throughout Vandenberg’s works as a leitmotiv, is the consequence of a well-considered and controlled quest to the destruction of evident and well-balanced paintings. Since 1980 Vandenberg has used many highly different pictorial schemes, but whatever he chooses, he always tries to test the operators of the picture on their extreme expressive possibilities. Over and over again he avoids the acceptable, he forces the laws of harmonie construction and pushes them in the direction of suggestive dissonance.

At each stage of his art, one can recognize a few dissonant pictorial aspects. In the last phase of his academical-figurative period, there are the explosive, psychological relations between the figures, their ecstasy and the energetic stroke. Those are the means by which he lifts his nudes to dramatical scenes. In the cycle of “Paren”, realized in acrylics, he lends it an oppressive expressivity by the slaughtering figuration and by the crude tonalization of almost macabre contrasts of black and white. When the painting finally falls apart in many crumbled and splited shapes, a syncopate and abruptive rhythm dominates, tempered by the reserved and controlled colorite of grey, black, white and pink. In a next stage, the hot and sultry style almost completely wins over and covers the motive, till from an informal painting act a structure of fighting figures is born. Their clew is grueling, horny and crushing. The limbs, highly significant in the fight, are emphasized and the evident-logical coherence of the body falls apart. When a few shapes (arm, head, band and phallus) get extrapolated and hypertrophized to increase the tension, either they get a striking diagonal position or they are crowded out to a corner or to the base of the painting (1983).

The series of “Greep” amplifies the shapes and strains them. Their swollen deformation is intensified by a suggestive raccourci, and by an evocative perspective, inclining to the depth of the painting. When the band appears on its own, it lies spread like an expressive sign along the length of the painting or it is aggressively mutilated to stumps. The cycle of the more moderate and more sober still lives (bottle, glass and fish) finally result, throughout many variations and always different settings on the canvas, in the series of the “Viseters”, arrogantly tensifying the motive by their hot and crude apparition.

Anyway, there is much diversity in Vandenberg’s suggestive and pictorial means. His painting can whatsoever be defined as “Ausdruckkunst” because of the purely tactile dimensions of paint and colour. The accumulation and saturation of the colorite feeds and supports the shapes. In this constructive graphism with colour, the painter discovers his figures.


The deeper-lying dimension of
vitalistic pictorialism

“I want my paintings to be totems. I am a medium. I am a nigger. I no longer want to be able to draw, to paint, to think. I only want to give birth to these unclean images. That’s the tragedy of it: instinctively we pour them into a painting, by fear, by self-preservation. They spring from us in the shape of a painting; all the terrible work in painting is the restoration of their original condition. It is terrible : that lost bound, that degeneration. It is the pain. I want my work to be successful because of the magic, the impact, the striking force, the power to energize the observer (including myself), the power to make the observer discover and feel his unknown and unfathomed depths. A good painting is positive power, is an act of love. I don’t want my paintings to be succeeded for art’s sake”.

It is the painter’s task to conquer the original and spontaneous language of the picture. Throughout the accumulated shapes of art-history, he has to quest for the picture thats casts a spell, still full of the pre-pictorial and the non-seen. The painter bringing a still unreclaimed figure from over the shadows of civilisation, is like a magician. His paintings have the fascinating and revealing power of a totem.

Vandenberg wants to make each painting into a manifesto of authentic art. His belief in the expressivity of form, colour and matter has to do with a-cultural pictures. Only by stripping the painting of the layers of history, it can be restored to a fascinotum, experienced by the observer as a revealing picture in an intriguing and captive participation. On his way to the original picture, only power and impact can be guides to the painter. Moderate and evident possibilities have to be rejected systematically. To quote Marsman : “Only intensity has to decide.”


Florent Minne – septembre ’84.