Red Hours, Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith (2017)

I quite like the phrase ‘I’m not quite certain’.
I think it’s rather violent.
— Philippe Vandenberg (i)

The colour red has an august and ancient pedigree in the history of the visual arts stretching back at least as far as the cave of Altimira, in Spain, which is adorned with an image of a bison painted in red ochre by an unknown hand more than 17,000 years ago. While it is true that in certain Asian cultures red can suggest happiness and good fortune, in the Western world its associations are considerably less harmonious. These tend toward the extremes of pain and passion, sacrifice and sexuality, courage, anger and love. This nexus of associations seems especially appropriate to a presentation of work by Philippe Vandenberg, which, though often beautiful almost despite itself, and sometimes sublime, is rather more given to turbulence than serenity. While happy to acknowledge patience and commitment as important virtues in a painter, Vandenberg once stated that ‘I believe it’s only despair that makes us act, or rather react against our condition as human beings…’ (ii) In the case of Red Hours, the fact that on occasion he chose to execute an image using his own blood in lieu of ink or paint is enough to suffuse all of his images in which red predominates with an undertow of suffering, violence and injury. (iii) This, however, is not to deny the remarkable variety of tone evident from even this relatively modest but sensitive selection of such images: fifty or so works on paper from the vast trove left behind after the artist’s untimely death in June 2009.

Vandenberg’s relentless questing was given form through a variety of media including language – or, to be more precise several different languages. Pungent phrases written in French, Flemish or English often invaded his imagery, sometimes taking it over entirely, and he also generated a steady stream of impassioned and effusive commentary on art and life in general, as recorded in numerous publications. He was, however, first and foremost a painter and even credited the medium, in one conversation, with saving him from the likely alternative of a life of criminality. It is a bitter irony that the life-preserving properties of painting are also registered in a drawing produced shortly before his death, which features the following phrase: ‘Gebroken. Ik probeer me alleen nog aan elkaar te schilderen.’ (Broken. All I’m trying to do is paint myself together again’) (iv); and the cryptic slogan ‘un homme ça dit rien ça peint’ (‘A man it says nothing it paints’) is emblazoned on another work made around the same time. Drawing was in fact a daily activity pursued with characteristic compulsiveness from the early ‘80s until the end of his life. While his drawing style and subject matter varied notably over this period, and went through distinct phases, it remained consistently crucial to him. He was, however, careful to distinguish its particular nature and attractions from those more proper to painting: ‘For a canvas, even as it is meeting its severe demands, has an almost generous flexibility permitting the unforeseen that lets the painter stand a chance… Not 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….’ (v) Occupying an intermediary position between the large-scale paintings and the drawings that filled Vandenberg’s numerous, teeming notebooks were the gouaches and, especially, the watercolours, some of which are among his most exquisite achievements.

Among the many motifs and themes that recur with some regularity, a particularly persistent image is that of the artist himself. Most of the figures that populate his pictorial world are anonymous or archetypal, apart from a few stray personages from the politics of the day who gained a peculiar traction on his imagination, including the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Red Army Faction militant Ulrike Meinhof. Yet in many, many images a few rude pencil strokes describing slanted bushy brows function as a shorthand indicating that this image is intended as a self-portrait. Two particularly potent examples are mirrored images, in watercolour and pencil, from 1999. In one of these the artist is pictured sticking his tongue out at himself, up close and personal, while in the other he wears a muzzle as if he were a vicious dog facing off, in comparable proximity, against his similarly muzzled self. Such mirrorings and reversals are not infrequent in his oeuvre and include the use of reversed lettering in many of the text-images. It is tempting to relate this recurring trope to Jacques Lacan’s concept of ‘the mirror stage’. Initially proposed as a phase in the infant’s early development, by the 1950s this concept had been elaborated into a permanent structure of subjectivity, a fundamentally narcissistic relationship whereby the ego is constituted by a process of identification that is also a locus of alienation. This invocation is by no means far-fetched. In a rumination on repetition – clearly a key aspect of his outlook and output – Vandenberg explicitly expressed his approval of Lacanian thinking: ‘I like Lacan. I find that his reflections pertaining to desire and its lack translate well into painting… I believe that an artist acts rather because of lack than because of well-being.’ (vi)

Vandenberg ranged widely in search of grist for his abundantly productive image-mill, picking up on details from the old masters as readily as war photographs from modern mass media. Yet protracted exposure to his idiosyncratic iconography is equally likely to call to mind the obscure symbology of arcane myth or the fragmentary narrative of a dimly recollected dream. Three distended pairs of arms scratch away with quill and ink on blank volumes proffered for this purpose by three similar pairs of arms; three heads peer over the top of the red-brick enclosure in which they are immured, while a disembodied hand appears to be waving frantically behind them from the far side of the curved wall; a green serpent writhes around a circle of disembodied female heads, their cheeks stained with tears and their mouths agape, as their teeth clench onto a section of the serpent’s body; a naked, crowned king reclines on a crescent bed that that seems to float in an incarnadine sea traversed by meandering roads or stretches of rail-track, and dotted with mysterious portals, both motifs that appear elsewhere with some frequency. Abstruse myths and analysands’ dreams alike have of course been extensively plumbed for meaning and insight by Sigmund Freud and others labouring in his wake. That said, another of Vandenberg’s recurring titles, Songes et Mensonges (Dreams and Lies), slyly implies that our dreams might ultimately be more misleading than revelatory, less a font of hidden truths than a well of pernicious deception.

The immediate predecessors Vandenberg held in highest regard as creative artists, and invoked from time to time in various works, had much in common: a certain renegade status, a constant courting of controversy, and a willingness to explore the outer margins of madness. These exemplary forebears included William Burroughs, the American Beat novelist, artist and notorious heroin addict, who shot and killed his wife in a drunken game, as well as the equally extremist French artist and director, Antonin Artaud. The latter had the following to say in his famous manifesto of 1931: ‘The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood. This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid.’ (vii)

This might just as easily be taken as a characterization of Vandenberg’s graphic works in later life, many drawn from contemporary reportage but also beholden to the art-historical precedent of Goya’s Los desastres de la guerra (The Disasters of War) of 1810 to 1820. As Patrick Van Rossem has noted: ‘After 1996, Philippe Vandenberg’s drawings mostly include representations of murders, rapes, individual and collective suicides, torture scenes, castrations and sexual perversions, governed by Thanatos.’ (viii) That said, he was acutely aware of the danger of allowing such incendiary material to gradually become stale or hackneyed and be reduced to rote melodrama. He found fault with painters he otherwise admired for falling into the trap of merely ‘repeating themselves without renewing themselves’. Of Francis Bacon, for example, he laments that ‘(little) by little he began to make paintings that were, while no less tormented, still cleaner, more polished…’ (ix)

‘I make, remake and unmake my concepts along a moving horizon, from an always decentred centre, from an always displaced periphery which repeats and differentiates them’ (x). These words might well be Vandenberg’s but are in fact quoted from Gilles Deleuze’s introduction to Difference and Repetition. They have considerable resonance in relation to various works – or indeed series of works – produced by Vandenberg over the years, from his obsessive reworkings of the image of a head, presumably his own, in a suite of small chalk drawings from ca. 2009, to the many watercolours that explore the resources of abstraction through proliferating patterns of strokes, shapes, motifs and signs, the reversed swastika being merely the most symbolically freighted of these. One recurring pattern recalls the mesh of a distended net, and in a drawing from 2004 a similar lattice of diamond-shapes in faint pencil provides the backdrop to a watery expanse of red ink, divided into quarters by a thin line and centred with a circle in a manner reminiscent of a gun-sight. Running across the centre of the image from right to left, in barely decipherable pencilled capitals, is the legend ‘Bring some drawings from there’, which is also the work’s title.

This suggestion of crimson depths from which a vivid art might somehow be retrieved by an adventurous soul, at whatever cost, is striking. It also chimes with another image that appears in several works, that of a blood-red rowing boat, unmanned but with oars at the ready. It may come as no surprise that Vandenberg responded enthusiastically with a series of cartoon-like works to the ecstatic long poem Le Bateau ivre (‘The Drunken Boat’) by the revolutionary French poet Arthur Rimbaud, tortured champion of the derangement of the senses as a means of transit into the realm of the unknown (‘Il s’agit d’arriver à l’inconnu par le dérèglement de tous les sens.’) Although this exhibition’s title is borrowed from a line in Georg Trakl’s poem Stormy Evening, it is hardly inappropriate to conclude this introduction to Red Hours with two verses from Rimbaud’s poem, as translated by Samuel Beckett:

Thenceforward, fused in the poem, milk of stars,
Of the sea, I coiled through deeps of cloudless green,
Where, dimly, they come swaying down,
Rapt and sad, singly, the drowned;

Where, under the sky’s haemorrhage, slowly tossing
In thuds of fever, arch-alcohol of song,
Pumping over the blues in sudden stains,
The bitter rednesses of love ferment. (xi)

Notes

i. Philippe Vandenberg, What counts is kamikaze: Oeuvre 2000-2006 (On Line (B) and Musée Arthur Rimbaud, 2006) p. 99.
ii. Ibid, p.93.
iii. That the dried blood is these drawings, begun in 1996, is of course a dull brown does not negate this associative import.
iv. Cited by Patrick Van Rossem in ‘Philippe Vandenberg and the Way of Drawing, the Way of Mankind’ in Patrick Van Rossem and Jan Vanden Burghe, Philippe Vandenberg. Reflections on the drawings/Beschouwingen bij de tekeningen (Estate Philippe Vandenberg/De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art 2012) p. 11. This work is not included in the exhibition.
v. What counts is kamikaze, p.113.
vi. Ibid, p.94.
vii. Antonin Artaud, ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’ in The Theory of the Modern Stage, ed. by Eric Bentley (Penguin, 1968) p.66.
viii. ‘Philippe Vandenberg and the Way of Drawing’, p.31.
ix. What counts is kamikaze, p.97.
x. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. by Paul Patton (Columbia University Press, 1995 [1968]) p.xxi.
x. Quoted from Gerald M. Macklin, ‘Drunken Boat: Samuel Beckett’s Translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre’, Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol.27, issue 1, p.165.