The Painter’s Way, Jesse Van Winden (2016)

The painter’s way is sinuous like a snake, branched like arteries.
— Philippe Vandenberg, ‘On His Way in a Cage is a Man, His Hands Red’, 1998

Abstract Works does not present a retrospective of Philippe Vandenberg’s oeuvre in its entirety, which would be a nigh on impossible task. Active from the mid-seventies until his death in 2009, the Belgian painter and draughtsman brought forth an evolution that concatenates a variety of styles and formal emphases. He elaborated on these in cycles and series, sometimes transforming them gradually, allowing them to follow each other in organic flows, but at other times abruptly breaking with them and, in a movement of artistic and personal recalibration, starting anew.

Vandenberg’s artistic development, from soft-hued, realistic, sometimes slightly absurd and subversive early work, which is reminiscent of Balthus, to the word-pervaded last paintings, occurred in a gradual but non-linear way: stylistic interests come to a grinding halt after which new forms arise; figurative and abstract tendencies alternate and complement one other; motifs resurface after long intervals, and individual works might encapsulate the remainders of much older traces of the artist’s journeys, having been painted over not just once, but sometimes again and again. A deeply sensitive and socially engaged artist, Vandenberg searched for, and found, many different ways to depict the reality that raged inside his troubled mind and unfolded beyond, in the cruel world as he perceived it, and to which he eventually, after a long and tragic struggle, succumbed.

Koen van den Broek has chosen, instead, to make a selection of abstract works, in particular those that seem to suggest various sorts of space. In terms of the chronology, the exhibition begins with two untitled works from 1991 that form a prelude to Abstract Works. Their thick, irregular layers of impasto oil paint establish a tangible field: that of the material. Out of this heavy paintwork, traces of figures emerge; they look as though they have been erased with a corrosive substance that has blistered and distorted the oil paint. The flickering shapes and lines leave the imagination plenty to contrive, and offer nothing by way of constraint.

Two large paintings, both two metres square and dating from 1995, are similarly foregrounded in their materiality. The first, Grande noir I (1992-1995), is as black as an oil slick and as rough as the furrows of a ploughed field – a connotation that recalls the desolate landscapes of Anselm Kiefer, with whom Vandenberg felt a deep affinity. The surface relief is heavily accentuated, and yet there is movement within, a turmoil that can be seen, sensed, and almost set in motion. Vandenberg considered good artworks to be swirling, spinning vortexes that sucked him into their very heart. About one of his works, he commented: ‘It’s a painting that swirls. For me, a painting has to do this. Like a spiral that sucks you in. A painting that swirls is one that looks back at me. It sucks me in. I can step into it.’

Fig. 1 Grande noire I, 1992-1995, Oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm

The second, Het zevende zegel II (The Seventh Seal II, 1995), refers to the moment in the Apocalypse when the mountains collapse and the earth is drowning in blood. Jesus breaks the seventh and last seal on the scroll that will reveal the Lord’s ultimate truth – and heaven falls silent. Although not a religious man, Vandenberg often took inspiration from the Bible, possibly because it binds both personal devotion and universal tragedy on a culturally shared scale. Indeed, it was during this period that Vandenberg painted many works in his own blood. Transcending all conventional materials, blood seemed to be at once the most individual and most collective matter, the most appropriate, perhaps, to fulfil one of his very own edicts: ‘The essence of artistry is to bring spirit out of matter.’

The later works connote the spaces of labyrinths, maps, pathways, grids, ladders, or geometrical landscapes. The pith of what was to be but a brief essay lies, however, in the non-abstract that is sheltered within the abstract. Not only is it possible to discern concrete figurative elements, but one also becomes aware of the potential for a vast landscape of subject matter to be revealed. The themes might not be immediately apparent, but they can be easily discovered through Vandenberg’s countless writings and the documentaries about his work.

In the film A Painter as Oedipus on the Road (2005), Vandenberg reviews his career, which spanned three decades at that point, and explains how the evolution that characterizes his work ‘is regularly broken by heavy crises which, on the one hand, are a result of exhaustion, and on the other hand, dissatisfaction with how to go further with my current motif.’ Throughout his life, Vandenberg suffered from severe depressions that seem to have been triggered by romantic, professional, political or existential circumstances. Equally, these often proved to be decisive moments for his artistic development. Furthermore, he seems to have been regularly plagued by feelings of personal failure and guilt. He deemed it necessary, as an inevitable survival instinct, perhaps, to depart from one style and move on to another, often destroying old work and later painting over existing pieces in search of a new beginning. In the remainder of this scene, Vandenberg browses through a sketchbook of drawings and recounts that, when attempting to re-ignite his work, and in a quest for new forms and emblems, he tends to take up existing motifs, develop and expand them and experiment intuitively. Referring to the crucifix, one of the most significant symbols in the history of art, and which he regularly incorporated within his work from as early as 1981, he reveals how he came upon the device of a labyrinthine landscape. It opened up a new pathway before him.

Cycle "Mama swastika revisited", 2002-2003, Oil and graphite on canvas, 100 x 80 cm

The paintings with swastikas in Abstract Works share a similar genesis. Looking closely at the configurations in the cycle ‘Mama Swastika Revisited’ (2002-3, 2003-4, 2002-3), one witnesses the fusion of a cross-shape with human figures in motion. They wear pointed hats, like gnomes. When considering the swastika as a symbol of Nazism, these good-hearted, submissive creatures – who in legends and fairy tales do the hard (or dirty) work in domestic settings – are a metaphor for the inhumanly destructive nature of the obedient individual. This truth, which can be so painfully witnessed in the atrocities of war, was a political constant that greatly preoccupied Vandenberg. But there are also swastikas in which the arms turn counter clockwise, which remind us of the ancient religious tradition of the emblem, which originally symbolised notions such as universal energy, growth and life itself. Destruction and creation are thus, as they so often are in Vandenberg’s work, carefully balanced.

Vandenberg’s versatile stylistic range can be further understood through a journal entry from 2004, the period from which most of the works in the exhibition date. The artist reflects on the difficulty of changing one’s style completely: ‘…because the image covers the subject and not vice versa and because, as the view of the content continually changes […], the content itself seldom does: I mean the human condition, which is in our genes and practically unalterable.’ This not only indicates that Vandenberg perceived his works to have a concealed content, of which their form is a function – which is a bold enough statement in its own right – but it also proclaims ‘the human condition’, singular and stable, as the proper subject of his oeuvre. Vandenberg understood the human condition in much the same way as his kindred spirits Céline, Artaud and Beckett. Namely, that one was infinitely alone inside oneself, surrounded by the absurdity of life.

This existential tendency may be less obvious in his abstract works, but the recurring figurative details remind us of his engagement, as do the words that are inscribed upon their surfaces. These form a leitmotif in the artist’s oeuvre and testify to the connection between the individual and the collective – present, past, or universal. Swastikas, boots (Cycle ‘Le départ’), and the crystal-shaped stairways of the No More Life series (2004) are pertinent examples. At the same time, Vandenberg once confided to his intimates that different abstract works could be considered as representations of mankind, portraits as it were, or maps that show networks, connections, distances and voids – between individuals, people, or nations. In Abstract Works, Vandenberg’s existentialism often connects with spatial interests and the notion of movement. Four untitled blue-on-white paintings (2000-3), for example, show lines that suggest roads, paths, tracks or highway lanes. The contrast in the colours is cold, harsh, distancing, as though the artist is attempting to disengage and detach himself from something that will never allow him to escape unscathed. His reaction? A vivid hue of blue that is at once passionate and chilly, vainly optimistic and desperate.

The text-based watercolours in the No more life no more series announce an end to life (‘no more life’), and incorporate mantra-like sentences that morph into precise constellations of pencil lines and frames – fusing experimental rectilinear forms with written symbolism. They also foreshadow the last phase in Vandenberg’s oeuvre, not covered in this exhibition, when he started to paint nothing but words, which he allowed to float in freer, less rectangular, spatial environments. The establishment of language as a constituent element of painting and drawing reminds us of Vandenberg’s interest in literature and of his own estimable writing, as well as his search for the right forms for his themes – language may be the ultimate form of expression, beyond which there is no further development.

The boots and the paths that criss-cross multiple works in this exhibition – even if they are almost certainly related to Vandenberg’s wanderlust – should be seen in dialogue with his need to move beyond artistic blockades, but to also conquer the existential turbulence in his life. Painting and drawing were his only modes of resistance, he claimed. Art seemed to be his destiny, his cross to bear. It is meaningful that the first painting Vandenberg remembers seeing – as an adolescent boy – was Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross (1516) in the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent. He was mesmerised, and the encounter transformed him into a painter forever. It also set him on the path that led to the creation of a rich oeuvre of stunning paintings and drawings, but one that can also be viewed as his personal Via Dolorosa.

Notes

The majority of the pieces in Abstract Works can be seen in the context of the artist’s depressions, which were often triggered by feelings of existential loneliness. But at the same time, works emerged from these episodes that hold their own against the turmoil. A diary entry from 2006 reads: ‘The man in pieces has only one solution, only one obsession: to make himself whole again. The painter – as I am – achieves this through the unity of image, sign and canvas.’ The text on an untitled work (2005-8) reads: ‘To them / Break it / Bring it / To me’. The latter work presents itself as a puzzle on different semantic levels. By rearranging the phrases, it is possible to create a legible sentence: ‘break it to them, bring it to me’. The positions of ‘them’ and ‘me’ at the extreme edges of the canvas indicates the sense of dislocation that the ‘man in pieces’ feels from the surrounding social world, which provides an explanation for the ‘breaking’ and the ‘bringing’ that are written in-between: a new life can only be created, and a new painting can only be ‘retrieved’ – as Vandenberg saw it – after leaving the past life behind, after destroying the old work.

Roads, feet in motion and staircases not only represent the painter’s long road to redemption, or that of mankind, but seem also a reference to escape. In his public and personal life, Vandenberg never fled. On the contrary, he confronted what he perceived as injustice headfirst, which often worked to his disadvantage in terms of business (and relationships). From his inner world, however, Vandenberg could never escape. ‘I’m sitting here in my studio, and all my demons are surrounding me,’ is the cry of distress that he would utter more than once in his personal correspondence.