Dear Jan (1995)

Dear Jan,

With reference to the Book of Job XIII, 12, I am sending you the following:

The original text of the Leiden Protestant translation (which is very close to the source) runs as follows:

Uw kernspreuken zijn van as,
Uw schansen lemen schansen

(Cf. the French:  Vos sentences sont des sentences de cendre
Vos retranchements des retranchements de boue.)

* S.C.E. version: Your maxims are proverbs of ash
Your defences are defences of clay

It has come to my attention that translation and renderings have maimed these beautiful lines as well as their content besides having partly weakened their imagery. Would it be possible to quote the original Leiden version in all publications concerning the exhibition?
It is, in fact, in this form that the verse guides me in my life and in my work.
In a poorer translation, the motif would become gratuitous, thus making me fear that it might be interpreted too lightly or too aesthetically.

These verse are no statement against the word. On the contrary, they are a rejection of the hollowness and the emptiness and the lie with which mankind – all in amazement at his lot – cover himself both verbally and materially; not only in an attempt to escape from his own sense of nothingness, but also to escape from his own painful lucidity, his responsibiltiy and audacity – from the courage – to bear all this. On the other hand, the fullness of the word is and will always remain.

As all Biblical metaphors, these verses apply to all human attitudes and activities, including art. But that domain – I mean the one closed off from life – is too narrow from me.
To me, painting is a medium, an attitude to life that places me within and confronts me with the human condition (with or without a god). In that way, all art that examines itself or handles itself as theme is doomed to sterility. Then the artist would be like a doctor who only charts the history of a sickness (or of medicine), while the patient is in need of a cure.
I sincerely hope it is clear from these verses and from my work that, through the medium of art, we are dealing with mankind and his difficult yet sometimes beautiful struggle as well as the courage he needs to carry it out.

1. Your maxims are proverbs of clay.

This means to me that man, in his vain search for a meaning to life, for some confirmation of self or self interest, constructs numerous discourses which are fragile, sterile and devoid of content. “Les discours conte le mystère” (discourses against mystery). To build something out of as: such a futile and stupid enterprise.

These words are so beautifully put and so fundamentally applicable to what mankind is, was and always will be: an idiot who by means of his ideological (-proverbs-) and rational (clay defences) ingenuity, tries to create some certitude, to give some purpose to his life, suffering and his death; here fulminating as Job did.

Job’s heroic revolt and his anger were awakened by the questions:
1. Why do we suffer and die?
2. Why is God not just?

Despite all his unbelievable technology and material improvement, modern man has not set one step further than Job. The “clay” defences Job speaks of have long been replaced by the phenomenal creations and expressions of human ingenuity.
But man still suffers, still dies and still finds no answer to his burning question (to God): why?
Modern man is even more desperate; he who has reeled through so many philosophies, ideologies, and forms of religious, political, social and cultural conviction, only to perish like a worm having soiled his own nest and his life.
These are the proverbs of ash.

Ash is what remains after burning; the burning or rotting of something that was once alive and useful and that now is non-existent. Ash is what man already is, before he becomes it.
Mankind is as, and all that he bears, all that he creates, inside (the proverbs) or outside (the clay defences) is of ash.

Our fearful gift from God/the Gods is that, with a little lucidity and some courage, we can realise the absurdity of our existence and create a certain form of morality (civilisation?) in order to make that realisation more bearable. We have (received) just enough talent – I mean intelligence, instinct, reason, feeling, intuition, etc., to recognise our problem (and sometimes have it formulated by a genius), but not enough to solve it. That was our fearful gift, the one that made Job so angry.
We will always need God, if only to curse him for our imperfection.
As long as people continue to exist, there will be proverbs of as.

Modern man is even worse off (compared to the primitive and emotional Job), here clinging to reason (i) like a drowning man clutching a floating dead dog (reason which with all its conviction, vanity and bombast, examines, demystifies, and dissects, in its will to make accessible and control that which cannot be grasped). In short, all in order to reach a certain notion of security that prevents man from having turn up the ash that is his only reality and the only possible reason for searching for a higher meaning: God?

Here are two examples – two operations carried out by reason borne by the provers of as:
how banal the ritual of the mass has become now that the priest carries out the ritual for all to see and that God now seemingly speaks Dutch.

Many a person has lost his belief in mystery through ritual, and rightly so. Belief is borne by mysteries. Reason revolts against it: the primal strength of mystery is threatening. Give people back their mysteries!
– hw sterile art has become, here examining itself, using art history as a motif and positing the analysis of art as creation.
Where is the magic here, the undefined power, the stirring of the human unconscious, the expression of a longing and the heart – the courage – that we can draw from our rituals and our creations?
Give back to use, along with these mysteries, the courage to express those uncontrolled – even dark – forces in word and image.
(Painting is a ritual, writing is a ritual; but opening oneself, surrendering oneself to a work of art as an observer, as a reader, as a listener, as a thinking person is also a ritual.)

So do I undergo and understand art: as an expression of the mystery that gives mankind faith and courage.

2. Your defences are defences of clay

Just like ash, clay (mud) too has no foundation? The provers of ash are ‘protected’ by defences made of mud. Moreover, these vain defences hide equally futile ashen wors, for they are shameful and stupid. The convictions of reason, the proofs of ‘science’ are held erect by reasons built on pedestals/feet of clay; reason that crumble at the slightest intuition, the least amount of lucidity, the slightest notion of the powerlessness of man in the face of suffering and death and in the face of ‘God’s silence’ and all the emotions that issue from it.
(I am fascinated by photographs of the trenches in the 14-18 war. They are like Biblical Job-like images: people entrenched in the mud, fed on their own and other hostile ideologie, extermination each other…)

Once the bubble of reason has been burst, everything blows away as ash.
Once the clay defences collapse, we all struggle in the mud.
Mud after all, is the only reality. How many wonderful painters – Rembrandt, Goya, Picasso – have not ended in the mud: the most sublime expression of our human lot in all its greatness. This greatness lies in accepting the mud; there begins ‘the real’.
Job is great in his revolt and becomes real in his acceptance of the mud. The same is true of the artist creating a masterpiece. The painter crawls towards the mud.

Job’s great solitude lies in that fact that those around him (society) wished to lead him to reason and resignation – a form of reason that guarantees safety and order – and Job realised that God is nor reasonable and cannot be captured within a well defined framework.
So is the solitude of the painter.

I do not thinks that Job is an anarchist; he fears God too much for that and rightly so (God is extremely hard on him); but he realises that the search for the godly is an individually intuitive and emotional enterprise that is outside the law, compulsory disciplines and the certainties of the system which is so necessary in maintaining morality – the foundation of human society.
The seer in unbound.
So too is the painter in his solitude.

God must answer Job, because Job has put God into question. Because of his doubts, his vulnerability, his rage, his uncontrollable sorrow and his courage, he attains the mystery, whereas his reasonable fellow man wishes to keep a safe distance from the godly. God answered Job adn shall continue to answer him, because Job brushes aside the provers of ash an the defences of clay. And rightly so.
So too does the painter in his solitude.

There you have it, Jan, my few incomplete reflections on The Book of Job XIII, 12, feverishly written down in the margin of my exhibition.
There is so much of us in Job an so much of Job in us.
And so will man, that terribly sublime, incomplete and inadequate being always remain wandering, in search of his other half, that part of himself he has lost and without which he can never regain paradise.

The only thing I can do is to make a few paintings and hand on these verses to my children.

Best wishes and see you soon,

Philippe Vandenberg

i. The Holy Bible, Revised Catholic Standard Edition, London, 1966.