Old Masters, Harald Falckenberg

Art ist the ability to break bread with the dead.
W. H. Auden


Old Masters is the title of Thomas Bernhard’s bittersweet comedy on the relation of past and modern art. The Austrian writer describes the meeting between a young scholar Atzbacher and the 82-year-old music critic Reger in the Bordone Hall of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in front of a single work, Tintoretto’s Portrait of a White Bearded Man, with a stoic museum warden from the Burgenland region in attendance. A genius of a critic, Reger has for 36 years spent hours studying the painting every second day from the opposite bench – and has come to the final conclusion: there is no perfect artwork. This is not a bad starting point to understand Philippe Vandenberg’s oeuvre in the context of contemporary art.


Born in 1952 in Ghent, Vandenberg was throughout his life a sensitive and rigorously idiosyncratic artist. He devoted himself to drawing at an early age, something his parents tolerated, although his father was highly skeptical of the undertaking. At the age of 12 he visited Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts, where he was strongly taken by the Hieronymus Bosch painting Christ Carrying the Cross. It was the single most formative experience for him. His critical enquiry into the themes and styles of past masterpieces led to painting emerging as the leitmotif of his own artistic work. Down through the years he visited the major museums and exhibitions in Amsterdam, Avignon, Chartres, Colmar, Madrid, New York and Paris, to view in the original the works he so admired by the likes of El Greco, Ensor, Goya, Grünewald, de Kooning, Kline, Picasso, Pollock, Rembrandt, Rothko, Soutine, van Gogh and Velázquez. The list, expanded to include Flemish masters such as Campin, Memling, van Eyck and van der Weyden, is of course by no means complete.
Vandenberg grew up in a bigoted home in Sint-Denijs-Westrem, a suburb of Ghent that was absorbed into the city in 1977 and where for many years his father was mayor. At home, the family members spoke French and Flemish. Crucifixes, ecclesiastical images and statues of saints were to be found in most of the churches in the region and in almost all homes in the parish. In Vandenberg’s home there were no religious devotional objects, but there was also no art, although a faded print of Rembrandt’s Night Watch bears mentioning, which hung next to the coat stand in the lobby. The Roman Catholic religion imposed on the Flemish during more than 400 years of rule by the Habsburgs and the Spanish had never been really accepted. Vandenberg’s father was an engineer, a freethinker, and politically successful as the founder of the local independent party. Philippe Vandenberg described himself as an agnostic who had lapsed from the faith, and yet religious references never lost their hold on him. The Crucifixion and the Pietà, in general the condition humaine of a society of obsessive perpetrators and violated victims, all defined his artistic output to the very end.
Vandenberg attended a strict Catholic primary school which he survived, albeit with a great aversion for the place. After going to a classical grammar school, in 1970 he started studying literature and philosophy at the University of Ghent, but soon abandoned the undertaking. From 1972 to 1976, he studied art at the Ghent Academy of Arts, was a member of the master class led by Jan Burssens, a Flemish artist who was specialized in abstract and existential painting in the lineage of Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon. Here, at long last, Vandenberg encountered a teacher and fellow students who to his mind approached the questions of life without prejudice. In 1983, he broke off contact to his family. His father refused to look at a single of Vandenberg’s pieces and maintained this stance right through to his death in 1989. Between 1976 and 1981 Vandenberg mainly supported himself by the income he earned from teaching appointments at the academies in Bruges, Deinze and Ghent.
The extensive secondary literature on Vandenberg discusses his emotional state, not least in connection with his suicide in 2009 and focuses in this context on his difficult family background. I would suggest doubts are in order here. As a lawyer and criminal defense counsel I have concerned myself in depth with family structures. I would almost go so far as to say that difficult family backgrounds are the norm and not the exception. In one of the last interviews he gave, Vandenberg very soberly outlined his starting point: “Drawing protected me from a threatening world, both at home – I had an authoritarian father and a fragile mother – and at school. I went to an incredibly strict local college.” (i) He set out to turn his back on the exploitative system of society as a whole and not just on his parents. For him, art offered free scope for thinking and acting, kind of sanctuary liberated from outside influences, something that was obviously a utopia. Later he repeatedly complained that with art he had simply stepped into a new trap, a cage of a special kind. This was of course the case in that he had to earn a living with his art. That was not possible without agents and the like. His great achievement, and this deserves special recognition, was that he nevertheless managed to keep his distance as far as possible from the art market.
Vandenberg’s art evolved in the context of the epoch-defining debate between the New York School and the École de Paris. The two struggled to gain nothing less than the right to decide how western art should be read and interpreted. The New York School as championed by the influential critic Clement Greenberg had from the mid-1950s onwards taken the stage with Abstract Expressionism, and in a second step in the early 1960s followed up with Hard Edge and Color Field painting, thus asserting the leading role played by the USA as a world power and the beacon of freedom in the world of art, too. However, the second step was anything but successful. In New York of the 1960s, new standards for socially relevant art were set with the swift succession of Minimal, Pop and Conceptual Art. Philip Guston, one of the subtlest of the representatives of Abstract painting, rejected Greenberg’s outlook in 1963. Given the civil rights movements and the absurd Vietnam War, he could no longer concern himself with pleasant color compositions, he said. The critics savaged his figurative pieces, completed in a cartoon-like vein, in which he attacked the Ku-Klux-Klan as the symbol of US class society. Guston, an acknowledged expert on Renaissance art, insisted that art had to be understood in light of history and could not be dictated by the New York School. In 1973, he withdrew into the diaspora, living in Woodstock until his death seven years later. The works he completed there are today considered a firm part of the US legend.
In his first important phase, Guston opted for large canvases in this way referencing the mural paintings of Mexican artists Orozco, Rivera (Frida Kahlo’s husband) and Siqueiros, who in the 1930s caused a real stir in the US as idealists. It was action painter Jackson Pollock (Guston’s close friend since his school days and the favorite of Vandenberg’s mentor Jan Burssens in Ghent) who in the 1950s linked Guston up with Greenberg and the New York School. On trips to New York in 1978 and 1986 Vandenberg concerned himself with Guston’s output, terming it suicidal work, and in 1990 he traveled to Mexico City to view the murals by Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros. This all has an important bearing on Vandenberg’s œuvre, which to the very end was defined by the alternation between abstract and figurative art. And Guston’s and Vandenberg’s unwavering convictions align – and symbolize both failure and resurrection.
In the 1970s, further changes in how politics and art were seen emerged. The Vietnam War came to an inglorious end, the student revolts had failed, and militant groups such as the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy proclaimed the revolution, their efforts of course remaining ineffectual. Painting as the representation of the status quo was frowned on in the 1970s. New media in the form of photography, video and film set the stage. New York became the Mecca of modern art. And key stimuli also arose in Europe. In 1969, Roland Barthes wrote his fundamental essay on the Death of the Author, a rejection of the artist princes along with the insistence that art should be read in the sociopolitical context and its protagonists considered cultural workers. This hypothesis is closely related to French Poststructuralism which declared war on all regional and national forms of identity. In Flanders and the Netherlands, at the same time as Vandenberg such important artists as Constant, Marcel Broodthaers, Guillaume Bijl, Panamarenko, Luc Tuymans and not least Jan Fabre furthered the cause of avant-garde modern art. Ghent is also home to the collection of Annick and Anton Herbert. It is based on the range of Flemish paintings they inherited from Anton’s father Tony Herbert, and strangely also features works by Frits van den Berghe (1883–1939, not related in any way to Philippe Vandenberg). From 1973 onwards, the Herberts set about steadily expanding the collection and established a world-famous selection of international art, with pieces by Carl Andre, Art & Language, Robert Barry, Marcel Broodthaers, Gilbert & George, Martin Kippenberger, Mario Merz, Bruce Nauman, On Kawara, Gerhard Richter, Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner.


Vandenberg – rebel or traditionalist? Here, the setting actually dates back to the Late Medieval Ages. None other than Erwin Panofsky, together with Aby Warburg in Hamburg one of the pioneers of iconology as the benchmark to compare and understand art, outlined the major influence Flemish painting had on European intellectual history in his comprehensive treatise Early Netherlandish Painting (1953). There was a radical break in a twofold sense. In the early 15th century, Flemish painters took the mixed tempera paints customary in Italy and France at the time and added oil pigments, creating both greater luminosity and extending the life of the works emphatically. Indeed, the Flemish are regarded as the inventors of oil painting. This new technique, driven by Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden soon gained sway in Europe. Secondly, this went hand in hand with a cultural-sociological change from the 14th century onwards. The Belgian merchant towns, first and foremost Bruges, Ghent and Mechelen (and later Antwerp), had evolved into business metropolises that soon equaled the Church and the Courts as patrons of art. Bruges and Antwerp were members of the Hanseatic League and worked closely with Hamburg and Cologne. During this time, Panofsky writes, the key parameters of what we now call the global art market were put in place. The universal art of the Late Gothic period, as defined by the Church in Italy and France, gave way to a multifaceted form of painting which focused in what would today be termed photo-realism on portraits of burghers and regional countryside.
In moving times, when styles change fast, artists have to make sure they fit the right time slot. The major protest movements of the Hippies and one decade later the Punks took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Born in 1954, and often associated with Vandenberg because of his suicide in 2012, the artist Mike Kelley reduced his life to a pithy formula: “too young for a hippie, too old for a punk”. Vandenberg opted for the tradition of Flemish painting. In 1981, he received the renowned biennial Emile Langui Award in Brussels for young Belgian painting – for four pieces on the Crucifixion.
From the mid-1970s onwards, Europe had had enough of art theories of all sorts following the double death blow to Modernism by the conservative view of architecture emanating from the USA and by Punk from Britain as the expression of young alternative societies. With the slogan “a thirst for images” the beginning of the 1980s saw a revival in painting with the Neo-Expressionists and the Transvanguardia, whereby the directions taken differed greatly. In the USA, Appropriation Art and the Pictures Generation associated with Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons, Robert Longo, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman were “fresh and sexy” – with everyday cultural themes culled from films and magazines – and on the rare occasions that painting was involved, for example in Prince’s œuvre, the emphasis was on bad paintings. Vandenberg was of course aware of all of this. Locking into the fact that the 1980s were seeing an unprecedented market boom and oblivious to all the trends, he successfully sold his abstract paintings, with their countless figurative elements, to an unwavering fan community in Belgium.
However, the renaissance of painting came to an abrupt end in early 1990. Given the economic turbulence in Japan, the international art market collapsed in the space of only a few months. Vandenberg was forewarned. It came as a shock to him when Jan Hoet, whom he had known ever since his student days and who from 1970 onwards was a professor at the art academy and as of 1975 director of the Ghent Museum of Contemporary Art, brushed Vandenberg’s œuvre aside in an 1989 interview, saying there was “too much” of it: too many works in bourgeois collections, too many exhibitions, and too many pieces in his studio. Now, Jan Hoet had a reputation not only as a brilliant art theorist, but as a real firebrand. A little later he publicly apologized to Vandenberg (‘mea culpa’). Not that this makes the episode, which had such repercussions for the artist, any more understandable. Jan Hoet’s faux pas occurred in the immediate context of his nomination in 1989 to be director of documenta IX 1992. The concept he had submitted had been accepted by the deciding commission. And he had to choose which artists to select for Kassel and in particular resolve the tough question which Flemish artists to include. In light of the above reason Hoet gave Philippe Vandenberg was not to be among them, and instead his Ghent colleague and rival Marc Maet was chosen – a decision that eventually got cancelled, too. In the end, Hoet set out to show 11 Flemish Modern artists, such as Guillaume Bijl, Wim Delvoye, Jan Fabre, Panamarenko and Luc Tuymans. For Tuymans documenta IX marked the launch of his global career. Vandenberg accepted Hoet’s apology. In 1995, Hoet presented a Vandenberg solo show entitled JOB XIII, 12 at the Ghent Museum of Contemporary Art, certainly the best solution to the matter. As a huge open-air entertainment machine, documenta IX went down in history with its record of 600,000 visitors. Not the place for Flemish painting à la Vandenberg.
The 1990s marked a rupture in Vandenberg’s oeuvre, with a turn to dark figurative pieces. The majority of his agents cancelled their agreements with him. Only two galleries, Richard Foncke in Ghent and Albert Baronian in Brussels, remained loyal to him. In terms of the contemporary art context, the 1990s were not something for Vandenberg. Art, specifically painting, was no longer selling and, if at all, then under tough conditions. Context Art was all the rage. The focus was no longer on the artwork, but on the working conditions, the artist’s social praxis. This was offset by cultural events, with more than 100 biennials and triennials the world over, first and foremost among them the documenta and the Venice Biennale. The scene was set by curators who addressed political themes, such as gender, AIDS, feminism, urban studies, cultural studies and political correctness. Whether they liked it or not, artists had to bow down to this regime of international exhibition art. Only in this way could they gain the requisite reputation in order to be successful in the art market with salon-ready formats for museums and private collectors. This binary division of exhibition art on the one hand, and a global art market defined by trade fairs as of the end of the 1990s on the other, has since defined the art world.
Undeterred by these trends, Vandenberg continued painting and presented a stunning exhibition in Antwerp’s M HKA – Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst showcasing his works from 1995 to 1999 with insightful texts and diary excerpts. This was all about him taking stock. From 2000, he concentrated on formalist, printed compositions defined by written slogans. In the 1990s, he had on several occasions visited Marseille, where Antonin Artaud was born and Arthur Rimbaud had died. Vandenberg’s new pieces from 2000 to 2006 were exhibited under the title L’important c’est le kamikaze at Museé Rimbaud in Charleville-Mézières in France. It was of course a reference to Artaud’s famous 1947 treatise Van Gogh le suicidé de la société. Very rightly, the Hamburger Kunsthalle has chosen the title Kamikaze for its 2018 Vandenberg retrospective.
Not just Erwin Panofsky, but also Werner Hofmann, who for many years was director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, outlined what they considered the ambivalent character of art, or as Hofmann put it in his 1998 book Die Moderne im Rückspiegel its ‘polyfocal’ nature. The modern, he said, could not be understood without recourse to history and the Old Masters. Flanders has long been one of the most active regions for contemporary art and precisely for that reason, too, I so admire Vandenberg’s tenacity and his championing of an art that is purportedly of the past. Visite in 2008 was his last major show in the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts, the place where as a 12-year-old he had first found his calling for art. He did not insist on how his works were hung, many were simply displayed in light of the Old Masters. A modest and commendable presentation documenting the fact that his contribution to art should only be regarded as a visit to the world of the Old Masters.


i. Ronny Delrue, “Rembrandt is my Mother: Philippe Vandenberg in Conversation with Ronny Delrue”. In: Absence, etc., edited by Wouter Davidts (New York: Hauser & Wirth Publishers, 2017), 101. This interview was originally published as: Id., “Philippe Vandenberg”. In: De gecontroleerde ongecontroleerdheid bij het tekenen: Ronny Delrue in gesprek met Luc Tuymans, Anne-Marie Van Kerckhoven, Roger Raveel, Katleen Vermeir, Kris Fierens en Philippe Vandenberg, edited by Hannelore Duflou (Brussels: Mercatorfonds, 2011), 230-279.





Published in:

Harald Falckenberg. “Old Masters: Philippe Vandenberg in the Context of Contemporary Art.” In Philippe Vandenberg. Kamikaze, edited by Brigitte Kölle and Felicity Lunn, 135-145. Cologne: Walther König Verlag; Veurne: Uitgeverij Kannibaal, 2018.

Originally published as:

Harald Falckenberg. “Alte Meister: Philippe Vandenberg im Kontext der Gegenwartskunst.” In Philippe Vandenberg. Kamikaze, edited by Brigitte Kölle and Felicity Lunn, 119-132. Cologne: Walther König Verlag; Veurne: Uitgeverij Kannibaal, 2018.

pijl rechts
Philippe Vandenberg