On His Way in a Cage Is a Man, His Hands Red
“Words are inadequate. What cannot be said is painted.”
My lecture contains questions, but offers no answers about the whys and wherefores of painting. There are no such answers.
A painting functions para – rationally, that is, beyond reason and beyond its own story.
Words cannot contain its mystery.
This is an attempt, and an incomplete one at that, to describe the journey of one who paints, of one who has been chosen – or forced – to paint.
I will try to describe some of the innumerable mechanisms, or maybe they are predestinations, which force me on my way towards a painting.
In any case, all I can do is wait for the painting, and so these words are no more than so much gravel scrunched under a traveller’s boot, moved about and ending up on the other side of the road.
It is strange and yet so obvious.
The older I get and the more I go along with the painting, the less I know about the how and why of the painting.
How the painting comes to me and why it is so vital that I create it.
What I have learned is that the less I know about the painting, the closer I come to its chastening mystery.
After a lifetime of painting the only thing I know is what I no longer want. The painting decides. I am not free, I don’t choose the painting, the painting chooses me.
It comes for me in order to be painted by me. I must wait for that moment.
Painting means: waiting for a visit from a painting.
No matter how much I long for it, live for it, no matter how much I paint, none of this is going to make the painting come. The painting comes in its own time, that is to say, when the need is at its most pressing.
And Braque said: ‘l’Art est une blessure qui devient lumière’, and I think: there is no happy art, it does not exist. Art originates from a deficiency, from ‘le manque’, yes, from our deficient being. I wander, I am being moved on the road between two extremes: my longing and my horror. My longing – my admiration, my pleasure – I sublimate the way Renoir did, who said: ‘mon pinceau, c’est ma queue.’
My horror – my fearfulness, my demons – I excorcize like Goya who had to give shape to his terror in order to survive it, in order to cleanse himself of it.
And so the artist wanders like a vagabond, like Prometheus, a dumb soothsayer, a seller of lucky charms, on that road between that which delights him (after all, longing also denotes a deficiency), that which touches him and what he would want to touch and that which repulses and frightens him because it destroys him.
Why is there no happy art, or why is art about happiness irrelevant, of no use? The answer is that we do not need to be cured of happiness. And art is a healer.
And I wonder:
What is the link between the image I create and the things I experience in life?
And how does the image that I create heal the pain that living causes me? How am I regenerated through an image?
And how does my image, my painting, heal the pain, the deficiency of another person looking at it, I mean someone who is willing to receive the image in order to be absorbed by it? Because I know that we are not looking at the painting but that it is looking at us. The painting finds us.
And how does it come about that this other person standing between me and the painting is being touched, enchanted, burdened, comforted and healed by it? Art comforts us. Art heals people.
Art results from the discontent and restlessness that have hounded man since the Fall. Art must lead the way back (that selfexaltation from the mud) to Paradise and make him come to terms with his longing for it and with his nakedness, his guilt, his shameful powerlessness to prove himself to such a sublime being as God.
Of course this is a metaphor. Nevertheless, the discrepancy between the spiritual and sometimes brilliant possibilities of man (and his longing for fulfillment, purification and enlightenment) and his limited realisation of those possibilities which are often circumscribed or even of a purely materialistic nature, is so enormous and final that man cannot but suffer and try to free himself.
And this is where I call the artist God’s competitor and an eternal loser in this struggle.
For God possesses time and man revolts.
For a long time art existed only to exalt God, an exaltation which was meant to invoke his love and mercy at the same time.
The big change in the depiction of the revolt motif came about when man took notice of God’s continuous absence and the painter heralded this by turning his image away from God and focussing instead on man and his predicament.
Art changed dimension at that moment. And with the disappearance of God – although man could never forget him – the artist was left with only one solution: to make the divine happen in his work without mentioning God, to find and explain the god – like in man and use him for his motif.
Rilke sums it up brilliantly: ‘beauty is the just bearable beginning of terror which we admire so much because, unmoved, it does not deign to destroy us.’
I am the painter but I do not know how the painting is going to turn out. There is only one painting I can paint, and that is the one that will come when I am ready for it.
With all that I am and with everything I experience – my intimate history, my story – I will wait for that one painting. That one painting that chooses me and that I do not know but that I will recognize when it comes into being.
What I am and what I experience will determine the road, the quest, the evolution of the work.
Painting will be: to turn all that I am and everything I experience, my anecdote, into a reality.
I am three years old, I have stopped eating.
I am as thin as a rake, trapped in a high chair. My mother is trying desperately to force a spoonful of spinach into my mouth. I do not want anything alien to enter my body and I spit it out. My mother’s face, too, is covered in spinach. She cries.
I feel the pain. I am suffocating. All I want is to find her breasts, to be suckled in her arms, I want her, to return into her. Back to the darkness, to the time before breathing, before sound, before growth, before solitude, before being.
I want to go back to nonexistence.
I am three years old, rebelliousness is taking root inside me, bred by a longing for love and fear of pain.
I have no language to tell of these things.
A man walks across the room. His striped pajamas are soiled. He talks to a mirror, calls out to the stranger in the mirror, cries for help. He is afraid of the strange man in the mirror.
The man in the pajamas is my grandfather. I have to call him bonpapa, good father. He does not know me, he has a bandage around his head, there is even a little door in his head.
Inside his head a tree is growing, a tree of flesh.
He dies one night, railing against the strangers around him. Somebody says: look out, he might break the thermometer.
He is alone, even when I touch him.
I am five years old. Time has caught up with him, the good father, and taken him away.
I know time to be ruthlessly dangerous, the limousine of Death. I shall have to make it my own. But I have no language yet with which to befriend time. I have no ritual, no incantations, no image.
Now later, much later: painting has much in common with the idea of time as an apprenticeship for Death. I want to make time my friend.
I befriend it by looking it straight in the eye, by not hiding from it, by experiencing it, by seducing it, and by emprisoning it in a painting, albeit temporarily.
Pain is an obstacle. It is the reason we are incapable of being on any sort of terms with time because it constantly keeps the fear of death rattling inside of us. Death, which is our only certainty, is contained in time.
We pretend, we kill time obsessively with one activity or another, in orde to escape the fact that it is killing us. Time cares nothing for us. It is our master without even looking down on us. He is Saturn, the master of pain.
And so it is strange, and I am a little vain in the knowledge, that I will become decrepit while the painting in wich I locked up time remains radiant, unaffected.
Paintings are no more than exercises in the art of dying, exercises in accepting infinity. Ultimately, they are exercises in accepting death, in coping with life in the face of Death.
The creative process consists largely of destruction.
The result of the quest, that is, the work itself, is always temporary and, besides, from the destruction, the rubble of one painting, another originates. It would be inhuman if it where not so. What I mean is that nothing human is final except Death and Death is the vertical trampoline against which the work always bounces back.
Painting is doing battle with the Angel.
Although the struggle makes me stronger all the time, the Angel always wins.
It is, of course, about the struggle for the unattainable painting, the battle for perfection, the return to paradise.
Victory would be unimaginable, but perhaps the fact that we cannot be saved is the driving force behind our continuing febrile and tenuous existence. The labyrinth does not have an exit. Le cercle vicieux est la perfection.
I am five years old.
I am playing underneath the table where my mother is doing the ironing. I can feel the smooth rumbling and the pressure of the heavy hot iron on the table – top above my head. I see her naked legs moving to the rhythm of the ironing.
I am playing, I am drawing on little pieces of cardboard. My father comes to the table. Fear grips my stomach. I see his black trousers, his hard shoes. He talks in a disapproving voice. I can hear my mother crying. I draw with my eyes closed, the lines flowing over the pain, carrying it with them.
For the first time I see the Trap and the Trap has fallen shut. This table is the cage, I am in a cage. A cage with a white – hot roof and bars made of people’s legs. I put the drawing in the middle of the cage. I crawl around it in circles.
This is what I will do for the rest of my life. I will forever try to catch out the image and its motif or the motif of the image from different angles.
Already, mine are no longer a child’s drawings. They are battles at sea, with boats that are sinking (a motif which will stay with me throughout my life) and people who are drowning.
My father calls. I do not know what is going to happen.
I push the drawing out through the bars of the cage where it disappears underneath my father’s junk. I am trapped and now I know: the drawing – the image – will be my language. I must never stop drawing.
The drawing will contain the inexpressible and it will protect me.
The incantation can begin.
The ritual has been born. L’image a tout pouvoir.
I became an artist when I realised that I was caught in the trap of life, I, who longed for nonexistence as a child.
The cage: the French smoothly call it ‘la condition humaine’, the hopeless attempts at communication, the never ending need for love and, inexorably, Death.
Drawing – and at a later stage, painting – seemed to me at that time to be the only remedy. The remedy was within me. To a child, the ritual of drawing reveals itself as a soothing, therapeutic action.
It is not enough. It is a start.
The image – l’image – I scribble not only comforts me, it also serves as the counterweight I need to maintain a fragile balance with the outside world. At the same time, it provides me with an identity: I am the messenger of the image. It instills in me a will to survive without which I would descend into chaos, into complete unworldliness, into autism, every feeble tie with my surroundings severed.
In the living room, between the wall and the fireplace, stood the monkey – cage my father built. It was big and tall. This is where my mother’s monkey lived. It stank, stared into the distance – maybe it was looking at something far beyond the walls of our living room – and masturbated incessantly, all the time lapping up its own semen.
I was nine years old and fascinated, not so much by the cruel fate of the caged animal, which I could relate to, but by the fact that it had a selfcontained system – an obsessive ritual – by which it induced the ecstacy which took it far beyond the bars that tortured it so.
The monkey was locked in a closed circuit, with his masturbating as a therapy of sorts, although it never got him out.
The animal related to no one, except my mother when she gave it a banana in order to distract it, so it would stop. But she never opened the door to the cage.
At this time I start to realise – much later I would come to realise it fully – that in order for the ritual to have a point, for the magic of a painting or a drawing to have effect, I needed a third person, another human being, walking up to my painting and freeing me of it; the person who strays between me and the painting.
And now, later, much later:
The cleansing therapy is not sufficient, because the therapy of action is part of the anecdote.
From my cage, I have to tempt a passer – by with my painting. Loneliness is a terrible mistress.
Through my work, loneliness drives me to a third party, an intermediary as it were.
Who wants to stand between me and the painting? A ‘viewer’, someone who has been invited, someone who is available.
Only then will the ritual be completed, the circuit opened.
I look for the painting in order to come to terms with myself.
This act, this crossing to the other side of the river from which I sometimes return with a painting, cures me for a time. The therapy of action only works if the painting actually materializes and if it recurs throughout the oeuvre.
The oeuvre – the result of the action – is a message for someone outside the cage, a generous gift, a desperate mating call: communicate with me, free me.
The power, the magic which remains after the painting has been finished lies within the image, dans l’image. Here the anecdote has become reality.
The third party, the other person, opens the circuit, maybe by moving the cage, or maybe by entering the cage (which might then make it smaller).
All this I call the painter’s pathetic grubbing for love.
Creating is a lonely business.
Except for the painter – who does not know what he wants – no one
wants the painting as long as it is not there.
Moreover, in order to maintain the magic of the oeuvre, I have to keep moving the boundaries of my work, without knowing where I will end up.
The act of painting, the thought of it, even waiting for it is a succession of hope, confusion, destruction, delight, disgust and delusion.
Wonder is my only support. It leads me through this darkness. I do not paint with colours, I paint with wonder.
The painter’s road inevitably leads to extreme work, to paintings which are outside the boundaries of what is acceptable. I have to be an extremist, I cannot be anything else or I will be lost. And yet this is where the circuit might become impenetrable again: the painting, becoming more and more extreme, makes communication even harder and my isolation even greater. There are no points of reference left.
The more extreme I become, the less I can reach others and the further I leave them behind. Anyway, a painting is not meant for those who look at it casually, it is meant for those who want to step into it and disappear.
That takes a certain amount of courage.
So my painting is a bridge: it touches another person, and yet I do not know – and cannot know – how he is affected by it. My painting escapes from my grasp. It does not need me anymore. I am powerless towards it. The painting leaves me and my story, my anecdote. It has absolutely nothing more to do with me.
I am twelve years old and I do not know that art even exists. I have never seen other people’s paintings.
The first paintings that find me give such a shock that nothing is the same ever again.
A painting, a work of art can change people’s lives.
I discover something I did not know existed and that I recognize immediately as the thing that I have waited for so long. Never in my life have I encountered anything as whole as a real painting. It changed my life completely and ever since I wandered into it I never looked back.
You can be projected over phases in your life by a painting.
The painting I saw was ‘Christ carrying the cross’ by Bosch and I understood that the painting meant much more than what it depicted. I discovered numerous layers behind the painted image. What is on the canvas is only a justifiable alibi, necessary matter, a carrier. The core is the other side. This not a depiction, not a picture. This is an image that spins like a Ferris wheel, or rather it swirls like a whirlpool, sucking me up. This image touches my whole being, it anchors itself in me and it will feed me for the rest of my days, like all great paintings I have seen or will see in future.
This is not Christ carrying the cross but an image about limitlessness.
Through Bosch I experienced for the first time what it meant to be comforted, energised, healed, blessed, gripped by an image, not made by me in my cage but by someone else.
So it worked, this putting out of drawings through the bars: many had done it before me.
I realised that art can cure man of being man without being able to save him.
My father breeds dogs.
He has the bitches serviced and drowns the newborn pups in a bucket of luke – warm water. There is no market for dogs with markings on their heads.
My mother pets the monkey, sinks into a morass of alcohol and endless tears (which still find their way into my work).
My mother initiates me into intoxication. Some mornings I go to school drunk. I come home in the afternoon to find my mother in the bath where she has fallen in a drunken sleep that morning. I pull her out, dry her off and put her to bed. She mutters something and does not wake up. Her circle is closed.
All that comes out of her cage are empty bottles.
A boy initiates me into sex. I masturbate more often than my mother’s monkey. In church I stare at the pictures of tortured saints and their executioners. I become obsessed with the violent eroticism of the naked body on the cross. I draw cruel scenes with nudes, like the naked martyrs in the church.
In this way I discover a set of images to fit the desires, the fears that are growing inside me at this time.
Fear of death forced me to change imagery. Now my obsession with sex makes me do the same. I have to find the painting that will redeem me, or what is more perverse, which will transmit the message.
From here on in, sublimations and incantations will become inextricably tangled up.
It is strange. These motifs are new to me and yet I recognize them. The crucifixion, the nude, the intercourse, the fight, the pietà, all these I had waiting inside of me, waiting to be placed on the white square.
Later I’ll think:
A painter is born, motifs and all, and will remain stuck with them for the rest of his life.
They are burned into the floor of his cage.
I also mean: a painter works away at one single painting all his life. It keeps moving, and with it the cage moves along the road.
The painter is never healed completely but he never gives up hope.
I am a young man at my parents’ house.
As I go upstairs, my father comes down. We meet about halfway. Suddenly he spits in my face.
I think: I have to hold on to this. This is Saturn again, the mentor of pain who wants to teach me something. This is the pain. My father continues to walk down the stairs.
Later I understood the cruel beauty of this event and the anecdote is turned into a metaphor.
And so the metaphors line my road. I cannot avoid them. They present themselves. I have to remain attentive, lucid.
I see something happening: a man is bitten by a dog, a mother kisses her child.
I am walking through a landscape: fires are burning in the fields, a cloud obscures the sun. And I, I know: here is something I have to hold on to.
My soul is a storeroom, a memory. Later on, I will use what I saw, or rather its transformation into a metaphor for reality, in order to entice a painting to come to me when I need it most.
I mean: reality lies underneath the event, hidden by the anecdote. The artist is perhaps the only realist.
I mean: he uses his box of tricks to point out what is real.
My father spits in my eyes, he continues on his way downstairs: that is the event.
The reality is: the pain I feel (he humiliates me) and the knowledge that he is going to die (he is going down).
I am the storeroom, the painting can have its pick of what is there, the painting that comes to visit.
Now, much later:
The road of the painter twists and turns like a snake. It branches off in all directions, like the veins in our body. He travels alone now. The masters let him go; at last and essentially he is blind. Picasso said: ‘Il faudrait crêver les yeux aux peintres comme aux pinsons, ils peindront d’autant mieux’.
And he is guilty. The road is an inward one. The guilty one is doomed to remain in his cage the way Prometheus is doomed to stay chained to his rock. The road is inside.
Guilt and shame share the cage. I mean: the guilt and the shame over my powerlessness to open the cage, the trap, to open the road to paradise, to beat the Angel. This is why guilt and shame form the scaffolding of my art. I paint what I find in the cage: my impotence and my fragility.
Being an artist is a blessing, but it is also a curse. Painting is not my salvation and yet I must never stop. Only by moving the painting along I can find a brief respite, only by continuing my oeuvre I can remain lucid.
Painting is not enough. Painting only has meaning when the painting finds its place in the oeuvre, that is, when it has ‘come off’.
I mean: when the painter has managed to make the painting look at him. When do I stop, when do I decide when a painting is finished? That is the most important moment in the creative process.
A painting is never finished, but sometimes it is at the height of its creation.
I stop touching a painting the moment it looks at me and draws me towards its mystery.
I want to absorb the mystery of what is happening inside the painting without touching it.
I need mystery, the mystery of the painting that swirls.
Where there is mystery, there is hope. Unravelling a mystery means defining boundaries and I need limitlessness.
If a mystery is halfway understood, or ignored, or not cherished the way it should be, the painting disappears. All that remains is an anecdote, some style, some paint and fibre.
A mystery is para – rational.
The painting roots around in me, I do not root around in it.
This is what happened to God. Stripped of his mystery, his absence is all that remained.
Reason cannot explain everything, for how is it that I can make light out of paint?
‘L’esprit est voyageur, l’âme est vagabonde’.
And I think: modern man, made to reason and tortured by it, will cause his own downfall with his obsessive need to unravel, his need to master the mystery.
The mystery feeds me. Only the mystery can save us.
I would die as a painter, not if I stopped painting, but if I could no longer paint a painting that truly swirls and draws you in. A painter wastes away if he repeats himself without changing boundaries, light, breath. Then painting becomes a means to escape from the march of time, a way to forget time by killing it with paint.
The painting is magical when it is real.
I am a man and I am standing at my father’s deathbed. My lover is there as well. My father is dying. A wall of calcium has formed around his heart, now it is crushing it. He spent his life building that wall.
My mother still tries to feed him, some peas warmed up in a little butter.
My father turns to my lover. He is delirious. You have to fight him, he whispers – he is talking about me – help me, because he is a failure, he is dangerous.
My mother cries.
My father dies, because he never saw my – the – painting.
I could not make him see.
The painting did not find him, did not want him.
It could have cured him.
It could have cured me.
The cage has been moved yet again and the road twists and turns like a snake.
I wonder who is worthy of the painting. What is its worth?
At the base of creation is order.
I try to create order in the chaos I cause every time I move the boundaries of the painting, destroy my sense of security and change my point of view. My cage is a dunghill.
A true painting cannot be choatic because chaos paralyses the image and robs it of its power.
Anything is possible, except chaos.
Chaos is the destroyer of simplicity. Simplicity is power.
By drawing lines on paper I create order in the storeroom of my soul, no matter how extreme and temporary that order may be and no matter how far I push the painting towards the edge of the precipice, towards the point where it and I will perish.
The painting tilts. To record its extreme order at that one extreme moment of tilting gives me a moment of calm, of wonder, of transport. At that moment, I am being painted.
And now, finally.
I know no more now than I knew in the past. On the contrary, the painting has cleansed my eyes.
The painting made me unlearn many things.
Things disappear. They have to, because the painting needs space and space comes with emptiness, with emptying out.
There is nothing to be gained, nothing to do.
The painting has not become gentler or more forthcoming.
No. It has become more ruthless, more severe than ever.
It makes me wait a long time. It has taught me to wait. I still do not know when to expect it.
My friend time – is he really my friend? – still teaches me how to paint and he finishes the paintings, or finishes them off like a farmer who wrings the neck of a lame chicken and thinks no more about it.
Time also teaches me that I am fragile. Fragility hides great strength.
During his quest the artist discovers his fragility. He gradually finds the courage to reveal his vulnerability.
Many things disappear. Emptiness takes their place, emptiness and simplicity.
Simplicity is not simple.
I want art to be prayer rather than a fortress or a spectacle.
I do not believe in breathtaking heroism, but I do believe in the sigh of magic.
This is what we have arrived at:
Scantiness, silence, simplicity and space.
This is subversive, the ultimate incantation that defends us against a society that is strangling us with its materialism. Art must be subversive.
A painting can change people’s life. It can make them discover themselves.
It can make people conscious of what is real.
There is nothing to gain, nothing to do.
During the final exercise, death will open the cage. I will jump out carefully onto the road and disappear into the bushes.
“On His Way in a Cage Is a Man, His Hands Red.” In Philippe Vandenberg: Œuvre 1995-1999, edited by Flor Bex, 292-304. Antwerp: M HKA – Museum van Hedendaagse kunst Antwerpen, 1999.
Originally published as:
“Op weg in een kooi is een man, zijn handen rood.” Lecture, Stichting Psychoanalyse en Cultuur, Oud-St.-Jan, Bruges, October 17, 1998.