Philippe Vandenberg and the Way of Drawing, the Way of Mankind, Patrick van Rossem

“The real problem is: what to do with it? How to translate it into light? … Our suffering derives not only from the human wound, but first and foremost from our being torn between matter and spirit. How to avoid falling into the trap of matter? … It so happens that it sometimes scares me. It explains my great love for drawing. In a drawing, matter is reduced to a minimum, as a matter of course.”(i)
Philippe Vandenberg


Philippe Vandenberg was first and foremost a painter; a choice born out of necessity, and also a choice dictated by the fact that it was the only apparently valid choice: “But for want of any other human activity I might be capable of, I have been forced, I have forced myself, to assume the mantle of the artist, i.e. to act out the vision of the painter that I am.” (ii) The urge that led him to paint was undoubtedly of an existential nature. Art provided Vandenberg – and his fragmented, restless and nomadic spirit – with a sense of unity, a refuge and a mainstay in his existence. In his diary he writes: ‘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.’ (iii) On one of his drawings, he noted the following (2009): “Gebroken.Ik probeer me alleen nog aan elkaar te schilderen.” (“Broken. All I’m trying to do is to paint myself together again.”) Few authors have failed to notice this crucial dimension of this artist’s output. In fact, it became the quintessential perspective for analysing his work. At times, however, it tends to blind to the extent that ‘not being seen’ actually became part of his institutional reception. The existential aspect and the biographical approach to art have long suffered from discursive fatigue and, ironically, they are now even experiencing an existential crisis themselves. They meet with boredom and tend to discourage people, rather than appeal to them. But the obstinacy with which the existential and the biographical aspects continue to pop up in art, the reflexive – at times furious – presence that characterises them serves to indicate that reality and analytic frame are often hopelessly estranged from one another.


Perhaps this alienation was, however, the artistic subject of the German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997), a contemporary and kindred spirit of Vandenberg. Both artists had strongly concordant, pessimistic views on man and society. Vandenberg is indeed less cynical, but he also had, for example, a destructive obsession with failing and dying. The oeuvre of both is thus penetrated by fear of failure and a preoccupation with the suffering itself. The most striking connection – that is nevertheless expressed differently – is the sense of pointlessness that gradually colours their artistry. This coincides with their fatalistic thoughts concerning the social potential of art, but equally with the fear of failure, which sometimes paralysed them. He writes: “There is pain in painting: the anguish, the doubt, the panic, the pangs, the obsessive fear of being unable to meet the demands of the canvas… Thus I paint from failure to failure, from hope to hope.” (iv) Kippenberger saw no other possibility than to become the burlesque, stereotypical image of the cursed and suffering artist. He did this, in part, to distance himself from his contemporary German neo-expressionist colleagues, and partly to find his own position through a detour into cynical farce: via a (pictorial) body, damaged by the conceptual ratio and the notion that the authentic and original self no longer exists. Vandenberg also used cynicism to comment on his own position as an artist. His cartoon-style drawings about Vincent van Gogh’s existential problems seem, at first glance, to be evocations in bright colours of something that has almost become a stereotypical image. But because of the association with his existential approach, they also take on the appearance of self-cynical evocations about whether this ‘type’ of artistry may really be relevant. Philippe Vandenberg was of the opinion that it could not be reduced to a choice or a trend. Thus he continued to be seduced by authenticity as well as by the search for the ultimate image capable of representing his experience and his perception of the era he lived in. In fact, the artist even waged a titanic struggle with it, marked by a love-hate relationship, drenched in doubt. The ultimate image, the image most capable of expressing the era he lived in and his dismay about and fascination for mankind’s urge to destroy and the suffering associated with it, always seemed more difficult to attain.


Philippe Vandenberg’s vision of mankind, and of the world, was of a downright cultural-pessimistic nature. It was continuously fed by acts of destruction, suffering, war, egoism and the lack of humanity, empathy and tolerance, which he perceived around him. His sketchbooks and drawing books contain countless written and drawn evocations of the Nazi horror, the gruesome conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis, the tyranny of Fidel Castro, of murders, genocide, rape, torture, executions and the other inhumane and horrific acts that man nevertheless inflicts upon his fellow beings. It should therefore come as no surprise that Vandenberg was enraptured by the novel Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) (1932) by the French author, Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1884 – 1961), in which idealism gradually flounders, in which the world is represented as a place of carnage, and human existence is marked at all times by death. On one of his drawings Vandenberg wrote: “het miserabele gescharrel leven genaamd” (“the miserable scratching also known as life”) and “nous sommes tous des assassins” (we are all assassins”). Céline writes “… I cannot refrain from doubting that there exist any genuine realisations of our deepest character except war and illness, those two infinities of nightmare.” (v) Philippe Vandenberg searched for the best possible image to represent this nightmare. But he knew only too well that there is no such thing as an ultimate image. Idealism is thus doomed to fail from the very start, for the ultimate image exists by approximation only. It is relative and it merely exists in the quest and the desire to find it. Vandenberg referred to the “struggle to paint the impossible painting” – a magnificent metaphor for the unfeasibility of a humane world. (vi)


Perhaps this is also one of the reasons why his drawings and paintings focus on ‘the road’ as an important iconographic, thematic and visual theme. But which way is the right way? The labyrinthine impossibility of this question alone makes it an interesting one. Philippe Vandenberg writes: “The painter’s way is sinuous like a snake, branched like arteries.” (vii) The search is an almost absurd and even dangerous quest but, to Vandenberg, it was also an essential one. The artist is no longer the divine artist; the absolute artist who points the way and who succeeds in opening people’s eyes with his genius. Like his post-modern counterparts, Vandenberg is not that sure either about which way to take, about the objectives and the chances of success. Continuing down this road is an act of tireless testing. It conjures the famous phrase at the end of Samuel Beckett’s novel, The Unnameable (1953) – an author whom Vandenberg greatly admired: “You must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” (viii)
To go on, in spite of the inability to go on, in the knowledge that we are being spoken; that the words find us instead of vice versa. It is a powerful image of man, divested of all certitude, waiting, devoid of a sense of purpose or direction, lacking any reasonable assurance. This also ties in with what Vandenberg said about painting: “I am capable of nothing else than of waiting for the painting… I am not free, I don’t choose the painting, the painting chooses me.” (xiv) Failure hence becomes an inevitable part of the artist’s existence: “One must paint in spite of, rather than because of.” (x) The artist paints in spite of the unattainable objective of finding the ultimate image – also a metaphor for the fact that it is impossible to achieve a utopia – and in spite of the fact that he is sure that he will fail: “Thus it always fails, sometimes just by a little, but fail it does. And it is precisely the something just by a little, the “sometimes almost”, that impels me to go on with my attempts unremittingly. Is it hope that drives me? I do not believe so. Anxiety more likely.” (xi)
As an artist who harboured the ambition to redefine and update painting as a medium and a language Vandenberg especially looked towards painters who focused on the material body of painting. In so doing, he automatically positioned himself in an art-historical biotope, made up of artists who had succeeded in giving special attention to the material quality of paint without letting it dominate their work. He felt that matter in itself, after all, is problematic, ‘It’s filthy stuff’. (xii) Vandenberg searched for artistic precursors that had succeeded in letting the sensory perception of the pictorial image take precedence over the pictorial matter. He repeatedly wondered how to transform matter into light. How to achieve that harmonious and tentative balance of mind and body, of feeling and cognition. He found this combination in the work of such artists as Tiziano Vecelli (1487 – 1576), Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746 – 1828), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867), Gustave Courbet (1818 – 1877), Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), James Ensor (1860 – 1949), Lucian Freud (1922 – 2011) …
In this context, Philippe Vandenberg’s work may also be related to the work of like-minded artists, who chose to position their pictorial experiment – whether abstract, figurative or both – in similar traditions. Or to the body of work of some contemporary artists who, just like Vandenberg, preferred a more visceral style of painting, which sought out and experimented with the relationship between abstraction and figuration, which promoted a more idiosyncratic brushwork and existential and/or culture-critical themes. One example that comes to mind is that of Philip Guston (1913 – 1980). Vandenberg was familiar with his work and in 2000 he created the drawing, La dépression de Philip Guston. Like Guston, Vandenberg had also been heavily influenced by the work of James Ensor. Both artists enjoyed his expressive use of colour, the sometimes cartoon-like idiom and his penchant for the confrontation of figuration and abstraction. They both seem to have adopted Ensor’s habit of representing caricature heads and figures against a white background. Both artists also frequently painted or drew evocations of, and comments on, their own artistry and artistry in general. Interestingly, both Philippe Vandenberg and Guston increasingly tended to use black as background colour, and as a surround colour for their figures, towards the end of their lives.
Parallels also exist with artists whose work did not necessarily influence Vandenberg, including the painted heads of Frank Auerbach (b.1931), which seem to have melted into the matter. Vandenberg also often painted heads, including the portraits of Ulrike Meinhof, Yasser Arafat or various prophets, who seem to be contained, or caught in, or loom out of the pictorial matter. There are many, at times even striking, stylistic and thematic similarities between the work of Philippe Vandenberg and that of the American artist, Susan Rothenberg (b.1945). Both artists explore the inherent potential of the encounter between figurative and abstract art; they prefer a white, highly textured background; at times their figuration is more linear, at times it is more plastic. They both enjoy painting people, or man in relation to animals as well as representing the fragmented and suffering body. Like the much younger artist, Jonathan Meese (b.1970), Philippe Vandenberg uses his work to respond to the destruction, the sadism, and the perversity of the world around him. Although their work is quite different, there are also a number of similarities, especially in Vandenberg’s paintings of the late 80s, when his work tended towards a more expressive, almost primitive, even child-like style, characterised by bright colours as well as paintings filled with cartoonish figures.


The artist associated the pictorial body with his own embodied existence, and with his ambition to control the intrusive urges of the human psyche. When examined from this perspective, his paintings may be viewed as controlled pictorial incarnations of dramas and horror. In painting, these dramas often manifest themselves as linear narrative scenes or representations marked by a very rough style; they resemble apocalyptic scourges that have seared the paint like horrific, alienating, or cartoon-like tattoos in the painting’s skin. What happens beneath the skin, in the amorphous substance, can be frightening: “The obsessive fear of what goes on beneath the skin of the painting. Scrutinise the invisible yet dazzling presence behind the matter of the painting.” (xiii)


The artist often used body metaphors to characterise the art of painting and the painting itself. It ties in with art historian Richard Wollheim’s observation on painting in 1978: “The painting is a container: like a body” (xiv) Painting is capable of a metaphorical representation of the human body because of its materiality, its pictorial depth, tactility, and, among others, because of the use of oils. The art historian’s observation was not only based on abstract trends but representational art can also acquire an organic visual quality, by interweaving its pictorial layers, by letting them filter through and thus evoking the physical and affective body. This idea is also apparent in the paintings of for instance Martin Kippenberger (1953 – 1997) and his idea of Der Kopf als Anhängsel des (geschundenen) Körper (xv) (The head as an appendage of the (disfigured) body), whereby the severed body served as a metaphor for the art of painting, which he no longer deemed capable of representing the artist’s embodied perceptions and existence. The head bore witness to this and reason – conceptual and artistically strategic reasoning – had to protect the artist from a naive return to an old-fashioned approach to representation. Philippe Vandenberg, in turn, repeatedly praised the ‘painted wounds’ that were inflicted by Vincent van Gogh (xvi); he also expressed his admiration for the carnal charms of Ingres’ work, referred to the failed painting as a corpse which one drags along. (xvii) Like Georges Braque, he considered “art to be a wound, which is turned into light”. (xviii) The main question seems to be: “How to paint the flesh and make us forget its materiality, and at the same time emphasises its fragility, its wounds, its erotic forces, its luminosity… ” (xiv) How can we spiritualise matter, without disavowing the body?
Drawing plays a special role in this context. It often transcends the status of the sketch, or design, and almost acts like a skeleton around which the pictorial body grows, and from where the body also draws its oxygen when the painting falters.


Drawing, the silent voice


“Every day he looked for the last time. He recorded the last image of the world.” (xx)
Philippe Vandenberg


The questions that Philippe Vandenberg poses in his paintings are not that much different from the questions that arise in his drawings. But, says the artist, the questions in his paintings are simply louder. (xxi) Drawing may be considered as the silent voice in Philippe Vandenberg’s body of work. Vandenberg drew on a daily basis. His art was marked by his draughtsmanship from the onset and it was his first significant creative act – which took on an almost mythical status: ‘My first act of defiance was my first drawing’ (xxii) and “I started to draw to escape the oppression of daily existence. Drawing provided solace, as well as a certain extent of protection” (xxiii) In drawing he found an ‘outlet’, which enabled him to translate the daily turmoil into ‘redemptive’, ‘comforting’ and ‘exorcising’ images. (xiv)


Drawing was like a stream of consciousness, a conscious and unconscious process, generating new themes, motifs, compositions, concerns and scenes. Sometimes he translated them into painting; sometimes they exist solely in drawings, growing into singular scenes and narrative sequences teeming with cruelty, sinister humour and abject horror. In the fantastic number of drawings, often in a chronological sequence in Vandenberg’s sketchbooks and drawing books, there are moments of great creativity, and an absolute, almost passionate exploration of newly discovered paths. But there are also times when the artist seems to be searching for something without finding a satisfactory outcome; when he becomes destructive, covering up representations under a mess of lines which seemed to have been etched into the paper, or under jet-black stains. Many drawings were left unfinished, but the narrative continues on the following pages, albeit that the content has changed, that the drawing is visually different. Some sequences are short, and are interrupted by completely new and different concepts. Certain visual motifs also reappear, sometimes after months, years even, but embedded in a new figurative representation; in some cases, they disappear just as quickly. On several occasions, the pattern is interrupted with words, written thoughts, exclamations or even entire texts. Words and images are an extension of one another and in some cases words even become drawings. The word serves as a question in relation to the image, as a clarification, a title, a cynical commentary or an expression of fear. Vandenberg also frequently redrew the same scenes in an almost semi- automatic manner, making only minor changes. It refers to a creative impasse, using repetition to exorcise and break open the inertia. Building further on the insights of the philosopher Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze wrote in 1983: ‘We can therefore say that movement relates the objects of a closed system to open duration, and duration to the object of the system which it forces to open up.’ (xxv) Here, he seemingly hits a creative impasse, using repetition to exorcise and break open a moment of inertia. Repetition is, of course, a movement in which you look for a difference, for change, for a way out of the impasse. Change needs to be found through continuous recitation; otherwise the only way out is death. The artist says: ‘Death begins with repetition that brings nothing new, that is no longer invitation to any adventure.’ (xxvi)


This adventure in drawing is apparent in Vandenberg’s sketchbooks and drawing books from 1982 onwards, and it continued unabated until the artist’s death in June 2009. Vandenberg spent twenty-five years drawing and, during this time, he developed a signature style that matured around 1996. From this point on, it is possible to detect a great sense of unity in his work from a thematic, visual and stylistic perspective. This period continued until about 2002/2003. From then on the artist started exploring various abstract patterns in an intense and repetitive manner. Often he filled entire pages with compositions of lines, circles, swastikas, blocks or shapes that are embedded in one another. He generally preferred bright, luminescent colours and tenuous contours. But Philippe Vandenberg obviously preferred a more figurative style, which is apparent even in his abstract drawings. The interaction between the lines or shapes can be easily related to the theme of ‘the way’, to the search for a way out, the labyrinthine. The compositions made up of swastikas speak for themselves in this regard. [fig. 7]


In 2005/2006, the artist turned once again to a figurative style, focussing more specifically on representing man. The drawings from this period, however, contain several pensive remarks: “Il me faut capituler” (“I have to capitulate”);  “Il me faudra apprendre à vivre avec trahison” (“I will have to learn to live with treason”); “Ma douleur de demain je l’ai consciencieusement préparé aujourd’hui” (“I have consciously prepared tomorrow’s sorrow today”); “La solitude est une baignoire” (“Solitude is like a bath”); “Nous sommes tous des assassins” (“We are all assassins”); “Camping Endlösung” (“Camping – The Final Solution”); “Je n’ai plus de muse” (“I no longer have a muse”). Here the fear of a creative impasse, and of the futility of being an artist, is very much apparent. The theme also surfaces in his drawings. In 2008, the artist created the drawing, Ceux qui ne dessinent plus (Those Who no Longer Draw). The drawing, for which the artist used a thin graphite line, fills an entire page, on which six artists have been positioned above one another, in two rows of three – this geometric system is a relic of his abstract period. Those who no longer draw are slumped on their chairs, their corpses bleeding. They have been stabbed to death and have collapsed over the drawing table. This drawing can also be linked to the artist’s concern about a fear of failure, which he repeatedly voiced in his writings and drawings. Vandenberg’s oeuvre is permeated by this fear, in part also shaped by it. As such, it is part of a long, artistic, philosophic and literary ‘Western’ tradition, in line with the work of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Bruce Nauman (b.1941), Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997) and many other artists. (xxvii) In 2008, Philippe Vandenberg pencilled the following sentence, nine times and in different colours, across one of his drawings: “Je n’ai plus de muse” (“I no longer have a muse”). We see the muse running away in panic while the artist sits in front of his canvas upon which he has painted a bomb with a burning fuse. Is the muse running away because the failure seems inevitable?
Representations, in which Vandenberg reflects on the artist, and on artistic creation, are not restricted to the later stages of his body of work. The most impressive work in this framework consists of a series of watercolours created in 1999, a year in which the artist repeatedly painted self-portraits – something which he did not often do – in relation to his own position as an artist. In the watercolour, Le pas lent du peintre (The Painter’s Slow Progress), we see the nude, fragile artist, with extended legs, who has difficulty walking, as he steps on two snails. In another watercolour Vandenberg has counter-posed two profiles of himself, with the artist licking the tongue of his mirror image in a narcissistic manner. This drawing may be considered as a testimony to the confrontation with one’s inner self, or as an exorcism of potentially overly narcissistic concerns that might complicate the sublimation of one’s own personal tragedy. Nor does the artist eschew the biographical aspect. He discusses his love life at length, as well as the relationship with his father and mother. His own battle with depression, as is evidenced from the stunning watercolour Le livre Xanax (The Book Xanax) is also visually present.


The artist exhibits a marked penchant for watercolours. Once again, this proves that he is first and foremost a painter. His explicit preference for nudes allowed him to subtly introduce fragile and very penetrating tonal gradations in the colour of flesh and blood. This latter he had in common with the British artist David Austin (b.1960). He often starts his watercolours by tracing a tenuous graphite line, which is then carefully filled with transparent layers of colours, which underline the frail nature of the human body. The fact that these scenes depict horrible representations of murder, rape and torture make them all the more confrontational. They show physically fragile but unscrupulous humans who propel themselves and their fellow men into an apocalyptic nightmare. But the artist did not limit himself to using watercolours only. There is a significant stylistic and iconographic difference between the drawings pre and post 1996. In 1996, Philippe Vandenberg used diluted blood in his drawings. They are literally sanguines and, in this sense, they are highly relevant. On the one hand, the artist’s use of blood ties in once again with his interest in the work of art as a pictorial body; on the other hand it is related to his desire to leave an embodied and sensitive trace of his own perception. But the drawings are also the bloody emanations of the artist’s perception of mankind and of society. They touch upon the idea that bloodshed is a reciprocal reality. Vandenberg paints hanged people, tortured people, women who are attacked and slaughtered by lions… One of the blood drawings represents a foot, which has been cut off just above the ankle by the edge of the page. Here too the artist drew the foot using a thin graphite line. Only the ankle, the side of the foot and the toes have been coloured in with blood, which has turned brown. The fetishist attention to the foot, to its downward movement and the brown colour, link this drawing to our worldly existence, to man’s fascination for the physical, carnal aspects of our existence. And this brings us to Georges Bataille: “A return to reality does not imply a new acceptance. Instead it means that we are basely tempted, without transposition, in the most heart-rending way, as we open our eyes wide; as we open them wide and stare at a big toe.” (xxviii)


This is a striking metaphor. Bataille considers that man has been basely tempted. The body and its urges emerge in the way man looks at things, in his actions; inevitably even, and maybe “until we cry.” But it is precisely the latter – the frenzy if you like – that prevailed for Vandenberg. Philippe Vandenberg was convinced that human existence was increasingly marked and fuelled by a destructive impulse. It led him to depict horrific scenes.
After 1996, Philippe Vandenberg’s drawings mostly include representations of murders, rapes, individual and collective suicides, torture scenes, castration and sexual perversions, governed by Thanatos. All these atrocities have their roots in what Philippe Vandenberg observed. He collected articles and images from the media, in which the atrocities of war and crime were explicitly featured. In the early 90s, he incorporated some of these in relation to these horrors. In 1997, the artist painted a watercolour of the face of a weeping woman, her mouth wide open, and her throat slit. The image is one of dire despair. Vandenberg drew and painted watercolours of women who were penetrated with a cactus, people who were being disembowelled with swords or saws, as well as men and women being slaughtered by wolves. In his drawings people are shot, sexually abused or tortured. Suicide is also frequently a theme. Men shoot themselves in the head, throw themselves in front of a train or hang themselves. The castration theme also regularly surfaces. Gruesome images portray crucified men, as they are being castrated with knives. In 2000, Philippe Vandenberg drew three castrated men, who look at a pack of dogs, who hold the cut off penises of the men in their mouths. That same year, he created the watercolour, Les Porteurs de bites (The Carriers of Penises), in which a group of castrated men carry their cut off penises, on their backs, with their bereavement evident in their attitudes. His cynicism also becomes apparent. In the drawing Les plongeurs (The Divers)(2000), we see soldiers pushing the heads of five men into the water. Maybe the work entitled Le livre le plus long (The Longest Book) (2001) bears testimony to the artist’s struggle with this abomination? We see two men’s heads facing one another; they are probably self- portraits. The heads have been re-drawn in graphite and have been partly filled in and accented using watercolours. Various clenched fists emerge from the heads, as powerful emanations of worry and of inner strife. But there is more to Vandenberg’s work than horror. We also see the consequence of these abominations. Bereavement and consternation are also important themes. In many of his drawings Vandenberg has incorporated crying people, people grieving over their murdered and tortured fellow human beings.


The drawings which were created between 1982 and 1995 and the later figurative drawings, which were made after 2005/2006, are stylistically different from the period that we have just described. The horrors are less explicit, although they are never absent. During Vandenberg’s early period the lines in his work were vivid and his work often seemed chaotic. Vandenberg destroys the figures in the composition as he draws. Some drawings can be easily related to the style of the Cobra movement, more specifically to Karel Appel’s style. Others seem to refer to the abstract, mask-like faces in Pablo Picasso’s drawings and paintings. The drawings in this period are often a typical product of the 80s. Some are even reminiscent of the graffiti movement that had infiltrated the art world at the time. The cartoon-like aspect, which Vandenberg explored intensely during this period, is also part of this. It also resurfaced in the later stages of his work, when the introduction of cartoon-like elements often served to weaken the sinister tone of the drawings. The hilarious and burlesque aspects gain the upper hand. In some cases, the representations are thematically and visually similar to the abject fairy tale world of Paul McCarthy’s drawings.
The grotesque element of this period, in turn, can also be explained by the artist’s fascination for the paintings and drawings of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) and James Ensor. In Philippe Vandenberg’s works this is expressed in portrayals based on the cartoon characters of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as on Sponge Bob. In addition to this he also created caricature representations of walking turds, masturbating rats, pissing Christ figures, crucifixion scenes, fat slaughtered pigs and the artist Van Gogh as he is assailed by several helicopters. During this period, Philippe Vandenberg also created a series of caricature representations based on Arthur Rimbaud’s (1854-1891) poem Le bateau Ivre (The Drunken Boat). It is interesting to note that he used colour pencils at this stage of his career, choosing bright, saturated colours. This, in combination with the simple, cartoon-like drawing style, which is reminiscent of children’s drawings, ensures that the works are quite different, thematically and visually, from the watercolours and graphite drawings. Notwithstanding the fact that many of his drawings still focus on abominations and on the human appetite for destruction – we are reminded in this framework of works in which strollers are attacked by soldiers or by soldiers covering mass graves – the change in style, the choice of another medium and the bright colours point towards a change in strategy. The watercolours and graphite drawings in most cases show explicitly horrific scenes that emphasise a particular scene in the centre of another, otherwise empty page. The empty, undefined white space reinforces and underscores the visual impact of the flesh-coloured bodies and bloody scenes. At times, even to the point of dismay, forcing the observer to look away. The drawings in colour pencil, however, have a more schematic approach, and are drawn in a somewhat more naive and playful style. They accommodate the aspect of looking much more readily and because of their full-page compositions and the reiteration of similar figures and scenes within the same page they often appear to be more abstract. This shift from a horrific confrontation to an apparent lightness is significant. The direct confrontation almost inevitably evokes feelings of indignation, compassion and protest. The apparent lightness, by contrast, is almost a cynical provocation. It seems to include the bitter question as to whether something can still be changed: whether man still wishes to pursue a better and more humane existence. Possibly the artist thought that man preferred to be left alone in order to wallow in blindness, in a hopeless fate, without a care in the world. Perhaps he thought that the sadistic attitude to life had replaced the humane approach. Reviens Adolphe nous t’aimons (Come Back Adolf, We Love You) (2009) is the cynical but also provocative title which Vandenberg gave to a brightly coloured, cartoon-like drawing depicting Hitler on a beach, who gives the typical Nazi salute as the oven of a concentration camp reduce human remains to cinders. At the bottom of the page, he has drawn a crowd of people who also salute Hitler. The title has been written diagonally across the drawing in bold pink capital letters.


Looking away, for reasons of fascination


It is widely known that man – or at least some of mankind and in varying degrees – may enjoy watching the suffering of others. In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag focussed on the act of observing horror and pain. She noticed that our appetite for images showing writhing bodies in pain is similar to our desire to see the human body portrayed in the nude. This is not a new insight, she wrote. Plato’s Politeia (380 BC) already mentioned the attraction exerted on the human psyche by mutilated bodies. Plato, writes Sontag, found this human appetite for images of pain, degradation and mutilation almost self-evident – although the gaze involves mental turmoil and conflict. Edmund Burke also wrote in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) that people find delight in the misfortune and pain of others. In 1814, William Hazlitt wondered why readers always turn to the section with the news about horrific fires or shocking murders when reading the newspaper. He felt that the reason for this was our innate love of cruelty and misery. Likewise, the history of art is replete with imagery of cruelty and agony. Not a day goes by without a new film being premiered in which horror, death, mutilation and suffering are explicitly shown. (xxix) Often, Sontag suggests, the moral objective, the moral charge, is lacking in these images: “No moral charges attaches to the representation of these cruelties. Just the provocation: can you look at this? There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching.” (xxx) Torment, Sontag writes, is also represented as a form of spectacle, as something to be viewed by passive bystanders. The passiveness of the observers alludes to the idea that nothing can be done about the horror that is taking place. One may empathise – even enjoy oneself if one so wishes – but it is impossible to stop the horror from taking place.
These notions help us gain a better understanding of some aspects of Vandenberg’s drawings. As in the series of engravings, Los desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)(1810 – 1814) by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) – also a source of inspiration for Vandenberg – the horror portrayed by the artist in his engravings is designed to shock us, to wake us up, or even to hurt us, as Sontag suggests. Goya’s drawings deny the beholder any of the sense of pleasure that may be derived from the suffering of others. They elicit compassion for the victims and anger about those who inflict the suffering. The images condemn the violence and are the outcome of a gaze that is filled with consternation. In that sense, they are diametrically opposed to those images that only appeal to our desire for horrific imagery. (xxxi) They are the product of a profound moral indignation; much like Philippe Vandenberg’s images are the product of the fact that he is shocked; of his refusal to accept the state of affairs. But in a strange way, his drawings also seem to reflect on the contemporary, scopophilic fascination for agony and scenes of abject horror. In all likelihood, this is his merit as a draughtsman and painter of visual imagery.
In this sense he is also quite different from Goya. Vandenberg not only painted a penetrating picture of a gruesome humanity; at the same time he has also succeeded in confronting the spectator with his own fascination for perversion and mutilating sadism. The nudity, the explicit sexual scenes and the confronting perversities draw in the spectator. They are arresting, they stop the gaze and seek hedonism, but they immediately reveal the perversity of the pleasure lurking within. Lust meets disgust. Pleasure encounters horror. Eventually, attraction repeals itself. This movement, in which the instinctive urges of human’s inner beings reveal their perverted desires may be characterised as a dompte-regard, (xxxii) a taming of the gaze. This notion was introduced by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his analysis of the impact of painting. By extension, it can also be used to analyse drawings and other artistic imagery. The notion refers to a painting’s potential to temper the spectator’s gaze. In Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse Lacan writes the following: “The painter gives something to the person who must stand in front of his painting which, in part, at least, of the painting, might be summed up thus – You want to see? Well, take a look at this! He gives the eye something to feed on, but invites the spectator, to whom the canvas is shown, to lay down his gaze, much like one lays down one’s arms. Something is given, not so much to the gaze as to the eye, something that involves abandonment, the laying down of the gaze.” (xxxiii)
According to Lacan, painting can free the eye from the temptations of the gaze. These temptations originate in “the constitutional or existential lack that lies at the origin of castration anxiety” (xxxiv) It is this lack which ensures that we never really look at what we want to see because the deceptive gaze dictates what we see. But the psychoanalyst also thought that the gaze has an exhausting effect on the eye. (xxxv) According to Lacan, painting can, however, tame the gaze and liberate man from the imaginary fall created by the gaze. (xxxvi) In other words it is the dompte-regard, the taming of the gaze which, among others, is brought about by art and which enables us to really see. (xxxvii) And it is this effect that Vandenberg succeeds in realising so well. He gives our eyes exactly what they are looking for. Then he mercilessly confronts our gaze with the impossibility of its existence. Vandenberg delves deeply into the human psyche and presents a deranged orgy. A passionate desire without moral boundaries, an orgasm, which is dominated by an urge toward death. The colour of his flesh exudes temptation and destruction. The orgiastic images appeal but in a repulsive manner. The imagery finally wants you to look away: to look away out of deep moral outrage at the brutal sadism that lurks in man. To also look away because of the horror, the shame, or the consternation that follows the initial fascination with the carnal horror, the apocalyptic implosion, the suffering.


The failure of the symbolic order – the failure of a culture


“God is dead, the substantial Universal for which the subject is ready to sacrifice the kernel of his being is but an empty form, a ridiculous ritual devoid of any substantial content, which nonetheless holds the subject as its hostage.”(xxxviii)
Slavoj Žižek


The crucifixion of Christ is a common theme in Philippe Vandenberg’s drawings and paintings. He shares this preoccupation with the passion of Christ with several modern and contemporary artists who explored, and continue to explore, the potential of this image. It is one of the most frequently painted Christian narratives in the history of art. In its modern interpretations it has even teased the edge of blasphemy, fear, hope and disappointment. The fact that Vandenberg was attracted to the Christian iconography and the related stories is partly due to his education and the impact of it on his adult life: “I see myself as someone who misses God. In my youth, I was deeply religious; it was literally beaten into me. Afterwards I started to realise that God mainly exists because of his great absence. Now I consider him to be definitely absent, not non-existent, but absent. And I do miss him. It is a strange feeling.” (xxxix)
This statement ties in with the aforementioned remark of Slavoj Žižek about the death of God. The disappearance of God results in a void and a permanent bond in those whose existence depended on him. Žižek uses the word ‘hostage’ to refer to those who have lost their faith. And this term can be readily used in the analysis of Philippe Vandenberg’s works. A hostage is someone who is held against his will. The hostage wishes to be free, but as a hostage he is necessarily subjected to the laws that are imposed by the other. That other, according to Philippe Vandenberg, is the culture and the environment in which he was born, as well as his education. He said that Christian faith had literally ‘been beaten into him’. It became a part of his existential core. The realisation that God is gone: judging by his drawings, he must have been deeply affected by the idea that this transcendental power, which embodies hope and humanity, as well as the promise of salvation and grace, is no longer amongst us. Vandenberg was disappointed in a world that was devoid of spirituality, hope and humanity. After God is gone, all that is left is a raw and mostly hopeless reality. The artist thus became the hostage of his desire for something that was gone for good or, better still, of the seemingly increasingly impossible search for an alternative. After all, the prevailing order in which Vandenberg existed was an order in which – according to the artist – sadism, inhumanity and cruelty were imperative. To penetrate this order, this society that seemed devoid of human values and objectives, proved to be impossible: “I believe that everyone who is working creatively is trying to create a certain order, which is different from the existing order. But that is where the trouble sometimes starts as this order does not fit in with the prevailing system.” (l)
The order – the system of images and contents – that has been created by the artist finds no refuge in the existing symbolic order. Does this refer to the trauma of the supposedly misunderstood artist? Not really. Vandenberg did not feel that he was misunderstood. But he needed to contend with a society, which he deemed to be so confused, self-righteous and perverse that his artistry was faced with a colossal undertaking, an almost futile enterprise. So he chose the way of the looking glass instead, proffering a self-image to this ‘godless’ society – in its most explicit form – of what he felt it was, and what it had achieved. This reflection was merely intended as a transition, a way towards the ultimate image, which eventually – like the crucified Christ – would have the inherent potential of providing this raw reality with a way out. Vandenberg had no other way of achieving this than by travelling through the atrocities of the time in which he lived. Seeking the ultimate lows which mark the human existence was the only way to create an image of hope and of the future.
Once again, we turn to Žižek to understand Vandenberg’s work. In his book, Interrogating the Real he reflects on the three stages of the symbolic order, as formulated by Jacques Lacan. This analysis is interesting because it helps us reveal a number of aspects of Vandenberg’s defeatism regarding the notions of hope, redemption and the future. Žižek qualified the first stage of the symbolic as the phenomenological stage. This is the stage in which the subject encounters his traumas and symptoms – non-verbal phenomena – and incorporates them in a symbolic – verbal – system, which is meaningful for him. This is the stage of the awakening, the moment when the subject expresses his desires. In the second stage of the symbolic the urge toward death is identified with the symbolic order. The reason for this is that the existing order has its own laws, which the subject and his imagination are unable to comprehend, which remain closed to him. In other words, once the subject has encountered his desire and is ready to realise it – imagination fuels this process – in the existing symbolic order, he will realise or think that this path is irrevocably closed to him. In the third stage of the symbolic, the subject comes to understand that the great Other, the prevailing symbolic order, is also permeated with desire and thus loss. By incorporating one’s own desire in the absence of the great Other the subject succeeds in avoiding total alienation and thus the eventual death of his desire.(xli)
This structure allows us to analyse the way the artist visually deals with the loss of God in his art in more detail. In 1995, the year before Vandenberg started to work on his blood drawings, he started to work on a series of pictorial drawings – which he called laments – in which he explored various motifs through variation and repetition. One such motif is a pitch-black stain or spot, which sometimes appears to take on the form of a circle. At times, it is represented as a series of concentric circles. Occasionally it covers a blood-red stain that emerges and gradually surrounds the black spot until it finally drowns it out completely. This black macula surfaces repeatedly in this series in various ways. The origin of this motif can be found in a series of ink drawings and washes that preceded the laments. The artist focussed on a number of Armi Christi, or instruments of the Passion, including the cross and the crown of thorns. The motif of the circular crown gave rise to the black macula. It surrounds a cross in grey wash in one drawing, which ultimately disappears when the laments begin. Only the black stain remains. The artist identified this macula in his drawings with captions, such as “Le” or “Les trou(s) dans l’âme” (The hole(s) in the soul). It is the blind spot, the black stain on the human soul. Other legends include: “La présence de dieu – trou dans l’âme” (the presence of God – a hole in the soul), “Trou – dieu – âme – courage – presence” (hole – God – soul – courage – presence), “L’intolérable trou dans l’âme” (the intolerable hole in the soul), “Dieu – absence” (God-absence).


In addition to these drawings, there are various other representations in the laments series, including drawings of a burning hell, black or red mountains identified as montagnes du désir (mounds of desire) or as monts de lamentation (mountains of lamentation), as well as rain painted in blood. It is blatantly clear that the artist had focused on the theme of the absence of God in this series, or at least his awareness of it and the fact that he is affected by it. Through a continuous pictorial recitation – referring to a trauma or to his shock that the artist seems to have to convince himself that God is, indeed, no longer there – he succeeds in processing the trauma of absence. However he also is forced to face his continued desire for God: on one of the drawings he writes, “wie zal het wagen God uit de ziel van de schilder te verjagen” (“who will dare to expel God from the painter’s soul”). This idea is consistent with the first stage of the symbolic, as expressed by Jacques Lacan. The symptom or trauma needs to be incorporated in a language or word that accommodates the desire. It also has to alleviate the trauma by integrating it into a symbolic, meaningful system. In other words, the laments are a relevant exploration of what we have lost, but also of what we crave, of what we desire.


The blood drawings, which he subsequently created, seem to point in the same direction. The artist’s sacrifice – the bleeding – indicates that Christ no longer has to make a sacrifice as he does not exist, but the artist does. But at the same time, the sacrifice also refers to a desire for a form of transcendence in which a hopeful future that transcends this raw reality is preserved. However, as we have already seen, the representations of various horrors had already surfaced in the blood drawings. At the time, the road to transcendence already seemed paved with impossibility. This brings us to the second stage of the symbolic. Here the artist is finally forced to admit that it is impossible to penetrate the existing symbolic order. In summary, Vandenberg’s drawings indicate that human desire, as expressed in sadistic and inhumane acts, does not seem inclined towards a new form of transcendence and the promise of a new utopia. “That is where the trouble sometimes starts”, Vandenberg said in the quote above, “as this order often does not fit in with the prevailing system.” And it is this system that the artist chose to explore so intensely after 1996. The crucifixion played a prominent role in it, in order to show that there is no place within the existing symbolic orders, and thus in the human desire for an image of hope and of the future. The cross and the crucified Christ are used as an instrument of sadistic lust. We see it penetrate the mouth and genitals of women. In another scene, we see how the foot of the cross penetrates a woman. We see woman orally satisfying a crucified Christ with an erection. It is clear that the eroticisation of the cross no longer can be related with a transcendent ecstasy. Here it refers to a worldly implosion of hedonism and destructive lust. We see a grinning Christ on the cross, posing like a model, as he is painted by a multitude of artists. Cynicism clearly prevails here. The cartoon-like visual idiom of this drawing, and the grin, seem to imply that these artists are fooling themselves. Vandenberg also draws a brightly coloured, cartoon-like crucifixion, whereby men are hammering the nails into Christ’s feet and hands. Above it, he writes, “BAM”, as if he had designed a scene in a comic stip. Society is not waiting for an image that fuels hope. But towards the end of his career, it seems that Vandenberg also relinquished this hope. Here we see the urge toward death, which Lacan related to the symbolic. “Nous sommes tous des assassins” (“We are all murderers”), writes Vandenberg in orange capitals on a drawing, which features rabbits climbing up the ladders that were used for the crucifixion of Christ. We are all murderers, in Vandenberg’s opinion, and he believed this to be true of himself too, because we have lost all faith in hope and the future. In other words, hope has been killed and any image that provides man with a way out of this quagmire has become redundant. After all, it is completely useless in a world that clamours: Reviens Adolphe nous t’aimons.


Untitled – Crucifixion (2008), one of the artist’s last works, is a pitch-black painting in which the two bloody calves and feet of Christ emerge from the darkness. Looking on are the heads of two dogs, with lolling, long red tongues. They do not symbolise loyalty; instead they seem to be symbols – the panting tongues protruding from their mouths – of human lust and of the pleasure that some people derive from the suffering of others. The artist also engraved words and phrases into the canvas, like ‘Kill them all’. Is the artist asking God to destroy mankind? Or is it a cynical provocation addressed to his fellow men? Kill the other, Vandenberg seems to be saying, continue what you are doing. Man has become hedonistic, with almost apocalyptic inclinations, and rejects any form of transcendent sublimation. All that remains are the bloody feet of Christ, the downward movement, a reference to la bassesse, or baseness, to being vulgarly seduced. The third stage of the symbolic: the phase during which man encounters the future and sees that his aspirations, as realised in the symbolic universe, will never dawn because they never stood any chance of success.



i. “Le véritable problème: c’est la confrontation avec la matière. Que faire avec elle? Comment la traduire en lumière? … Notre souffrance provient, non seulement, de la blessure humaine mais surtout du tiraillement qui nous habite, entre la matière et l’esprit. Comment ne pas tomber dans la piège du matière? … Il arrive qu’elle me fasse peur. D’où mon grand amour pour le dessin. La matière y est réduite, d’office, au minimum.” Philippe Vandenberg in: Tourneux A. (ed.), Philippe Vandenberg – Œuvre 2000 – 2006, On Line & Musée Arthur Rimbaud, Ghent & Charleville-Mézières, 2006, p. 24. English translation on p. 105.
ii. “Mais à défaut de toute autre activité humaine dont je serais capable, j’ai été obligé, je m’oblige à endosser
l’habit d’artiste, c‘est-à-dire à extérioriser la vision du peintre que je suis.” Idem, p. 29. English translation on p. 109.
iii. “L’homme en pièces n’a qu’une solution, qu’une obsession: se refaire entier; pour le peintre – pour moi – ce sera par l’unité de l’image, du signe, de la toile.” Idem, p. 29. English translation on p. 109
iv. “Il existe une douleur de peindre: la peur, le doute, la panique, le rongement, la hantise de ne pas être capable de venir à bout des exigences de la toile. … je peins de ratage en ratage, d’espoir en espoir.” Idem, p. 48. English translation p. 131.
v. “… je ne peux m‘empêcher de mettre en doute qu‘il existe d‘autres véritables réalisations de nos profonds tempéraments que la guerre et la maladie, ces deux infinis du cauchemar.” Céline L.-F., Voyage au bout de la nuit, Gallimard, 1974, p. 525.
vi. Philippe Vandenberg, Op weg in een kooi, is een man, zijn handen rood, in: Van Damme C., Van Rossem P.,Pirotte Ph. (eds.), Etats d‘âme: hedendaagse kunst en melancholie, Universiteit Gent and Academia Press, Ghent, 2002, p. 115.
vii. “De weg van de schilder is gekronkel als een slang, vertakt als een aderveld.” Idem, p. 120.
viii. Samuel Beckett, Three novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Grove Press, 2009, p. 407.
ix. “… ik ben tot niets anders in staat dan te wachten op het schilderij. … Ik ben niet vrij, ik kies het schilderij niet, het schilderij kiest mij.” Van Damme C., Van Rossem P., Pirotte Ph. (eds.), op. cit., p. 112.
x. “Il faut peindre non à cause de, mais malgré.” Tourneux A. (ed.), op. cit., p. 13. English translation on p. 95.
xi. “C’est donc toujours raté, parfois à peine, mais raté quand-même. Et ce sont justement ces parfois à peine, parfois presque qui font que je m’acharne à continuer mes tentatives. Est-ce l’espoir qui me pousse? Je ne crois pas. C’est plutôt l’angoisse.” Idem, p. 29. English translation on p. 109.
xii. Idem, p. 24. English translation on p. 105.
xiii. “La hantise de ce qui se passé derrière la peau de la peinture. Scruter l’invisible mais éblouissante présence derrière la matière peinture.” Idem, p. 55. English translation on p. 147.
xiv. Wollheim R., Painting as an Art, Princeton University Press & Thames and Hudson, Princeton, 1987, p. 315.
xv. Capitain G. (ed.), B – Gespräche mit Martin Kippenberger, Tisch 17, Reihe Cantz, Ostfildern, 1994, p. 9
xvi. Tourneux A. (ed.), op. cit., p. 38. English translation on p. 119.
xvii. Idem, p. 41. English translation on p. 123.
xviii. “L’Art est une blessure qui devient lumière” Idem, p. 11. English translation on p. 93.
xix. “Comment peindre la chair en faisant oublier sa matière et, en même temps, en accentuant sa fragilité, ses plaies, son érotisme, sa luminosité…” Idem, p. 24. English translation on p. 106.
xx. “Chaque jour il regardait pour la dernière fois. Il enregistrait la dernière image du monde” Philippe Vandenberg, 2008. Sketch book.
xxi. Drawings of a Painter. Documentary by Julien Vandevelde about Vandenberg’s drawings (15 June 2007). 22 xxii. “Mijn eerste daad van verzet was mijn eerste tekening” Philippe Vandenberg talking to Bernard Dewulf. De Lannoy A. (ed.), Philippe Vandenberg – Visite, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, 2008, p. 25.
xxiii. “Ik ben beginnen tekenen om uit de beklemming van het dagelijkse bestaan te komen. Tekenen bracht soelaas, het bracht ook een zekere bescherming met zich mee.” Drawings of a Painter (see note 21).
xxiv. Idem.
xxv. “On dira donc que le mouvement rapporte les objets d’un système clos à la durée ouverte, et la durée aux objets du système qu’elle force à s’ouvrir.” G. Deleuze, Cinéma 1, L’image-mouvement, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1983, p. 22. Translated into English as Cinema 1. The Movement-Image, Athlone Press, London, 1986.
xxvi. “La mort commence dans la répétition qui n’apporte plus de nouveauté, qui n’invite plus à l’aventure.” Tourneux A. (ed.), op. cit., p. 12. English translation on p. 94.
xxvii. For a good analysis of the relevance of a fear of failure and of how to prevent it, see: Von Graevenitz Antje, Faalangst en Kunst, in: Metropolis M, April/May, no. 2, 2011, p. 85 – 91.
xxviii. “Un retour à la réalité n’implique aucune acceptation nouvelle, mais cela veut dire qu’on est séduite bassement, sans transposition et jusqu‘à en crier, en écarquillant les yeux: les écarquillant ainsi devant un gros orteil.” Bataille G., Le gros orteil, in: Documents, Nov. 1929, nr. 6, p. 302.
xxix. Sontag S., Regarding the Pain of Others, Penguin Books, London, 2004, pp. 85 – 88.
xxx. Idem, pp. 36 – 37.
xxxi. Idem, pp. 39 – 40.
xxxii. Lacan J., Le Séminaire, Livre XI; Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1973, p. 100.
xxxiii. “Le peintre, à celui qui doit être devant son tableau, donne quelque chose qui, dans toute une partie, au moins, de la peinture, pourrait se résumer ainsi –Tu veux regarder. Eh bien, vois donc ça! Il donne quelque chose en pâture à l’œil, mais il invite celui auquel le tableau est présenté à déposer là son regard, comme on dépose les armes. … Quelque chose est donné non point tant au regard qu’à l’œil, quelque chose qui comporte abandon, dépôt, du regard.” Idem, p. 93.
xxxiv. “le manque constitutif de l’angoisse de la castration.” Idem, p. 70.
xxxv. Lacan describes the eye as being “désespéré par le regard… “. Idem, p. 106.
xxxvi. Idem, p. 99.
xxxvii. Idem, p. 105.
xxxviii. Žižek S., Interrogating the Real, Continuum, London, New York, 2005, p. 222.
xxxix. “Ik zie mezelf als iemand die God mist. Ik ben in mijn jeugd diepgelovig geweest, het werd er ook in geklopt. Daarna ben ik gaan beseffen dat God toch vooral bestaat via zijn grote afwezigheid. En nu beschouw ik hem definitief als afwezig, niet als onbestaand, maar als afwezig. En ik mis hem wel. Dat is een vreemd gevoel.” De Lannoy A. (ed.), op. cit., p. 31. (see note 22).
xl. “Ik geloof dat iedereen die creatief bezig is, probeert een bepaalde orde te scheppen, maar dan een andere orde dan de bestaande. Daar beginnen soms de problemen: het gaat vaak om een orde die niet past in het heersende systeem.” Idem, p. 30.
xli. Idem, pp. 29 – 35





Published in:

Originally published as:

Patrick van Rossem. “Philippe Vandenberg en de weg van de tekenkunst, de weg van de mens.” In Philippe Vandenberg: Reflections on the Drawings, 10-57. Brussels: Estate Philippe Vandenberg; Tilburg: Museum De Pont, 2012.

pijl rechts
Philippe Vandenberg