The Removal of the Skull Is a Child’s Play, Wim van Mulders

Viewing the recent pictures of Philippe Vandenberg, one is overcome by a disagreeable feeling. Gone are the elegant, steered painting-explosions in a seductive, bright coloration. Over the lyrical enthusiasm appears about all the stupidity and the baseness of a revolting people, typified by the artist in a simple, linear style of drawing. Nothing seems more repulsive than these money-dragging, obtuse trepanators, perpetrators of violence by the use of hammers, Hitler-heads of the most detestable kind.


The spectator apparently endures a corporal mortification in the theatricality of a dramatic story. With these pictures, one can imagine something terrible the swastikas, Hitler- and Arafat heads, figures not embarassed to copulate and kiss, an man and woman sitting in bed in their comical normality, a motorcyclist, a chicken, a ham, a sausage in a pan – but also something passionate and something absolutely extraordinary. These extramarital children are born after fine and dynamic abstract paintings.


The anarchist imagination concretely takes form in fragmented images, displaying through disintegration and visible baseness a world one has to struggle through. How is probably entirely unimportant. An infernal abundance of images with grotesque figures is shown, selling something inexistant without any scruples, i.e. kindness by which even the poorest of the poor are exploited, with the sole purpose of continual increase of possessions in gigantic industries, mountains of money and power. Everyone who sells something that does not exist, is accused an sentenced, but today one sells with impunity polished furniture as art in its holy beauty. Organizers organise art-enterprises. Nothing new. The world is over-organized. Nevertheless, needless to lose one’s faith in art. One does not have to abolish art on account of the dominating power of the art-police. But a directed world has engendered deformation, confusion and destruction.


The directors (conductors) desire the artists to look alike so as to be easily identified and manipulated when crossed in the street. The oeuvre too has to fit the “Zeitgeist”. This is what bothers Philippe Vandenberg.


He sides with a generation that considers the making of art as “what others do not undertake”. An artist impresses and disorientates by placing himself outside the law. Romantic escapism, one could utter. But here, the senses are rather prickled to importune the viewer, extending the art-ceremonial to an unequalled bittersweet delight. An artist has to paint his ideas. These are not the ideas of his friend, his teachers, his managers, his collectors. The condition of ever having and wanting to breathe in freedom, necessarily bears significant monstrosities. Modern art – from Francis Picabia to Francis Bacon – demonstrates this. To everyone, the consequences are evident, except to the person concerned. It is a radical breach in the representative world of Vandenberg to suggest a tie to a socio-political situation, thereby frightening his admirers, or startling their already cherished expectations. The expressive paintings of former times only radiate their ideal of pure art of painting in the background. The transferred, figurative shreds of images, bitterly tasting of hell, carry the conviction, that fleeing for something that happened for instance forty years ago, is not definitively possible.


Regarding contents and style, one can draw parallels between these paintings and those from the beginning of the Eighties, featuring ecstatically gesticulating figures, executing a conjuring dance in vertically orientated panels. Later on, the figurative elements gain monumentality in heads, dominating the informal scripture. Also, erotic connotations were obvious then. One has to realize, when approaching the recent, polluted creations with astonishment, that Philippe Vandenberg defends an emotional point of view, containing so-called dangerous outbursts and spontaneous critical reflexes, well worth painting. One glance at the enormous amount of drawings from the demonstrates that “draughtmanship” has always been the necessary foundation of the art of painting. Presently, the linear aspect appears emphatically in heavy, dripping clumps of paint. Perhaps, an artist like Vandenberg may have been associated for too long with happy paintings. One merely projected sporadical doubts and innermost fears into this work. Nevertheless, dissonants and anachronisms persisted even in the white, lovable, almost Sunday picture with their seductive skin. The painter is evidently conscious of being a virtuoso, and of the appreciation and appraisal of that virtuosity, but this drive did not prevent the insertion of months of stillness, in order to find new impulses, new startingpoints. The production in “series” in this industrious world is quite sufficient. The texture and structure of the informal work also demonstrate that the painting was gnawed by spots, splashes and running paint, disrupting the coherence of the emotional charge. A condition of utmost equality in composition, proposes infinite opportunities of projection. Everyone has a right to everything. By the insertion of interpretations of well-known and identifiable figures, a sadistic universe originates, featuring people and things that continually threaten each other.


Symbolical and material barriers are broken down – the swastika overflows the pictorial surface just like a batch of trivial utensil – and obsolete morals cannot possibly turn the tables. In this chaos, Philippe Vandenberg shows something of the complicated systems of social hierarchy and the struggle of everybody against everybody. The battle never ends by equality of the antagonists and the unfolding of disapproved figure, for finally, “where is Hitler today?”. The principally undecided fight recalls the nightly struggle of Jacob and his double, unable to end. It seems as if the equality is the state of war (at large) and as if the inequality is hence introduced by common consent (out of indifference, general debility and regression).


By the burlesque, roguish character of these creatures, the artist evokes the image of the great beast, rising from the waters to restore order. It is also the image of the Moloch, the gruesome god, to whom peoples were wont to offer their scapegoat. Of this hybrid, unenjoyable world one could describe its disdain for everything “elevated”, for haughty are those who do not accept the fun-fair equality of the others. One does not see the senselessness of the uninspired struggle, not observing the other as an amusing equal. One continues to deny conformity and tries, paradoxically enough through the equalizing violence, to distinguish oneself. Nevertheless, the artist presently tries to remove the virulent sting from lust, as in the archetypical scene of the primitive, waggish trepanation. But people do not discard their “capacity of intelligence”, for the financial-economical order – a wheelbarrow filled with dollar bills – has taken over the task of sacrality. Nevertheless, this economy remais as ambivalent as the sacral, because it conjures violence with violence. As if exorcising the devil by the devil. The silting matter, the sombre, dirty colours, dark blue and bloody red, are an indication of the rivalry in insurmountable conflicts. Economy increasingly breaks down genuine barriers between people, amplifying and multiplying needs. A disaster, the consequences of which were exposed by the novelists of the nineteenth century, is being announced by the parodising standardization of human relations. Stendhal and Flaubert recognized that the emptiness of the mental plain – how isolated stand the buffoons and the pitiful attributes in the painting – are causing the problems of the period. Fatal imitation of fellow-creature was the source of all unhappiness and misery to the ones concerned and to the others. When oppressed man bows to a contemporary god – Hitler and Co. – the loss of refreshing authenticity is inaugurated. The grieving consequence is a restriction of the freedom of action of individuals to pre-determinated domains. To the individual this means an unacceptable curtailment of his or her freedom. The philosopher of cynical reason, Peter Sloterdijk, writes: “Carnival since long does not mean “the world topsy-turvy” anymore, but signifies a flight into the safe world of sedation, from a chronically upside-down world full of daily absurdities. Of the “bohemia” one knows it has died ultimately since Hitler, and its branches in the subcultures are impregnated with depressed mood of retreat rather than bold caprice. (…) This mutilation of bold impulses demonstrates society’s attainment of a phase of organized seriousness, walling up the playgrounds. But provocations are seldom exhausted. One tries again, time after time. Under the monotony, a grim and sharpsighted consciousness itches, situated in the wake of the tradition of satire, uniting the freedom of art, carnival and criticism into a culture, that hits the consciousness of the opponent with its irony, its reversals and its gall. In this art of slanderous, thorny informality, a plea is held for a life “sans souci”, still standing a good chance to be stronger than the stiftling power of remembrance and tradition. Where could the individual reality be better assured of its existence than in a disturbing satire; i.e. in the ironic-serious abolishment of imposed regulations. Regulations that pass themselves off a law and code in the (art-)game. These paintings closely approach the incarnation of the highly un-serious matter that life is for once. Philippe Vandenberg considers “cosmos” as something without human presence, for where man turns up, one had better speak about “chaos” and “comédie”. The cosmologist thinks he can view the whole. The revelling realist, being critical, also observes the diminutive; that which is broken to pieces. In earlier paintings, one all too eagerly saw the elevated, the ecstatic, the serious vital violence. Now the artist tells of the frittered, the crooked, the bent, miserable, also worthy of being respected and painted.


The theory of the successful work of art requires truth to resplend in harmony, beauty and originality. Nevertheless, criticism also has the opportunity to uncover truth unexpectedly in pantomime. It often observes the best of “great insight” in the farces that can be made of it. Naturally, the keepers of (art-)morals will turn into a tragedy the fact that the Hitler-cliché is still screaming itself hoarse with a hangdog face and still is dispersing swastikas between masters and slaves. Who does this unreglementary copulation really damage irrevocably? Only the naive illusions of artistic dogmatism. The artist does not have to serve the law, the nagging dogmatism? One should be able to shed ordinary convention with arrogance. A suppleness and expansion of thinking, gelling and looking can be obtained by the overturning of unconditionally ethical regulations.


These paintings appear to muddle up military, religious and sexual cynicism in a closely hammered an quick-witted would-be technique. Every painting contains enacted and created ideas, functioning as malevolent and demythifying meditations, being offensive and reflective, to the point and true. The function of waste disposal in the rundown Western ideologies transpires. World views and totalisations are denounced as dangerous delusions. As different domains cross sharply – history, art expressionism, reality, myth, actuality – every moralizing effect is annihilated. Philippe Vandenberg does not ask to yield to the seductions of some “other, holy cause”. It is a way of saying no systematically as soon as a wordly meaning occurs, not recognizing nonsense. The art and culture we once possessed, is perceived here as a whirling of propositions in chaotic shackles. Whatever demands too much of us, may be expressed likewise. In this mixed distantiating commentary, the painter leaves it to the viewer whether we are dealing with the hate-culture of this century, the inheritance of a criminal, the tale of misery of a militant nihilist, a symbolical destructiveness, a picaresque novel or with an execrated eye-witness account. Only the “salauds” still have a pretext up their sleeve.





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Originally published as:

Wim Van Mulders. “Philippe Vandenberg: Het afnemen van de schedel is kinderspel.” In Philippe Vandenberg, 2-4. Ostend: Forum Gallery, 1990.

pijl rechts
Philippe Vandenberg