Philippe Vandenberg in his studio in Molenbeek, 2008 © Wouter Cox
RADAR

WHO IS PHILIPPE VANDENBERG?

The artist who resists

The Belgian artist Philippe Vandenberg (1952-2009) was a man of many faces: he drew, painted and played with word and image. Keep moving and take risks to challenge artistic and social orders: that was his credo. The vagabond moved from Ghent to Molenbeek in 2006. We are exhibiting his work from this Brussels period from 17 September in BOZAR. Who was this radical Belgian artist? A brief introduction.

Philippe Vandenberg, Untitled, 2008, Pastel on paper, 85 x 100 cm
Philippe Vandenberg, Untitled, 2008, Pastel on paper, 85 x 100 cm

Revolt against brutality  

“In the way he operates, the artist is similar to the terrorist. He destroys things. He puts things in their place. He’s busy throwing spanners in the works to achieve a new order. You can only create a new picture by destroying the rest.” – Philippe Vandenberg

As a child, Philippe Vandenberg was obsessed with the art of Hieronymus Bosch and James Ensor. He felt a strong affinity for artists who prodded society’s conscience. Vandenberg also started drawing, and later painting, to find order in the encroaching chaos beyond the page. He kept doing this all his life: “representing reality ‘as a revolt against brutality’”. The artists’ paintings and drawings depict man’s battle with himself and others, but always with a sense of humour. By combining the comical with the inhuman, Vandenberg makes the horror tangible.    

 

Mobile notes

“Mobile notes. Sometimes it comes. Simplicity. No time for frills. But it has to be there: quickly stepping on reality’s tail and trapping it within the four boundaries of the page and that one moment, just before it escapes (…)” - Philippe Vandenberg

To Vandenberg, painting and drawing were equivalent disciplines. He drew almost obsessively. More than an art form, drawing to him was “the element that makes it possible to live, to process things, to record”. He kept a sketchbook of his daily walks through Molenbeek: the Molenbeek drawings. Incidents like a fight or a break-in at his studio are reduced to a few lines “L’anecdote était devenue métaphore”: the anecdote became metaphor.

 

Philippe Vandenberg, ca. 2008, Watercolour, felt-tip pen, coloured pencil, pencil and tape on paper, 59 x 82.5 cm
Philippe Vandenberg, ca. 2008, Watercolour, felt-tip pen, coloured pencil, pencil and tape on paper, 59 x 82.5 cm

“Reviens Adolphe on t’aime!”

“The world is an amusement arcade (and God runs the shooting gallery).”
– Philippe Vandenberg

“Come back, Adolf, we love you!” Vandenberg provokes and compels us to reflect. His work first draws us in with bright colours and cartoonish figures, then confronts us later with racism, violence and the abuse of power. Conflicts from every continent and era pop up in his drawings. In the sketchbook Les Flandres, terre des peintres, de coureurs cyclistes et de suicidés the figure of Hitler steps into an imaginary Molenbeek. Resistance fighters rise up in revolt and terrorists march through the streets. In ironic fashion, he connects conflicts from other parts of the world and time periods to the Molenbeek of his era, as a critique of the abuse of power, racism and violence. 

 

Untitled (Russie-Georgie 1-0 [Russia-Georgia 1-0]) (from the book Les Flandres, terre de peintres, de coureurs cyclistes et de suicidés [Flanders, land of painters, cyclists and suicides]), 2008, Watercolour, coloured pencil and pencil on paper, 42 x 29.7 cm
Untitled (Russie-Georgie 1-0 [Russia-Georgia 1-0]) (from the book Les Flandres, terre de peintres, de coureurs cyclistes et de suicidés [Flanders, land of painters, cyclists and suicides]), 2008, Watercolour, coloured pencil and pencil on paper, 42 x 29.7 cm

Témoin à charge

“I see myself as ‘un témoin à charge’, as they put it so beautifully in French: a witness for the prosecution.”

From 2006 until his death, Vandenberg worked in Molenbeek. He walked around the district for hours on end, drank coffee with local residents and visited neighbours. In this way, he discovered the faultlines that divided the district. As a témoin à charge, he felt compelled to report on its metropolitan dynamics and its problems, at the same time. On the streets, he collected paper objects that he painted in bright colours. These objets trouvés are literal pieces of Molenbeek, where its beauty and ugliness go hand in hand.

 

The children of Philippe Vandenberg, Guillaume, Hélène and Mo (from left to right), in his studio in Molenbeek, Brussels, 2016. © Joke Floreal
The children of Philippe Vandenberg, Guillaume, Hélène and Mo (from left to right), in his studio in Molenbeek, Brussels, 2016. © Joke Floreal

Philippe Vandenberg Foundation

Following his death in 2009, Philippe Vandenberg’s three children founded the Philippe Vandenberg Foundation. Always focused on the critical appreciation of his work, the Foundation looks after Vandenberg’s works of art and his studio, and supports art-historical research. It shares its expertise for exhibitions and publications and in doing so, enables new interpretations of his work. His studio in Molenbeek, where art students, curators, researchers and artists meet, is a continuous source of inspiration. You can still book a visit to his studio. BOZAR worked closely with the Foundation for the exhibition Philippe Vandenberg. Molenbeek. Come and discover the Molenbeek years until 3 January 2021!

See also