Philippe Vandenberg & Berlinde De Bruyckere

Innocence is precisely: never to avoid the worst

30 June - 25 Nov 2012

‘Innocence is precisely: never to avoid the worst.’ 
This final sentence of Lettre au nègre, written in 2003 by Belgian artist Philippe Vandenberg (1952-2009), has become the title of an exhibition where Berlinde De Bruyckere (1964) engages in a dialogue with the work of this artist for whom she has great respect. In a carefully considered presentation she shows a personal selection of Vandenberg’s paintings and drawings, in combination with her own watercolors and several sculptures that have not been exhibited in Europe before.

Berlinde De Bruyckere hardly needs to be introduced as an artist. At De Pont her impressive figures in wax, appearing in two large vitrines, are a permanent part of the collection on display. The paintings and drawings of her fellow countryman Philippe Vandenberg are less known in the Netherlands. 
To Vandenberg art and life were one. This outlook determined both the strength and the dramatic quality of all his work. By the time Vandenberg finished art school in Ghent, in 1976, he was already considered a highly talented artist. In 1981 he received the Prix de la Jeune Peinture Belge, and soon after this he would be among Belgium’s most successful painters. Vandenberg was an artist who sought the connection between mind and soul. In his paintings he expressed the human condition, often referring to his political, philosophical and literary concerns. Painting was his means of coming to terms with life – with his own complex personality, with the absurdity of the world around him and with the art world, by which he was both celebrated and dismissed. 
Having made a virtuoso debut, he then renounced any display of skill. His work became, especially after 1996, increasingly austere. Vandenberg’s development is characterized by creative ruptures in which he alternated between painting figuratively and abstractly. From the mid 1990s onward, drawing began to assume increasing significance in his work. While his paintings are often searching and obdurate, thousands of his pencil drawings make up a continuum of associative, occasionally cartoonish images, in which fears and obsessions are warded off. There are also works in which language becomes image; sometimes he achieves this with a single word, other times with invoking statements. Time and again, Vandenberg questioned form and content, trying to fathom his own depths and to understand why painting was such an adventure to him. Taking risks and exposing oneself to them were the consequence of his perspective on life as an artist. In June 2009 this ended with his suicide.

Over the past year, Berlinde De Bruyckere has looked at the thousands of drawings in his studio. ‘I often discerned a part of myself in them; Philippe Vandenberg is a soulmate,’ she writes in the book in which she combines four related series of pencil drawings by Vandenberg with her own watercolors. That affinity is primarily expressed in the subject matter. Both artists deal with existential themes: with suffering, with physical and emotional pain, loneliness and vulnerability. They also share a fondness for the old masters and a familiarity with the religious visual tradition. Christian motifs such as the Cross, the Pietà and the crown of thorns take on new levels of meaning in their work.