I went to an evening talk which provided the opportunity to see the show, Crossing the Circle, and learn more about this Belgian artist, who was new to me.
The panel was his daughter, Helene Vandenberg, in conversation with Mary Doyle, co-founder of Drawing Room, and Jo Applin, an art historian and artist. Philippe Vandenberg was a leading painter in Belgium in the 1980s and 90s,who also drew obsessively. His daughter related that he had an early memory of being under a table, drawing and seeing only the legs of his parents as they argues. He saw drawing as a form of resistance to them and to the world. She said that he drew at home, in the dining room, with the children playing around him. But painting was something else: difficult, dirty and reserved for the studio. In fact, while she saw him draw every day, she had never seen him paint.
I always find the story of an artist’s real life, so to speak, interesting: in this case, his rather short life, the vicissitudes of his career, his approach of working a motif to the point of exhaustion and his children’s work in preserving his legacy and encouraging other artists to work with it.
But I found the show underwhelming. I had been to the Jerwood the same afternoon. Against that background, these drawings seemed quite provisional, which to judge from the talk they were. They weren’t generally straightforward sketches or studies for paintings, but I don’t think he intended to show them in their own right either. They were ‘drawings of an idea’, done just for him. But that doesn’t necessarily make for a strong show. It felt a bit like an extended sketchbook, but as a viewer I felt I wanted to be able to rifle through the pages myself, rather than have a few selected and presented to me.
The most dramatic and successful as single pieces were these two earlier works, featuring motifs which recurred throughout his life, the circle and the cross. The cross, perhaps derived from his Catholic upbringing, comes to stand for the person and is transformed sometimes into a swastika – both the Hindu symbol of peace version and the Nazi version.