Finding Affinity in
“La Tête aux Clous”(1994), by Philippe Vandenberg.
The Maison Rouge can always be counted on to put together daring, offbeat shows, the absolute antithesis of standard blockbusters. Its current offering is no exception. “Il Me Faut Tout Oublier” (“I Must Forget Everything”) juxtaposes the work of two Belgian artists with apparently contrasting career paths. The painter Philippe Vandenberg committed suicide in 2009 at the age of 57. The sculptress Berlinde de Bruyckere, who turns 50 this year, represented Belgium at last year’s Venice Biennale.
Despite the differences between them, the affinities between the two are strong. Both are obsessed with life’s existential cruelties.
After Vandenberg’s death, De Bruyckere went to his studio and sorted through thousands of drawings to put together a narrative that would form the basis for a dialogue. “For three years, I researched the work of Vandenberg, trying to explain my fascination with it,’’ she says in the show’s catalogue. ’’I started to look for our affinities. Within us both there is an undercurrent of vulnerability and cruelty. We have the same relationship to the human condition.”
Above all, she says, although their styles are formally far apart, she identified with Vandenberg’s visual expression of distress and despair.
Vandenberg, who was classically trained in art history, philosophy and painting, quickly veered to the dark side in his work. Drawn to the marginal and to punk culture, he filled a series of notebooks from the 1990s onward with a mix of pessimistic, graffiti-like, borderline-psychotic texts and scrawled
“Kill Them All” (2005-08), © Philippe Vandenberg.
illustrations. A recurring motif traces the silhouette of a fugitive being chased by demons or searching frenetically for an impossible absolute.
In the basement of the Maison Rouge are several small spaces where Vandenberg’s drawings are displayed – a catalogue of the perversions of the human soul: torture, bloody killings, genocide, Nazi insignia, evocations of the conflicts between Israel and Palestine, rape.
There are definite parallels with the Chapman brothers, not to mention the influence of Goya, El Greco and James Ensor.
“It’s my escape,” the artist would tell horrified spectators, according to the art critic Damien Sausset in a guide to the exhibition: “The horror I try to depict in some of my work has more to do with my own personal conflicts and struggles than with any great compassion for the human condition.”
To match the tenor of Vandenberg’s work, de Bruyckere has created seven sculptures. Using wax, wood, wool, horse skin and hair, her work has something in common with medieval polychrome wooden statuary, though its appearance is more sacrilegious than sacramental. She is known for her wax representations of the human body – suspended, crouching or prone – and of body parts (arms, torsos or feet), sometimes connected, sometimes torn apart.
Her work is concerned with metamorphosis and transformation – bodies melting into vegetal matter.
In the basement spaces, a set of drawings and watercolors is set in counterpoint to Vandenberg’s texts; erotic and unsettling, these works depict an androgynous nude with long hair transforming into a stag’s antlers: Actaeon about to be torn apart by Diana’s hounds.
In one of the main rooms, a monumental sculpture suggests two tree trunks, fused together and bandaged with rags, lying on a trestle table. Make of it what you will – tree or fragmented body; wood, flesh or bones.
If this week’s outburst of spring weather has left you feeling cheerful, this show offers the perfect antidote.
La Maison Rouge: 10, boulevard de la Bastille, 75012 Paris. Métro: Quai de la Rapée or Bastille. Tel.: 40 01 08 81. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (until 9 p.m. on Thursday). Admission: €8. Through January 12, 2014. www.lamaisonrouge.org
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