Philippe Vandenberg, Letter to the Nigger

I was a painter as I was a child, for a long time.
For lack of a mother tongue, I took up painting to formulate life’s questions and demands.
But once the questions were asked, once the demands were expressed, where to find the answers?
And I became a painter of bottlenecks. A painter of exile. A painter of great crucifixions of bottlenecks within the canvas, lacerating the skin of the beautiful painting. Am I still innocent?

And now that the knife is drawing near to our throats, that all the saying has been said – to no avail -, that holes have been ripped in the pretence of happiness, that no strategy is left to help us transcend madness, and that only imbeciles claim to be free of fear, a question emerges: ‘Are we failed painters?’
Anyway, how many understand that to paint is to depend’ on something outside oneself?

I love the niggers only, the niggers of painting.
Those who go from accident to accident. The wandering, the illiterate, the haunted, the maimed, the one-eyed, the crippled, the crocodiles in the desert.
The dazzled, the disenchanted. Those who, like trees, suffer from the rising sap but are unaware of their leaves falling.
Are we still innocent?

The nigger is innocent. He has failed to bring off his stroke. The stroke that paints comme il faut. In this sense he is a failed painter, like I am. At the right moment he stopped doing what was expected of him.
At that moment the possible had become dreadful.

Then, hard-pressed by his pictorial dyslexia, by his inability to wallow in the rich imagery
(this well-hung and somewhat tainted painting that cannot be dubbed anything but ‘peinture-peinture’), by the panicky desire of the autodidact to acquire a knowledge that he deemed necessary but that proved only obstructive, he ineluctably, from accident to accident, turned into a nigger and found himself at the edge of the abyss. The jackboot of the possible in the hollow of his back. And he jumped. He had to. With no safety net: from the cup of knowledge he leapt into the lightning flash of knowing.

After Ingres, the nude, the flesh became a load of crap.
After Soutine, the landscape, the mud: a pain in the ass.

To work is to build hypotheses (or those are where the head joins rejoins the nerves) and acknowledge, time and time again, that one was wrong. Lucidity is precisely to know that in the tragedy of existence, therefore in painting, one is born and reborn only from one’s own manifestations. There it is, solitude. The solitude of the nigger.

Desire is lack. Separation is desire.
Desire starts after blindness.
There are those who are paralysed by saying. Hamlet is lost in advance : he has already been killed, and therefore immobilised, prior to the father. Hamlet is the painter who is tyrannized by his head, unable to act and to stray. His thinking paralyses his nerves. He is a castrated painter.
Only an interaction between head and nerves allows the painter to wander in his desire, and thus to act. Hamlet finds himself in a banal, pointless solitude. He has stopped, without ever having started.
Then there are those who are deceived by the doing, like Oedipus before his blindness.
In him, action – the nerves – precluded thought, the head. That would have made him an equally bad painter. A visceral painter. But – thanks to his blindness – Oedipus the painter ends up being cast on the road to desire. At the point where Hamlet grinds to a halt, for lack of nerve, Oedipus gets on the road again with Antigone. His eyes: two blood scabs (the wound in the head). He dismisses his daughter (the guide) and continues on his way, alone in his desire, saved by the acknowledgement of his errors, of his acts. And now, wandering. A head full of nerves.
Suffering has made him accept that the thinking and the doing – the head and the nerves – can only act in concert, in no determined proportion, but both definitely playing their part.
The solitude of the nigger: Abel, the drifter, the one who moves, the victim of Cain, the unmoving.

And the anxiety? Is it not the proper sign of being on the road to one’s desire? The painter’s anxiety is proof that the painting may emerge unexpectedly.
The nigger’s anxiety shines forth. To let himself be blinded by it would be his loss.

I neither will nor can understand. Understanding – if one can possibly convince oneself of having understood – is nothing but a feeling of satisfaction. Make-believe. Above all, one must not understand a painting; it would be self-annihilation. Moreover, the obverse of the canvas, its behind, its backside, is always melancholy.
Melancholy is unfathomable. It is.

A canvas is delirium on a blank surface. All delirium is a labour – incredible – trying to reconstruct oneself, to invent for oneself a semblance of unity, to prove to oneself that one is whole. It is a task that is never completed, never finished; and it takes courage to concede: ‘We are in pieces’. After the separation, solitude begins. The nigger has gone as far as separating himself from himself. What else is there to paint but the sublimation of the lack? It’ll do. Simplicity is demanding: excess is forbidden.
To achieve simplicity is the worst of desires.

What to do? What is there left to do? Scrutinize, nothing but scrutinize. But scrutinize what?
The skin. The obsessive fear of what goes on beneath the skin of the painting.
Scrutinize the invisible yet dazzling presence behind the matter of the painting. And thereby, to reach an understanding with time. Fill the waiting time. Here a man’s life, a painter’s life, does not count. It is merely the price for the work, if and when it is achieved!
The painter is left with just the splendour of misery. Beautiful misery. Exalted fragility. The wound turned into light. But also : the return to Godot.

Man did not see himself as man until he painted himself. The nigger paints himself.
He also paints the other. But this is no different; the other is always just himself, the other is always me.
A portrait? No. Also the portrait is a lie, a contract. A norm. A whore. Every norm implies killing what it excludes.

That leaves the icon. The image of the whole self, which is the whole other.
One’s own image (the little nigger’s mug, Philippe’s little mug, Jesus’ little mug) that becomes the mirror of the inhuman condition in its infinite splendour.
A painting is always a reflection, a potential reflection offered to those who are available, to those who dare to scrutinize and wait.

Only tragedy is worth painting and the icon is the image of tragedy in its incomprehensible simplicity. Reflection, a potential consolation.
To enter the icon is to find refuge in the ruin.
Man who has painted himself, who has seen himself painted, can neither live nor die without facing the icon, without being present in the icon.
And that is what the nigger offers. The artist priest, monk. He sacrifices himself and the offering follows, staggering. A question of generosity.

What I am looking for in painting, in a painting, is a witness on the way of my desire. The icon is my witness, sometimes my testimony.
What nourishes me in my search is astonishment; and I can find it only beyond the limits of the possible, outside the dreadful ennui of the possible, outside the norm of what can be done. Once more: homogenization is a deathblow, and the norms never accept chance.

Man is capable of repetition only. Not only is the everyday (how painful it is to remain lucid in one’s quagmire!) in its endless rosary of acts that are impossible to cancel, merely an infinite repetition of death, but life itself, bracketed by death, does nothing but repeat itself.
Well then, unless it deteriorates into a habit, repetition is always new. Each icon, each repeated icon must be new. Each canvas that the nigger paints must be a new repetition. Each stone that blind Oedipus bumps into will be new, even if it has been there all through the mists of time.

The painter has no choice. The painter must come to terms with time.
No choice is possible. A painter does not choose his canvas, it is the canvas that chooses the painter. Unknown to him, the icon comes to him.
‘How to recognize it?’ is the terrifying question that the painter then asks himself, biting his fingers and brushes.
The waiting. That is where the painter must come to terms with time. It is a pressing problem.
A matter of urgency. The painting cares nothing for time and time takes revenge on the painter.
A single icon may easily cost a painter’s life.

An angel on the road: chance.
Not an easy matter, chance. We do not know it. It is an angel with a dog’s head and it offers the painter its immense basket to pick from. Plenty of choice!
Beware, nigger, make the right choice: the gift of chance that will help you to make repetition new.

So, nigger, when I think of you, I think of your canvases. The canvases finished, painted in the meantime. Meaning: painted in between the time that is stolen from you by the system and its yoke of responsibilities that we do not give a damn about, but that are present – ineluctably – because life always imposes itself through useless catastrophes of the everyday to be lived through.
I know – I know you – that you paint in spite of, rather than because of the catastrophes that surround you and will never let you go.
And this is the right attitude indeed: one has to paint the tragedy not because of, but in spite of.
Take Saint Anthony, even him: his solitude in the desert is surrounded by or amid a crowd.

I think of your canvases where my soul astride my eye plunges into yours and into everybody’s, where I enter into your mirror never to return. For after the encounter (of a witness?) nothing is like it was before. And – to return to it once more, a thousand times, a hundred thousand times, until death steps in – only astonishment warrants the encounter and chance is its fabric.
But here is another disenchanting and splendid observation that touches the bottom of the swamp that lies perpetually in wait in man: what one desires is also and always what wobbles, what is defective in the other.
The encounter in the lack. The mirror, always the mirror, always the reflection. Your canvases are proof of my innocence.

And to get rid of the norm, I write: if the painter has foresight, he cannot have sight.
What strikes and delights when reading your work, is that it is precisely you, the obsessive, the neurotic of order, always lying in wait for a structure established prior to the havoc that is the act of painting, you the dunce of academic study, the fanatical searcher for points of reference, the builder of stupefying norms that cannot but keep you pinned, in spite of all this you, that it is precisely you whom beautiful chance has chosen to keep company with, bringing along the accidental, the unforeseen, the uncontrollable, all of which save you.

There you are, in your blocked up innocence, invited to pick from chance’s big basket that radiant something to make your canvases shine with truth.
Mundanely put: they provide shelter for other niggers, niggers like me. In spite of yourself, magic has slipped in between the hairs of your brush.
You have learnt – and it has deprived you of almost everything a man assembles in order to be considered a man – to be absent without having to move from your chair, journeying.
But all of you is there nonetheless. Chance calls on the innocent only. I know. I am one of them (only the guilty can write this).

Howling in anger does not help. Waiting will do. But waiting wears out the waiter. Waiting is the uninterrupted tension in which nobody can see you anymore.
It is the gnawing of the absolute void. Solitude always. And then occasionally, at the end of your tether, when the catastrophe becomes unbearable to the point that you would like to end it all, at times, when the urgency might crush you like a hairy fly on the window pane (view on Eden), occasionally, the painting comes, the icon, like a woman on a visit. Unannounced, she knocks at the door. You had better be there. Present, ready. Flies zipped up and key at hand.

Solitude is to manufacture waiting. Just in case.
The soul lies in patience. The possible is dreadful.
Injure your painting, its wound will heal me.
Innocence is precisely: never to avoid the worst.


Paris, May 2003

Letter to the Nigger, published in Philippe Vandenberg “L’important c’est le kamikaze”: Œuvre 2000-2006, 143-151. Charleville-Mézières: Musée Arthur Rimbaud; Ghent: On-Line, 2006.

Original edition: Philippe Vandenberg, La lettre au nègre, Exil de peintre, Ergo Pers, Ghent, 2003.
Brief aan de neger, Dutch text, translated by Joost Beerten.


 La lettre au nègre, Les frères Zarakoff (2004)




La Lettre au Nègre is the second part of the trilogy devoted to Philippe Vandenberg by the filmmakers Guillaume Vandenberghe, son of the artist, and Raphaël Kolacz.

Directors: Guillaume Vandenberghe, Raphaël Kolacz
Voice: François Beukelaers
Music: Thomas Smetryns
Piano: Daan Vande Walle
Sound: Alexandre Davidson
Production: Les frères Zarakoff Zarakoff Brothers
Colour 9 '





On 11 December 2003, Exil de peintre (Painter's Exile) opened at the Caemersklooster in Ghent, an exhibition based on the publication of the same name by Ergo Pers, a book containing 64 etchings [1] and an unpublished text La lettre au nègre (Letter to the Nigger) by Philippe Vandenberg[2].

Exil de peintre is created by Philipe Vandenberg, Henri Hemelsoet and Rein Ergo.



Small selection

Philippe Vandenberg, Saint-John's Drawings, 2008

Philippe Vandenberg in Main d'oeuvre

Philippe Vandenberg. L'important c'est le kamikaze | Oeuvre 2000-2006. Musée Arthur Rimbaud, ON LINE vzw, 2006

Bernard Gaube. L’exercice d’une peinture. Cahier n° 1. Bruxelles 2003. Hier verscheen de eerste tekstversie van wat later La Lettre au Nègre werd in Exil de peintre (Ergo Pers, 2004).

Philippe Vandenberg. Oeuvre 1995-1999. Antwerpen : MUHKA - MUseum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, 1999

Een mooie tekst over zijn werk verscheen ook in Ons erfdeel, Yella Arnouts, Het laatste voor de dood. Philippe Vandenberg (1952 – 2009).

Willem Elias, In Memoriam Philippe Vandenberg, Vakgroep Educatiewetenschappen (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) | uvv -

Ludo Bekkers, Het avontuur van het schilderen. Over het oeuvre van Philippe Vandenberg | Ons Erfdeel, jaargang 39 (1996) , p. 575 |




Exil de peintre in Main d'oeuvre, 2015

Exil de peintre en Débris in Main d'oeuvre, 2015



Philippe Vandenberg, Exil de peintre, in Bernard Gaube.  L'exercice d'une peinture. CAHIER N°1, Bernard Gaube auteur-éditeur, Bruxelles, 2003

[1] The etchings in Painter's Exile were made in the print shop of Henri Hemelsoet, a master printer and enthusiastic collaborator of Ergo Pers since 1999. For Rein Ergo, he has produced series of etchings by Roger Raveel, Dan Van Severen, Jürgen Partenheimer, Johan Tahon, Carole Vanderlinden, Jean-Marie Bytebier, Karel Dierickx, Pierre Alechinsky, Philippe Vandenberg, Mario De Brabandere and many others.
[2] The text La Lettre au nègre was first published in Exil de peintre (Ergo Pers, 2003), but a similar text Lettre au nègre had already appeared as an accompanying text to works by the painter Bernard Gaube. After the publication of this cahier, Vandenberg realised that he had actually written about himself, and decided to include the text in Exil de Peintre.
[Francis Carrette, Philippe Crismer, Aldo Guillaume Turin, Philippe Vandenbergh, Bernard Gaube.  L'exercice d'une peinture. CAHIER N°1, Bernard Gaube auteur-éditeur, Bruxelles, 2003].