Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (M HKA / Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Philippe Vandenberg - 2009 - Getuige ten laste [NL, interview]
Interview , 5 p.


Hans Theys

Witness for the Prosecution (Témoin à charge)
Some words by Philippe Vandenberg

Kiefer’s skis

Philippe Vandenberg: I am currently dealing with the most ungrateful job: packing and preparing paintings for a journey. Very annoying… Apart from painting and drawing nothing interests me really. I’m not good at it either… this packing business. So it frightens me. But I will be all right. 

What shall we talk about? As you see, I live among my paintings and drawings. My whole life unfolds here. And yet, I don’t call myself an artist. I consider myself more of a… témoin à charge. ‘A burdening witness’: a lovely term in French for a witness for the prosecution. I find it a nicer term than artist. “Artist” makes me think of “artificial”. So not that interesting… What absolutely keeps me alive is mobility. The mobility in what I do. In my drawings, in my paintings. And also in the grumbling about it, actually.

- Which paintings are you going to ship?

I will be exhibiting at a gallery in The Hague, and they have made a selection from the entire oeuvre. One of the few benefits of getting older – I am now fifty-six – is the fact that after a while an oeuvre comes into being. Initially there are individual drawings and paintings but after thirty years, they start to constitute an oeuvre. An oeuvre comes into being all by itself. It’s fantastic that you can bring together paintings from twenty years ago with works you painted yesterday… without any hesitation. It’s like bringing together legitimate and illegitimate children.

So the first thing I want to say today is: not being an artist but a témoin à charge and the second thing is: mobility. Mobile, mobile, mobile.

This is why my works at times appear to be playing or fighting with each other. Abstraction or figuration, it makes absolutely no difference to me. Compare for example this recent so-called abstract, black painting with this figurative one from three or four years ago. They’re about the same thing. They’re attempts. It’s not about a theme. It’s about an attempt. I am just trying. I don’t feel like I’m making something, like I’m creating something. I am just trying to do something that can push me through life. Ultimately there is only one problem: getting through every single day. On the other hand, there is a common thread in my work. It’s a common thread that carries a melancholy tone. Mother Why do We Live? That’s it. The paintings are themselves… I don’t think they are dramatic, but they have a tragic undercurrent. Life is not a drama. It is a tragedy.

I use everything that I can use, everything that I find. I find lots of things on the street. Like panels or parts of old cupboards. And since there are lots of poor Moroccans living in this neighborhood, you can find a lot on the street… When I get bored with the cupboards, I return to the canvas. I try to keep mobile with my materials as well. My basic material is paint. But paint can be lots of things. Blood is paint and so is liquid chocolate. Tar is also paint. In the end, everything is possible. But it has to stick to the canvas. That is not always the case. Sometimes Kiefer’s skis drop from the paintings. But then they glue them back on.


One talks about truth and reality, but these are mere concepts. For me, truth and reality do not exist.

I always write the title on the back of the painting because I find it very rude to write your name on the front side… The title tends to be a problem. On this painting, the image consists of words. ‘Kill the Dog Today’. So I will call it ‘Untitled’… Does the music bother you?  

- It does.

I also have to date the work. This work developed over a longer period. It started with a frame that I found on the street. Maybe the painting already started that very day. That was one year ago.      
    This is a painting from 1996. It came into being after a very serious depression. I had become unable to work with paint and accidently I came up with the idea to use blood. A drop of blood had fallen on a piece of paper… From then on there was a sort of transitional period during which I started using materials like blood, hair and skin. And when that in turn became a habit, and I started getting immobile again, I gradually returned to working with paint.
    This is a piece about sacrifice. I grew up with the crucifixion. I was raised by Catholics. The crucifixion and the sacrifice have always fascinated me. The crucifixion is also the first image I saw as a child. People nailed to the cross. It has never left me since. In a way, this is what all of my attempts are about. Although I am horrified by this image, I think it’s the best image to show how people are and what they do to themselves and to others. Il n’y a pas d’art heureux. There is no happy art. Like Brassens said: ‘Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux’, there is no happy love.
    This painting is called:  Sur la faculté d’être lièvre et le poids de sa consequence (About the capacity to be a hare and the weight of its consequence). It’s very trivial to gain pleasure from pain and its depiction. A painter who does not enjoy creating his art cannot create good art. The most gruesome and dramatic works have been created with lots of pleasure. I think Bosch would have loved to paint even more gruesome tableaux. Ultimately you can’t make anything without pleasure, nothing decent at least. It’s a strange thought that all those suffering Christs and Saint-Sebastians have given so much pleasure to their makers.

Black Milk in the Morning 

Drawing is the greatest gift the good fairy has bestowed on me. The rest has not been all that great. To be able to take the entire universe: every, every, every single thing, including eternity even, and the cosmos, and to condense it on a tiny square with a pencil and a small piece of paper… I find that truly beautiful. Indeed, I have no other words for it. It’s fascinating that you can sit down by the side of the road, or on the train, or in your studio, and then do something, and something comes out of it: a text, a scene or another crucifixion. And you see things everywhere. You see something in the street and the next week you draw it. Take for instance these geese. I don’t have a goose, but I recently heard one scream. It was being slaughtered. And then it entered my drawings. It’s actually pretty simple.  It’s also quite strange and contradictory. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it doesn’t have to work. I don’t make a big deal out that.

- “Black Milk in the Morning.” Paul Celan.

Yes, magnificent. It’s one of the most beautiful lines of poetry.
    It’s of course impossible to be optimistic. But that cannot spoil the party.
    Dieu ronfle…I have quite a few friends who are now in their fifties, and have arrived at a sort of crisis of faith. When you’re fifty, you’ve seen so many people perish that you start to believe again. For me, God’s existence is just a fact. But it’s an absent God. And he is not in the least concerned with us. That’s OK for me. I can easily be reconciled with the notion of God. I can even consider myself religious. But I believe in a God who has nothing to do with us.  He is not there. He exists, but he is not there. And he is not very helpful either.

- Gerard Reve wrote that God is very lonely and wants us to comfort him.

God must also be very bored, I think. That is something we have in common. I think boredom can function as a driving force to do something. It is a kind of latent masochism.

- Boredom, is that not fear? We call it boredom, but it’s fear to do nothing, to take a rest, to enjoy oneself.

Fear is mostly considered to be a negative thing. I don’t find fear negative at all. A healthy dose of fear brings us into motion. It makes us run away if we find ourselves in a difficult situation. But if it paralyzes us, we’re done. No, fear is not necessarily negative.

- Boredom isn’t either…

No, as you say, they’re linked. Twin sisters perhaps. But fear is something with which you can make a deal. You allow it or you don’t. On the other hand, it’s hard to run away from fear. Like many of us, I have tried it by using substances. To no avail. It only makes fear more negative and more threatening. It’s better to accept it. “Ok you are here, but so am I. You can’t manage without me, but I can’t manage without you either.” You can always make a deal…
    What fascinates me is that the noise of an image is inaudible…An image doesn’t make a sound. I’m very fond of silence. I don’t like things that produce noise. It’s less exhausting… than a symphony. When I hear one of his long symphonies on the public radio, I always wonder what Wagner must have felt when he composed them. I’m fond of rapidity…

Reviens Adolphe, on t’aime

I paint pretty fast. In a lot of rapid phases. I am not the sort of painter who tortures himself for hours to get the painting into a good position. If the painting won’t collaborate, I will say “OK” and put it aside and finish it later. “Delay of execution” is a wonderful tradition. It’s strange because this way, there are always things that surface unexpectedly. For example, the last drawing I made about welcoming Hitler: Reviens Adolphe, on t’aime. I made it in Paris a couple of weeks ago and continued working on it in this studio. On a piece of paper with bloodstains and phone numbers. It was probably about Putin or others of his kind. That is my duty as témoin à charge. The Olympic Games in China, for example. Very interesting.
    I think we need to be alert. To survive. But also: L’oeil intranquil…How did Pessoa put it?

-  “L’intranquilité.” Restlessness.

That’s it: the restless eye. Years ago, I was working on a painting when I heard on the radio that a certain gangster had been shot in a forest near a Dutch city. I was painting two landscapes… and then the gangster drove into the painting and got shot… Everything can be useful. Everything is at the same time very trivial and very useful…Take these old books… This is one of my Eskimo-books. We were suffering from an extremely cold winter… In Brussels… And then this Eskimo element in me popped up… A beautiful documentary: Nanook of the North…What inspires us more than television? If you watch the BBC, of course… or ARTE… Because otherwise you start thinking that Flanders is the center of the universe.
    Above all, the atrocity of the media resides in the mixture of the comic and the inhumane. It’s fascinating to see how people cope with this. Without being disturbed, they apprehend that once again 150 Palestinians have been shot because the day before one Israeli has been killed. And we always have to create a balance, haven’t we?

Van Gogh has made a very claustrophobic painting of prisoners circling on a courtyard. It’s a terrible painting… Terrible… I made a parody of it… I changed the prisoners into cardboard boxes… It’s weird…
    I think Van Gogh is generally misunderstood. He is not who they suppose him to be… His sunflowers are not merry, are they? They’re very tragic. Their heads hang like the head of Christ… With petals like razorblades… And his shoes… Painful… And yet his work is received with great joy… I think he was a great “témoin à charge”. Just think about his letters…

Montagne de Miel, 6 January 2009