© Wolfgang Osterheld

Serge Vandercam, born 30th March 1924 in Copenhagen and died 10th March 2005 in Wavre, was a Belgian photographer, painter and sculptor. He often appears in the overview of the informal research of the immediate post-war era – as much in the international spectrum as in the will to promote a new Belgian artistic scene. His body of work is multi-faceted and frees itself with a liberation of movement and experimental research. Initiated to photography since 1942, he has deconstructed reality. Through the image, he goes from representation to dream and from contemplation to individual expression. As the war ends, he delves into subjective photography and arouses his curiosity. The man captures aggressive curves, dominant lines and deserted landscapes. He observes and creates a vision that is accentuated with poetry. Far from the concrete theories and appearances, Vandercam recognizes himself in Cobra’s discourse: “My first real artistic emotions as an adult came from the Surrealist movement and Cobra. Cobra can be defined by the non-specialisation”[1]. Introduced by Christian Dotremont, the seventh issue of the eponymous magazine marks his adhesion to the group by publishing one of his pictures: L’escalier. His work overthrew the conventional practices and joined forces with the Surrealist actions.

Serge Vandercam befriends Christian Dotremont. Together, they accomplish a series of projects that are all infused with the idea of transforming the poetic language. They reconnect with nature and develop works that are filled with matiérist fantasising [2]. The artist dives into the heart of research, going from observation to experimentation. He fiddles with the photographic material, covers negatives with Chinese ink, cuts and diverts his proofs in a spontaneous impulse. The period of the Photogrammes sees Vandercam develop his vision of the world. In 1950, Christian Dotremont organises the Les développements de l’œil exhibition, about the photography of Raoul Ubac, Roland d’Ursel and Serge Vandercam at the Saint Laurent gallery in Brussels.

The year 1952 will prove to be a turning point when Roger Van Gindertael, director of the Art d’Aujourd’hui magazine, commissions him to shoot portraits of contemporary artists in order to illustrate the book Témoignage pour l’art abstrait [3]. As he meets these painters, the photographer’s desire to go beyond the artistic borders becomes clearer. From an organic vision to the matiérist procedures, he defines himself at the centre of a free abstraction. For two years, he will develop his pictorial practice and find himself through the repetition of movement.

Following the Taptoe adventure (1955-1956), Vandercam’s involvement with writing grows. He joins forces with several writers and poets, with whom he creates his first “word-paintings”, which pursue the tradition of the artistic collaborations advocated by Cobra a few years earlier. The artist evolves within a literary avant-garde where collaborations are a given. Joseph Noiret, Théodore Koenig, Hugo Claus, Jean Dypréau, Christian Dotremont, Marcel Broodthaers, Marcel Lecomte, or even Gabriel and Marcel Picqueray are some of the names he has collaborated with. Having become friends, they meet around art magazines like Phantomas[4] or, later on, Plus +[5].

In 1956, the artist is granted the Jeune Peinture Belge award. Inspired by his rebellious spirit, he covers the mining disaster of Marcinelle and uses his canvas to scream. His anger turns into expression and is confirmed by movement. Composition rouge will grant him his first recognition. Following this award, Vandercam will express his need of extraterritoriality. The artist doesn’t recognise himself in the Belgian avant-garde and Taptoe’s failure, as well as his rising fame, will become synonyms of a fracture.

The following year, the journalist André Falck commissions a film about Turkey. Intended for the show Explorations du monde, this film allows him to go back to his roots [6]. A return to his sources, carried by images of nature. Accompanied by Reinhoud and Rick Kessels, this journey will inspire a series of canvases combining mystery and lyricism within the same thought. Fascinated by the coats of the Whirling Dervishes, he synthesises rhythm and improvisation in order to achieve the liberation of movement.

During the summer of 1958, Serge Vandercam receives an advertising commission for a textile manufacturer: a picture of a cotton plant [7]. This flower, which only grows on peaty ground, becomes a pretext to a poetic adventure that lies at the heart of the Fange [8]. From this Turkish ritual, comes a graphic assertiveness, which tries to find new structures in substance. When Vandercam returns to Brussels, he is marked with this primitive memory. Drawing now appears to be a dreamlike spin-off that allows him to revive his original visions. The man plays on texture effects and different shades of light. This first series, called Fagnes, will lead to another experimentation field: the Coupe-feu series. This theme allows the artist to depict the abundance of forests, burned trees, the violence of fire. In this direction, Serge Vandercam finds an ally in Christian Dotremont with whom he can extend the Fange experience [9]. From there on, mud and muddiness vibrate to the rhythm of their artistic sessions.

The year 1958 is prolific in terms of artistic production. Other collaborations spring from the chaos unveiled by the Fagnes universe: the shared paintings. Vandercam shows that he doesn’t limit himself to the interactions with Dotremont. As explained previously, the artist gets involved and creates decisive relationships, whether in the Surrealist circle, in Cobra or Taptoe. The emergence of these paintings matches the idea of breaking down the walls between disciplines. With Taptoe, he had gotten closer to a literary avant-garde. Now, his creations become thoughts in action. As he gets in touch with poets, Vandercam finds the way to express his anger by bursting words and in the violence of movement. In this direction and intention, Jean Dypréau will prove to be a substantial ally.

The period from 1959 to 1964 will be that of a path towards a new form of expression: ceramics. Vandercam goes from one medium to another. Photography had offered Vandercam a vocabulary that can be abundantly found in his pictorial productions, like the rise of shapes, the superimposition of surfaces, the importance of light and its organic approach.

This overflow of artistic practices is favourable to new experiments. The sensation of the matter he applies onto his canvases or in the poetic imaginary of the Fagnes reaches its climax. In Italy, Vandercam doesn’t waste a minute. In touch with many artists, he reaches a new milestone, seizes the matter and discovers techniques that he will use until the end of his career. He pursues the experiment of the Fagnes and makes a series of enamelled blue, red, green and multicoloured ceramics; these pieces go beyond ornament and depiction. He isn’t transcribing a fantastic bestiary but a destructured and agitated oeuvre. These polyvalent ceramics unveil the violence they have gone through. Tortured, the shapes bear blanks, gaping holes. The artist invites the viewer to dive into the depths of clay to absolve his visions.

The La mer et les racines series is the result of Vandercam’s wanderings. During his long walks on the Albisola beach, the artist collects organic elements, branches and roots [10]. Compelled by their shapes, he brings them back into his studio to turn them into tools [11]. The paintbrush is left aside to give way to a piling up of supple branches [12]. Once they have been assembled, they allow for a wide and energetic projection of the pictorial matter. Crushed against the base, the paste creates a network of lines, stains and dots that inspire a poetic imaginary. Serge Vandercam will often renew this practice but will never turn it into a procedure. From the beginning, La mer et les racines asserts itself both in painting and in ceramics. The man validates this initial interaction and gives a common name to these works. Whether they come from the earth, whether they are roots or whether they stretch onto the canvas, they all belong to the same corpus. They complete each other and create a dialogue, an interaction.

In 1962, just as the artist reaches the climax of his informal practice, Asger Jorn offers him a commission from a Danish industrial [13]. The artist accepts and, joined by Toyo Fuku and Enrico Castelliani, head to Denmark. During a visit of the Silkeborg museum, Vandercam is faced with a vision that will overwhelm him for the rest of his life: the excavated corpse of the Tollund Man [14]. Following the vision, Vandercam develops a poetic universe that will resonate through different supports. “Curved, he waits for justice to be served to what he used to be” [15]. Vandercam will return this justice as soon as he is back in Albisola. The artist starts transposing his visions into paintings, ceramics and, later on as we will see, through the association of superimposed papers. Just like La mer et les racines, he confers different interactions to his theme. Death appears in his work and transfers an anxiety [16]. He isn’t depicting the Tollund Man – he is representing him. He is not a reproduced image, but a reanimated memory.

The artist moves from Italy to Belgium. In Brussels, he will extend the experience of the chromatic interlacing of La mer et les racines with Hugo Claus. Together, they will immerse themselves in a new series: Le Radeau de la Méduse (fig)[17]. A subtle wash drawing appears under these monochrome projections, as well as many human figures. This is Vandercam’s return to form. The Tollund Man still obsesses him and he shares this with the Flemish painter [18]. From the start, he is integrated in the universe of the Jutland peat bogs and testifies about this sacrifice with great strength. Impacted by these primitive visions, Claus writes a poem that will serve as preface to the Tollund Man exhibition catalogue. The event, which took place at the Delta gallery in Rotterdam in 1963, unveils the way in which Vandercam transcribed these primitive visions [19]. Thanks to his encounter with the Jutland corpse, this tormented soul opened him to a wide universe that has room for many other haunted beings. Without barriers, they are free to express their anxieties both in painting and in ceramics. They complete each other and interact in an infinite way.

After four years spent in Italy, just as he is starting to gain an artistic visibility, Serge Vandercam decides to permanently settle back in Belgium. He buys a house in the Walloon Brabant, in order to look after his mother [20]. In this house, located in Bierges, the artist sets up a workshop, which will be a place dedicated to research until the rest of his life. Many works will come out of it, among which an eponymous series: Les Ateliers. The introduction of representation in his work is about to reach its climax. But before that, the human face asserts itself and goes from being an anxious form to the ghost of his buried visions. The Tollund Man’s corpse had offered, a few years before, a mortuary and tortured vocabulary that one can abundantly find in his paintings.

New experiments spring from these tangents. Vandercam introduces latent characters. From the very depths of the workshop, these beings stare at whomever notices them. Perspective comes into the picture and offers an animated theatre. These ghostly creatures multiply and take ownership of the space. Vandercam isn’t alone anymore. La sculpture dans l’atelier, 1970, presents many fanciful beings. Some blend into the workshop’s walls, others emerge from the matter like the Femme brûlée. All these visions obsess the artist. A new vocabulary comes into shape: stretched arms, crying characters, luminous beings, open mouths, distorted bodies and torn shapes.

For more than ten years, Miko Orlandini will be Vandercam’s accomplice. Just like the potters of the San Giorgio factory in Albisola, he will create many starting points of this bestiary for him [21]. For example, he contributes to the birth of the shapes used in Ethnographie in 1971 [22], a series of works springing from an interaction between Serge Vandercam and the poet Jacques Meuris.

His representation works being done and over; Oizal becomes synonymous with a break. A new dawn that, just like the workshop’s ghostly creatures, obsesses Vandercam’s artistic practice. Oizal sur fond jaune presents this fanciful being next to ghostly creatures. Freed from the pictorial space, the bestiary’s boundaries are brought down and take ownership of the space. An enamelled ceramic of 1968 transcribes this claim by asserting the shape’s poetic intentions – a faraway place, expressed by the myth [23]. These Oizals become the premises of an anxious expression [24]. They are the translation of birds singing.

In 1977, he makes his first stone sculptures. Softness gives way to hardness and offers a breath of fresh air to the artist’s imagination – something confirmed by his Aries star sign.

Five years later, Thérèse Lebrun will replace Miko Orlandini [25]. A student of his, she will go to the Bierges studio with her materials and, throughout several sessions, extends the teachings of her mentor. Vandercam asks her to make the basis of his pot shots. In order to achieve a precise interaction between with pictorial work and ceramics, the artist invites her to discover his artistic universe. He shows her the Oizals, the ghosts of L’Atelier, but also the Albisola works as well as the Tollund Man [26]. Marked by these visions, the ceramicist repeats his movement, and knows the artist’s expectations.

On several occasions, Vandercam is involved in the Belgian literary avant-garde. As explained earlier, he takes part in and contributes heavily to the Phantomas magazine [27]. Within this collaboration, he establishes important relationships and is surrounded by a confirmed artistic elite. He maintains a network of correspondences and interviews with his peers [28]. Bierges becomes an artistic hub, a place where artistic creation is associated to old friendships. Joseph Noiret, Virtus Shade, François Jacqmin, Hugo Claus, Ernest Van Buynder, Marcel and Gabriel Picqueray pay him frequent visits and create a dialogue [29]. They are very quickly integrated in the artist’s universe. In addition to the interactions between painting and ceramics, his friends’ writing proves to be ally capable of capturing his universe. After Will Grohman, Philippe d’Arschot, André Blavier, Jean Dypréau, Jan Walravens, Jacques Meuris, Joseph Noiret and Max Loreau, it is François Jacqmin who will express himself. Armed with an intense prose, he reflects on the artist’s work. Both were friends since the beginning of the Phantomas adventure [30], and the poet will strike with the sharpness of his words.

At the same time, a commission project appears – the decoration of the Brussels metro station Joséphine-Charlotte. Accompanied by Joseph Noiret, the form is detached with any latent anxiety. It is calmed and gives way to the poet’s lyricism and symbolises the sweet taking flight of a bird: La Fleur unique – Les Oiseaux émerveillés. The word is associated to the image to offer a fresco with softened tones [31].

In 1990, Hugo Claus dedicates a poem to Serge Vandercam: De Man van Tollund [32]. With this text, he revives the memory of previous collaborations. The following year, an eponymous exhibition is held at the Zwarte Panter gallery. In the meantime, the artist produces a series of pieces that centre on the victim of Jutland. Vandercam also invites Hugo Claus to share the ceramics experience. The poet doesn’t act like the others – he doesn’t put down his aphorism but incises them. He engraves them in the matter, just like Boues from 1958-1959. Claus digs in the fresh clay. Voor mijn ogen et Tover je jaren als nooit tevoren will be the result of these four-handed sessions.

Eight years later, Serge Vandercam is invited as a fine artist to join a delegation of the Belgian French Community at the French Alliance of Pecs in Hungary [33]. Over there, he meets Antoni Hendrix and Pieter Leemans, two friends who own a ceramics factory. The immediate desire to strike an artistic collaboration gives birth to a poetic imagery. Located on the edge of a mountain, this place contains a primitive chaos, an organic violence. Back in Belgium, the artist filled himself with this memory. The Hungarian landscapes obsess him and he decides to embark on another journey in order to express the strength of his visions. A few months later, accompanied by the Belgian connection, a group that gathers Hugo Martin, Antoni Hendrix and Pieter Leemans, the artist achieves a collective project. This artistic tangent, focusing on ceramics, is called the Terra Ungheria.

In 2003, the artist is back in Italy. Thanks to his body of work, he benefits from an important recognition and becomes an honorary citizen of Albisola. During this final visit, Serge Vandercam is very prolific. Despite his age, he is almost eighty years old; the energy that invigorates him allows him to take on ten-hour sessions. He acquires a second youth and amazes people with his efficiency. The process remains the same as in 1960. Several potter craftsmen make pots, plates and other utensils, which the artist diverts and uses as starting point for his reveries [34]. He also takes advantage of the chromatic resources that are available in the workshop. Just like the 60s productions or the Pecs ceramics, Vandercam goes beyond the limits of the practice. He inflicts his daydreaming onto the traditional pots and plates, projects all of his visions and surrounds himself with an imaginary army. The euphoria of this creative frenzy leads to the organisation of a fourth trip in 2004. Unfortunately, the ailing artist will not be able to make it. He will only beat his pain by reconnecting with his internal landscapes. Once he is reunited with that same matter who obsessed him during all those years.

Text : Anthony Spiegeler

[1] Orloff (S.), Quarante ans de sculpture en céramique. Essor d’un genre vu à travers l’oeuvre de seize artiste belges de 1937 à 1978 (Free University of Brussels (ULB), Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, History of Art and Archaeology, Contemporary Art, a year-end thesis directed by Professor Robert-Jones, 1979), p.82.

[2] We will get back to the importance of these works in the second part of our research.

[3] Draguet (M.), op.cit., p.14.

[4] In the mid-50s, the surrealist movement was waning. The Phantomas magazine seemed like a solution. It filled the void left by the dissolution of Cobra and the absence of innovating work. This publication gathered painters and poets within the same expression.

[5] Magazine directed by Jean Dypréau, Théodore Koenig, Serge Vandercam and Jean Verbruggen. The study of this magazine will be featured several times in the following pages.

[6] Serge Vandercam is the great grandson of Callisto Guatelli, an ennobled Pacha Ottoman Italian.

[7] De Penaranda (C.), « Cobra ou “l’enfange de l’art”. Histoire d’une amitié partagée », in Cobra en fange, Brussels, GRAM-ULB, 1994, p.83.

[8] Following this poetic adventure, one can find a reproduction of the picture taken by Vandercam in the December 1961 edition of Phantomas. This will to share his vision of the Fagnes will grow and lead to different collaborations at the heart of the matter. See appendix. 

[9] Boues. Shared works. Serge Vandercam – Christian Dotremont, Milan, Galleria San Carlo, 2010, p.14.

[10] Interview with Joel Vandercam, son of Serge Vandercam (Brussels, 25th November 2010).

[11] Shifting the use of objects is very similar to the Situationist theories.

[12] Draguet (M.), op.cit, p.37.

[13] Draguet (M.), op.cit, p.39.

[14] Loc.cit.

[15] Prométhée et le Golem, Brussels, Allende Hall (Free University of Brussels), 19th January – 19th February 2000.

[16] Noiret (J.), op.cit., p.50.

[17] Draguet (M.), Serge Vandercam. L’invitation au voyage, Brussels, GRAM-ULB, 2001, p.108.

[18] Serge Vandercam, Milan, Galleria San Carlo, 2004, p.46.

[19] De Man van Tollund, Rotterdam, Delta Gallery, 1963.

[20] Interview with Joel Vandercam, son of Serge Vandercam (Brussels, 7th May 2010).

[21] Interview with Nelly Licot, first wife of Serge Vandercam (Brussels, 9th July 2011).

[22] Interview with Thérèse Lebrun, ceramist of Serge Vandercam (Archennes, 8th July 2011).

[23] Draguet (M.), op.cit., p.127.

[24] Researching archives allowed finding this audiotape testimonial of Joseph Noiret.