For decades, Luc Tuymans’s paintings have plumbed the nature of images—charting the limits of their personal and political functions. Before the opening of his latest solo show at David Zwirner Gallery, Tuymans spoke with Jarrett Earnest about temperature in paintings, their instantaneous decay, and the balance between violence and tenderness.
Portrait of Luc Tuymans. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Scott Rudd.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): I wanted to start by talking about color. In this exhibition the painting Model (2015), appears to be a single dark tone, but within it there is a subtle fluctuation between warm and cool, which creates a very gentle rocking across the surface of the painting.
Luc Tuymans: That is true. First of all, I don’t use black. That is important to know. I used to use a lot of van Dyck brown to get this really deep, dark color. I do that because it’s about the profoundness, the depth of the tone, which, if you use black and just mix it with white, will be flat. Therefore you’re right; in Model there are two different colors, it has been worked twice: first in the cool color, then overworked again the same day with a brown because it was too blue. When there was just one color it stuck out too much; it was not the right balance with the image.
Rail: That painting showed me something about the rest of the show, which is that they have a color dynamic that wavers between warm and cool contrasts, that are very close in tone. In the three “Murky Water” paintings (2015) I was particularly interested that they are green, which is already a mixture of warm and cool—blue and yellow. Its relationship to warm and cool is precarious, so that the rather cool green feels warm next to a blue-edged shadow. How do you approach the color temperature as structure?
Luc Tuymans, Model, 2015. Oil on canvas. 47 1/2 × 47 5/8 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.
Tuymans: The temperature of things is really important. The early works, particularly the Gaskamer [Gas Chamber] (1986), are quite warm in temperature. Throughout the years I’ve become much more cool. There is a big difference between the “Corso”flower parade paintings and the green “Murky Water”paintings—they are from different distances. They are differently painted also. That was the whole idea, to let them collide with each other, which gave me the idea of the title for the show—Le Mépris [Contempt (1963)], the same as Godard’s film. The title painting in the exhibition, which shows the fireplace of that fantastic villa where Godard filmed is the only painting in the show that deals not with temperature but with light: light that beams out—pierces, actually—and makes a hole in the wall. In producing a show there is one particular painting I make to stop it, put the lid on the body of work, and that was it.
Rail: One of the special things that color can do in painting is create light.
Tuymans: That is why I always work with tonality. It’s nice to see this show in the early afternoon, like today, with this gray light that is very luminescent; you can see much better how it’s put together. That sensibility, that light, is very particular to the region of artists I come from, there is much more tonality. I actually curated a show of Belgian abstract art, The Gap, which is still up at the Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp, of people from the ’50s who are largely unknown and made fantastic work—even though they are abstract, they are all related to reality, and that kind of sensibility. There is a specific apprehension of light, which is really important. That is the reason for the persistence in working with this tonality. A lot of people could say that my paintings are monochromatic but, as you correctly saw, they are not, because there is much more investment in creating a certain temperature or tonality than just a color, which is very difficult. And I mix these things. It isn’t premeditated—you put in this color and that color and it is surprising to see which colors you have to put in to get to that tonality, which is not always that self-evident.
Rail: How has your relationship to color changed?
Tuymans: In the beginning I banned it. I actually started out as a very colorful, gestural painter. When I started to work with imagery I wanted to go more for the signifier and what it meant than the aesthetics of it, which meant I had to reduce, and reduce drastically, to a point that some of the works can look pretty graphic. This has changed, of course, because I allow myself more painterly freedom now than I did twenty years ago.
Rail: Godard’s Le Mépris is one of the most perfect films ever made; how do these paintings relate to it?
Tuymans: It’s much more about the idea and the word “contempt.” There are so many elements to that film: you have a mythological element, the Greek sculptures; then you have the tricolore of France, though Godard is Swiss; then you have Curzio Malaparte, the megalomaniac Italian writer who claimed he built that Villa himself—which he didn’t, he had an architect. He’s a very interesting writer—books like Kaputt (1946) are still banned by the Vatican. In the film you can see that Brigitte Bardot understands zilch of it, she’s a total void. You have an epic aspect, and sex, jealously, and of course contempt. The film is loosely based on Alberto Moravia’s Il Disprezzo, which I also read of course, but you don’t really find that many threads in that film. What you do find is a specific space. There is also the element of the festive that goes totally wrong, like an accident. There is despair and decay—decay because the water is polluted and because the floats will immediately perish, they will be scrapped the day after the parade. All that feeling is in Godard, which is atypical of a Godard movie anyhow—it’s even something that escaped him, so to speak, and that is what makes it so fucking important. This type of film will never be made again, it’s a one-off, even for Godard. The end with Jack Palance and Brigitte Bardot crushed by two trucks—fantastic. It becomes indifferent, ungraspable to a point, and that is really an achievement in cinema. Recently there were three films like that in the same year: Control (2007), the biopic about Ian Curtis, which was really good, No Country For Old Men (2007) by the Coen brothers, and then you have There Will Be Blood (2007) by Paul Thomas Anderson—those three films did something which contemporary art has not yet been able to do in terms of sardonic intensity.
Rail: Twenty years ago you wrote the essay “On the Image,” which is an incredible piece of writing and thinking. I wonder how you feel the function of the image has changed since then.
Tuymans: Enormously, I suppose, seeing the tools we have now. I was never a tech guy but when I saw the iPhone touch screen I thought, I want to have that. It changes the way you perceive things, the way you can even crop and distort on your phone. Even if we don’t want to admit to it, it will change our way of looking at things—which is not a problem, it’s just what happens. I’m not going to be an idiot and reject it, why? It’s just another tool and it makes life easier up to a certain point and more complicated at the same time.
Digital technology delivers a different structure of imagery. When I received the Max Beckmann Foundation award at the Städelschule in 2007, I curated an exhibition for the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. They wanted me to go through the collection of five thousand works and create a show, but they also wanted it to have work of mine. I had a diptych, one part of which was in China and the other one was in my studio, that shows a guy shuffling in my garden next to a tree—actually quite like Millet, it could be a 19th-century image. I decided to hang that specific painting, Against the Day (2008), next to a painting by Fernand Khnopff, The Game Warden (1883), which shows a hunter with his gun. The contrast was shocking—the light was totally different, and mine clearly came out of a digital age. My painting had nothing to do with the 19th century even though the imagery was the same, which means every age has a specific quality to it that you will be able to retrace via the visual itself. Against the Day was the first from a large body of work about digitalized imagery.
Rail: One of the things I loved about your essay on the image is that you describe the static image as disappearing as soon as it’s made.
Luc Tuymans, Murky Water I, 2015. Oil on canvas. 92 3/4 × 92 3/4 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.
Tuymans: Because it’s in decay. A painting as an object in the world is decaying. It is interesting doing a show where you get works back from thirty years ago, and you see that they are aging—the colors are deepening or yellowing—even though they’re in fairly good shape. Some of these paintings traveled a lot and there is a weariness in the paintings, like they are tired, and in a way it deepens them. When you get to put recent work next to old work you can see how they function—and they do function, no problem—but they are very different experiences.
Rail: One of the reasons I’m interested in color is because it is the least stable part of an image—the colors change at different rates and for different reasons. I’ve started to think of color as always temporal—a blooming flower—color as a rupture and movement through time. You can also move through paintings because of color.
Tuymans: If you see the first flower float painting in the show, you’ll see there is a darkened area of the flowers—more contrast and a different depth. This is what you can do with tonality and color: you pick the point where it breaks and that is the entry. Van Eyck is so perfect, everything is so held down, and maybe he’s the only one that gets away with it, which is why he’s a real motherfucker. I’ve often said that after van Eyck we’re all dilettantes. In that sense, there has to be something off-balance, which is the point where you get into the image. That is really important with static imagery because that is the point where it moves.
Luc Tuymans, Corso I, 2015. Oil on canvas. 98 3/4 × 72 5/8 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.
Rail: You’ve said that one distinction between painting and photography is that people can remember a photograph better than a painting, but that painting loosens an emotional dimension.
Tuymans: Painting is far more detailed. It’s more physical, and therefore very difficult to remember.
Rail: Where does that put photographs of paintings?
Tuymans: A good painting is a bad painting in a photograph. Whenever your paintings look better in reproduction you should get scared because something’s wrong. The reproduction should remain the reproduction. That is a totally different ball game, and that is why I still paint.
Rail: I’m interested in the places where you’ve gestured toward painting’s emotional function. How do you see the relationship between emotion and form?
Tuymans: It is rather collateral damage, accidental to a point. A couple of days before the show opened, the first batch of collectors arrived and one elderly woman burst out crying in front of the paintings and came up to me saying they’re so beautiful, and I’m like really? I’m not like Rothko who wanted people to cry in front of his paintings. But they do that—they danced in front of the paintings at the Wexner, they sang in front of them—all totally ridiculous. That may be too harsh: it’s beautiful and nice, but it’s not true. It can’t be true, it’s an image. So the emotion is really an element of perversion, and it’s also a construction of culture. Torture comes from tenderness. The balance between violence and tenderness is the most efficient way to torture anything or anybody. That’s what it’s about and I’ve clearly been into that power game from the start—my imagery is clearly built on an interest in that power.
Luc Tuymans, Le Mépris, 2015. Oil on canvas. 44 1/4 × 56 1/8 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.
But I cannot devoid myself from the fact that whenever I finish a painting I’m still amazed that it worked—there is a magical moment. What is unexplainable, even to me—and I’ve been working at this for more that thirty-five years so I know all the tricks—is that I’m still very nervous when I start, not totally secure. By the middle of the painting the security comes in because it starts to work, and then the total amazement when you stop, because something has left your body, has become a total entity in opposition to what you are, because it’s an image. In the studio they mostly hang tacked and un-stretched on the wall, then they get put on stretcher bars. When they are not on stretchers you see much more. When they are stretched you see less—it becomes more diffused, it becomes an object, gets a width—it’s really weird, like a different skin that comes over it. That is always an important point because that is when you see how it really works.
Rail: It makes me think of something Fassbinder said in an interview: “The theme of my films has remained the same, and always will: the manipulability, the exploitability of feelings within the system that we live in.”
Tuymans: Well, he enacted that with the actors in his group, he really abused them. Of course he is also a genius filmmaker, an amazing character.
Rail: In an interview with Juan Vicente Aliaga, you said: “Violence is the only structure underlying my work.” I wanted to know more about that, because you never represent an actual act of violence.
Tuymans: Fritz Lang didn’t show violence; in The Big Heat (1953)you hear the scream, you see the coffee pot, you make a deduction. The same with M (1931), you see the balloon pop and you know the kid dies. The best way to represent violence is not to show it. That is one thing.
With violence as a structure, as an idea: if you take happiness as anthem, what are you going to paint? There is no fucking consequence to any form of happiness. You’re going to be happy for what, thirty seconds, then what? There are many more consequences with violence— there is psychological violence, physical violence, and all types of violence and abuse that create images. I’m constantly looking at those ISIS videos of people dressed in orange jumpsuits about to be decapitated: what are you going to do with that? I went through and saw the whole decapitation—to see a whole decapitation is something completely different, because it’s really horrific. Are you going to paint that? You can’t. It doesn’t have the same function. Of course there have been many depictions, the best being the Caravaggio’s self-portrait David with the Head of Goliath (1610), which is after the beheading.
Rail: In arguments around violent images there is one side that believes those kinds of images proliferate violence, and another that believes it is important to show exactly what happened as a way of confronting the reality of the violence. How do you relate to that discussion?
Tuymans: It is still ambiguous and remains problematic, because I don’t think it will solve anything to decide either way. The repetition of these images is obviously propaganda. It’s terror, but it’s also like a Hollywood production—these guys have good equipment, good lights, and that makes you wonder. In a sense, the premeditation of the production is itself part of its violence. I’m more interested in the moment before or after than the act itself, because I think these things are much more evocative. They are positions, like borders and frontiers, and when they are connected with other imagery they are bound to influence each other.
Rail: When you talk about the influence of film on your paintings, it is mostly through the grammar of cinematic language. But thinking of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler, A Film from Germany (1977), the scrims with rear-projections, cutouts, manikins, and dolls all seem to relate to imagery and effects of your early paintings.
Tuymans: It was a really big shock when I saw that movie in 1978. I first saw Hitler at my parents’ and they still had a black-and-white television. I saw it over two nights, so my reception of the film was black-and-white, not color, and it was far later that I saw the film in color, which is totally different—less cinematic in a weird way, and less epic, because the black and white adds an epic quality. But still, even that way it was a masterpiece. What is interesting is the way that Syberberg seeks to identify with Hitler, and that he goes at it through culture, which is really important because the big difference between German and Italian fascism in general is that German fascism was culture—the culture of Hitler was the first European project. What Syberberg was actually showing was that the Nazis destroyed a great deal of their culture, and they didn’t understand. This was very important because it was exactly the way I was going at it, and he personified that in words as well as imagery.
Rail: One of the best things about right now in painting is that no one is fighting battles between abstraction and representation. When did you feel that change in the discourse around painting?
Tuymans: Well, first of all I came out with my paintings at the exact wrong moment. When I started showing, it was a gallery where they only showed post-conceptual work. Immediately, my paintings weren’t “painting” but were treated like conceptual images, which makes a very big difference. Now there is no need anymore for any of that—modernism, or postmodernism, or post-postmodernism—all those ideas are totally obsolete. Now you can sayit’s relevant or not, but it’s not about fitting art into some theoretical structure. You cannot have October now, which made sense when they did it in the 1980s—that was a different era. Unluckily for the art world, most artists are now isolated by the market. There is a profound need within a generation to find each other, which is more difficult now because there is this specialized mechanism, this art market, and the professionals who are formed there. You end up with discourse like the sociology of the ’80s and misunderstandings of Habermas. So right now there is a grave need for different, intelligent interactions because otherwise art doesn’t really mean much, which is why I’ll probably take some money and do a three-yearly prize on the world level for people who write about art.
Rail: The volume of your writing and interviews ON&BY Luc Tuymans (2013) is very impressive, and I had no idea you’d written so much.
Tuymans: Me neither! And I hate it. I have so much respect for people who write but it’s so difficult, it’s such a slow medium. But moreover, the most important thing in writing is how you formulate things, which is a nightmare for me.
Installation view: Le Mépris. David Zwirner, New York, May 5 – June 25, 2016. Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.
Rail: I assumed you were writing to create a framework to help others understand what you were doing. A lot of the artists I know who are verbally articulate about their work get to a point where they feel imprisoned by the way critics endlessly repeat the terms they’ve set up.
Tuymans: Problematic, but it was my mistake. It was a necessary mistake because when I started out it was all about contextualization—you could not just hang a painting on the wall. You had to say what the source material was, what it meant, etc. Of course the critics loved that because they knew what to write about. Then they all turned on me, Mr. Tuymans you cannot explain it all to us. The damage has been done, but I’m very secure that in time these things will evaporate—I will die and the works will remain, so totally different things will crop up. We’ve already talked about different things today, like color, which is interesting because that is something you can see. It’s important that the visual becomes more central to the discussion.
Rail: The things I was bringing up about your paintings are not just things you can see, but they are the things that you see in person. We have to move toward writing that is more grounded in physical experience.
Tuymans: People are not educated in looking now. They look fast. How long will people stay in front of a painting at a museum, twenty seconds? There are some that really look, but they are the patient people, they look differently. There is a culture of looking that is disappearing because of the fact that you have all these possibilities, overload, and little time to pause.
Rail: You conclude “On the Image” with this thought: “The question is: for and by whom is the information centralized? Who keeps track of it?”
Tuymans: That is what we are living now, and that is the danger. The values have been turned upside-down: what used to be the most valued was the most scarce; what is most valued now is the most accessible thing, but controlling it is the most valued thing. A totally different world.
Rail: One thing about the nature of looking today is that attention itself has been reduced; people have trouble paying attention for long periods of time, so to paraphrase your question, I’ve been asking myself: For and by whom is attention being degraded?
Tuymans: Even in the art world, we have the dominance of the corporation, which monopolizes and makes uniform. There is a great need for differentiation; you have to differentiate room for things in the middle, which is now nearly gone. Today you have to look at all this information, and that is not even the work: it doesn’t have to do with whether the work is good or bad; virtually nothing can be done in art now without the fucking packaging. And that is why a lot of artists are opening their apartments, and trying to run spaces, which I support. But that creates another problem, whether it’s too provincial, or too small, too specific, and too nice.We’ll see what happens, maybe one day the bubble will really explode.
PAINTING ON THE AGENDA
From 1976 to 1982, Luc Tuymans (° 1958) studies painting at diverse academies in Belgium. He could have spared himself the trouble, for it soon turns out that he had been misled by his teachers: nobody seemed interested any longer in the medium they had learned him to master. Probably to get a broader view on the problem – but also because there is something of an intellectual in him – he proceeds to study Art History from 1982 to 1986, equally in Brussels. Meanwhile, he remains also active as an artist, although in a more contemporary medium: film. In 1985, however, he returns to painting. Especially since a new wind began to blow from Germany: with the exhibition ‘Zeitgeist’ (1982), the uncomplicated joy of painting broke through on the European scene with the ‘Neue Wilden’, painters like Georg Baselitz Jörg Immendorf, Markus Lupertz, Sigmar Polke, Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf and Salomé. For Luc Tuymans’ first exhibition ‘Belgian Art Review’ in the Palais des Thermes in Ostend (1985), on the other hand, there was not the least interest. But after some exhibitions in ‘Ruimte Morguen’ and ‘Zeno X’ in Antwerp, Jan Hoet (the curator who became famous with ‘Chambres d’Ami’ 1986), buys his ‘Body’ in 1990. In 1992, the same Jan Hoet selects his work for the Documenta. Soon, there are exhibitions in diverse European countries, and finally also with David Zwirner in New York (1996 The Heritage). In 2001, he causes a furore at the Venice Biennale (with Jan Hoet as a curator). This is the beginning of triumphal progress via the White Cube (‘The Rumour’ 2001) and Saatchi in London (Display Room 2) to the Tate Modern and K21 in Düsseldorf in 2004. Presently, Luc Tuymans is universally hailed as “the man who put painting on the agenda” again, yes, even as the most important painter of his generation, nothing less than the successor of Gerhard Richter.
Luc Tuymans foremost caught the attention by his subject matter: themes like the holocaust, (Belgian) colonialism (Mwana Kitoko, 2001), the rise of the New Right in Flanders (Heimat, 1995), Conservatism in America (‘The Heritage’ 1995-1996, ‘Security’ 1998, ‘Proper’ 2005), sexual abuse of children and recently also the church (‘The Passion’, 1998-99 and ‘Les Revenants’, 2007). A broad array op political themes.
How political are these themes? Many of them seem to be inspired by the personal experiences of Luc Tuymans. Thus, the obsession with the holocaust comes as no surprise with someone whose family from mother’s side was active in the resistance, whereas his family from father’s side sympathised with the Nazis. His unhappy youth and his childhood anxieties may have made him susceptible for the theme of the sexual abuse of children, and, through his wife and his friends, he is acquainted with the effects of Jesuit education. The strange thing is that these themes are not handled directly, but wrapped in themes that are in vogue in the media. The series ‘Heimat’ (1995) is a reflex on the rise of the New Right in Belgium, that came to a first apogee with the ‘Black Sunday’ of 1991. The theme of sexual abuse of children appears in 1996, the year Marc Dutroux was arrested. The theme of ‘Mwana Kitoko’ appears after the publication of Ludo de Witte’s book on Lumumba in 1999, where the involvement of the Eyskens administration and the Belgian Royal House in the murder on Patrice Lumumba is handled. And the portrait of a boy in the series ‘Les Revenants’ (2007) suggests that the theme of the power of the Jesuits may have something to do with the recent paedophilia scandals.
At once, it also becomes clear that Luc Tuymans’ themes only apparently cover a broad array. On a closer look, it rather strikes us that many themes are completely absent. Adult private life is underrepresented, as well from the point of view of the inner life of the individual, as from the point of view of parental and sexual relations and eroticism. And as far as politics is concerned, where he seems to feel better at home, Luc Tuymans is rather obsessed by the resurrection of the old monsters, than by the impact of the modern versions, which are, if possible, still more devastating. For, Nazis and bureaucrats have the advantage of being clearly identifiable, which is not the case with the ‘Invisible Hand’ that is increasingly taking over the lead in our present world. In that sense, Luc Tuymans’ obsession with the past is rather a kind of blindness for what is happening here and now before our eyes. Besides, we can have some doubts about the political awareness of someone who, on occasion of his exhibition ‘I can’t get it’ in the Museum of Photography in Antwerp (2007) had a smoking room installed as a way of demonstrating his resistance to the banning of smoking from public life. (He is not alone is his struggle: also that other revolutionary from Antwerp, Jan Fabre, joins him in his resistance with his ‘I am a mistake’, in which, together with Wolfgang Rihm, he sings the praise of smoking – ‘the pleasure that is trying to kill me’).
We cannot escape the impression that the involvement with what is topical in the media only masks a blindness for what is really at stake. That Luc Tuymans is above all interested in the problematic that have influenced his childhood experiences, makes us suspect that his political themes are merely a metaphor for private problems, especially childhood experiences. In that respect, a comparison between ”Gas chamber’ (1986) and the children’s room in ‘Silent Music’ (1992) speaks volumes. We will come back on this theme later.
Remarkably enough, the man “who put painting back on the agenda” harbours a deep distrust in the image.
That distrust is, among others, inspired by the fact that the image is often used to mask horror: think of the opposition between the images of the Nazi propaganda and the monstrosities perpetrated by that regime, as denounced in ‘Our new Quarters’ (1986). In some of his paintings, Luc Tuymans is out at a reversal of this obfuscation by making a painted version of the photo, as when he overpaints a photo Reinhard Heydrich (1988) from ‘Signal’ with sunglasses. The images distorts not only in that it conceals the horror behind misleading glamour and heroic poses. More often, there is a shift from the political to the private. Again, Luc Tuymans disturbs the idyll through reversing the shift. Just think of the painting after of photo of a fallen skier who turns out to be Speer (Der Architekt, 1998), or of ‘Walking (1989), after a photo with Hitler and setting off on a walk with his escort in Berchtesgaden. We get the feeling that something horrible goes hidden behind these seemingly banal snapshots.
Soon, this procedure becomes Luc Tuymans hallmark. The private is thereby generalised to the banal as such. The gaze of the unsuspecting onlooker falls on pictures, which, at first glance, look innocent, if not poetic, precisely because the horror has been removed. Thus, from the concentration camps, Luc Tuymans paints only the empty gas chambers. From the visit of King Bouduain to the Belgian Congo, we get only to see his foot on a leopard skin rug spread by two black hands. But the banal turns out to be a mere trap: inadvertently, the onlooker is confronted with the horror that has been zoomed out or removed from the image. Luc Tuymans describes such breakthrough in terms of an ‘assault’ (Aliaga*).
Through such reinvestment of the banal, Luc Tuymans succeeds in reinstalling the horror in our memory. He thereby undermines the idea that the horror is such that it cannot be depicted in an image. According to Luc Tuymans, the only truth in this contention is that the horror cannot be handled in, say, depicting heaps of corpses – referring to the more explicit approach of painters like Anselm Kiefer (if not to documentary films).
Luc Tuymans’ most cherished procedure can be described in two ways. In terms of photography, it is a ‘close-up’, a zooming in on a detail of the whole image. No zooming in on the kernel of the proceedings, however: these are rather zoomed out of the image. From the spreading of the leopard skin rug before the feet King Bouduain, we only get to see the leopard skin. ‘Zooming away’ might be a better name for this procedure.
We can also describe such ‘zooming away’ in terms of the conventional academic genres. Luc Tuymans is then turning away from ‘history painting’ – the explicit depiction of the human drama, condensed into one single meaningful scene. He withdraws in the ‘lesser genres’ of the hierarchy: landscape, interior, still life – where the painter ‘zooms away’ from human drama to concentrate on the place where it happens (interior, landscape) or on the objects which he uses or produces (still life). Thus, ‘Schwarzheide (1986), can be classified as a ‘landscape’, ‘Gas chamber’ (1986) as an interior, ‘Orchid’ (1998) as a flower piece, ‘Bird’ (1998) as an animal piece.
Such shift from history painting to the lesser genres, must be seen in a broader art historical context. The shift began already centuries ago, lead to an open rejection of history painting by the Impressionists, came to an apogee through the introduction of abstract art, and was completed by the banning of every narrative element from art. Against this background, we understand not only why Luc Tuymans has a predilection for the lesser genres, but also why he often tends to become completely abstract, like in ‘Insomnia’ (1988), where there are only unidentifiable spots to be seen. But, as a rule, Luc Tuymans feels more at home in the preceding phase where the lesser genres are taking over. In that sense, Luc Tuymans’ painting is a step backwards, a step towards a pre-modern phase in the development of modern art. As a matter of fact: Luc Tuymans does not believe in something like a synthetic image in which reality is contained in a condensed form, as usually expected from history painting. According to Luc Tuymans, a universal image – the ultimate history painting – is impossible: we can only lift the veil through fragmentary images.
Nevertheless, Luc Tuymans understand his still lifes, interiors and portraits as ‘history paintings’, not as lesser genres. They are only ‘understatements’: on closer view, the rather banal subject matter conceals a more encompassing world of horror.
But, let there be no confusion: it is not the image that works such reversal from ‘a sense of cosiness’ in the seemingly banal genre piece into the historical dimension of ‘something terrifying’ (Aliaga*). At its best, the image is only the occasion of such transformation. It is rather the word that ignites the fire. It does so on three levels.
To begin with, there are the texts in or below the image. We are not dealing here with the usual titles that provide further information on the subject matter, even less with titles that facilitate the access to the image, or put our mind on the right track. A text like ‘Our new quarters’ (1986) does something totally different. It is only through these words that the meagre image gets some substance and that we realise that we are dealing with the model camp built by the Nazis in Theresienstadt to deceive the world. That surely makes us think: all kinds of memories and images pop up in our mind. Until we suddenly realise that we are no longer looking at a painting. The text makes us discard the image and lose ourselves in a train of thoughts and memories completely independent from the image.
Next to the titles, also the comments of Luc Tuymans himself are indispensable for a proper understanding of the image. A title like ‘Schwarzheide’ is only the onset of a longer comment, that initiates a train of thoughts in its turn. The comments can be found in a increasing number of books devoted to Luc Tuymans, but also in the catalogues – like the one for the Kunsthalle in Bern (1992) where every single painting is commented on. That results in the hilarious – but telling – spectacle in the exhibition ‘Der Diagnostische Blick’ in Düsseldorf. Rather than looking at the paintings hanging on the walls, all the visitors stood staring in the booklets distributed at the entrance.
Another essential part of the extensive glosses around Luc Tuymans’ images is the information about the photos used by Luc Tuymans. Thus, we are told that the image of ‘Mwana Kitoko’ descending from the aeroplane, is borrowed from a propaganda film on the visit of King Bouduain to the Belgian Congo. The intention is to spare the art historians the trouble to find the origins of the image themselves,
Finally, it speaks volumes that also the titles of the exhibitions themselves play an important role. This is understandable as long as we are dealing with series of images like ‘Heimat’ (1995), ‘Mwana Kitoko’ (2000-2001) or ‘Les Revenants’ (2007). But, for Luc Tuymans, also new combinations of pictures that have been isolated from the initial series, like in the Tate or in K 21 Düsseldorf, have to be read as a new discourse. They are thereby reduced to mere signifiers that get a new meaning in another context. Nothing demonstrates better how, for Luc Tuymans, paintings are mere occasions for a discourse that is essentially independent from the image.
In a first series of images, hence, the text is merely a kind of midwife that brings to birth the real content of the painting or the exhibition as a whole. The child that is thereby delivered, is no longer an image, and, a fortiori, not a history painting. Rather is it a complex of thoughts and representations in the mind, as independent from the painting as the meaning of a word from the arbitrary sound of the word itself. The withdrawal into the detail or into the ‘lesser genre’ turns out to be only a first move, which is completed by a second, where the word takes the lead. The image as un understatement is replaced by the word as an overstatement. As if in the work of Luc Tuymans Hegel’s prophecy about the spiritualisation of art comes true once more, against Schopenhauer’s claim that art has to overcome the shortcomings of the ‘Begriff’ through the ‘Idee’.
The question is why Luc Tuymans continues to resort to the image altogether. Why not become a writer or a philosopher rather than a painter? The answer is obvious. Without the prestige of the image, Luc Tuymans’ ‘philosophy’ would not be heard at all. In that Luc Tuymans entrusts his ideas to paintings, he not only gets a forum, but good money as well. That would not bother us too much, if Luc Tuymans had to tell us some epoch making insights. But that is not at all the case. Take ‘The Architect’ (1998). Only after reading the title and the comments, we see that a skier has fallen; that the skier is Speer, the architect of Hitler who also designed the concentration camps; that the original image is a snapshot made by his wife during one of their holidays; and that there is a blue hue around the image intended to suggest that the image is projected on the canvas as a screen. In the comments, we read something about ‘the banality of evil’. Hannah Ahrend has written an entire book on the subject already in 1963, and the idea has become widely accepted in matters of the Nazi era. Luc Tuymans’ painting only repeats a commonplace. Rather than the vehicle of epoch making insights, Luc Tuymans paintings are not more than a kind of illustration of the ideas of others.
The discrepancy between the painting and the train of thoughts is sometimes rather ridiculous. A painting from the series ‘Passion’ with a yellow canary on a blue background (‘Bird’,1998) is supposed to be ‘travesty of Christian symbolism’ – in casu: the symbol of the Holy Ghost. Luc Tuymans says that he has deliberately chosen a ‘domesticated image and an unusual colour to profanise the idea of the sacred dove’. To the this time genuine doves ‘in dumb disarray’ on ‘Pigeons’ (2001) – a banal animal piece – the comments read: ‘Dirty and disease-ridden, they’re a strangely curious mob, a metaphoric stand-in for ourselves… Luc Tuymans offers a chilling ultimate truth about humankind. He makes a cold comedy of a terrifying thought.’ Speaking of an assault! Not in that the seemingly banal suddenly turns out to be horrendous, but in that a banal image is purported to be freighted with a deeper meaning!
The seizure of power by the word devalues the image: it is no more than an occasion to a flight of thoughts and representations in the dark room of the skull. That has everything to do with Luc Tuymans’ already mentioned distrust in the power of the image. That distrust goes further than a mere distrust in some kinds of images. The criticism of the propagandistic image, which, in a first phase was extended to a criticism of history painting or the ‘pretentious myth of the image as a synopsis of reality’, develops in a second phase into a criticism of the image as such: the painting as a mirror of reality would not at all be able to hold a mirror to reality. As a reaction to September 11th, Luc Tuymans painted his ‘Still life’ (2002). No ‘zooming away’ from the banal here, but a resolute substitution of history painting with a still life, that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Twin Towers: a pastiche on Cézanne as a symbol of painting as such. In this painting, the lowest of the academic genres is no longer an occasion to a flight of thoughts and representations that presumably cannot be caught in the image, but rather an example of the impotence of the image to tell something about the real world altogether. Such conception of the painting as a blindfold is accentuated by the magnifying of the size of the image – a gesture that up to now had been alien to Luc Tuymans. As if this non-subject also wanted to attract all the attention. “I had great fun making the painting because, although it is by far my largest, it represents the least” (Heynen*). Only here does it become clear how far reaching the seizure of power of the word has become. For, whereas the banality of what is to be seen on many of Luc Tuymans’ paintings hints at a reality behind the picture – with a little help of the text – in this case, there is nothing whatsoever in the image that might suggest that it had something to do with the Twin Towers. We learn that only from the comments.
That goes even more for those other paintings, where Luc Tuymans paints a mirror. In ‘Mirror’ (1999), we see a nearly monochrome rectangle. In the upper corner on the right, there is a lighter rectangle, and on the left a kind of cube. It is impossible to identify what is represented here. Unless we read the title, but above all the comment: apparently, we are looking at a mirror, a mirror where there is nothing to be seen. In ‘Mirror 1’ (1992) Luc Tuymans paints a stain on a mirror. We see only a stain, not the face that is normally reflected in the mirror. And in ‘Slide’ (2002), we see a rectangle of light on a wall. In the textbook, we learn that we are dealing with a projector without slide installed. Or, to phrase it with Berg: ‘a bottomless and unfathomable ground is the substrate of a motif that itself exhibits nothing but its own absence’ (Berg*).
In these ‘mirror paintings’ the role of the word is, if possible, even more constitutive than in ‘Still Life’. In the first place, it is only the text that turns the stains on the images into reflections in a mirror. In ‘Still Life’, it is at least our very own eyes that discern a still life. And, second, the image itself is no more than a non-verbal statement – a variant of the painting of Magritte, where we see a rectangular window where we would expect a canvas. In paintings like these, the images are not only totally dependent on the word, the word usurps the role of the image. The painting is no more than a non-verbal statement on the image as such or on the relation between the image and reality.
Next to the image as a mere occasion for the flight of thoughts and representations, then, there is also the image as a mere non-verbal statement or as an example to Luc Tuyman’s discourse on the image.
THE IMPOTENT IMAGE
‘Was mann nicht malen kann, das muss man nicht malen wollen.’
(free after Wittgenstein…)
An obvious objection is that the image is always dependent on the word. But that is only a modern fable, that has become popular ever since it has been so eloquently advocated by Roland Barthes. When looking at Goya’s Kronos, you need not know who the man eater is – the title rather diverts the attention from what there is to be seen in the image. And that goes equally for the Venus of Urbino. Things are different when we are dealing with paintings like the Primavera of Botticelli or with paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. These pictures ask for an explanation, simply because the figures are non-verbal symbols. The image is here reduced to a mere vehicle. Not surprising that it resists its subordination: the three graces continue to seduce the eye, also when it does not know that it is looking at the Three Graces and what their function in the non-verbal statement is.
There is also another way in which the image can become dependent on the word. Every image is embedded in a cultural context. As long as that context is shared by the onlookers, there is no problem. Problems arise only when the image is isolated from the environment in which it originated. It is obvious that non-Belgians have to get the required information when they are confronted with a hint at the ‘Vlaams Blok’ or at ‘ Mwana Kitoko’. The problems become principial when we are dealing with images from the past. These have to be placed in the appropriate context through art-historical explanations. And, since most great art works stem from the past, and hence have to be embedded in an art historical discourse, the totally erroneous impression grows that art as such deserves explanation. Many modern artist abuse this state of affairs when they have their meanwhile obligate exegetes explain what their pictures do not convey. Luc Tuymans goes even further: he has become his own exegete and simply cannot stop to spin an ever growing web of comments around his paintings
Whereas, in the allegory, the word distracts from the image, with Luc Tuymans, the word is rather constitutive of the image: only when reading the comments do we see the monochrome surface as a mirror, and as a mirror in which there is nothing to be seen. The same goes for the lamp of which we read in the booklet that it is made of human skin. One might object that there is no other means of making it clear that we are dealing with a lamp made of human skin. But the conclusion should be that such a subject is not appropriate to be painted – there is so much left that can be painted properly. Genuine painters are not looking for images that could convey their preconceived ideas, they create images that speak for themselves.
And, to deal with still another modern fable: wherein precisely does the image fail? Is it not in the first place photos and images which revealed the horror of the holocaust to the world? And did they not do so precisely in being indexical/causal – ‘narrative’ par excellence? Paintings cannot rely to the ‘ça a été’ to the same extent. Of course, a picture – whether painted or photographed – is not reality itself: it may be more disturbing or more reassuring, more superficial or more profound, and that only depends on the intentions and the competence of the maker. But in any case, it holds that a good image can be more speaking than even the best word – but above all: more speaking that even the most eloquent reality. Precisely therein lies the function of art, and precisely therefore will we always need art.
Again: suppose the image fails, why should it do so only after the holocaust? As if history is not one endless series of atrocities perpetrated with ever new destructive strategies and through ever new forms of organisation, of which the administrative/technological genocide by the Nazis is a meanwhile somewhat obsolete phase. And what would have prevented Goya from denouncing them in his ‘Desastres de la guerra’ – not to mention Brueghel in his ‘Dulle Griet’? The truth is that painters, misled as they were by the slogan that painting should not be narrative, have relegated the task of history painting to the photographers and the filmmakers. They thereby lost the necessary experience to make convincing history paintings. Already the images during and after the First World War, often partake of the caricature. And towards the outburst of the Spanish Civil War, the problems with which Picasso was confronted in his ‘Guernica’ testify to the impasse in which history painting had landed. Where a resistance against the narrative did not exist – think of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany and Franco’s Spain – the tradition remained alive, although, equally as a consequence of the anti-narrative fervour, it was undermined in that the artist used an obsolete language. This stylistically outdated tradition lost every credibility in that it praised rather suspected regimes rather than criticising them, like Goya and Brueghel did. The combination of obsolete ‘academic’ technique and propaganda for unconvincing regimes, made it all to easy to equal ‘history painting’ and ‘propaganda’ – and the CIA could not wait to proclaim abstract art to the very hallmark of the ‘free world’.** Thus, the genuine tradition of formally progressive and contentually critical history painting, like that of Brueghel and Goya, was gradually undermined and betrayed. For, apart from the problem of style, there is the central problem of the quality of the world view of the artist. The truth is that most painters simply do not have a world view that is worth conveying. For, to have problems with the old and the new Right, imperialism, the sexual abuse of children and the Jesuits is one thing, to reveal the deeper reality that expresses itself in all these phenomena, quite another. There is no purpose, then, in contending that it is impossible to paint a history painting in this ‘most horrible of all times’. The truth is simply that Luc Tuymans not only is incapable to paint one, but above all that he has no insight in our present ‘condition humaine’ that is worth mentioning (or painting). Which is not to say that figures like Richter, or Kiefer and Immendorf would have succeeded better. There is, finally, still another factor that deters many a painter from history painting. A painting that would tell something interesting about say the widening divide between the rich and the poor in our world, is not sellable to a multimillionaire that has to invest his dollars in a painting. And I can imagine the problems of an atheist confronted with an outstanding history painting advocating the restoration of spiritual values…
Rather than admitting that he is not able to produce a convincing history painting – or that it is too dangerous or too little commercial – Luc Tuymans prefers to argue that it is painting itself that is no longer appropriate. He thus delivers another fatal blow to painting: for Luc Tuymans does not more than spinning a web of words around the image, to take his place in the mid of it as a kingly spider that, in a veritable act of auto-castration, bereaves his own images of their very substance. The old allegories were so strong as images, that they tended to shed of the cobweb woven around them or to discard it altogether in the end. With Luc Tuymans, the image has become so dependent on the word, that we are only left with an empty carcass when the web is removed.
PAINTING AS PHILOSOPHY OF PAINTING
‘I am not interested in aesthetics; I am into meaning and necessity’
Tuymans (from Aliaga*).
Luc Tuymans resorts to the word for other reasons than the supposed shortcomings of the image. The factual impotence to make a self-contained image is in the first place the result of the restrictions that the artists imposed on themselves by adopting the dogma of the inartistic nature of the narrative element, the pursuit of abstraction and ‘musicality’. But, on a deeper level, Luc Tuymans is also the executor of a much older version of the mimetic taboo: the contempt for the image as such, that has become endemic in the plastic arts ever since Duchamp’s saying that art is not a question of the retina, but of the brain. Henceforward, more and more artists begin to philosophise about art through making images – through painting about painting, or more general: through making art about art. Again and again, ever more pseudo-philosophers come to echo Duchamp’s dictum, which is in its turn a profane echo of Hegel’s version of the mimetic taboo. One of Luc Tuymans’ variants sounds: ‘The small gap between the explanation of a picture and a picture itself provides the only possible perspective on painting.’ That these artists-philosophers express themselves non-verbally – not with words on paper, but with the brush on the canvas, if not with objects on pedestals, yes even with entire constructions in real space called installations – has as a consequence that the already long racks reserved for the philosophy of arts in the libraries, are now extended with the cellars in the museums, where all these voluminous considerations are stocked.
If to any, then Luc Tuymans certainly belongs to this tradition. That is apparent from the constitutive role of the word as analysed above. It is also unambiguously testified by the many assertions of Luc Tuymans where he speaks or art as of a statement, as when he says about Ad Reinhardts ‘Black Square: ‘It is the representation of nothingness. A black square, no more. A clear statement. Just like Duchamp’s Fontaine’. Or when he describes his own ‘Still Life’ (2002) as a ‘Western European statement’ (Tusa*). And it becomes more than obvious when we compare Luc Tuymans’ painting with verbal statements painted on canvas like those of Ben Vautier and Baldessari, or with On Kawara’s dates painted on canvas. Also these statements and dates are no more than occasions for flights of thoughts and representations. That Luc Tuymans’ statements have more in common with painting than mere letters and numbers painted on canvas, makes it all the more easy for devotees of art who are fond of philosophising, to uphold the impression that their hobby has something to do with art. In that sense, Luc Tuymans’ paintings are only more ‘artistic’ versions of the very conceptualism that he is supposed to reject. Luc Tuymans: a crypto-conceptualist. The cliché about the man who put painting on the agenda again in a climate where painting was declared obsolete – just think of Cathérine David who, on occasion of the Xth Documenta (1997) declared that painting is at its best academic and at its worst reactionary – only obfuscates the contrary truth: that Luc Tuymans still taps old wine from new wineskins. That the wineskin looks old – bleached-out, yes even ‘craquelé’ – should not make us believe that we are dealing with new wine in old wineskins…
THE PHOTO AS MIDWIFE OF THE PAINTING
Bad artists copy. Good artists steal
Luc Tuymans not only resorts to the word, he has also a distinct predilection for photography. Let us therefore, in a second section of this text, examine this predilection.
We already pointed to the fact that the heirs of history painting are not to be found in painting, but in photography and film. A vague consciousness thereof will certainly have driven Luc Tuymans to the camera. It remains a riddle why, after his return to painting, he not just inscribes himself in the tradition of Brueghel and Goya. For, despite his return to painting, Luc Tuymans continues to resort to photos and film stills. He thereby refers to Spilliaert. But more obvious is the example of Gerhard Richter, who, in the vein of Pop Artists, uses advertisements and all kinds of illustrations as raw material for his paintings.
Richter openly declared that painting after photos freed him from the necessity of selecting or constructing a motif. Luc Tuymans’ justification sounds that everything has already been painted. Well known is the story how he saw the self-portrait, with which he had won a competition, reproduced in the book on Ensor that he received as a prize. Luc Tuymans came to the conclusion that it is no longer possible to make an original. That the Neue Wilden could only feast their return to painting in resorting to the manner of the ‘Fauves’, will only have strengthened him in his conviction. And, if there has to be painting nevertheless, the only option is to repeat what has already been done – to forge existing works, but openly and, like Van Meegeren, in an own recognisable style. ‘Authentic forgery’, as Luc Tuymans phrases it. But, otherwise than Van Meegeren, Luc Tuymans does not forge paintings, let alone history paintings of old masters – which would have made it clear once and for all how absurd his undertaking is. No, Luc Tuymans makes ‘authentic forgeries’ of photos, by transforming them in paintings. Which is legitimised in its turn by the contention that painting can only be a representation of a representation – think of Richter’s ‘second order representational strategy’. Painting as re-presenting photos hence, as a mirror of an image rather than of ‘nature”. Which is, again, another variant of the widespread practice of making art as a reflection on art, rather than as a mirror of reality. To escape the reproach of making art that only refers to itself – did he not in the first place attract the attention by his subject matter? – Luc Tuymans concocts the construction that the ‘reconstruction of the photographical image’ is not just ‘history painting’, but the ‘the realising of history’ as such (Tusa*).
Let us leave the justifications for what they are. That Luc Tuymans proceeds from photos betrays that he is aware of the fact that, in matters of history painting, you better rely on photographers. On the other hand, that he transforms photos in paintings betrays that he ranks painting higher than photography. The question remains why Luc Tuymans does not resort to this superior technique for his history painting? When reality, as it is misrepresented by photographs, can be re-constructed, why not construct it right away on the canvas? Why make the detour over photography?
The answer is that Luc Tuymans is not so much interested in history painting as rather in something totally different: the trench war between photography and painting. By repainting photographs, he unambiguously states that only the hand of the painter can work the wonder that – in Luc Tuymans’ mind – remains out of reach of the photographer. That is why he so conspicuously borrows his motif from the photographical image in view of transforming it in a painting. No doubt, after such transformation, the painting tells something totally different from the photo. But so would re-photographing – of the same photo or the same motif! And we are still talking in terms of the image. For, since it is the comments that constitute Luc Tuymans’ images, embedding the photo in an appropriate context of comments would also do! On closer view, it cannot be a contentual concern that lies at the roots of this undertaking. It rather seems that we must conclude with Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message here. And that message sounds that an image is art only when it is painted. It is only through repainting the photo in view of conveying this message, that also a vague reminder of what used to be called ‘history painting’, can be smuggled into the museum again.
THE FACE LIFT OF THE PHOTO
How much the medium is the message, appears from the kind of interventions Luc Tuymans makes when re-presenting his photos.
To begin with, there is the obligate blurredness of his images. From the very beginning of photography, ‘le fini’ has become increasingly suspect in painting. Not that painting would not be able to produce ‘high definition’ – suffice it to refer to the Flemish Primitives, so much admired by Luc Tuymans, or in a more recent past to Salvador Dali and the ‘sharp focus’ of photorealists like Richard Estes, Robert Bechtle, Chuck Close (who, by the way, do not feature in Luc Tuymans’ discourse). It is apparent that Luc Tuymans’ conception of painting is indebted to the aversion for this aspect of the photographic image and therefore prefers brush strokes or texture above the cult of the detail, as it comes to its fetishist apogee in the photography of Andreas Gursky. Richter introduced a new version of the rejection of overall-sharpness – the ‘flou’, that, already from the Pictorialists onwards, has been regarded as ‘artistique’. Luc Tuymans’ obsession with photography – or his eagerness to obfuscate his indebtedness to Richter – goes so far that he even understands this characteristic of anti-photographic painting in terms of photography: to him, the absence of ‘fini’ is not so much a characteristic of painting since the invention of photography, but in the first place of Polaroids that are not fully developed. Precisely therefore, he regards them as more credible – artistic – that the fully developed end products. As if the image would lose its credibility in becoming sharp. Nevertheless, Luc Tuymans does not proceed to making Polaroids. Already in ‘Arena’ (1978), that he considers to be a central work in his development, the effect is obtained by covering the figures with plastic foil…
A similar analysis applies to the bleached palette that has become Luc Tuymans’ hallmark. Also this is borrowed from not fully developed Polaroids, and is especially appropriate to distinguish the image from photography, that excels in its ability to render the full gamut of colours in all its richness. Let us remark that the aversion for ‘technicolor’ appears only after the invention of colour photography. As long as photography was only able to render black and white, painting profiled itself through playing off colour, preferably unbroken by the rendering of tone: exemplary in the cloisonné technique of Gauguin or the pointillism of Seurat. We conclude that Luc Tuymans’ mania of washed-out colours originates in his endeavour to distinguish himself from photography. In addition, it also distinguished him from other painters like the Neue Wilden, that made a furore when he began with his ‘retour à la peinture’.
Also deformation is, equally from the very beginnings of modern art, the most obvious way to distinguish painting from photography, which is renown for its true-to-nature rendering. That is why Luc Tuymans does not project his images on the canvas, like Richter and the Photorealists, but draws them with a pencil on the canvas. To deformation belongs also the omission of details: ‘In order to show something, I paint a lot away’ (Maja Naef in Dexter*)
Finally, the small Polaroids are magnified. Until Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, photography equalled small formats, whereas painting, especially after the Second World War, increasingly came to prefer larger sizes. Luc Tuymans’ choice of the size is determined by an effort to distinguish himself as well from the smaller formats of photography as from the larger formats of painting.
CONTEMPT FOR PAINTING ITSELF
In the above, we have shown that Luc Tuymans ranks painting higher than photography, how much he might be devoted to the latter. But also his high esteem is at least ambivalent: it goes hidden behind an overt contempt for painting, a special variant of the contempt for the image as such.
To begin with, Luc Tuymans experiences painting as ‘antiquarian’. To accentuate that, he often produces a artificial ‘craquelé’, like in ‘Body’ (1990). Also the age worn colours, apart from the fact that they allow to distinguish his painting from commercial photography and expressionistic painting, have to convey the impression that the image is bleached by light. How much Luc Tuymans thinks in terms of photography is evident from the fact that bleaching is the fate of photos rather than paintings, which rather tend to darken.
The contempt shows itself also in his handling of what, according to the analysis above, he considers to be the distinguishing characteristic of painting: the brush stroke. Promoted to psychogram by the Action Painters, aseptically banned from the surface by Pop Art and the New Abstraction, it is triumphantly welcomed again by the Neue Wilden. Also Luc Tuymans welcomes the brush stroke. But the expressive stroke of the Neue Wilden is resolutely denied. Elsewhere he ridicules the magic of the pre-expressionistic ‘figurative’ brush strokes, where the brush made some self-contained movement on the canvas, that, from a distance, turned out to be some figurative motif. Also this form of ‘becoming image’ – mimesis par excellence – is resolutely denied with Luc Tuymans. His brushstrokes cannot achieve the mimetic miracle, from whatever distance you look. Exemplary is the painting ‘Wiedergutmachung’ where you see a kind of eggs sunny-side up. According to the booklet, we are dealing with eyes. But even when you know that, the stains never succeed in becoming eyes. Precisely the brush stroke, that was mobilised against the photographic ‘fini’, is bereaved of its expressive and mimetic potential and reduced to a pure referent for the message ‘this is painting’.
It is certainly no coincidence that Luc Tuymans seems to have a predilection for horizontal brushstrokes. They cannot but remind us of the lines of a text. Even when painting, Luc Tuymans writes – think of Dotremont and Cy Twombly. Also on this level, painting is turned into writing.
The irony is that also these anti-expressionistic strokes of Luc Tuymans acquire an expressiveness that is not intended, but not less real. This is the whole dilemma of ignorance: also clumsiness has an expressive value of its own. You are always right, hence, as already the artists of Cobra understood. Although it applies also here that one clumsiness is not the other: it suffices to compare Picasso with Appel.
The same applies to composition, precisely the domain where the hand made image is superior in principle to the photographical image. Take ‘Tentje’: Luc Tuymans wants to achieve a sense of discomfort through an inadequate position within the rectangle. To be sure: an inadequate composition has an expressiveness in its own right, just like a clumsy brush stroke. But how little Luc Tuymans is interested in composition, is apparent from the fact that he has no problems with having ‘Silence’ embroidered or silk screened on a shirt designed by Walter van Beirendonck. Of course, the dialogue between the figure and the frame falls away. If there was any altogether. For Luc Tuymans paints his images on a large canvas on the wall (like Pollock on the ground). When finished, he frames it in a rectangle by painting the rest away! That reminds not so much of Pollock, as rather of the photographer.
And it is above all evident, finally, from the way his works are conceived. Luc Tuymans images do not originate during painting itself – from a permanent dialogue between the unforeseeable effects of the brush and the deliberate intentions of the hand. Luc Tuymans’ has a clear cut concept in mind when he begins to paint -and executes this concept within a few hours: ‘I use drawings and before I begin painting the imagery is completely finalized. So the execution of the painting goes very fast, but the work before the painting, the conceptualizing of the image itself is a long period of time.’ (interview with ‘The scene’).
‘ALS ICK KAN’ (‘AS BEST I CAN’)
Jan Van Eyck
All this talk about the impotence of the image is not only an expression of the mimetic taboo, but also a construction to mask Luc Tuymans’ inability, that only testifies to the secret, but frustrated desire to walk in the wake of the real masters of painting: to become Antwerp’s new Rubens, if not Flanders’ new Van Eyck. Several contradictions betray such secret desire.
To begin with, Luc Tuymans prides himself that he has been a virtuoso painter in his academy years and that he afterwards intentionally denied the ‘aesthetic’ aspect of painting. However, not much of this virtuoso manner seems to have survived, not even in its negation. We cannot but surmise that the negation is nothing more than an alibi to conceal that he is not really good at using the brush stroke in a convincing way, neither in the mimetic, nor in the expressive, nor in the constructive sense.
The same goes for his bleached colours. Luc Tuymans declares: ‘A tone can grow, a colour cannot’ – as if to excuse himself for the fact that he denies himself the use of a full colour palette. Authors like Berg* echo: ‘His painting seem pale and monochromatic, but nonetheless reveal an abundance of colourful nuances and distinctions’. But, even when many art lovers breathed again when they saw the pastel colours of Luc Tuymans light up in the museums, his paintings are rather ‘grey holes’ than a seemingly neutral background from which eventually colours begin to light up. Some awareness of the lack of lighting power of his paintings may have led at the base of his sneer on Morandi, whose work he called `poetic bullshit’. That does not prevent thinning down with white from being a proven way of circumventing all the real problems with colour. And even within this thinned-down colour palette, Luc Tuymans mostly restricts himself to elementary dyads of complementary colours: he seldom lets triads resound, let alone still more complex combinations of colours. With the same self-confidence, Luc Tuymans declares that he resigns from full colours because ‘depth deals mostly with the idea of tones and not with full colours’ (Tusa*). In reality, lack of depth, perhaps more that those bleached out colours of him, is the hallmark of all the paintings of Luc Tuymans.
Also the shying away from ‘full’ history painting is based not only on contentual impotence, but above all on a lack of compository skills. For, painting a fragment of a mirror is one thing, composing a painting with many figures another. Not for nothing did Renaissance artists regard history painting and ‘compositio’ as synonyms. Against this background, we understand that other sneer, this time on Rubens, whom Luc Tuymans called the ‘Cecille B. de Mille’ of the 17th century.
Luc Tuymans has also his problems with the portrait. The man who was rewarded at the academy for a self-portrait, repeatedly confessed that he is not interested in the psychological portrait (Aliaga*). In the comments on ‘Der diagnostische Blick’, we read that it was the intention to make it clear that a portrait cannot reveal anything about inner life. One can conceive of many reasons to cover the eyes of Heydrich (Die Zeit, 1988) with sunglasses, or to frame the face out of the picture altogether, like in ‘Body’ (1990), or to concentrate on the re-presentation of photos meant to show the symptoms of disease on the face, like in ‘Der diagnostische Blick’. But is is also a convenient trick to conceal impotence. No wonder that Luc Tuymans prefers to paint moods directly, like in the series ‘Embitterment’ (1991) which the describes as ‘an emotional self-portrait’ ‘showing the inside of the body’.
THE RETURN OF THE REPRESSED
Despite all the verbiage about the impotence of the image, the image always takes revenge on its allegorical or instrumental abuse. And that goes also for the images of Luc Tuymans. Although they are conceived as a mere occasion for the breakthrough of ‘something terrifying’, in the last resort, only their ‘sense of cosiness’ remains intact. Luc Tuymans complains that many onlookers read his paintings as intimistic and poetic (Heynen*), and tells the anecdote of the German collector who had interpreted his ‘Gas Chamber’ as a cosy bathroom. But also the informed art lover all too readily overlooks the contentual freight of Luc Tuymans’ paintings. Suffices it to refer to Bunny Smedly* who bluntly declares: ‘It was perfectly possible to look at these works and see them not as sinister, brutal and horrific, but rather as evocative, nostalgic — even rather beautiful.’ Bitterli* muses that, despite the explicit intentions, Luc Tuymans work ‘is about light’. Andrew Lambirth experiences ‘Embitterment’, meant to convey rage as ‘rather pleasing’ and adds ironically :’I am responding visually to it, rather than intellectually’. And, whatever story Luc Tuymans might have to tell about ‘TV Set’ (2000), in the catalogue to the auction at Sotheby’s, it is simply described as ‘an eery, Munch-like landscape that has a nice feeling of mystery.’ …
It is only the question whether we are dealing here with a wrong lecture or rather with a lucid perception of an undercurrent in the work of Luc Tuymans that runs counter his explicit intentions. The sole fact that Luc Tuymans continues to resort to the brush betrays an addiction to painting that belies every conceptual rapture. And that goes also for his description of the act of painting: ‘Caressing the painting, flattening it out. Painting wet in wet. I would not say that every act derives from sexuality, But a lot is triggered by it’ (Aliaga*)
We cannot escape the impression that also the painter in Luc Tuymans himself is increasingly joining the German collector who descried a cosy bathroom in ‘Gas chamber’.
To begin with, Luc Tuymans seems increasingly reluctant to spin a verbal cobweb around his paintings. On occasion of his exhibition in the Tate, he declared: ‘Compared to my older paintings, where I tone down the virtuoso element for the sake of the content, now the painterly aspect of my work almost has the upper hand’ (Heynen*). And indeed, whereas in the Zeno X, Luc Tuymans has an exhibition old style around the theme of the Jesuits (Les Revenants, 2007), there is – apart from the already mentioned smoking room – no trace of political commitment in the parallel show ‘I don’t get it’ (2007) in the Museum of Photography in Antwerp. There are no paintings there, only photos and prints (monoprints, silk screens, lithos) and the focus is on purely plastic qualities. It is significant that Luc Tuymans images are often better when the photos, transformed in painting, are transformed in print in their turn – were it alone for the fact that those clumsy brush strokes of him do not survive the transformation (not to mention the mastery of the printer….). And, as the stories around the pictures tone down, the images become all the more eloquent: just think of a picture like ‘Bent over’.
Also the explicit denial of the virtuoso painting seems to gradually weaken. Already on some documentary films, we see Luc Tuymans show off some ‘virtuoso’ movements with the brush. And it is also apparent from his increasing preoccupation with the mimetic power of the brush stroke described above.
It will, finally, not have escaped Luc Tuymans’ attention that not only the uninformed onlookers, but also countless commentators read his portraits as psychological portraits. For, just like clumsy brushstrokes can be read as expressive nevertheless, also portraits of people who are concealing their inner life can be read as psychological portraits. To be sure, the alibi of transforming photographs continues to be invoked, like in the series of portraits drawn from memorial photographs (2000). But it speaks volumes that an informed commentator like Hans Theys describes Condoleezza Rice’s portrait – although it belongs to the series ‘Proper’ (2005) that deals with ‘fragile America and the crumbling state of current affairs’ – as a ‘tribute to a mighty woman of Afro-American descent’. Also figures like Jerry Saltz do not hesitate to praise that same portrait as a ‘modern Mona Lisa’! Granted, there is worlds apart from the photo of Heydrich with sunglasses and this modern Mona Lisa from the Bush administration. I rather prefer Duchamp’s ‘LHOOQ’… Also the portrait of that young boy from the series ‘Les Revenants’ is widely praised. It is painted after a still from the film ‘The valley of the doomed’ (Road of the Giants). It reminded me immediately of a photo of Luc Tuymans as a young boy in his Sunday best, and of a more recent photo where the now adolescent Luc Tuymans points a revolver to the camera. And also of Luc Tuymans’ confession in Trends: that he has always dreamed of having three costumes made by a top tailor – of being able to wear the uniform of the more modern elites so to speak. Talking about self-portraits…
The image takes its revenge. And that revenge is more than sweet. For, if we leave the overstatements for what they are, Luc Tuymans’ works are no longer understatements, but just paintings like all the other which have to compete with those of the great masters in the museums. And that comparison will never be in favour of Luc Tuymans: just hang the ‘monumental’ ‘Still Life’ next to Brueghel’s modest ‘Dulle Griet’…. That is why Luc Tuymans will never let dry out the verbal ether in which his paintings thrive. Presently, he is working on a series “Disneyworld”, where this time not the power of the Jesuits is at stake, but that of advertising. Perhaps some self-reflection would be nice….
LUC TUYMANS, A MISUNDERSTANDING (1)
Luc Tuymans’ painting is much like the relation between his mother in the resistance and his collaborating father: ambivalent and contradictory. The man would like to be a painter, does not believe in painting, dedicates himself to conceptualism, does so with paintings, draws his motifs from photos, represents them on the canvas, while overtly despising painting. No outright painter, hence, but rather a conceptualist/photographer plagued by homesickness for painting. His work is a half-hearted compromise between an endeavour to revive the image and the desire not to lose access to the temples of art where, ever since Marcel Duchamp, the mimetic taboo has been installed. There, he is all too welcome, precisely because of his flirting with painting, to alleviate the bad conscience of all those who had all too readily referred painting to the dustbin.
And, since he is not a genuine painter, it is somewhat out of place to assert that he would have put painting on the agenda again. Besides, painting has only been removed from specific agendas: those of that handful of curators that fly around the world only to meet each other everywhere. The irony of the whole story is that painting – or the image – has rather been put on the agenda again by the very black sheep that has initiated the anti-mimetic spiral in modern art: photography. From the eighties onwards, it began its unstoppable conquest of galleries and museum under applause of the public. Also photography had to pay its lip service to the there reigning anti-mimetic ideology (see Joel Peter Witkin and Andreas Gursky). But it is telling for the havoc that has meanwhile been wreaked, that it is not longer the painters that object to the ever more severe ban on the image. When the Action Painting threatened to reduce painting to a kind of expressive writing, it was Pop Art that tried to restore the image, and when Minimalism (see Judd) and Conceptual Art (see Weiner) got the upper hand again, it was the Neue Wilden that tried to reverse the tide. The advent of figures like Luc Tuymans, on the other hand, is only the epiphenomenon of a fare more strong countercurrent that was initiated by photography. The wait is only for a genuine revolution, that would set free painting and photography alike from the deadlock in which they have ended up after a meanwhile more than hundred years old trench war, far away from the image that they were supposed to produce.
There is not much to be expected from a Luc Tuymans here: if he would ever turn out to be the virtuoso painter he pretends to have been – which we only wish were true – he would only price himself out of his image and of the market.
LES CHARMES SECRETS DE LUC TUYMANS
It remains to be explained why Luc Tuymans has become so popular, not only with the art lovers, but also by an increasing number of disciples.
Wherein resides that secret charm?
The enthusiasm of the disciples is easy to understand. It is based on a misunderstanding. Ever since Luc Tuymans made painting respectable again, they can unabashedly resume painting, with our without the accompanying stories. Except that of the photos. For these release them of the difficult task ‘of selecting or constructing a motif’, as already Richter confessed. Next, there is the already mentioned ease of painting in a muted palette and the often cheap charms of wet-in-wet painting. That explains the fierceness with which the Tuymans-adepts denounce the Tuymans-clones: they would not have the same profundity. But the profundity that would discern Luc Tuymans from his clones, is only disclosed by the verbal comments. Without these comments, we are left with paintings like all the others, without the discerning profundity. Precisely because the Tuymans-clones need not bother about spinning stories around their pictures, their brush work is often far more interesting. With that breath down his neck, it becomes increasingly difficult for Luc Tuymans to persist in his ambivalent stance on painting. Which perhaps explains why he increasingly seems to prefer to paint without all that conceptual and photographic fuss.
The enthusiasm of the art lovers is based on the same misunderstanding. Precisely because what at first sight presents itself as a banal animal piece with a bunch of city pigeons, can be sold as a horrifying history painting that reveals ‘a chilling truth about humankind’, they can unabashedly enjoy the charms of painting, in the full conviction that they are reflecting on major world problems or on the essence of the image.
LUC TUYMANS, A MISUNDERSTANDING (2)
But there is more. Many a devotee of Luc Tuymans seems to be addicted to that nostalgic atmosphere that hangs around Luc Tuymans’ paintings – to the Hopper rather than the Richter in Luc Tuymans. The zooming away from what is really at stake – the regression from history painting to the cosiness of the lower genres – is only a first move that clears the way, not only for the seizure of power by the word, as described above, but in many cases also for another move, that threatens to remain unnoticed: the projection of private stories – the gas chamber as a metaphor for the children’s room, as we phrased it earlier. That explains Luc Tuymans predilection for themes of the past: they pave the way for a condensation with themes of infancy and youth. There are numerous examples, but exemplary is the image of Mwana Kitiko – ‘the beautiful boy’ – descending from the plane: poor King Bouduain, treated so stepmotherly by the successor of his beautiful Swedish mother Astrid and by a father who collaborated with the Germans, who, nearly adult, got the yoke of the Imperialist heritage of his forefather Leopold II around his neck! This story not only condenses the political themes of Imperialism and Nazism, it foremost contains all the elements for a secret identification of Luc Tuymans with this shy king. For, behind the now so self-confident Luc Tuymans, a rather shy boy goes hidden, like the one on the portrait from the series ”Les Revenants’, that could just as well have been a portrait of the young king Bouduain or of Luc Tuymans as a young boy. While the vague figures and hinted at themes on Luc Tuymans’ canvasses conjure up all kinds of reminiscences in the private unconscious, the bad conscience about that is alleviated in the conscious by the the big stories that are woven around the image. Thus, the onlookers can secretly indulge in self-complaint about the dawn of the prince in them – in the full conviction that they are dealing with World Problems.
The emphasis with which Luc Tuymans and his commentators contend that he would be a history painter, in combination with Luc Tuymans contention that he is not at all interested in the psychological portrait, and that he removes himself from the image altogether, reveals a second, more fundamental misunderstanding: Luc Tuymans’ history painting, reduced to genre painting, is in many cases only a travesty for the enactment of the infantile drama. There is nothing wrong the latter, even less with a deliberate combination of the personal and the social or political level, quite the contrary. Problematic is only the travesty, which does serve the purpose nor of the gas chamber, nor of the children’s room. That is already apparent from the remarkable lacunas in the subject matter handled, as pointed out in the beginning of this text.
Thus, it appears that Luc Tuymans is not only a misunderstanding in the sense that he would have put painting on the agenda again, but also in the sense that he is not at all dealing with the very subject matter that made him famous. Or to phrase it otherwise: Luc Tuymans is not only a crypto-Duchamp, but also a crypto-Hopper.
And in this double misunderstanding resides the double secret charm of Luc Tuymans: while they can keep up the appearance that they are reflecting on the essence of the image and the world problems, his devotees can not only unabashedly indulge in the forbidden charms of painting, but foremost indulge in a secret self complaint on the child in them that has been abused. By….
© Stefan Beyst, August 2007;
* See ‘some references’ below.
** SAUNDERS, Frances Stonor: ‘ Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War’, Granta Books, London
BERG, Stephan Ed.: ‘Luc Tuymans, the Arena’, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2003
DEXTER, Emma en HEYNEN, Julian: ‘Luc Tuymans’, Tate, 2004.
LOOCK ulrich, ALIAGA Juan Vincente, SPECTOR, Nancy: ‘Luc Tuymans’, Phaidon, 1996.
SMEDLEY, Bunny: ‘Luc Tuymans at Tate Modern’
STORR, Robert,PIROTTE Philippe en HOET jan (Ed): ‘Mwana Kitoko, SMAK, Gent 2001?
VERMEIREN, Gerrit: ‘Luc Tuymans: Proper’, David Zwirner, 2005.
TUSA, John: Intervieuw with Luc Tuymans
Added July 2008:
RAUTERBERG, Hanno: ‘Schach gemalt, Schwach gedacht’ (24.03.2003)
RAUTERBERG, Hanno: ‘Was bedeuten diese Bilder’ (08.05.2008)
KOENOT, Jan: ‘De macht van de Jezuïeten en de onmacht van beelden’, Streven, November 2007.
LAUREYNS, Jeroen: ‘Geschilderde geruchten”, Knack, 6 juni 2007.