Summary of Luc Tuymans
Many artists use art to help make sense of, and process, the world around them. Luc Tuymans has become one of the world's most influential painters in doing just this. His eerie figurative works transform people and events from our global news and cultural feeds into unsettling examinations of history and memory. Social and political events from the world stage become memorialized on his canvas, albeit with a distinct lack of the artist's personal opinion. It's as if he is creating a veil, once removed from the actual event, in order to allow viewers to investigate their own feelings without the pull of direct culpability. His art positions ambiguity as a keystone to our communal existence.
- Tuymans sources popular media and news imagery, utilizing it to inspire his paintings both in subject matter, and techniques such as close cropping. This allows for instant familiarity for viewers but has also landed him in hot water with regards to being called a plagiarist.
- The artist enjoys the distance between himself and his subject matter that the camera facilitates which he mimics by using his paintings to do the same. By painting a world event or important cultural figure, he is adding one more layer to that distance for his viewers.
- In order to induce his signature ambiguity, Tuymans employs such measures as pale, muted palettes, wet on wet and choppy brushstrokes, and an often times distinct lack of detail to his painting. This allows for the viewer to use the limited information to formulate their own opinions and associations, culled more from the unconscious rather than the literal facts on the canvas.
- A suggestion of horrors, dangers, or uncomfortable circumstance that take place beyond the painting's borders is typical of the artist's work. This causes viewer's to question what lies beyond what they are told or think they know about contemporary events.
- Tuymans is often referred to as a political artist, and has indeed referred to life in general as a war zone. In so much that he as described history as chock full of unreliable information, he could also be considered a silent activist, presenting our media's constant fodder to us as documentation for further investigation into truth and falsity.
Progression of Art
This self-portrait was one of the artist's first oil paintings, made when he was around eighteen years old. Whereas the composition is quite traditional, the figure is disjointed and barely described. As a result, the presence of the artist is evidenced as much by the visible brush strokes as his painted form. The palette is also very limited, reflecting the artist's view that: "Tones, more than colour, create the difference in how you memorize imagery."
Portraiture is fairly common in Tuymans's oeuvre, but the same cannot be said of self-portraits. This example is therefore quite rare. His portraits are traditional inasmuch as they are figurative representations of their subject, nevertheless they are often several degrees removed - painted not from life but from existing images such as press photographs, or even photographs or photocopies of photographs.
The painting is additionally significant as Tuymans entered it into a competition and was awarded a prize. His winnings included a book on the Belgian painter and printmaker, James Ensor (1860-1949), who became a lifelong influence for Tuymans. Poignantly, the book also featured a self-portrait painted by Ensor at the same young age as Tuymans. The latter identified similarities (in meaning as opposed to appearance) between the two works. Initially this was a cause of distress as Tuymans stated, "I had worked on my painting for more than three months; I thought I had made something original." Ultimately, the artist's frustration gave way to the realization that originality was an impossibility. He instead became interested in its "authentic forgery." This notion has continued to inspire Tuymans, as his paintings typically take as their precedents existing images that have often already been published.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
This painting is often discussed alongside two others, Our New Quarters and Schwarzheide, from the same year. All three works depict Nazi concentration camps; this one is Dachau. The artist presents the concentration camp as a blank interior. There is little detail, as if he is reluctant to engage with the subject too closely, while the limited palette adds to the impression of understatement. Common to journalists' and critics' impressions of this painting is the idea of claustrophobia, both visually - in the perspective and the lack of tonal variation that offers no relief for the eye - and in the relentless difficulty of its subject matter.
It is unsurprising that the painting demonstrates some wariness to address the traumatic events of the Holocaust. Speaking to art critic Jason Farago about Our New Quarters, which was painted prior to Gas Chamber, Tuymans commented, "Having not experienced such horrors, I didn't think it was morally possible to do it, but nevertheless, I did." The horrors to which he refers have personal significance to the artist with respect to his family history. While his mother's family worked in the Dutch resistance, hiding refugees, two of his paternal uncles were young supporters of the Nazi party. Tuymans has spoken of this tension as both fascinating and terrifying. He is nevertheless compelled to grapple with it and to address it in painting, perhaps in recognition that any response will appear inadequate.
At the Tate gallery, Gas Chamber and Schwarzheide are exhibited alongside other paintings by Tuymans that depict domestic interiors and everyday objects in what is described as the "interplay between the banal and the terrible." This curatorial decision brings out the domestic in Gas Chamber, which at first glance appears almost childlike in its depiction of an unremarkable and apparently quite modest space. The few disturbing details in the painting - the stained walls and holes in the ceiling, are not necessarily evident at first glance. According to Tate, this domestic similarity acts as a warning that fascism can be normalized and accepted into the everyday. The works that accompany these paintings with their mundane subject matter act as "reminders of the bourgeois environment that nurtured and protected Nazism."
Gas Chamber also demonstrates Tuymans's interest in documentation: the process of capturing and representing (or attempting to represent) something of the world in which we live, and the endless potential for reproducing and manipulating these records. He often uses documentary sources as inspiration for his art, while maintaining something of their original purpose. In the case of Gas Chamber, Tuymans's image is based on a watercolour that the artist made on site at Dachau and reflects that this original painting had discoloured by the time Tuymans reproduced it. Similarly, the image for Our New Quarters was originally a postcard, pasted into a book. Tuymans's version reflects this by using text to accompany the image.
Oil on canvas - The Over Holland Collection
This painting is one in a series of ten, each including imagery of stereotypically American motifs. For example, others include Mount Rushmore, people at work, a car, and children's toys. According to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Tuymans was inspired to make these works following the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City. The images were made quickly and are lacking in detail. They all use muted, near monochrome colors, making them appear similar to the blurred snapshots one might come across in a newspaper.
In Heritage I, the complete lack of attention paid to detailing the face beneath the baseball cap gives the image a sinister edge. It speaks of the anonymity of the individual in a consumerist culture where the public is conceived as a generic mass as opposed to a group of unique people. According to author and filmmaker Peter von Ziegesar, there is also a similarity between these hats and generic hotel rooms. There is a suggestion that heritage is being temporarily inhabited by an unidentified individual, who will shortly move on. The ambiguity in the images leaves some of the responsibility for these interpretations with the viewer.
Inasmuch as Tuymans focuses on images that are ubiquitous in American culture and questions their meaning, the intent of the series (if not its appearance) could be said to have something in common with Pop Art. However, the artist goes much further, as he implies that these objects and scenes have a sinister dimension. In Tuymans's words, he wished to create in this series "a constant uneasiness, like a constant noise." In line with this statement, Von Ziegesar likens the images to sequences in a Hitchcock film in which the audience is shown a series of mundane objects that will later acquire a sinister meaning.
Oil on canvas - The Philadelphia Museum of Art
This is a portrait of the 24-year old Belgian King, Baudouin I, arriving for the first time in the Congo for a state visit in 1955. Baudouin I is the eponymous Mwana Kitoko - beautiful boy, a title given to the young king by the Congolese and later changed by the authorities to Bwana Kitoko - beautiful, noble man (in order to express more respect and authority). Tuymans's use of the former title is therefore telling. This, coupled with the juxtaposition of the King's many medals and his evident discomfort and unease, suggests some distance between the authoritative role and the young man who inhabits it.
The painting was made during the investigation into the murder of Patrice Lumumba - the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the independent Republic of Congo, who was assassinated shortly after independence. Allegations were made that various institutions, including the Belgian government, were responsible for the 1961 murder.
The limited details and muted palette alongside the crop of the image as if it were straight from the pages of a newspaper, showcase the signature techniques used by Tuymans to pull his viewers in. Yet rather than simply reading the story and moving on, the painting remains a reminder of our communal ability to absorb vast amounts of information in the media yet remain once removed from the events portrayed.
The piece was part of Tuymans' series Mwana Kitoko, produced specifically for the 2001 Venice Biennale. The series, according to Tate, demonstrates Tuymans's view of history as "a complex web of unreliable and disparate pieces of information." This attitude would contribute to the 20th century's postmodernist ethos of skepticism and irony, out from which rose art that generally questioned and rejected the pre-fed narratives of our time.
Oil on canvas - Collection unknown
This work contains a simple still life. Most of the canvas is empty and there is nothing remarkable about the objects represented, except perhaps that they appear to be floating in space - lit from a source beyond the picture frame.
The significance of this work lies in its context more than its content. The artist exhibited the piece at Documenta 11 in 2002. Having recently acquired a reputation as a political artist, it was expected that he would use the exhibition to respond to the 9/11 New York terror attacks of the previous year. However, Tuymans confounded expectations by showing this large-scale still life.
Tuymans received substantial criticism for this work. Many believed that by failing to directly respond to the exhibition's theme of social and political engagement, the artist had not fulfilled his duty to the viewing public. Tuymans and his wife witnessed the 9/11 terror attacks, and in an interview for Apollo magazine, he countered that it would have been "impossible" to paint a response at that time. "It's not the way that painting works." By presenting the still life instead, Tuymans drew attention to the inadequacy of art to address atrocities - questioning the very idea of a political artist.
This artwork is therefore divisive. Whilst some view it as a failure to engage with the reality of the times in which we live, others like author Ben Eastham have framed it as a "quiet triumph." For Eastham, the familiar objects set within an expanse of empty space prompt a much-needed moment of stillness and reflection, uncommon in times of crisis. The Saatchi Gallery furthers this perspective, claiming the painting offers a "sublime" alternative to the horrors it cannot address.
Oil on canvas - Pinault Collection
The Secretary of State
This is a portrait of Condoleezza Rice, who had, at the time of painting, recently become United States' Secretary of State. As with many of Tuymans's works, the painting is cropped dramatically close-up and a muted palette brings to mind printed images in the news. The source is indeed a media image, albeit from online. Tuymans was inspired to paint Rice after she became the subject of a politician's sexual remarks and found the original image for this painting on a fan website. The origins of the image emphasize the fact that the subject is a public figure.
In the year in which the painting was made, Rice was voted the world's most powerful woman by Forbes magazine. Her influence comes across in this painting, which is both intimate and unknowable. Despite the close view, the subject's eyes are averted and her expression is set determinedly as if to avoid communication with the viewer. (It was this expression that attracted Tuymans to the particular source image he used.)
Interpretations of this painting have varied - from a critique of the Bush administration to a tribute to Rice that has been compared to Warhol's Marilyn Monroe series works. While Tuymans aligns himself with the former viewpoint, he adds that Rice is "a fascinating woman - the first African-American Secretary of State - a strong, intelligent persona." He sees her as an "aberration" within the Bush administration and admires her tenacity to achieve as a black woman in politics.
Having been painted so soon after Rice became Secretary of State, the painting provoked strong reactions by viewers and collectors. Several Republican collectors felt unable to continue collecting Tuymans's work. Again, Tuymans managed to stir a pot of discomfort by merely presenting back to the public an image created originally by its own media machine, without he, himself, affixing any particular meaning.
Oil on canvas - MoMA (Museum of Modern Art)
A Belgian Politician
This is a portrait of Jean-Marie Dedecker, a right-wing populist politician and proponent of a more independent Flanders (the Dutch-speaking northern community of Belgium). It is typical of Tuymans in its limited color palette and close-up view. The most arresting aspect of the image is its brutal crop halfway down the subject's face.
The cropping of the image has been much discussed, however predominantly in legal as opposed to artistic terms. This is due to a court case that found Tuymans guilty of plagiarism, since the painting was thought to infringe the copyright of the photograph on which it is based. The original is by award-winning portrait and documentary photographer Katrijn Van Giel, taken for the Belgian newspaper De Standaard, and employs the same crop. Ironically though, it is in color, thus Tuymans's version connotes a newspaper image more than its printed precedent.
According to Tuymans's lawyer, Michael De Vroey, the artist "wanted to create a strong image to deliver a critique of the move to the right wing in Belgian society." His practice has for many years centered on the use of existing imagery, which has often already been published. Tuymans considers this way of working akin to freedom of speech as well as a mode of contemporary critique. In his lawyer's words "How can an artist call the world into question with his works if he isn't allowed to use that world's images?"
Tuymans's painting is removed from the photograph since it is based on his own photograph of Van Giel's work, as printed in the newspaper. Furthermore, Tuymans's painting is intended as art, whereas Van Giel's photograph is not. He has spoken of painting as a different medium to photography that provokes different responses from viewers and allows us to see the world in a different way. In response to a question about the unpredictability of painting during an interview with art critic Jason Farago, he replied, "That is primordial. Because otherwise I could just show the photograph." As such, he claims his painting is "not really infringing on what the photographer's photograph means."
Rather, Tuymans sees the plagiarism case as an opportunity for the government to play out existing rivalries, inasmuch as the verdict did not appear to follow European law (suggesting perhaps that those making the verdict support an independent Flanders). The artist's view of the case as "an exceedingly large waste of time," entirely concerned with money and a means of "punishing" the artist for his success, makes a mockery of the justice system in the same way that Tuymans's work parodies the photograph on which it is based. (The matter has since been settled out of court.)
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Formally, this painting is not especially typical of Tuymans's work. It is extremely large and composed of very dark tones, where usually the artist would use a much paler palette. While it appears monochrome, the painting is actually made with pale green and yellow on an indigo background. Additionally, much of the canvas is dedicated to landscape, with none of the tight cropping that characterizes other figurative works by Tuymans.
The title of the painting is a clue to its subject matter - a group of figures standing at the shore - that is very loosely sketched. This choice of subject is based on the 1968 film, A Twist of Sand - an adventure film about the recovery of diamonds from on board a Spanish ship. In the opening scene, a group of men appear on the shore. They appear to be awaiting rescue, however before they reach the foreground they are gunned down. In an interview for Artlyst, Tuymans added that this scene from the film particularly resonated with him as it recalls media imagery of contemporary execution. "You think, indirectly, unconsciously about the imagery you see from ISIS ... or the Islamic State, with their masks of black, and white."
The moment captured in The Shore is just before violence ensues. This suggestion of horrors that take place beyond the depicted scene is typical of Tuymans's work, in which the subject is often mundane or traditional at first glance, illuminated only by haunting titles and connections made by the viewer. He attributes this technique to filmmaker Fritz Lang, saying to art critic Jason Farago, "If I now would paint a decapitation by some member of ISIS, I don't think that would be relevant. Much more relevant would be the moment before or after ... Fritz Lang never showed violence."
The moment before or after is a typical Tuyman move, provoking viewers to come up with their own conclusions while reviewing imagery made numbingly familiar by its saturation in the news.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Biography of Luc Tuymans
Luc Tuymans was born in Mortsel near Antwerp, Belgium in 1958. Although he has since described Antwerp as a city "of smartasses and troublemakers," he has always lived in Belgium and continues to call the area home. In an interview with author Elīna Čivle-Üye, he states: "I was born here and am somehow linked to this place."
While little has been written about the artist's childhood, Tuymans' Corso series (2015) of paintings recalls family holidays taken in Zundert, where a young Luc would work on the floats for the Zundert Flower Parade. Some of the paintings used photographs taken by his father for source material.
The influence of Tuymans's parents is most deeply felt, however, in the artist's work on World War II and the Holocaust. While his mother's family worked in the Dutch resistance, hiding refugees, two of his paternal uncles were members of the Hitler Youth. This tension has been a source of both fascination and fear for the artist, which he has attempted to address in painting.
Education and Early Training
Tuymans began his study of fine art at the Sint-Lukasinstituut in Brussels (1976-79), continuing his education at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Visuels de la Cambre in the same city (1979-80). In the late 1970s, he began to make his first oil paintings. One of these was a self-portrait, for which he won a prize in a competition between several Belgian schools. His winnings included a book on Belgian painter, James Ensor (1860-1949), who has been a lifelong influence for Tuymans.
In the 1980s, Tuymans moved from Brussels to Antwerp, where he studied painting at the Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (1980-82). He was disillusioned with art school, where the contemporary art presented to him (Neo-Expressionism and the German equivalent, Neue Wilden) was "tedious." Furthermore, he was particularly troubled by the lack of attention given to painting both by contemporary artists and by his teachers. As a painter, he therefore considers himself self-taught.
Perhaps as a result of this disappointment, Tuymans returned to Brussels to study History of Art at the Vrije Universiteit (1982-86). Having lost interest in painting, albeit only for two years, the artist also worked as a filmmaker. He describes happening upon film "by accident" as "a friend shoved a Super 8 camera in my hand." His interest grew and ultimately influenced his painting style, as Tuymans began to use new techniques such as cropping and close-ups. He enjoyed the distance the camera afforded him as a spectator, stating, "I turned to film because, at that point, the world had become too tormented, existential, suffocating. I had to get away; I didn't have enough distance."
As evidenced by his experience at art school, Tuymans emerged as an artist during a time of general uninterest in painting, aside from the works of certain contemporary artists such as John Currin and Elizabeth Peyton. Noted art critic Peter Schjeldahl credited Tuymans with having contributed to the medium's revival after the artist first showed his work at a solo exhibition at the Palais des Thermes in Ostend in 1985. He continued to draw public attention over the next decade as he began to explore memories of World War II in Europe, with paintings such as Gas Chamber (1986), depicting the concentration camp at Dachau.
In the early 1990s, Tuymans became a full-time painter and was one of the first artists to be picked up by the David Zwirner gallery at its inception. Both Tuymans and the gallery have since won international acclaim. In an interview for Ocula magazine, the artist comments, "I never gave the market any thought when I started out as an artist. Initially I was chucked out of every academy and I worked as a bouncer, up to the point that I became too restless and needed to show my art ... I treat it [the market] as a war zone."
In the 1980s and '90s, Tuymans developed a distinctive process of painting he still uses today, whereby series of drawings, photocopies, and watercolors precede the final work, which is then completed in one day. Describing this method for Apollo magazine, the artist said the first stage, in which he contemplates and manipulates existing images, is "the most painful part" and often involves referencing existing visual materials such as Polaroids and film stills. This is followed by a burst of activity, in which he states, "intelligence shifts from my brain to my hand."
The resulting images often appeared slightly out of focus, a product of the artist re-photographing and remaking them, and of using wet paint on wet paint. These practices helped him put distance between himself and the original image. Additionally, Tuymans worked intentionally with cheap materials that caused the image to degrade. The artist explained, "the work is about the loss of meaning, but also about the failure of representation." Works made in this way included Die Zeit (Time) (1988), Heimat (1996), and Passion (1999).
Tuymans has spoken of a need, during the financial crisis, "to just organize [one]self." This inspired the artist to look back at his old works and put together a digital archive - a practice that ties in with his interest in documentation. Tuymans often works from images that are originally documentary, turning them into art while keeping something of their original purpose. For example his painting Our New Quarters (1986) reflects the fact that the original image was a postcard, which was later pasted into a book.
Tuymans sees his work as grounded in the circumstances of modern reality, for example, war and its consequences on society. He believes that staying politically informed is important, since art is created "from what you experience and see." Given this philosophy, it is unsurprising that Tuymans has developed a reputation as a political artist - particularly prompted by his series of paintings Mwana Kitoko (2000), based on Belgian imperial rule in the Congo. He nevertheless resists this label, stating in an interview with Apollo magazine: "I don't think that an artist can be political, without formulating propaganda." He believes paintings should encourage viewers to question rather than reflect the artist's particular points of view.
On the basis of this reputation, many expected the artist's work for the Documenta 11 exhibition in 2002 to respond to the New York 9/11 attacks of the previous year. However Tuymans presented a still life on a grand scale, with no reference to world events - a piece for which he was widely criticized. Most recently, in 2015, Tuymans has been subject to public scrutiny on account of using photographer Katrijn Van Giel's portrait of Jean-Marie Dedecker as a source for his painting A Belgian Politician (2011). For this, he was found guilty of plagiarism, which he appealed on the grounds that the work was a parody of the photograph and a critique of Belgian conservatism, thus not in breach of copyright. The matter was settled amicably out of court, though it has left Tuymans wary of the media and of his country's position on individual success (and artistic license).
The art critic Jason Farago described Tuymans as follows: "he wears all black, a little white paint speckling one of his trouser legs. He lights cigarettes with the regularity of a metronome." Unlike many contemporary artists of his renown, he is extroverted and enjoys the lively creative atmosphere of Antwerp where he lives with his wife, Venezuelan artist Carla Arocha. Arocha and her business partner Stéphane Schraenen work as an artistic duo whose work spans art, design, and performance. Together with Tuymans, they also founded the artist initiative C A S S T L, which holds events and exhibitions of their own work and others. While their home includes a workshop and exhibition space for Arocha, Tuymans prefers to separate his everyday life from his art. His studio in Antwerp is the only place he can paint, though he is able to draw in any location. He claims to make about twenty paintings a year, describing his work as "intense."
Tuymans remains an utmost professional who views being an artist as a profession requiring organization and commitment. He is proud of his work ethic, claiming "I've never missed a deadline, unlike many artists who behave like prima donnas." Tuymans is also something of a perfectionist and extremely self-critical. These qualities are reflected in his unusual working process (as he described it to Coffeklatch), which includes leaving the studio on completing a painting in order to go drinking. The artist then returns to the studio "still somewhat under the influence... because that allows me to see the work with the eyes of a stranger" to recognize whether any changes are required. In a similar vein, Tuymans cannot abide seeing his works in the homes of collectors, "because I always see mistakes."
The Legacy of Luc Tuymans
Inspired by Jan van Eyck, René Magritte, and James Ensor, Tuymans is highly conscious of the history of Belgian painters and its preoccupation with realism, which he claims is "born of necessity. This country has been overrun by so many foreign powers that we don't have time to be Romantic." He sees his work as grounded in a reality where conflict is the norm rather than the exception with his paintings placing a veil between that reality and his self, once removed.
According to author Elīna Čivle-Üye, Tuymans is popular with prestigious curators, "A-class" gallerists and the public alike. He is considered to be one of the most influential contemporary painters and a pioneer of the medium's revival. The artist is often compared to Gerhard Richter, a leading German painter twenty-five years his senior. The two share an interest in photographs as source material, which might be manipulated and blurred via painting. Tuymans's work has also been exhibited alongside that of contemporary South African/Dutch painter Marlene Dumas, who has, like Tuymans, been described as one of Richter's "children." Dumas and Tuymans are both interested in the relationship between photographic and painted images, used to address historical and political events in art.
Besides painting, Tuymans has worked as a guest tutor at the Dutch institute Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten, where he taught emerging artists Paulina Olowska and Ivan Grubanov. Additionally, he has curated several exhibitions, notably cross-cultural exhibitions that bring together Belgian and Chinese art. This ties in with his belief that isolation should be avoided. In his curation, Tuymans mixes contemporary and canonical art, with shows such as Constable, Delacroix, Friedrich, Goya. A Shock to the Senses at the Albertinum in Dresden. He believes that traditional curators often promote the same intellectual discourse, whereas Tuymans prefers to prioritize the visual, irrespective of background. Claiming, in an interview with Coffeeklatch magazine, that "Curating is satisfactory because it offers you new, often completely different insights." His 2015 exhibition at the Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art brought together six painters of varying ages and nationalities, through whose works he wished to demonstrate "juxtaposition of different lines of thought." He is as dedicated a curator as he is an artist, saying, "It's important to oversee a project from start to finish."