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 - 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 - Tate