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Luc Tuymans - Biography and Legacy

Belgian Painter

Born: 1958 - Mortsel, Belgium

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."

Mature Period

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.

Current Work

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).

Luc Tuymans with his wife, Carla Arocha (2009)

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

Tuymans at the opening of his exhibition “Against the Day” in 2009

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."

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Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Luc Tuymans Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 02 Dec 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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