Painting mute

March 2015

Luc Tuymans does it his way
John Playfair, 2014 Oil on canvas 49.8 x 38.1 x 2.6 cm.

A day after the opening of the current Luc Tuymans exhibition in London, DAMN° had the chance to sit down with the Belgian artist and discuss his work, as well as how it is being a painter in the early 21st century. Inevitably, the subject of the recent court case against him for plagiarism arose, nicely adding colour to the conversation. Given that the use of images circulating in the media and elsewhere is, and always has been, at the heart of his practice as a painter, the matter is all the more intriguing. Regardless of how you look at it, Tuymans is an artist of our time.

Luc Tuymans has an eye for images that are charged with symbolic power. He is the type of artist that reads our time and picks out images that are significant and worth reconsidering. That is where his practice as a painter begins. On the occasion of his exhibition The Shore, Tuymans took us on a tour through the David Zwirner Gallery in London. The first works on display are three small portraits based on those by the Scottish painter Henry Raeburn. Tuymans took pictures of these paintings with his phone, printed them, enlarged them, re-photographed them, and then painted the results. His versions can still be called portraits, although the psychological distance from these figures is significantly different. It is not the kind of portrait through which you get to know somebody, but rather through which you see somebody, shifting the perception of the depicted person. The faces seem too close, and are even unpleasant in colour. All three of these faces have a blue glow, similar to the light emitted by a computer screen, contrasting with the orange-pink flesh tones.

To Tuymans, it has always been clear that he is not ‘original’; he knew this long before a judge in his hometown of Antwerp convicted him of plagiarism. He has been choosing photos and digital images as a starting point for his paintings for more than 20 years. But four years after he painted A Belgian Politician, based on a newspaper photo depicting Jean-Marie Dedecker, the photographer filed a complaint. “I offered to mention the source”, Tuymans explains. “I’ve always been open about where I find my imagery. But the photographer didn’t think that was enough. So then it went to court.” The judge thought the painting was too close to the photo, in terms of its composition and the framing of the image. But this judge never saw the painting in real life. So the only ‘evidence’ was a reproduction, as absurd as that may sound. The whole process was thus based on photographic images, while the issue at stake was the difference between a painting (an artwork) and a press photo. It becomes even more ironic if you consider that Tuymans’s work has always involved research into the reliability of images, and the difference between paintings and other types of images. What could actually be regarded as an ode to a photograph has turned into a felony. “It’s insane”, Tuymans laments. It is clear to him that it was the particular newspaper – which he is not allowed to mention by name – that started the rumour and urged the photographer to take action. “In this part of Belgium, which is centre-right oriented, people have hated me for decades.” Tuymans is determined to fight the case on appeal. “It will become an iconic painting”, he says. “We will fight the case. There is too much at stake now… The law is behind by 20 years and should be adapted to acknowledge the present-day use of images.”

From the very beginning, in the 1990s, Tuymans already called his paintings ‘authentic falsifications’, implying that reproduction had become an essential instrument in the artist’s toolbox. “When I started out”, he recalls, “I liked to make paintings that looked as if they were done 40 years ago, to create a different sense of time.” Indeed Tuymans’s work seems quite detached; the colours are often pale, and the figuration is suggestive rather than detailed. His motifs appear isolated from life. In his development as a painter, film has been a very important medium for him, far more so than photography. “The pulse of the moving image is something I want to capture. An archaic element enters into my paintings. I take digital images from our present-day world and transform them through an old, almost anachronistic medium.” 

A lot of artists nowadays extract material from the daily flood of images. More interesting than the legal question is the one an art critic would pose: Does an artist succeed in transcending his source material in an interesting way? In the case of A Belgian Politician, one needs to see the original painting in order to form a valid opinion. The exhibition in London has similar examples to offer. The key painting in the show, The Shore, after which it is named, is based on a still image from the 1968 film A Twist of Sand. In the centre of the image are a number of individuals captured at the moment prior to being gunned down by an invisible source, the artist explains. This knowledge adds something to the image, as solely from the figuration, one cannot decide what the people’s fate will be, even though the mood is clearly dark and threatening. “Unconsciously, you think of the imagery of the Islamic State, including masked men and flags, in black and white. For me, it is about the state of the imagery, and the disquiet it brings”, says Tuymans. Another indirect source for this painting was Goya’s Pinturas Negras, which have become important to Tuymans over the years. “Goya is the very old master of Modernity”.

Two other works in the show are based on photographs the artist took of the wallpaper in the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, one depicting a cloud, and the other, a forest with an obelisk. They could be seen merely as landscapes, but the indirect view changes one’s perspective, and the colours are pale and almost lifeless. Second-hand images of the wallpaper are transformed into first-hand experiences, with a different sense of time. 

Leading by example Tuymans has had an important influence on younger painters since the 1990s, and his work has been presented around the globe. Paradoxically, his art seems to doubt painting as a medium. The difficulty in making a valid painting nowadays, after all that has been done already, and with the presence of newer media, has thoroughly infected this work. His paintings do not transmit perfection or brilliance, but rather a distortion of images, and artificiality. It is interesting in this context to see how Tuymans proceeds to make a painting, and how his process fits the content. He usually works on a painting for one day only, after making extensive preparations. To correct his ‘mistakes’ the day after would not make sense with this approach.

As a painter, Tuymans claims he is part of a long tradition. “After Jan van Eyck, with his ultimate realism, there are a lot of things you had better not even try. Nowadays, the intention with which you work is more important.” What distinguishes Tuymans as a painter is not the fact that he uses the Internet, newspapers, or film as source material, but the way he makes unfledged paintings out of those sources, causing unease and bringing an awareness of perception. Images cannot be trusted – so seems to be the assumption behind this work. Painting is a good medium in which to question the reliability of images, separating them from real time. For this reason, the artist likes his paintings to be disquieting and mute. A highlight of the show is Bedroom, which simply depicts a round lamp in the artist’s bedroom. Here, there is no charged or ‘interesting’ motif, and yet the resulting painting, faintly lit, appears suggestive and meaningful. This makes it even clearer that the decisive factor is not the depicted motif as such, but rather the way it is executed in paint. ‹

A Belgian Politician, 2011 Courtesy of a private collection.
Wallpaper, 2014 Oil on canvas 253 x 177.7 x 4.2 cm.
The Shore, 2014 Oil on canvas 194 x 358.9 x 4.4 cm.
Bedroom, 2014 Oil on canvas 159.9 x 209.8 x 4.5 cm.
Doig in his studio in New York, 2014 Courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York / London Luc Tuymans in front of The Shore, the exhibition’s title painting. Image courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery, London
This article appeared in DAM49. Order your personal copy.