“That is a very famous painter!” exclaims the taxi driver at Antwerp station when I present Luc Tuymans’ address. “Are you his model?”

If only …Or perhaps the suggestion is not so flattering. Using photographic sources, Tuymans paints subjects that are emotionally or morally loaded – Albert Speer or Condoleezza Rice, a patient just diagnosed with cancer or a lamp made from human skin in Buchenwald – only to transform them into bleached-out, blurry, depersonalised images, at once banal and sinister.

When these quiet, subversive pictures appeared at the end of the 1980s, they challenged the era’s neo-expressionist art scene so successfully that Tuymans was hailed as the saviour of late 20th-century painting. Conceptual but painterly, engaging with the big themes of history and of today, he has not put a foot wrong since. An impressive retrospective recently toured the US and now comes home to Belgium, opening at Bozar in Brussels next week.

The taxi drops me at a sleek, neutral-looking office, and it is at once obvious that, for an artist who made his name painting corruption in the corridors of power, establishment success sits uneasily. “Yes, it had a good reception,” Tuymans answers warily, as I take a seat at a desk opposite him and ask about the US tour. “Because the work is understated and clearly European, an element of exoticism played itself out. European painting is about deliberate space, American painting is about accidental space.”

The tone is downbeat but Tuymans is a commanding presence: tall, lean, dressed all in black – crewneck sweater, slacks, black-rimmed glasses. His strong-featured oval face and grey hair are wreathed in smoke as he puffs through a pack of Marlboros, lighting each cigarette with a defiant, disgruntled air.

“American openness and curiosity is a bit more positive,” he continues. “Europe has this enormous issue of nationalism – on the borderline of fascism, actually. The European Union hasn’t got it together yet. And there is the eurocentrism of a few big countries – France, Germany, Britain. So Europe is pretty much the old structure.”

Is it? In the next breath, Tuymans posits the historical analysis informing his whole oeuvre: “Europe lost its colonies and entire power structure in world war two – it was economically colonised by the Marshall Plan and the Holocaust came on top of this psychological breakdown.”

He has dissected that breakdown repeatedly, in works from “Gaskamer” and “Wandeling” – presenting Hitler and his entourage as terrifyingly ordinary citizens out for a stroll – to “Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man”, referencing Belgian atrocities in the Congo.

This series is reassembled for Bozar. “It’s important it’s shown in Brussels because there are still people there linked to the old colonial structure. Belgium is among the youngest countries, founded in 1830, paid for by the Rothschilds – who, by the way, are now collecting my work – and everything was built by that king, Leopold. He was responsible for the first genocide ever [in the Congo]. It went on till the 1950s, the 1960s, the forced labour. The Brussels establishment is built on that, it still resonates.”

Violence is Tuymans’ relentless undercurrent. “My paintings are not smack in your face, but there’s a history of violence – not portrayed, but constantly there, at different levels: mutilation, disappearance, not showing things. Violence creates many more images than happiness will ever be able to – there’s an entanglement with so many more people. A feeling for the beautiful is solitary. Happiness takes about 30 seconds.”

Where does his pessimism come from? “I’m not cynical, that’s not affordable, but there is an element of pessimism. When you’re pessimistic it’s far more difficult to be disillusioned. My childhood wasn’t happy: my parents’ marriage and also” – with a dark look – “whatever you can think of. So I’m pretty high on prevention.”

Born in 1958 in Antwerp, Tuymans was shy, bullied at school, and grew up in a fissured household – during the Nazi occupation his Dutch mother’s family joined the Resistance whereas his Flemish father’s were collaborators. These truths emerged, significantly, from a visual document, at a family gathering when a photograph was discovered of an uncle in Nazi uniform.

Then, in 1978, Tuymans saw “by accident” Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s epic Hitler, A Film from Germany: it “formulated the trauma to perfection” and was a major “influence on how to start something up”. Tuymans temporarily abandoned canvas for filmmaking – “it gave me the right distance, the painting was too existential and suffocating” – then returned. “I made decisive decisions: I was not going to make art out of art. I really can’t do anything with postmodernism. And here the real comes in: I chose a period in time which was not digested, world war two.”

Since then, his themes have moved up to the present, culminating in the 2005-2008 American series whose first European showing is in Brussels. “Yeah, I wasn’t particularly fond of the Bush administration but instead of going head on against it, it was more interesting to go for the aberrations. Not to try to be moralistic but to dissect the elements. So, the return to conservatism and reign of fear reminded me of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Then my wife [Venezuelan sculptor Carla Arocha] and I came across a picture of the governor’s ball in Texas.”

The result was “Ballroom Dancing”, a dancing couple on a huge Texan flag. The five-metre nebulous painting “Turtle” was inspired by a Disneyland float. Most controversial is “Secretary of State”, the queasily ambivalent portrait of Condoleezza Rice that Glenn Lowry, New York’s Museum of Modern Art director, “decided overnight to take in to MoMA”.

Does Tuymans like Rice or not? “The ambiguity of the imagery and the force that comes with it are the point for me. It’s a portrait of a woman extremely contained and very determined – but it’s also about questioning, what did she add up to? It could be seen as critical but a Texas collector said I did for Condoleezza what Andy Warhol did for Marilyn Monroe. The portrait is abstracted from the idea of figuration, so you get detachment. Figuration is more impersonal than total abstraction, which is more emotional.”

Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Tuymans form a line of painters who abstract to make icons of indifference. Richter was “never an influence”, Tuymans protests, “though it’s undeniable that he opened the way for somebody like me. The way I paint is more painterly, less about the process. And Richter comes from a period when you still had to put up a fight with photography. Now these things don’t play out – they’re part of the toolbox – I use anything I can get my hands on to come to this image, which is a painted image. Why should I fight new media – I just use them!”

He stresses instead a Belgian heritage: symbolist Léon Spilliaert, “an einzelgänger [loner]”, and Jan van Eyck. Belgium, he says, “is an absurdist land – not so much surreal, it’s all real. Its culture is misunderstood. People talk about Rubens, Ensor, the grotesque, but the roots are in Van Eyck – the most effective, powerful painter in the western hemisphere, because of his hardened form of realism. Though working under the cloud of religious dogma, nevertheless he opened it up – found a way out of that hermetic world.”

We leave the office to see Tuymans’ latest work, at Antwerp’s Zeno X Gallery. Driving along the bleak harbour front, it occurs to me that Tuymans’ grey, fragmented, critical images echo the divided Belgian flatlands. But the new work surprises. Tuymans travels five months a year for his international exhibitions and these fresh, monumental, abstracted interiors depict US hotels, luxurious yet claustrophobic in their warped reduction to thick verticals and horizontals – “with an ashtray, of course”. The sickly oranges, pinks, creams are the work of a rich tonal painter.

“I always was that,” Tuymans agrees. “I started out a colourful gestural painter. I had to develop against my own aesthetic to get a different sort of signifier.”

Huddled in a black coat against the wind, he slips out of the gallery, to be confronted by an elderly bourgeois couple, eager fans. He addresses them charmingly, then turns away with a snarl: “When your painting first sells for over a million, that’s when they start calling you Mr Tuymans.”

‘Luc Tuymans: Retrospective’, Bozar Centre, Brussels, February 18-May 8; ‘Luc Tuymans’, Zeno X, Antwerp, to March 12

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