Listen to this article
The sky is leaden, the rain relentless, the wind so fierce that the bridges over the Scheldt are closed on the day I make my way to see Luc Tuymans in Antwerp. Across a courtyard behind a 19th-century terrace, a glass door opens on an expansive, L-shaped, dirty-white studio. A pale wintry sheen flickers through ceiling windows but a large, long painting on the dominant wall is so black that it commands the space: menacing, heavy, driving out light and hope. Only close up do you see a row of tiny blotchy white figures, stranded in darkness. The picture is called “The Shore”.
Before it, in a torn low armchair, slumps the painter, dressed in black sweater and trousers, dragging on a cigarette, looking grey and exhausted. Tuymans, who has just finished the works for his first exhibition of 2015, opening at David Zwirner London this month, rises sluggishly as I admire his monumental night painting.
“For ages I tried to make a really dark painting,” he explains. “This is the moment before these people are shot.”
The blank-faced, minute, surrendering figures were delineated literally by wipeout: Tuymans smudged away patches of the dense indigo-violet monochrome with toilet paper, then painted the gaps white. “There is the element of terror,” he says, nodding. “It’s painted differently from usual. Normally I come from lightest to darkest, here I painted dark first. You feel the space, these people are exposed, it’s more splendid and, therefore, more terrifying.”
Opposite hangs a depiction of an expressionless Japanese man in a hat, painted in Tuymans’ familiar bleached-out palette. “That’s a cannibal,” says the artist with relish. “Issei Sagawa. He was a student at the Sorbonne, he lured a young Dutch woman to his apartment, cut her up and ate her. He was found in the Bois de Boulogne with two suitcases full of her remains and extradited to Japan. Now he roams free.”
While making this “mask of terror”, Tuymans thought of Goya. “He is growing on me because he is one of the painters I don’t understand, the old master who was on the brink of being modern — and he was living alone because the Enlightenment stopped. I really like Velázquez but the positions are up and down: Velázquez looks down [as if to say], ‘You’re just shit.’ Goya’s paintings are insane: “The Execution” [“The Third of May”], that’s iconic, no one did that before. And the awkwardness — a still life, the eyes of a fish, so aggressive. The virtuosity, bravura, I was opposed to this for years: it was clearly anger management.”
Is it the same for you?
“I suppose so. You get old . . . ”
Tuymans is 56. Since 1986, when he depicted a bare, musty room and called it “Gas Chamber”, a response to taboos about Nazi collaboration in the Flanders of his youth, he has become Europe’s most important, provocative history painter. Aestheticising horror, he approaches his subjects obliquely, creating memorable images of injustice and terror as diverse and unexpected as “Leopard” (2000) — a luxurious animal skin used as a power symbol in the Congo, a former Belgian colony — and a five-metre colour-drained “Still Life” of apples, Tuymans’ wry 2002 memorial for the assault on western values of 9/11.
It seems to me that “The Shore” — its source image is “a very bad 1960s movie”, A Twist of Sand, with a colonial theme — and “Issei Sagawa”, fraught with ambivalence and threat, are about current fears of otherness and violence coming from dark, premodern cultures. The Enlightenment theme is underlined in London’s forthcoming show by Tuyman’s engagement with Goya’s contemporary, the Scottish portraitist Henry Raeburn.
Aged 16, Tuymans encountered, in Ghent, Raeburn’s portrait of Alexander Edgar, Scottish landowner and Jamaican plantation owner, and “what shocked me then and still does is the blue of the eyeballs”. Last summer, during the build-up to Scotland’s independence referendum, Tuymans stayed in Edinburgh and revisited Raeburn to make paintings that “give the idea that there’s an element of disruption to the isle”.
Tuymans always uses photographic or film found images; this time he created his own, shooting Raeburn’s portraits with his iPhone, printing them out, photographing them again until “you get a real face that doesn’t feel of that time”.
In Tuymans’ faux-digitised close-up renderings, the cold blue eyeballs are creepily echoed in a luminous blue back-glow, evocative of computer or phone screens, which “has to do with the printing. What is weird is, once you blow them up, you get something contemporary. Raeburn’s factual, dry, persistent strokes are very decisive and, therefore, very modern: there’s no Gainsbooooorough” — Tuymans rolls the syllables dismissively — “going on. Raeburn is quite Calvinist, in the element of reduction: such precision, harshness, unforgivingness.”
We tour his Raeburn portraits: university rector, mathematician, scientist. Tuymans says they “create a sort of presence of social structures of power. They are clearly educated people: the gaze of this one is self-indulgent, he clearly didn’t have a problem with self-esteem, he’s stern, aware of his status. This one’s more romantic, there’s the ego, megalomania. They’re all Scottish, so there’s the idea of splendid isolation, the element of class. And then I painted tea at the Balmoral Hotel” — he indicates a queasy painting called “Cloud” — “that big floating croissant: that is the disgust we have for the class society!”
These go on show in Zwirner’s elegant 18th-century townhouse gallery along with other works of “suffocating domesticity”, strange back-lit effects and conceptual credentials, including a depiction of a fake orange chimney based on “an installation shot of a Mike Kelley installation of a fireplace painted on a cardboard box”, and “Diorama”, a peephole landscape close-up centred on “a hole which is not a hole, a suggestion of [Marcel Duchamp’s] ‘Etant Donnés’: I really like Duchamp by the way.”
Distrust of the image underpins Tuymans’ entire oeuvre but in these new works he builds that questioning for the first time into rich, painterly brushwork, with a paradox that the light from the internet and iPhone images returns as layers of oil on canvas, asserting the power of paint. Is Tuymans ultimately a northern European realist?
“Realism, modernism, postmodernism, post-postmodernism: that is a discourse for people who have no visual sense. I mean, these people have to get by. I still indulge in the perversity of painting, which remains interesting.
“Painting is about time. It’s belated time. The image can linger for decades before it comes out. Then there’s the physical trace, stalling, freezing things. It works with time, through time. Belgian art is all about realism. There’s nothing as horrid and strong as Van Eyck: the first secular artist, he got away from Christianity, opened it up in scientific way. His motto was, ‘If I can’, which means I’m high on humility but I have great ambition.
“That’s very true to the region, it’s a back-up game, we’re over-run by so many foreign powers that we have to be opportunistic to survive. I can’t get a show in Paris, because I’m le petit Belge, the infectious type. The Parisians don’t understand what globalisation is about. People ask me, ‘Why do you paint?’ I reply, ‘I’m not fucking naive.’ Painting is the oldest form of conceptual artmaking, it goes from the caves to here. Since it’s now the loop perceived as not central, in the periphery, it’s the more powerful.”
‘Luc Tuymans, The Shore’, David Zwirner, London, January 30-April 2 davidzwirner.com
Letter in response to this article: