Luc Tuymans: artist and curator
Luc Tuymans talks to Griselda Murray Brown about the satirical dramas of Belgian painter James Ensor (b.1860) at the Royal Academy, London.
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Filmed & edited by Richard Topping.
INTERVIEWER: More and more artists are being invited to curate exhibitions of other artists' work. It's a way for museums and galleries to stand out, attract new audiences, and try a fresh approach.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: The contemporary Belgian painter, Luc Tuymans, is much better known than his 19th-century countryman, the painter James Ensor, who was born in 1860 and died in 1949. This is one of the reasons why the Royal Academy in London has invited Tuymans to create this show of Ensor's work.
But what can an artist bring to an exhibition like this that's different from a professional curator? And how does Tuymans' vision shape our experience of the work?
TIM MARLOW: I've always been interested in the idea of an Ensor exhibition. The question is, how do you do it? And I thought that as an Artist Academy-- the Academy was founded by artists and architects, it's run by artists and architects, what would be the way that we should think about? So the obvious idea was to think about working with an artist.
Luc is a preeminent, international painter. He also is from Flanders, and he, in a sense, is part of the lineage in Flemish art that runs from Rubens through Ensor. And that quirkiness that Ensor has and the singular vision that Luc has seemed a perfect marriage.
I think it would be too reductive to say that Luc is directly influenced by Ensor, and therefore it's a kind of mentor-pupil relationship. There's nothing like that. It's a very complex and subtle relationship. But I think the-- struggle, maybe, is the wrong word.
But maybe there's element of struggle in the application of paint, the realisation of imagery, the notion of transformation from this inchoate substance into images, the open-ended way in which we look at a lot of major painting-- Ensor, Tuymans. And, I mean, there is a cultural relationship, for certain.
INTERVIEWER: So, what exactly was it that draw you to Ensor's work?
LUC TUYMANS: Actually, the painting we're in front of-- it was [INAUDIBLE] as a kid when I was 16 years old in the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, that deals with elements of fear, in a sense, the element of fear of populism, a crowd. Which is, of course, where the Bourgeois [INAUDIBLE], which Ensor actually was. But it's also the way it is made.
Because if you look at this, he made this when he was 30 years old. To make this type of a painting in the times it was made is actually not very self-evident. Ensor is really an avant-garde artist. He was mostly seen as grotesque, but one also seems to forget that he was a real precursor of expressionism.
What I actually saw, and this quite interesting little detail I didn't know of, but by scrutinising the painting when it was going through the conditioning report, I saw these two red points in these holes that are here. Now, there was another element that was important for me to do this show is to incorporate another artist, but it's on the other side of the last space.
This is an artist which is called Leon Spilliaert, which probably not a lot of people know here. What you see here is the portrait of Andrew Carnegie, probably taken from a photo out of a journal when he just died. But if you come closer, again, you see the eyes, which also look like holes. And this looks like a mask and [INAUDIBLE], too. You see two little white spots. It's sort of like right across with the red spots-- [? continuity, ?] which is quire interesting.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me, just before we move through, how these masks here relate to this work?
LUC TUYMANS: Well, first of all, in the sense that you have a mask which is two-dimensional. Here, it's three-dimensional. And you see it as an object, but you also see how the object is made. But it's also still a utensil. And I wanted that, actually, as in the juxtaposition with the iconic image that we have over there.
Now, the idea of Ensor is always the idea, also, of the [INAUDIBLE], but it's also the idea of puppets and decay. And we already addressed the element of populism, which, actually, pretty much at hand as we speak, yeah? All over Europe in a global way.
I can show the work-- two works, actually, of mine that are in this show. And the very first one is my very first etching, which was directly inspired, when I was still in my school days, by James Hansen. It's the very first etching I've actually ever made. So beginner's luck, and you see all these figures cropping up.
And the other one is [INAUDIBLE] makes this connection with [INAUDIBLE], which is sort of like [INAUDIBLE], which the headdress, nearly life-size.
INTERVIEWER: Would you say that Ensor's vision is quite dark?
LUC TUYMANS: I think Ensor's vision is quite-- there's a lot about bliss, in a sense, instead of dark. I mean, it's also quite colourful. We actually-- deliberately I chose the wall colour to make all the colours come out. But if you look at the expelling of Adam and Eve out of the paradise, which is very vibrant. He once was also called, "the painter of light."
Of course there is a darker understream, and a rather sardonic sense of humour. I think it is really important not to be overly didactic and so give people the chance-- first of all, don't overestimate, but also don't underestimate the public. And give them, at least, a chance to have a visual experience to make up their own minds and look at it.
INTERVIEWER: This show is a bit of a revelation. Ensor is rightly famous in his native Belgium. But here in London, this is the first time that many people will encounter his work. It's intricately detailed, satirical, funny, and eerie. And it's presented here in a way that's quite different. Instead of leading us through an academic argument, Tuymans is asking us to respond visually, directly, and emotionally to Ensor's work.