The Distant North of Luc Tuymans

Exhibition Review

  • "Luc Tuymans: Suspended—L’Oeuvre Imprimé (1989–2014)"

  • Centre de la Gravure et de l’Image Imprimée, La Louvière, Belgium, exhibition organized in partnership with La Fondation Mons 2015
  • 07 Feb 2015 - 10 May 2015

Luc Tuymans, Sunset (2003), colored monotype on J. Whatman 1961 HMP paper, image 66.2 x 47 cm, sheet 76.4 x 57.4 cm. Edition of 4. Printed by Maurice Sanchez, New York. Published by Brooke Alexander Editions, New York. © Luc Tuymans.

The dispiriting exit from the train station across a barren parking area into the streets of La Louvière on an overcast Belgian morning set the mood for visiting “Suspended – L’œuvre imprimé (1989–2014),” the print retrospective of Luc Tuymans, Belgium’s famously discomforting history painter. More than 100 works were displayed over three floors of the impressive Centre de la Gravure et de l’Image Imprimée, a state-of-the-art exhibition space dedicated exclusively to print, which stands at the heart of La Louvière. Tuymans’ graphic work has been somewhat eclipsed by his überpainter status and its breadth is a revelation: he is at ease on paper, but the technical constraints of printmaking slow down his au premier coup oil painting technique; his sensibility is a natural fit for the smooth surfaces of screenprint and lithography, but he has also ventured into inkjet, photocopies, aquatint etching, thermo-enameling and installation, amassing an absorbing body of print work that sharpens his inquiries into trauma, historical amnesia, and the veracity of the image.

Born in 1958 near Antwerp, where he lives and works, Tuymans has been making prints for 25 years. Working with a Super 8 camera during a hiatus from painting in the early 1980s taught him to put physical distance between his eye and hand, a construct he lassoed back into painting in his characteristic muted figuration. Tuymans’ compositions are gleaned from photographs and film and television stills, and his selections reveal a clear penchant for the fearful. He confuses the origins of the images by filtering them through Polaroid film, photocopies or his iPhone screen before committing them to paint. At times this pushes his imagery into abstraction. Tuymans has talked of abstraction as “existential and tormented; you feel suffocated by it. You are too close to the thing.”1 Though his earliest attempts at painting were nonfigurative, colorful and gestural, Tuymans is uncomfortable with abstraction’s direct call to the senses. Figuration offered the means to raise a psychological barrier between image, artist and viewer. In the exhibition, two works illustrate Tuymans’ control of nongestural abstraction, striking in its emptiness. Altar (2002), a frame box with 3D-collaged digital print behind sandblasted Plexiglas, and The Slide I-–II–III series (2003) are claustrophobic abstractions of eye-watering indistinction (the subject matter is revealed only through the works’ titles) that beguile despite their deliberate impartiality.

Luc Tuymans, from Recherches (1990), four screenprints mounted on gray cardboard, images 7.4 x 11.1 cm, 5.9 x 7 cm, 10.5 x 9.1 cm and 7.2 x 9.4cm, cardboard 108 x 62.4 cm each. Edition of 100. Printed by Roger Vandaele, Antwerp. Published by Vereniging voor het Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Ghent. © Luc Tuymans.

One might view Tuymans’ trick of burying his often notorious subjects—a lampshade of human skin made in Buchenwald, Patrice Lumumba, Albert Speer—within a kind of pictorial numbness as a strategy for coping with distress. Accused of “aestheticizing horror” by Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times, Tuymans defended his work as a “history of violence—not portrayed, but constantly there at different levels: mutilations, disappearance, not showing things.”2 In “Suspended,” violence hovers in works addressing Kristallnacht, death camps, torture and group executions. “One thing I have never succeeded in doing is making a happy piece,” the artist says. “It was like the rabbi once told one of his sons, ‘Happiness is about thirty seconds. Suffering goes on forever.’ And also creates much more imagery.”3

Tuymans applies color with short stabbing strokes, articulating form with a Morandi-like quiver. Hard edges are rare. His palette is desaturated, close to grisaille. He eschews the use of black; the effect is forcibly tacit, airy and deliberately removed. Sunset (2003), a color monotype printed on J. Whatman 1961 HMP paper, one of many prints made with Maurice Sanchez in New York, is an exercise in restraint. It describes the oculus of the sun descending through cloud strata with broad horizontal strokes of pewter gray, leaving passages of pale ash ground as negative space to work as solid form. The mass of the orb is composed by absence, marked by the stopping points of a few sparse brushstrokes.

A series of four screenprints, Recherches (1990), were the first fruits of Tuymans’ ongoing collaboration with the Antwerp master printer Roger Vandaele. In a video conversation shown in the exhibition, Tuymans pointed out his method of painting on unstretched canvas pinned to the studio walls.4 He leaves wide margins around the paintings’ edges to allow for changes of scale and to provide an area on which to mix color tests. Vandaele uses these color tests as a guide to mixing screenprint inks. The Recherches appear to be tiny, abstracted architectural vignettes—a delicate mouse-gray brushstroke suggests perspective; a thicker, darker charcoal mark suggests an angle or a hanging form. Each has been printed to a bleed on discolored, gridded exercise-book paper, cut by hand and pasted irregularly onto large sheets of unremarkable gray cardboard. (Tuymans often uses large margins that suspend the printed compositions in voids.) What exactly are we looking at? Only by reading about the work do we discover that the images come from watercolor and crayon drawings Tuymans made at concentration camps in Poland and Germany in 1986. The tiny scale and surreptitiousness prove an intelligent way of facing an overwhelming topic.

Detail from Recherches (1990).

Tuymans has a gift for imbuing even the most banal subject with menace. Niks (2003), Angel and Gene (both 2012), Orchid and Peaches and Technicolor (both 2013) all imbue still life with creepiness. Niks, a screenprint of a geranium pot, follows from an earlier painting. “More Flemish than Flanders,” the geranium on the windowsill is a symbol that seems to irritate the artist: he has trimmed the flower down to a lifeless emblem fit for decoupage or the upholstery of Oma’s armchair in Bruges. Vandaele’s multiple color separations approximate the smudging and slight movement that Tuymans gets into paint so convincingly, but cannot resurrect the faded flower. Niks (“nothing” in Dutch) skewers any allusion to public propriety.5 As Tuymans explains, “A lot of violence is hidden in the banality of what is existence itself. And this banality is not solid. There is also the filmic element. Anything lit in a certain way and positioned in a certain way can give an element of danger or can spell danger. Most of my imagery has the quality of the silence before the storm.”6

Luc Tuymans, Niks (2003), screenprint, image 45.6 x 47 cm, sheet 75 x 90 cm. Edition of 30. Printed by Roger Vandaele, Antwerp. Published by Kunstverein Hannover, Germany. © Luc Tuymans.

Perhaps the most arresting images in the exhibition were the portraits, psychological studies of memory and age that caught the eye through the cinematic devices of zooming and cropping. The Valley (2012) is a key work, a large seven-color screenprint of a child’s head sourced from the film The Village of the Damned (1960). The print relates to Tuymans’ exhibition Les Revenants (2007), which focused on the power amassed by the Jesuit order. Through this image of a child, Tuymans alludes to the ascetic conservatism of the Jesuit schooling system, which inculcated a strict moral code in its wards. The boy’s sickly-green color, grayed tonality and deadened gaze above his stiff collar suggest the curtailment of youth’s natural joie de vivre. Organized religion is a recurrent subject for Tuymans: The Spiritual Exercises (2007) is a seven-part lithographic contemplation of Saint Ignatius Loyola’s Exercitia Spiritualia (1637); the eight etchings of The Temple (1996) are based on Polaroids of a television documentary about the American Mormon movement, and Le Verdict (1995) consists of eleven color lithographs, printed on strips of wallpaper, using imagery from a former ecumenical missionary center in Geneva, now the Centre genevois de gravure contemporaine (which commissioned the project).

For his portrait of Giscard d’Estaing, ex-president of the French Republic, listening intently through headphones (Giscard, 2004), Tuymans drew 13 stones under the guidance of Copenhagen-based lithographer Rasmus Urwald. Giscard’s face is modeled in a dull ochre tone with a lighter putty shade smeared over the bald pate. Eyes, brows and nostrils are locked in with watery ochre strokes. Tuymans slices off the head just below the lower lip, reducing the aging statesman to a delicate political ghost, a head of state without his bite.

Luc Tuymans, The Valley (2012), screenprint in seven colors, 71 x 72.5 cm. Edition of 75 (an additional 35 prints are reserved to accompany the artist’s book Wenn der Frühling kommt (2012), published by Graphic Matter). Printed by Roger Vandaele at Tubbax, Antwerp. Published by Graphic Matter, Antwerp. © Luc Tuymans.

Tuymans likes to zoom in on and blow up faces, but for the most recent screenprint, the triptych Surrender (2015) [see Art in Print Mar–Apr 2015], he zooms out dramatically, abandoning his usual no-black rule to conjure a gaping dark void, a backdrop for miniature figures worked up in quick pastel dashes. He borrows a taut narrative implying surrender to group execution from the opening scenes of the 1968 film, A Twist of Sand. The prints spring from Tuymans’ blackest painting to date, The Shore (2014). An epic night canvas painted with Goya’s Black Paintings in mind, The Shore uses a black stain for the ground and semaphore-like erasures—wiped off patches of paint that pick out a distant line of figures poised on the cusp of tragedy: a German submarine crew about to be shot.

Tuymans has talked about how fear colored his childhood: he was “raised by a mother who said, ‘It’s going pretty well now, but in thirty seconds, it could be pretty bad.’ And I was also bullied in school like there was no tomorrow … If you’re bullied as a kid, there is constant fear.”7 In addition there was a complicated family history with regard to the war: Tuymans was five years old when, at his grandparents’ house, he saw a photograph of another Luc—his uncle as a adolescent, dressed in the uniform of the Hitler Youth—fall from an album. Tuymans’ father had hidden from his mother, whose family had been active in the Dutch resistance, that two of his brothers had traveled to Germany to train with the brownshirts. A rift opened and young Luc “learned to eat very fast and get away from the table.”8

Add to this the artist’s anxiety about his own value within the broader context of art history. He sees Velázquez looking “down as if to say, ‘You’re just shit,’”9 and Jan van Eyck, whom he credits with saving northern European art from “the cloak of religious dogma,”10 provokes absolute despair: “If you are brought up with that, what are you going to do with it? It is so f****ng perfect you are traumatized from the start.”11 Tuymans is endlessly quotable, in part because his straight talk is so curiously at odds with the careful surfaces and crabwalk approach to trauma in his art. But Tuymans’ habitual indirection has deep roots in the northern tradition. Svetlana Alpers has noted how for 17th-century painters in his part of Europe violence was “not only a matter of subject matter, it is also, inseparably, a matter of style … The interest of these paintings does not lie in its depiction, but in the detachment with which multiple examples are viewed. Violence is unsettling because it is distant and looks inevitable.”12 This description might well be applied to Tuymans, whose guarded style and imposed emotional distance also augur violence. His floral still lifes similarly substitute the breathtaking vivacity of the flower studies popular in Antwerp in the early 1600s with abbreviation, distrust and opacity.

Luc Tuymans, Giscard (2004), lithograph printed in colors from 13 stones, image 27.2 x 40.7 cm, sheet 76 x 56 cm. Edition of 100. Printed by Rasmus Urwald, Copenhagen. Published by Edition Copenhagen, Copenhagen. © Luc Tuymans.

It is 70 years since the liberation of Bergen-Belsen as I write. It takes a rare and knowing artist to take on the enormity of such crimes without depending on shock tactics. (William Kentridge is another example.) Tuymans’ histrionic-free art makes for a humble, cogent way of putting Bergen-Belsen into art, and “Suspended” demonstrates that the quieter medium of printmaking is a persuasive means of doing so. It requires slow looking to grasp the subtle slips, intensifications and reductions from the quick photographic sources after which Tuymans’ works are made.

The shoals of painters that swim in Tuymans’ melancholy wake crown him the savior of postmodern figuration, but his influence in print has yet to emerge. This exhibition should help. Tuymans’ prints get under your skin, they unsettle. For anyone weary of the glut of immediate, raucous imagery in contemporary art, these prints are a salutary corrective, forcing eschatological contemplation and reflection, however dystopian.

On occasion of the exhibition, éditions Ludion have published a French version of the catalogue raisonné, Luc Tuymans: Graphic Works (1989–2015) by Manfred Sellink and Tommy Simoens [the English edition was reviewed in Art in Print Nov–Dec 2013].

A portion of the edition of the screenprint triptych Surrender (2014) is available through Le Centre de la Gravure et de l’Image Imprimée.

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  1. Let Them Look,an interview with Luc Tuymans by Amy Bernstein, 2 June 2014, http://www.portlandart.net/archives/2014/06/transcription_l.html []
  2. Jackie Wullschlager, “Luc Tuymans: The Painterly Pessimist,” Financial Times, 11 Feb 2011, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/bb3eba30-3563-11e0-aa6c-00144feabdc0.html []
  3. Let Them Look. []
  4. Pour un moment de détente. Video interview between Luc Tuymans and Doede Hardeman (The Hague: Gemeentemuseum, 2013). []
  5. Manfred Sellink and Tommy Simoens,, Luc Tuymans, Graphic Works 1989–2012 (Antwerp: Ludion, 2012), 132. []
  6. Let Them Look []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Dorothy Spears, “Putting the Wrongs of History in Paint,” New York Times, 3 Feb 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/07/arts/design/07tuymans.html []
  9. Jackie Wullschlager, “Luc Tuymans: Dark Visions and Enlightenment,” Financial Times, 2 Jan 2015, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/dfab1942-89ea-11e4-8daa-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3WwVJKUcD []
  10. Ibid., n10. []
  11. Interview with Karen Wright, “In the Studio: Luc Tuymans, painter,” Independent, 22 Sep 2012, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/in-the-studio-luc-tuymans-painter-8160324.html []
  12. Svetlana Alpers, The Vexations of Art, Velázquez and Others (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 113. []