Belgian artist Luc Tuymans is regarded as one of the most influential painters working today. Tuymans' portraits, still lifes and other painted scenes are largely concerned with the inconsistencies between traumatic events and the images that come to represent them. Characterised by their washed-out and muted tones, the nostalgic, melancholy and banal qualities of his paintings often conceal violent themes. Notably, he is credited with contributing to the revival of representational painting in the 1990s at a point where many doubted the relevance of the genre.
In his 1986 painting Gas Chamber—based off a watercolour sketch he made on-site in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany—sparse brushstrokes roughly depict the interior of an empty gas chamber. The airless, pale yellow-pink tones used to render the space suggest the image is an aged relic of a brutal episode that has been relegated to history books, while the somewhat distorted perspective and understated palette imply the artist's cool detachment and aversion to emotional spectacle. Similarly, for his series of paintings titled 'Mwana Kitoko—Beautiful White Man'—presented at the Belgium Pavilion of the 2001 Venice Biennale—Tuymans took Belgium's colonial presence in Africa as a point of departure. One painting in the series, Mwana Kitoko (2000), depicts the then-24-year-old Belgian King arriving in the Congo for a procession in 1955; his jacket is covered in medals, but his awkward posture belies discomfort and unease. Tsjombe (2000), on the other hand, shows a group of African men talking at a table, rendered in muted colours. While retaining Tuymans' characteristic aesthetic restraint, the paintings in the series quietly point at systemic imbalances of power.
Tuymans is acutely aware of the insufficiency of images to convey trauma. Created for documenta11 (2002), the painting Still Life (2002) was Tuymans' defiant counter to the expectation that his work for the exhibition would respond to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. To counter the saturation of horrific images in the media, Tuymans turned towards the idyllic and painted a pale still life of fruit, magnified to a monumental scale. To him, images and language were inadequate to represent the recent horrors. In the enormous, banal painting that resisted interpretation, Tuymans provided quiet space for contemplation.
Tuymans' interest in lens-based images is long-standing. After he studied art in the 1970s, he worked for a time as a filmmaker before returning to painting in the 1980s. Cinematic elements—remnants of that brief interlude—are still evident in his works, which use camera-imitative techniques such as cropping and enlargement. His 2005 painting The Secretary of State is a tight close-up image of Condoleezza Rice, who had that year become the United States secretary of state; her brow is furrowed as if focused or concerned. Tuymans was inspired to paint the image after hearing a politician make a sexist comment about Rice; he selected the reference image from a fan website, having been drawn to that particular photograph due to the determination in her expression.
Themes of impending decay also make their way into Tuymans' works. In his 2016 exhibition Le Mépris at David Zwirner in New York, the artist presented several paintings based on photographs of floats, murky water and the interior of a famous Capri villa. Depicting festivities and their aftermath, devoid of human presence, Tuymans hints at an imminent premonition that he shows contempt for—a sentiment that he holds for 'everything' in general, as relayed in his 2016 conversation with Ocula Magazine. 'In paintings,' he said, 'painted time is something different than real time. You could say there is an element of melancholy, of nostalgia, but it's kind of twisted in a way. There's an element of aggression. So, it's torture.'
Tuymans was awarded three honorary doctorates between 2006 and 2015. Since 1985, he has exhibited in over 100 solo and more than 500 group exhibitions, and his work has been collected by over 40 museums and public institutions worldwide, including The Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York, Tate Modern in London and Centre Pompidou in Paris. Since 1999, he has been curating exhibitions and participating in special projects, and in 2001 he represented Belgium at the 49th Venice Biennale.
Tuymans lives and works in Antwerp.
With over 120 solo shows, and 600 group shows on his curriculum vitae, Luc Tuymans is credited by critics such as Peter Schjeldahl with having contributed to the revival of painting, which misguided critics have been eulogising since 1839, when the French painter Paul Delaroche declared it dead. After studying art history at Vrije Universiteit...
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