Luc Tuymans, portraits of the Plague

Palazzo Grassi, Venice, May 2019

Palazzo Grassi holds a major solo exhibition of the work of Luc Tuymans, a Belgian artist born in 1958, who currently lives and works in Antwerp. He studied fine arts at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Visuels de la Cambre in Brussels, (1979–1980) and at the Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, (1980–1982). A number of family events, such as the participation of his mother in the Dutch Resistance or the proximity of more distant family members with the Nazis, have certainly contributed to his meditation, transcribed in many of his works, on the darkest aspects of World War II, and on the humanity which degraded itself by committing such horrendous crimes but also redeemed itself by engaging in so many sacrifices. His cycle Die Zeit (1988), for instance, addresses the difficult matter of the holocaust. Invited at Documenta in 1992, representing Belgium at the Venice Biennale in 2001, now with a solo show occupying the whole of Palazzo Grassi, Luc Tuymans is unquestionably a towering figure of contemporary painting present in many important public and private collections, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Centre Pompidou, the Collezione Prada, and obviously the collection of François Pinault.

The exhibition at Palazzo Grassi is an excellent initiative to help discover and understand an important painter with a very clear and coherent artistic personality, but who is perhaps not given his true dimension because of the classic means he employs: paint, canvas, a restricted palette, an appeal to our sensual visual instincts rather than our deciphering abilities.

The exhibition is entitled “La Pelle” (the skin), after the famous book, half way between a novel and a documentary, by Curzio Malaparte. It is important to understand the history and the thematic of this book in order to enter into the world of this exhibition, as such a powerful text cannot have been alluded to “innocently”.  La Pelle was written in response to a suggestion made in September 1946 by Henry Müller, the editor of the weekly Carrefour; the first title which Malaparte considers is La Pelle Umana (the human skin), but he then decides for La Peste (the plague). The publication in 1947 of La Peste by Albert Camus makes it impossible to use this title; Malaparte therefore comes back to La Pelle, finally published in 1949. The book tells the story of the liberation of Italy by the Americans, witnessed closely by Malaparte in his function as a liaison officer with the American army.

The plague is a recurring theme of European literature since the Antiquity. Let us remember Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Artaud’s The Theatre and the Plague, the fourth dream of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, where a bug makes people go insane and believe that they are wiser and better than any other person, each one with his own understanding of what is right and wrong, and they all enter into a state of anarchy and kill each other without exactly knowing why. The plague is always a metaphor of chaos, of disruption, of the crumbling of the existing social order, of the disappearance of all distinctions and specificities. As the great surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590) noted, “As soon as the plague appears…anarchy and confusion prevail, and there is nothing worse for the city; for then disorder brings about another plague, which is even worse”. And this destruction, as noted by René Girard in To Double Business Bound, is often preceded by an inversion, whereby the honest man becomes a thief, or the prostitute a saint. And what are we witnessing here, through the mists of so many images, but the thousand signs of this crumbling ?  Whether or not this is Tuymans’s intuition, I would not know; but it is clear that the contemporary rage – accelerated by the global connection of everybody to everybody else – to imitate, emulate, be a little better than the others which in turn exasperates the drive to emulate, the exasperation with all forms of hierarchy together with the need to differentiate oneself nevertheless but less and less successfully, is likely to foster a society of “non-differentiation” where extreme forms of violence will erupt as a result of the mechanisms so well described by René Girard.

Let us re-read Ulysses words in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:

“… O! When degree is shak’d,

Which is the ladder to all high designs,

The enterprise is sick.

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And, hark! What discord follows; each thing meets

In mere oppugnancy; the bounded waters

Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,

And make a sop of all this solid globe:

Strength should be lord of imbecility,

And the rude son should strike his father dead:

Force should be right, or rather right and wrong –

Between whose endless jar justice resides –

Should lose their names, and so should justice too.

Then everything includes itself in power,

Power into will, will into appetite;

And appetite, a universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce a universal prey,

And last eat up himself…”

The theme of La Pelle is explained by Malaparte in an interview with Marc Soriano published in L’Esprit:

  • …A liberation army composed of young, healthy and handsome men, true archangels, coming into a heroic country, which shut itself in front of the aggressor. And here occurs the mystery, the inexplicable. Around these archangels, the mud, the plague: women who had kept themselves honest prostitute themselves, upright men become thieves, the good become evil.
  • And how do you explain this strange spontaneous appearance of the evil?
  • May be this way: the Italians had expected – with the coming of their liberators – that a new world was about to be born. And without knowing which one yet, they felt that the principles of the old world did not hold any more. And all of a sudden, they abandoned them.”

As Malaparte tells Jimmy, the American captain from distant Ohio, “There is a profound difference between fighting not to die, and fighting to live. Men who fight not to die keep their dignity… it is something humiliating, horrendous, a shameful necessity to fight to live. Only to live. Only to save your own skin…men are capable of any baseness to live.

This is the node of the book: failing a system of values which both transcend and inhabit you, an imperative category to speak Kantian, everything goes to partake in a society of objects, comfort, beauty. Two worlds collided, the world of abundance represented by the American army and the world of ancient values which had faintly survived since the Bronze Age in some remote corner of European mentalities, and this collision has destroyed the latter without the fragile safeguards elaborated by the former. The plague is precisely this phenomenon: a fight to live despite everything, born from the contamination of an idea not sustained by values, the germ without the immunity.

I will not be trying to put words in the mouth of the artist, and to some extent what the artist himself, any artist, believes is of limited relevance when confronted to what he conveys. Perhaps the plague is the market which most intellectuals mistake for Satan, and an easy target it is ? Perhaps the plague is the ego, and its innumerable manifestations as greed, envy, cupidity, and so on.

Beige, ochre, sand, apricot, vanilla, smoke, every conceivable shade of white and some light blues… the palette of Luc Tuymans is striking as it immediately creates a ghostly atmosphere of presence and non-presence across tens and tens of canvases. These are colours which are seldom present in the real world, and imply a reflection, a memory, or perhaps the foreshadowing, of something else, with more existence, more flesh, more substance, but keep the image very far from any form of mimesis.

A second feature which is common to all – or most – of his work is the disappearance of the line, of the contour. This reinforces the effect obtained through the palette. One can usually identify, or guess, the subject matter, or at least the reference of the shape in the actual world, but never actually see it with the clarity required to name or describe. This is a world on the brink of appearance or disappearance, of shades, of receding reality and identity. Perhaps already inhabited by some germs, doomed by some silent illness…

Talking of what he calls the dilettantism of El Greco, meaning the disconnection between what a figure should be and how it is made to appear, in a conversation held in Basel in 2008, Tuymans notes : “he basically opened the door to not-seeing, to abolishing visibility, and to abolishing the image”. Tuymans probably means thereby the abolishing of the discursive, rhetoric aspects of the image, the image as a tool, as an instrument to another end. The moving to a more physical rather than mental perception of painting. He explains this disconnection : “…the multi-layered nature of paintings has very little in common with language…the notion of speechlessness is important in relation to the condition of painting, and why it is very difficult, not to say ridiculous, to speak about painting” …which is what we are going to do…

An interesting approach to the work is provided by The Book (2007), a large oil on canvas (306 x 212cm) which partly reproduces the image – not the actual place – of the nave of a baroque church, probably taken from some book on architecture. The title of the canvas obviously refers to the Bible, “the book” by excellence; and baroque churches are the visual response of the Church as an institution to the challenge of the Reform, as they attempt to both explain the dogma through the powerful rhetoric means of image and to seduce the faithful through exuberance, glitter, and optic illusions. One could of course read it as the blunted power of religion in society, and of its traditional instruments of influence and control. A fading of the Book as its metonymy, the church building, fades away into oblivion. This would be an accurate journalistic description of an actual phenomenon, although the conclusion of the comment on this canvas in the exhibition’s booklet stating that “As churches deserted by the faithful, have become tourism venues, religious power has grown significantly, in particular in the areas of morality, education and lifestyle” misses entirely the broader perspective, the movement of history as we might call it.  

Another approach, perhaps, is to wonder why paint an image from a book, while showing explicitly that it is taken from a book? Perhaps to show that the Church – aptly represented at its most institutional and artificial moment, during the baroque period – is a mere image, a fading image, superimposed on the Book; an inefficient instrument as the three-dimensional space which is so essential to the Baroque rhetoric is flattened on a page, and rendered colourless. The book is open, but could be closed any time. An open book is a symbol of revelation; but the image of an open book is ambiguous, as it is not clear whether it pictures the opening which occurred or a possible closing.

The reduction from the three to the two-dimensional plane certainly evokes a loss, both the loss of meaning, the loss of understanding, the loss of power. Probably the waning of a whole civilization and of the certainties which supported it. The sheer size of the painting gives the illusion that here is a nave which you could enter into, if it were not belied by the vertical line separating the two pages of the book. It is the reduction that prevents the entering, and the beauty, the splendour, the pomp of the church ornament prevents you from reading the Book, conceals and perverts the message: a very protestant approach, and also an indirect discussion of the problematic of iconoclasm.

Let us turn to other images taken from a book, and titles Isabel and Orange Red Brown (2015); here are two canaries named after their genetic phenotype, as they can be selected or engineered, just like roses, to different colours. Theses canvases mimic a vellum, these magnificent gouache or watercolours which were painted with a scientific purpose for natural history museums or collections, and used to illustrate the archetype of an animal or a plant, and of which the most magnificent collection is the Vélins du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, dating back to 1630. Except that here there is no more archetype: these canaries are half bird – half artefact, produced to amuse, distract, charm the eye of its possessor. The convention of the branch which provides a clue to the natural habitat is respected, although the background of a vélin would be uniformly white. The birds are captive, as indicated by the ring around their leg: here is a semblance of nature. The eyes are too bright to be real, they belong to the vocabulary of artefacts, just as in films of science fiction, non-humans can often be told after their oddly shining eyes.

Some of the paintings are directly inspired by the cinema: it is the case of The Return (2018), which alludes to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, or The Shore (2014), which alludes to Don Chaffey’s Twist of Sand. Both canvases render unmistakably the frame, the atmosphere, the drama of the cinematic image: irrespective of the stories themselves, Tuymans manages to transpose into the visual universe of painting, rather than merely mimic, the cinematic image. In The Return, we do not see the faces of the three characters moving down the stairs, but only their shades and that of the stair railing crossing through the bodies. The scene is both plausible and unrealistic, and it is this slight gap between a natural and un-natural movement within the frontiers of plausibility which opens up the space of drama to our imaginations.  Whether or not such a scene existed, we feel that we have already seen it, and we feel that something bad has happened upstairs. We feel it because the characters are calm, and therefore somehow the job is done. The shade of the stair railing imitates the bars of a prison on their light coats. The order suggests a hierarchy, with the boss walking in front of his men… Something must have happened, but we do not know what and, contrary to a film, we will never know.

The use of the shade on the wall is also manifest in Ballone (2017). The idea probably originates in what became known in the US as the Great Clown Panic of 2016, which started in South Carolina with clowns allegedly lurking in the woods to attract and harm children. None of this seems ever to have occurred for real, but there were reports of a men arrested for dressing as fake killer clowns, police alerted by a panicked woman who had seen a clown in a Walmart parking lot, Ohio schools shut for clown alert, and the like. This phenomenon resonates of course with particular intensity in a country with a vast culture of horror movies: the killer clown who goes after children and terrifies all parents could probably not have existed in a country with what one would be tempted to call a healthier cinema culture. Horror movies and mass massacres of all kinds tend to facilitate the manifestation of scapegoats, and the communication channels provided by a vast industry of trash media plus the internet will move around panic very fast. In Ballone, the shade of the clown is essential to connotate the clown as – precisely – a shady character. His make-up also functions as a mask, and masks are a common feature of horror movies: let us think of Halloween, of Texas Chainsaw, of Friday the 13th … Hidden behind the appearance of entertainment suggested by the innocent balloons stands its exact opposite, the insanity of crime, the worst of them, crime against young children. Here is another manifestation of the illness of society, of the plague: what should amuse is a source of worry, you cannot trust any appearance, any image, any sign, as it could be devised to trick you, to mislead. The codes of society become literally unreadable, which fuels anguish and mistrust.

In the three canvases that compose The Arena I, II and III (2014), the syntax of cinema is also present, as if we had three pictures taken at different moments of a same sequence. The scene is shot in the darkness of the night with a strong light illuminating its centre; the source of this light remains absolutely mysterious, unreal, out of the order of things. This light transports us into a world of fiction, into a narrative; it creates an expectation. Our attention is forced to focus on what happens in that illuminated space which does become an arena. An arena of light where a story will inevitably unfold, as otherwise this artifice would be superfluous. Which story precisely, we will not know; we can only distinguish a group of people, the paved floor of this open-air arena, and a silhouette in the foreground who says: “watch”. The visual organisation of the scene reminds us of Goya’s Tres de Mayo, but no drama is visible, no soldiers, no execution. Yet. The empty space in the middle is perhaps about to witness such a drama, or perhaps just an announcement, a talk, as a small crowd is assembled in the background, near the wood, ready.  We are between two moments, the moment which precedes the story when the drama was not yet perceptible or the speech not considered, and the moment when it will unfold. We see nothing because no shape is clear, the image refuses to let us in. To let us connect the dots. Our world, our times, our lives have come to this point; and now ?

A word perhaps on Murky Water (2015), another series of three canvases, or triptych as it is presented, although perhaps stretching the word’s meaning. We are informed in the exhibition booklet that “the starting point was a commission by the Dutch municipality of Ridderkerk of a tapestry to ornate the Town Hall”. The resulting canvases may well have surprised the officials as they are images of reflections of a guardrail, a street lamp, and a car, in the dirty waters of some canal, with what appears as some garbage floating around, a can of soft drink perhaps, and other debris. Ridderkerk is probably not the most picturesque of cities, and one can certainly sympathise with the choice of Tuymans to concentrate on reflections. The most striking element at first is the choice of colour: shades of yellow which convey a feeling of sadness, abandonment, time suspended, silence. Then one realises that we face the water, as if we were looking down from the bank and staring at the water. What should be horizontal has become quasi vertical, perspective has of course been abolished, and water is now a colour, a mood, a Stimmung. It blocks our sight, our horizon like a curtain. Here are reflections of banal urban life without any living creature anywhere to be seen. We are stifled, nowhere to go. And yet it is difficult to stop watching the paintings: they have some slightly hypnotic quality. One could easily make an environmental reading of the subject matter, with the car and the lamp as emblems of a civilization which has destroyed its surroundings, an outcome which now bars the path of our generation, a generation deprived of horizons.  We are watching the undetermined.

A last comment must be made about Tuymans’s portraits. They are quite singular in the history of portrait.

William Robertson (2014) is a “portrait from a portrait”, taken from a painting by the famous Scottish portraitist Henry Raeburn (1756 – 1823). William Robertson (1721 – 1793) was a churchman, educator and historian; his History of America, published in 1777, is an important milestone in the development of cultural anthropology. Robertson was a Principal of the University of Edinburgh at its time of highest glory, and a prominent figure of the Scottish Enlightenment; he is among the founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1783) with no less eminent persons as Adam Smith and David Hume. Robertson is known for his toleration of faith and his interest in human progress. The following quote tells enough about the man, and probably a lot about Tuymans’s own views: “A human being as he comes originally from the hand of nature, is everywhere the same. At his first appearance in the state of infancy, whether it be among the rudest savages, or in the most civilized nations, we can discern no quality which marks any distinction or superiority. The capacity of improvement seems to be the same and the talents he may afterwards acquire, as well as the virtues he may be rendered capable of exercising, depend, in a great measure, upon the state of society in which he is placed.

Interestingly, this portrait of William Robertson is a kind of “close up” of the original by Raeburn. It concentrates on the eyes, the nose, the mouth, nothing else. No hint of the period, the context: this becomes an archetype, as if the person were entirely detached from any form of personal or collective history. The gaze is intense, so intense that it seems to be addressing the viewer a reproach. Perhaps the reproach of having betrayed the ideals of the Enlightenment which he embodies.

This contrasts with Tuymans’s self portrait, where the painter seems to erect a double protection between him and us : he directs his gaze to our right, and he wears glasses which probably reflect parts of the room which we do not see, thus preventing us from clearly distinguishing his eyes, therefore penetrating in any manner the man. Tuymans seems to cultivate impassivity in his portraits, just as Raeburn did: by wiping out emotions from the face, you are left with the social role and the gaze where moral qualities are in a sense reflected: willpower, steadiness, force of intent, indifference, resignation… Once you eliminate the social function by focusing on the face, only the gaze remains, which Tuymans manages to load with the inner positive or negative energies of the individual. In the instances where he paints the portrait of monsters, such as the Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa, or the nazi criminal Reinhard Heydrich, the eyes are blurred or obscured by sunglasses. Perhaps to convey the absence of what we may call the “soul”, or the “moral being”.

With K (2017), which was inspired by advertising billboards, we have the “photoshopped” face of an model, her blue eyes staring in the distance, expressionless. The face is vaguely attractive, like on so many advertisements, but it presents itself as an image, not as the portrait of a person. It is an image of a form of beauty per se, with nobody in particular inside that beauty. The social media have made us slaves to those photos which show an ideal form of the person who posts them, of the person as she perhaps would like to be, or to remain for ever, thus detaching the living person from its own image just as kings and queens have been doing for so long, but in a context where you had no chance to meet them, unless yourself a courtier. From the detached image it will be easier to move to the transhuman, where the self will have no face, only a given – or acquired – face.

An exception to the rule of impassivity is provided by Twenty Seventeen (2017), a woman’s face drawn from 3%, the Brazilian TV show set in an unspecified future when the individuals who reach their twentieth anniversary, all massed since birth on the impoverished “Inland”, try to become part of the affluent “Offshore” society by competing in a “Process” which only 3% of the candidates may successfully complete. This is a transparent – and partly realistic – metaphor of societies where all intermediary positions will have become superfluous, and only the brightest and most daring or attractive individuals will be required in any position of influence. Those who do not succeed in the Process are put to death by poisoning, as they serve no social purpose. The portrait is the one of a woman who learns that she did not succeed. Of course, this can be read as an image of powerlessness at the hands of a faceless and ruthless power. It can be viewed as the state of humanity faced with a society where decisions will be made by algorithms, according to pre-set and perhaps long-forgotten criteria. It can be thought of as the face of the human condition when one is confronted with its shortcomings, the mistakes of one’s past, the failing of the “life exam” when it is too late to change the course; the face of humans when sitting through what religions have so powerfully called the “Last Judgement”, which everyone faces inevitably in his own conscience unless suddenly bereft of life. Even Luc Tuymans’s composure could not resist the awe of the Last Judgement.

Against the Day (2008)

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