luc tuymans sincerely

Curator: Oshima Santo
Tokyo Opera City Gallery, Tokyo
22 October - 28 December 2000

'My painting should be completely silent.'1

In 1905, an author named van Oudshoorn left Holland to take up a five-year position with the Dutch Embassy in Berlin. Each day during his absence he bought a postcard at the restaurant where he took lunch. Every day he sent the postcard home to his beloved, using a red pencil, he marked with a cross the table where he sat. This is the story that in 1985, moved the Belgium artist Luc Tuymans to paint again after a four-year self proclaimed 'crisis with painting'. He says of the work, 'The Correspondence is the picture of constant presence arising out of constant homesickness. A kind of complete hopelessness connected with the feeling of security'.2 He describes this as his first conceptual painting and it was included in the exhibition 'Luc Tuymans Sincerely' at the Tokyo Opera City Gallery in late 2000. 

The Holocaust is one of two thematics in Tuymans's work, the other is more prosaic and concerns consumerism and sanitisation-both are underpinned with layers of violence. 'There is a sort of indifference in my paintings which makes them more violent, because any objects in them are as if erased, cancelled .'3 Silent, barely finished and under-worked, much of Tuymans's art distils generations of trauma into single paintings–in the artist's words, 'nostalgia as shared horror'. Meanwhile, the maudlin familiarity of suburbia and banal imagery stolen from advertising, become measures for (invisible) aberrant undercurrents, or the complexities and hypocrisies within socialised and institutionalised hierarchies. All paintings come only after an achingly-slow bringing together of lived and historical memory, sometimes distilled through a process of model-making. Tuymans's pictures are always painted within a day. This is not futile painting, yet the works speak of futility. Manifold, potent and painful–these codes and cyphers are inference and empathy made visible. The artist further states,

The small gap between the explanation of a picture and a picture itself provides the only possible perspective on painting. My comments refer only to its ambiguity. ... Thinking and feeling and working out feelings are different elements, each with a rhetoric of its own. A memory-free zone arises between conception and execution.4

The exhibition of more than one hundred and fifty works covered the full breadth of Tuymans's practice including his first pictures from the 1970s which he describes as 'existential and intimately tied to the maker'.5 The exhibition was hung in reverse chronology beginning with his most recent works. Also included were two new paintings, fine drawings and never-before exhibited polaroids. The polaroids could be seen as film-stills emerging from the artist's detour through Super 8 film making in the early 1980s when the act of painting became impossible for Tuymans. He says,

The filmic experience has led to a sort of change in perception of how things are lived through. When I took up painting again it was mediated through elements like close-up or framing that allowed for an altogether different way of freezing imagery. After this filmic research there is also the element of conceptualising and a basic form of screenplay that led to the idea of the series.6

In its scope, the exhibition revealed the artist's intimate processes of making through the mediated transitions back and forth between toys, maquettes, dioramas, moving-image, film-still, polaroids, drawing, advertising images, frozen television-screen visuals and painting. Things are not what they seem–a painting of a subdued, modernist interior becomes emotionally charged when we learn its title is Gas Chamber. A bleached, cropped, innocuous rendering of a doll changes meaning when we hear it concerns scarification and bodily violation. Leaf 1986, is a peculiar canvas in the shape of a deciduous leaf–the story was the artist's grandfather's. During WW1, leaflets shaped as leaves were dropped into the trenches, the death skull printed on one side was intended to demoralise the troops. After the war, Tuymans's grandfather sat at home and complained about 'the waiting'. Leaf concerns this story and depicts the empty sitting room of the artist's grandfather. Silent Music 1992 depicts a children's room–it is decorated (as is usual) by parents and not by the child, the lighting is impossible–a painting about imposition. Suites from major series such as Der Diagnostische Blick (Diagnostic View) 1992 also were included. These paintings appear to be portraits of intimates–a falsity. The images are taken from medical reference books instructing doctors in the art of diagnosis through 'reading' the outward appearance of patients. Tuymans painted these codings–these symptoms worn as facial features–in a dispassionate manner using horizontal strokes.

There is a sleight of hand in Tuymans's apparent 'style switching'. His seemingly formalist works reference Modernism, but are more deeply bound to his two themes of trauma and the loaded banal. An elegant painting of crimson dots on a green field is entitled Bloodstains and portrays what it describes seen through a microscope. Two other paintings appear as cool grids–one is entitled Bathroom Tiles the other, Towel. Tuymans explains, 'Towel symbolises everyday life... People laugh when they see the picture. lt no longer works in the sense of tradition, of art, or as a useable object, but something you remember from your youth, from your immediate surroundings in the past'. Another work, Die Wiedergutmachung (Reparations) 1989 consists of two pictures that use the grid as a device. Its source was a television program Tuymans viewed about pseudo-scientific experiments undertaken on gypsy twins during WW2. The doctor responsible for awarding belated compensation had himself worked in the concentration camps and when he died in 1989, contact prints of detached hands and eyes were found in his desk: the paintings are based on these gruesome contact sheets. Tuymans explains, 'They are about the idea of science, the possibilities of genetics, the possibilities of forgery, how life has become an object, how the whole thing is marketed, and how the marketing is treated like a mystery.'

The idea of the fake, the counterfeit and 'the authentic forgery' is further explored through a recent series of works that use as image the passion play performed yearly in the small German town of Oberammergau. These paintings portray the actors portraying biblical figures–the images are taken from brochures collected by the artist as a child during a family pilgrimage to the event. Originally the townsfolk were the actors, now 'real' actors perform for huge audiences. Tuymans adds to the fabrication by painting paintings that 'act' as other paintings, for example Gold 1999 which pretends to be an Yves Klein work. Profanity and falsity, fake beards, fake faith and the fact of iconographic models as indicators of all pervasive systems of control and influence, are both subjects and objects here.

Additionally, a small show of new work was presented at a nearby gallery, WAKO Works of Art. The show, titled Insolence included a small number of oils on canvas or newspaper, encapsulating a subtle commentary concerning perceptions across cultures.

Luc Tuymans, Untitled, 2000. Oil on newspaper, 28.6 x 19cm. Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerpen. Photo: Felix Tirry. 


I. Luc Tuymans, Artist Lecture, Tokyo Opera City Gallery, 22 October 2000.
2. Luc Tuymans quoted in Ulrich Loocl, Juan Vicente Aliaga and Nancy Spector, Luc Tuymans, Phaidon, London, 1996, p.118.
3. ibid. p. 26.
4. ibid. p. 12.
5. Luc Tuymans quoted in Luc Tuymans Sincerely, exhibition catalogue, Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foundation, Tokyo, 2000, p 38.
6. ibid.
7. Luc Tuymans quoted in Ulrich Loock, et al., op cit, p.l26.
8. ibid. p 133.

The writer's visit to Japan was assisted by Asialink and the Queensland Art Gallery