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Luc Tuymans

(b. 1958)


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(1958– )

Belgian painter, born in Mortsel. He studied fine art in Brussels and Antwerp between 1976 and 1982 and then art history between 1982 and 1986. After finishing his studies, he gave up painting for film-making for two years. His subsequent work as a painter has been frequently interpreted in the light of a supposed crisis in the continuing relevance of and possibilities for painting. In that he often uses photography as a source, he has sometimes been compared to Gerhard Richter. Yet his approach could hardly be more different. There is none of the meticulous mimicry of the photographic surface. The works are broadly painted in a way that permits Tuymans to be selective as to what is shown and concealed. He uses a pale tonality, sometimes close to monochrome. This suggests a faded or damaged picture, withholding some of its significance. In certain works he induces cracks in the surface of the painting, so suggesting a further degeneration of the image. He generally completes a painting in a single day of intensive work.

The result of this is a kind of painting which has undeniable physical seductiveness, but this alone does not account for the power of his work and the level of critical debate it has inspired. Tuymans, by implying more than he states, explicitly raises issues about the way that meanings are associated with pictures. An early example is a painting of 1989 which shows the simplified outline of a cat's head, a box like a cat box, two stylized images of a lawn, and two purely arbitrary spots. The material was taken from a commercial catalogue and it was the artist's wife who was struck by its implied violence and gave it the name Child Abuse. Elsewhere there is the sense of the uncanny evoked by the partial figure or the absence of human presence. A powerful example of the latter is Silent Music (1993, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), a deserted room with an unmade bed. The pastel pinks and blues suggest a child's room, but in the words of Tuymans it is ‘a sort of universal kid's room turned into a prison, a cell’.

The image in these paintings is never innocent of associations. Certain works allude cryptically to the Holocaust. One group of works refers to the militant Flemish nationalism which was resurgent in the late 1990s. At the Venice Biennale in 2001 Tuymans showed a series of paintings entitled Mwana Kitiko. This was the contemptuous name (beautiful white boy) given by the Congolese to the Belgian king at the time of the anti-colonial struggle in the 1950s. The feet of the king are seen in one painting, which is dominated by a leopard-skin rug. There is no explicit horror in the paintings, but there are allusions to political violence. In one painting two chalk hands are held out, each with a small yellow spot. A knowledge of the history is needed to point out the significance. When the first prime minister of the independent Congo was assassinated, all that was left of the body was two gold teeth fillings.

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Subjects: Art.


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