Luc Tuymans - 2007 - On Old Ghosts and Things that Don’t Pass By [EN, interview]
On Old Ghosts and Things that Don’t Pass By
Guide to a superb Luc Tuymans exhibition
The exhibition is called ‘Les Revenants’, which translates as ‘the ghosts’, but the word ‘revenant’ was once used to describe the Jesuit Order or Society of Jesus. So the motif (the story, the concept) of this exhibition is the power of that Order and the way the Catholic Church, as the powerhouse, used images to perpetuate and expand its power. The theme of the exhibition is a logical continuation of the theme of all of Tuymans’ work: the power of the image and the struggle with powerful images. Tuymans (b. 1958) is not a flash in the pan sort of artist; he is not someone who causes a furore with a flimsy idea which flares up brightly, hot and noisily and dies out equally quickly. He is like an effervescing flow of lava concealed in the depths, which gradually forces its way up through slowly shifting tectonic plates.
In January of this year I was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where to my great joy I stumbled upon Tuymans’ portrait of Condoleezza Rice, right next to a room where Richter’s complete Baader-Meinhof series was on display. A superb museum with superb displays of superb works. Hanging there was the portrait of the American Secretary of State painted by Tuymans, while this country is in a state of war! A tour de force! An achievement that drives me to go on working.
Apart from its possible pacifist, political meaning, the lovely thing about this portrait consists in its being a tribute to a powerful woman of Afro-American descent as well. Indeed, the power of Tuymans’ work has to do with an ever-recurrent, ‘intrinsic’ ambiguity or richness, which is also apparent in a form executed with great precision and economy that results in the formulation of a clear painting technique to produce an unstable image.
In this exhibition the intrinsic ambiguity is expressed through references to the qualities and exceptional achievements of the Jesuit Order as well as to the far-reaching and often pernicious and undemocratic, political, moral, pedagogical and aesthetic influence of that powerful club.
In the illustrated weeklies you can read more about the reasons for the choice of that motif. Here I would like to talk about the way the ‘content’ of these paintings is conveyed (by means of colour, brushwork, composition, absence of modelling, etc.) and manifests itself to us in, for example, the various facets of a papal cufflink.
In the largest painting, which is called Rome, we recognize the interior of St Peter’s Basilica during the ceremony to elevate Archbishop Danneels to the cardinalate. Danneels can be seen bottom right among the other candidates, who are represented with a few pale brushstrokes. A few moments later the new cardinals will kneel. The asymmetrically framed image, with the two twisting columns in the foreground on the right and the thousands of worshippers in the depth, evokes an effective image of the gigantic architecture of the basilica. Suddenly the enormous sculptures in the recesses regain their true proportions. The church appears as an imposing, intelligent theatre, which helped bring about, hide, profile and preserve a powerful association.
The columns are made to look exaggeratedly amorphous, thereby accentuating their theatrical twists, but they also seem to disintegrate as if made of smoke. It looks as though the brushstrokes have been applied roughly, with parted hairs, but this is only appearance. The white background is visible between the brushstrokes, along with the occasional pencil markings. (Before starting work on a canvas, Tuymans paints it white.)
The painting was made swiftly. It is extremely effective. It shows the power of the image as something leprous, something tattered, something perishable which at the same time can be magical. The work was based on a home-made print of a digitally compressed image, with the result that the coloration is reminiscent of illustrations in old textbooks. The reality has the air of a disintegrating cardboard theatre or thousands of scattered, tiny patches of light. In that respect, the work is reminiscent of the painting Versailles which shows the back of Fontainebleau castle, like an old colour picture postcard.
‘Why the back?’ I ask.
‘Because the front would come across as too clichéd,’ Tuymans replies, ‘and also because the fountain adds something to the theatrical, flashy but at the same time almost domestic, petit bourgeois character of the piece.’
The striking thing about the painting is that our attention is immediately drawn to the fountain, the apparent nucleus of the painting, while no real attempt is made to reproduce the fountain itself, the spatiality of the falling water or the beaded light. Quite the reverse, in fact. Our gaze is deflected off that bleached-out, blind spot and onto the Fata Morgana of the castle above, whose almost opaque image disintegrates into thousands of short, narrow brushstrokes. I tell Tuymans that I admire the way he was able to appreciate Richter’s ‘blurriness’, but eventually replaced it with a form of his own: strokes placed side by side, which in this painting produce an effect I can best compare to flowers which occasionally appeared on the legs of some of the schoolchildren during my gymnastics lesson as a boy.
‘Richter wipes paintings,’ says Tuymans, with a sweeping arm movement. ‘I paint wet-on-wet.’
‘You paint on the newly applied, white ground?’
I have described elsewhere how Tuymans evokes objects just by painting shadow lines, which themselves break up into short, diagonally applied brushstrokes.
‘Do you use thin brushes for that?’, I ask him.
‘No, I always use the same brushes’, he tells me. He points to a little bucket containing some twenty identical, 2-centimetre-wide brushes.
‘What sort of brushes are they?’, I ask.
‘Just cheap synthetic brushes’, he answers, ‘I can’t work with expensive materials.’
‘So you apply those little brushstrokes using the corners of your brushes?’, I ask.
‘Yes, I hit the canvas with the corner of the brush,’ he says.
‘I paint in a classical manner’, he tells me, ‘first the light tones and then darker and darker. Gradually I darken the image in the places which will receive the most attention, like the girl’s hair in The Exorcist.
‘The image of the castle seems to shimmer, like an object shimmering in the heat,’ I say.
‘Yes, I aim to create an image that doesn’t petrify or become lifeless. You can also see that in the painting The Valley, which is based on an old film about an American town in which blond, blue-eyed boys are born who seem to be malicious, extraterrestrial creatures. In this context, of course, we just see a schoolboy. To make the image less graphic and static, at the end I applied the slightly greener yellow parts on the edge of the shaded areas, for example on the left cheek and on the nose. That way you reformulate the edge of the lighter yellow areas and give the area a coarser dimension. For me it isn’t about vanishing lines, but about defining something by means of colour.’
‘As Cézanne, Velásquez and El Greco did?’
‘Yes, initially I only knew El Greco from books and I found him very manneristic. But when I physically encountered works by him for the first time at the age of eighteen – they were portraits of saints in Budapest –, I saw that the paintings had a deconstructive element to them and almost fell to pieces. Despite the mysticism, the colour temperature was very cool. That’s why once I had left the building, I couldn’t remember either the tone or colour of those paintings. Seeing El Greco’s paintings made it clear to me what an image or a painting could mean.’
Another visual issue encountered in this exhibition is a sort of attack on Rubens.
‘Rubens was the Cecil B. DeMille of his time,’ says Tuymans. ‘All his paintings are concentric, they try to create a continuous, cinematic movement in a single image. That’s what irritates me about his work. Hence, too, the asymmetric view of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the painting based on an illustration of a church in a book (The Book), in which the only illusion of volume or depth is evoked by the woman walking diagonally in the middle. And finally that painting based on a picture of a church in which the architecture alternates with trompe l’oeil. What interests me is the static image, but then one that is unsteady. In The Book the woman in the book is given a counterpart in the vertical, almost fluorescent, fake, purple shadow on the right. In The Deal, the painting in which the Pope concludes the peace with the Jesuits’ general, you have that effect mainly in the papal vestments which are painted with cerulean blue and on top white with madder mixed with yellow, so as to create a sort of space, but at the same time achieve that plank-like effect.’
‘From which the pope’s cufflink emerges like an opening tear, like the issuing reality of the painting that is born? Do you have a thing about buttons and buttonholes?’
‘Yes, and spectacles too. Spectacles give you a colour contrast that is easy to paint, the image (the suggestion of a face) is directly formulated. They are the moments which carry everything and at the same time make everything uncertain. Just as with Velásquez you never know if what you have is a contour, a shadow or an imaginary line… I like Jan van Eyck more than the Renaissance painters with their ‘modelé’ and their sfumato. You can enlarge a painting by Jan van Eyck to the format of a wall: it will still be sharp. Velásquez comes close. A tremendous, quasi minimalist economy, which nevertheless creates depth rather than flatness without suggesting a perspectival space.’
‘Hence, too, The Book, and your painting based on the lid of a Japanese lacquered box’?
‘Yes, The Book is an image you perceive much more slowly and which is flattened by the fold, thereby underlining the fact that those Jesuits worked and still work with theatres and façades.’
‘Was the painting The Exorcist based on the scene of the exorcism in the film of that name?’
‘Yes, the priest, who’s played by Max von Sydow, is also a Jesuit.’
Tuymans always paints on a loose canvas. Only when the paintings are finished are they stretched on a frame. I am standing among several, as yet unstretched canvasses. Next to the finished image on each canvas there are spots of colour. I take several photographs of these spots next to The Exorcist. I am struck by the number of pure colours there are to see here, for example red, which you hardly find on the canvas. I suspect that these spots are the references on which Tuymans bases their different values.
‘Yes, in this painting I had great difficulty with the colours,’ he tells me. ‘It was hard to get the values right, to decide how far the contrasts could go, how I could sharpen the blur and paint all those colours into each other while giving them that light-emitting power in their stratification.’
‘The values are the relative gradations of all the colours compared to the tone of the focal point of the painting?’
‘Yes. In this case it was the girl’s hair. But because I work from light to dark, I have to constantly adjust all the tones as that head of hair emerges from nothingness. In this painting that was not easy. For example, this green line was very important.’ He shows me a wafer-thin, almost gleaming, emerald-green line which looks like the farthest contour of a dried-up stain. ‘A barely visible temporizing of the space of the painting.’
Finally, there are still two paintings I have not said anything about here. The first shows the wax seal of Loyola, the founder of the Order of the Jesuits.
‘I have the most difficulty understanding why you painted this,’ I say. ‘Unless doing so gave you a great deal of pleasure.’
‘Yes, I did like the oiliness of the wax,’ Tuymans replies, ‘and the image of blood it evokes.’
Hanging to the left of that painting is The Pledge, a work depicting two people dressed in white prostrating themselves. ‘They are adherents of the charismatic movement,’ he says. ‘There is something amorphic about the image. In particular it’s the effect of the over-sized feet.’
Then I see that this work is almost a twin brother of the famous work with the two geese, which Tuymans based on a painting that hung in his bedroom as a child. One of those geese had a large, black, egg-shaped eye, which the child thought might swallow him up. Here that eye has expanded into a dark, amorphic spot intended to represent a pair of shoes. The artist made the same painting again, perhaps without realizing it. The old ghosts are still at large.
Montagne de Miel, 17 April 2007