[This article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]
Antwerp-based artist Luc Tuymans is, without doubt, the most influential European painter of his generation. Whether one greets this fact with delight or horror — “bemused and grudging resignation” might also be a popular option — at very least it makes his current exhibition at Tate Modern an event not to be missed by anyone who still cares, at this late date, about the competencies and limitations currently ascribed to the visual arts in general, and to painting in particular.
Tate Modern’s Tuymans show is less a retrospective in the traditional sense — the public summation and evaluation of an entire career being, in any event, a strange sort of vehicle in which to find a healthy 46-year old — than it is that increasingly familiar contemporary institution, the artist’s own installation temporarily transposed from commercial, “price on application” gallery to public, “great art is priceless’”institution. (That such shows cannot be organised without the enthusiastic cooperation of the artist’s commercial representatives is, needless to say, of interest only to hardened cynics.) With nearly 70 paintings spread out across more than a dozen rooms, though, it’s an ambitious undertaking — an impressive show of self-confidence on the part of the artist, met with strong nerves on the part of the curators. On the artist’s insistence, the organisation of the exhibition is thematic rather than chronological. So although Tuymans edits his own back catalogue as ruthlessly as any self-aware artist — you’d hardly know, for instance, that he took a longish sabbatical in the early 1980s to experiment with making films — there’s still a chance to gauge how far the artist has moved between the mid 1980s and the present day.
The answer? Not very far at all. Tuymans made contact with his personal signature style circa 1978, when he first copied an old family photograph in thinned-down oils — sound familiar, anyone? — and since the moment of that first essay into what had previously been Gerhard Richter’s territory, deviations have been minimal. Not for him the compulsive stylistic boundary-bursting of a Picasso, a Matisse, a Jeff Koons. Well, sneer if you like, but for a Tory art critic, bored by this ageing aesthetic of change for change’s sake, this can only be a Good Thing. Leaning heavily on his chosen influences, more or less obvious — Richter and film, first and foremost, but also the Flemish ‘Primitives’, late Ensor, Hopper and perhaps even, weirdly, Morandi — Tuymans continues to produce obvious Tuymans-type signature pieces. And so, in fact, do art students and younger painters across the length and breadth of Europe, as the random perusal of any degree show or juried competition in the relevant areas makes all too clear. Thus from Venice to Kassel to Basle to Hoxton, art-world veterans will feel we know this work, even if we have only rarely seen an actual Tuymans canvas before: the bleached-out palette, the laboriously juicy application of pigment, the faltering faux-inept strokes of the loaded brush, the convalescent-ward colours, the mute inanimate objects radiating sinister import, the punchline titles, the whisper of menace, the air of irony-sodden weariness — and, most of all, allusions to important world-historical themes — somehow pulling off the neat trick of flattering us on the correctness of our responses, without actually saying anything with which it is possible to disagree.
Because its means are so obvious and so simple, Tuymans’ handling positively invites pastiche, as does his palette — but so too, perhaps even more so, does his coolly detatched tone. In this sense, he makes things easy for his epigones, detachment being easier to fake than conviction. And by the same token, faced with work that appears to be slipping away into nothingness, into inarticulacy or incompetence, the sort of critics who spent much of the 1980s anxiously taking the pulse of painting, checking whether it was still alive at all, now fall over themselves to praise, in their readings of Tuymans’ work, painting’s pallid, flaccid yet still self-aware near-corpse. For make no mistake — Tuymans’ oeuvre is an absolute gift to the essayist, too. All those gaps, the hieratic shortcuts, the absences either of specificity or allegiance create a vacuum that sucks in every bit of prose that post-modernity can throw at it.
Yet at the same time, Tuymans has clearly recognised something that de Kooning, Dubuffet, Bacon, Kiefer and others learned long ago, which is simply the sluttish ease with which oil paints, applied wet-into-wet, can be made to look luscious, almost whatever one does with them or means by them. Enjoying painterly effects for their own sake is, in these complicated times and for a certain sort of insider audience, a simple pleasure that grows more guilty by the hour, making Tuymans’ sly exploitation of his medium all the more seductive. Imagine it: one can look at recognisable pictures of things, made with paint — and yet still retain one’s contemporary art credentials intact! No wonder critics, curators, collectors and copyists alike feel so at home now in the twilit world of Tuymans. No wonder Tate Modern is according him just as much space as they’ve given Edward Hopper, a bona fide America art star. Tuymans is, in every conceivable way, a painter for our own times.
Who’d want to be popular?
Yet when I was last at Tate Modern, the contrast between the two shows was hard to miss. Even before 11 am, the Hopper exhibition came prefaced by a queue that would not have shamed Leicester Square on the day of a blockbuster’s general release. This seemed right, somehow. Hopper’s surfaces remain shockingly uninteresting, his colour straight-from-the-tube unsubtle, and his representational ability rarely able to withstand even the few modest demands he placed upon it. He may, in fact, be one of those few artists (Magritte was another) whose work looks better in reproduction than in real life. Yet despite this, somehow, his images — rarely distinguishable from the film posters and pulp-novel covers that were their coevals — have managed to catch the general popular middlebrow imagination, their lack of interest as “art for art’s sake” perhaps constituting an enticement in itself. Hopper’s work, viewed now, invokes an America of B movies, pre-Oprah emotional reticence and pre-imperial simplicity. Its appeal may thus have more to do with nostalgia than with its qualities as art, but is no less secure for that. Meanwhile, in contrast, I was able to enjoy — if that’s the word — the Tuymans exhibition in virtual solitude, since the two other visitors whose visit coincided with my own maintained a respectful, indeed “detached” two-room distance between us. This may be the only case in human history where the press view for the exhibition was more crowded than the exhibition itself. And this, in itself, makes its own rich commentary on the relative qualities of Tuymans’ and Hopper’s achievement.
Too cool for comfort?
I wrote, earlier, that critics adore Tuymans. In general, this is true. Yet there are those, even amongst the art-critical clerisy, who still have reservations. Were the late Peter Fuller alive today, for instance, I suspect he’d have had something to say about Tuymans’ ostentatious lack of interest in the appearance of things, his modishness, his refusal to convey us through his art to a more beautiful or better place, and most of all, his coolness so complete as to constitute a kind of icy post-modern mannerism. Back here amongst the living, however, one particularly damning denunciation came from sometime Modern Painters contributor Waldemar Januszczak, in this case writing for The Times, attacking the ‘ghastly tease’ of Tuymans’ ’15-year strategy of avoidance’. Others go even further, albeit (for such is Tuymans’ prestige) often sotto voce, condemning Tuymans for wringing sentiment, sensationalism and soar-away sale-prices out of the most raw and aching stuff of human misery. In their own diverse ways, these criticism serve to remind us of the affinities connecting Tuymans with that other famous attendant at painting’s deathbed, Richter himself. There is, after all, still a strong tendency when looking at art — a tendency inherited from a certain strand of nineteenth century liberal aspirations for culture — to feel that art should not simply report the news, or entertain, or instruct, or amuse, but should in fact make us all better people, too. Contemporary artists who, in their various ways, fail to shoulder this burden attract condemnation not only from Marxist critics — which would make sense of a sort — but often for conservative critics, too. All of which leads us what’s really the most interesting point in this exhibition. What is Tuymans actually trying to do, and is it worth doing? And what does it tell us, furthermore, about what is or isn’t possible in art these days?
First, though, for those of you who remain unfamiliar with Tuymans’ painting, a word or two of explanation is probably in order. The “typical” Tuymans piece is executed in one session, wet-into-wet, in oils on canvas or board. In general the scale of these works is, by contemporary standards, small — often no larger than a couple of feet square. This makes them more intimate than declamatory. In them, Tuymans uses highly simplified if not calligraphic mark-making to evoke objects, interiors, figures or outdoor scenes. These are almost invariably copied from old photographs — by hand, incidentally, since he rejects the use of a projector — and indeed the works have a faded, faint, even damaged look that recalls their immediate origins in other people’s old unwanted photos. Tuymans often creates his paintings in small, thematically-linked groups. Some of his most famous work revolves around historical subjects — the Holocaust, Nazism and, more recently, the death of Congolese post-colonial leader Patrice Lumumba. Painting in sequences is a practice which courts the imputation of some sort of narrative content — and where there is a story, can a moral be far behind? But sometimes the theme of these paintings is only discernable from their titles, their context in the exhibition, from critical exegesis by the likes of MoMA’s Robert Storr or, not infrequently, from interviews with Tuymans himself.
However one acquires it, though, as soon as one has been handed the relevant ‘key’ to the Tuymans oeuvre and has got a firm grip on how to use it, then the temptation to read an undercurrent of disgust and horror even into the most innocent of his images becomes all but overwhelming. In Tate Modern’s exhibition, for instance, one work initially appears to depict a warmly-coloured, rather empty room — until the we notice the title, “Gaskamer” [“Gas Chamber”]. “Right”, we think, getting into the swing of this — “so, not just an empty old room, then” — and get on with the serious business of emoting appropriately. This experience coaches us to read an apparently innocuous scene, such as that in “Pillows”, with the deepest suspicion, even though we never really learn what is wrong with the pillows in question. And by the time we arrive at a painting like “Der Architekt” [“The Architect”], a Tuymansised comical holiday snap of a man of skis who has taken a tumble in the snow, sharper observers will take no time at all in understanding that this rather jolly, family-photo-album outtake is meant to represent, obviously enough, not just a clumsy sportsman but rather that prominent bad-guy Albert Speer. But then in the world of Tuymans, at least if you listen to the critics and curators, everything that appears funny or attractive must be especially horrible. The aesthetic is that of the X-Files as much as of Tuymans’ own post-war generation — and, alas, of contemporary art as much as of contemporary cultural distrust.
Needless to say, maintaining constant distrust can be hard work, and can constitute a major detour from the escapism, consolation or high entertainment-value that so many people still seek in their visual experiences. In a very famous image, “Our New Quarters”, Tuymans reproduces in the sketchiest possible way the outline of a modernist building. The source? A postcard distributed to prisoners at Theresienstadt, a ‘model’ concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, so that these prisoners could demonstrate to the outside world that early rumours of death-camps were simply outrageous propaganda — although the camp was, in fact, little more than a staging-post on the way to mass murder at Auschwitz. You really do need to know this sort of thing when you visit a Tuymans exhibition. Not least, if you don’t know it — if the irony is somehow lost — then the scene looks either dull or even, worse still, relatively pleasant. And this is yet another reason, I suppose, why there were three people at the Tuymans’ exhibition at a time when crowd-control measures were being instituted across the foyer at the Hopper show. Tuymans will, I suspect, never achieve a mass audience — which simply gives his growing reputation another convulsive boost. For what a lovely feeling of clubby exclusivity awaits the hard-working art-world insiders who are prepped to get all the bitter, cynical jokes!
The sort of critics who end up writing the catalogue essays for Tuymans’ exhibitions, and the sort of broadsheet journalists who end up covering his shows, sometimes position him as a history painter in the realist tradition. It is worth unpicking, briefly, what they might mean by this claim. Once upon a time, painting history was synonymous with expressing a particular point of view about the history one was presenting. When Tuymans’ great Flemish predecessor Rubens created his magnificent Medici cycle, his goal was not simply to reflect recent history, but in a very real sense to create it. The cycle — an hallucinogenic extravaganza of gods and goddesses, bare breasts and chunky thighs, extravagant drapery and allegorical gestures — does not take a neutral view of Marie de’ Medici and her achievements. Rather, it makes a vigorous rhetorical case for her legitimacy, statesmanship and just rule. When David rushed out a portrait of the murdered demagogue Marat he recast a messy, recent, still-warm set of contingencies into a lapidary vocabulary of virtue, heroism and sacrifice borrowed with even-handed indifference from the classical and Christian traditions. Why on earth would one want to act as a neutral observer — even if such a thing were possible — when the stakes were so high? And even Picasso, sketching out the basic forms of Guernica, was handling the inherited tropes of art history as functional rhetorical tools, first and foremost. This, like the other examples above, was anything but “art for its own sake”. In fact, some might argue that the result was, in each case, propaganda rather than art. Still others — well, not many of us, but even so — might even suggest that “art” is usually at its best when doing anything other than contemplating its own philosophical navel, but that’s a fight for another day.
Here in 2004, at any rate, Tuymans’ take on history is far more ambiguous. To some extent this explains the discomfort felt by dissenting critics in the presence of his work. By simply copying old images, imparting to them a sort of formal importance, transposing them from paper to canvas and from artefact to art — and by carrying out this project with such an explicit lack of passion or sympathy — Tuymans appears from one point of view to be holding up the resulting images for admiration and aesthetic enjoyment, while at the same time avoiding analysis, judgement or condemnation. This, as far as I can tell, is what bothers Januszczak about Tuymans — Januszczak’s distaste at what he sees as the aestheticisation of evil — sibling sentiment, perhaps, of the impulse that drove Hilton Kramer to attack Richter’s Bader Meinhoff paintings at MoMA in 2001. In each case, the critic wants the artist not just to report on the world, but somehow to make it — and us — better. And in each case, the artist shows absolutely zero interest in complying.
Yet in all honesty, and for all my reservations about Tuymans, I cannot bring myself to agree with this critique of his work. Put simply, this is because I do not believe that he is involved in the same sort of enterprise as was Rubens, David or Picasso — nor do I find it surprising, let alone unforgivable, that he should fail to attempt this. Anyway, when it comes to the unspeakable evils of the 1930s and 40s, why bother? Tuymans, obviously, grew up in post-war Belgium, a place where collaborators lived side-by-side with their old enemies — sometimes, indeed, as in the Tuymans household, sitting down to dinner with them at the same family meals. To that extent, his take on the facts of the war may well be nuanced that that of those of us who have grown up in countries with happier wartime histories. Still, Tuymans’ target audience is not the Antwerp middle class of the early 1950s, but rather the arts confraternity of today. Tuymans can, frankly, take it for granted that his gallery-going, monograph-reading, right-thinking admirers all the way from Tokyo to Bern to Helsinki to the Lower East Side regard the Holocaust, the Nazis and Belgian imperialism with something approaching a homogeneity of condemnation. Love of art is no guarantee of virtue, obviously, as anyone who has spent the briefest of sojourns in the art world must surely be aware, but the sort of people who take out five-year subscriptions to Frieze tend to feel, if nothing else, a social disinclination to defend the politics of genocide. Thus whatever Tuymans’ actual project may be, I find it hard to imagine that acting as a persuader in these matters plays a particularly central part in it. And anyway, there’s a strong line of argument suggesting that people ought to avoid looking to art for moral instruction, just as they ought to avoid treating art as a ersatz version of religious faith in every other capacity as well. There are better reasons, ultimately, to avoid butchering your fellow human beings than because a painting has, somehow, put you off the idea.
Ways of seeing
Of course the issue of ambiguity is a very real one in Tuymans’ work. Yet to gauge the extent to which this is the case, we need to move away from the awful absolutes of well-publicised European mass murder to the slightly more opaque narratives of Belgian decolonisation. In 2001, the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale displayed an arresting series of paintings by Tuymans called “Mwana Kitoko” [“Beautiful White Man”]. Several of these are included in the current Tate Modern show. The subject of these works is a succession of events culminating in the torture and killing in 1961 of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected head of state in the post-colonial Belgian Congo. These days it is commonly believed that a ghoulish alliance of Belgian security forces, their mercenary adjuncts and the CIA played a part in Lumumba’s murder. Their goal may have been the resolution of the terrible Katanga situation, but in fact the result was the ascendancy of Joseph Mobutu — a man whose influence was, even by the demanding standards of modern sub-Saharan Africa, an absolute catastrophe. So this is a murky and difficult area of recent history, with serious implications for Belgium even today — like Marc Detroux’s ghastly child-murders, a story where general public obliviousness ends up in the dock as much as any of the actual actors. In other words, as historical narratives go, in present-day Belgium, at least, the Congo is far more ‘live’ than the Second World War. For this reason, if Tuymans’ self-appointed task were to shape history rather than to do something altogether different with it, we should expect to find the evidence of such persuasiveness and rhetorical focus here.
But to make the point that I need to make at this juncture, I cannot avoid recourse to describing my own, very personal experience of this installation. The 2001 Venice Biennale was my first real encounter with Tuymans’ work. Wandering into the evocative modernist bunker that housed Belgium’s Biennale contribution, I had no idea who was exhibiting, what the work would look like or the nature of the ideological charge, if any, that informed it. What I did know, however — almost immediately, once my eyes had adjusted to the dim light — was that it was wonderful — there in Venice amid all the random installations and conceptual pieces and piles of random material that might either be art or, conversely, builders’ rubbish — to see actual, hand-made painting. And then, as the work resolved itself before my eyes amid the acrid crepuscular gloom, I began to admire not only the tonal shifts and gestural bravado — for it must be said, Tuymans’ painting really is often rather beautiful — but also, it must be said, the subject matter as well.
What, though, in 2001, not having read a single Tuymans monograph or even much in the way of critical comment, did I hold that subject matter to be? Well, it was a little while before I worked out that it had anything to do with the Congo. At first, its resonances were very different indeed. Having grown up in a part of the American South full of concrete breeze-block churches, humid nights and suit-wearing black people engaged in important meetings, much of what I saw seemed not frightening and alienating, but rather, accessible and attractively familiar. Of course, by the time I encountered the images of a leopard-skin and of a uniformed head of state descending from an aeroplane, it occurred to me — not for the first time — that my subjective reading was by no means the only possible one. The point, though, is simply this. It was perfectly possible to look at these works and see them not as sinister, brutal and horrific, but rather as evocative, nostalgic — even rather beautiful. For Robert Storr, “The Mission” — that breeze-block church — may tell a tale of imposed ideologies and gun-slit architecture, but to me it simply looked like a place in my own home town that I associated with the joyful sounds of clapping, foot-stomping and first-rate Gospel music. Or to belabour this with one more example, “Chalk”, one of the works from “Mwana Kitoko” not included at Tate Modern, really does look like a lyrical sort of study of outstretched, long-fingered, black hands; it is only when one finds out that Lumumba had his teeth ripped out with pliers that those white things, lying on the upturned umber palms, look anything other than innocuous. Because remember, to have the Robert Storr-type Tuymans experience, you have to be carefully taught — you have to learn to react with the right sort of distrust, horror and condemnation. But what if, somehow, you have slipped through the net, and you don’t feel any of these things? What if you have the “wrong” responses? What if these images are, ultimately, not a textbook or a policy pamphlet, but somehow rather more like a mirror?
While musing over this point, it is possible to imagine at least three types of encounter with “Mwana Kitoko”: that of the well-informed and socially-conscious Belgian liberal gallery-goer, that of the non-Belgian gallery-goer who lacks a sophisticated frame of reference regarding the details of Belgium’s imperial detumescence, and that of the interested and worldly inhabitant of central Kishasha. Of the third of these, alas, I can say nothing, for nowhere, in all the writing about Tuymans that I have read, have I seen anything setting out what anyone from today’s DRC thinks about Tuymans’ work. Certainly, the lavishly beautiful catalogue from the Belgian Pavilion never addresses this point, while allowing Robert Storr his several thousand-word declamation. Let us confine ourselves, then, faut de mieuxto the first two cases. Tuymans, like many artists of his generation, is perfectly happy to paint for a European or perhaps even a Belgian national audience, because the alternative would be to paint in the sort of High Art-inflected Esperanto guaranteed to remain comprehensible even in Manhattan and indeed points further west — and since the collapse in the late 1980s of American art-historical hegemony, why bother? Instead, he often seems to assume a Belgian point of view — an Antwerper frame and depth of reference — just as reflexively as Richter, but not Kiefer, does a German one. Of course the danger here is that the international audience may think they understand what is going on, but in fact — as with Richter — may come up with frighteningly heterodox readings. What happens, though, if Tuymans doesn’t really care? What if that’s almost the point?
Or to put it another way, in the Robert Storr take on Tuymans, what if not everyone has read the catalogue essays and hence does not understand the awful import behind, say, “Tsjombe”? (I think “Tsjombe” portrays a bunch of Katangan politicians, but I am far from sure about this.) Or is it enough to assume that something sinister and horrific is happening, enjoy for a moment the happy conjunction of scary frisson plus luscious surface, and then move on to the next picture? Or does it simply matter less, because Africa and its people matter less to us than the epochal convulsions of our own culture, in our own very recent past? In any event, I think it would be perfectly possible to view “Mwana Kitoko” while swathed in the preconception that Belgian imperialism was, by and large, a worthwhile enterprise and that what followed was much worse, and not to find this point of view contradicted anywhere in Tuymans’ work. This is why, when critics praise Tuymans for “dealing with” historical issues such as the Holocaust or decolonisation, one is not sure whether the apposite response involves laughter or outraged tears. When looking at art, we invariably bring as much to the party as the artist ever offers himself. The politics we find in Tuymans’ work are almost invariably those we set out to find there. Whether, of course, one views this as ‘evasion’, or alternatively as a bald recognition of the realities of what can be expected of art in our own times, is, as much as anything else, a matter of personal and probably unswayable taste. Just for the sake of argument, though, those in the “evasion” camp might like to try and think when their proponents last saw a really compelling new piece of political, polemical visual art.
But that’s enough about mass murder, let’s talk about art instead
But in a sense, all of this rather misses the point, because once again it seems to suggest that Tuymans is trying to persuade us of something — that his project lies in the deployment of formal tactics to polemical ends. To me, anyway — and I’ve been worrying about this for several years now — I think this gets Tuymans wrong. To an extent, in fact, it does more than that — it gets the relationship between contemporary art and the art of the past wrong, too. The more I look at his work, the more I think that the historical content of Tuymans’ work is virtually incidental, and that in fact his great subject is the nature of images and their reproduction. In other words, like so much of today’s self-absorbed, self-referential art, it is art chasing its conceptual tail — the rage of art looking at itself in the glass and hating the thing it sees. Who cares about politics, anyway? What High Art really wants to talk about, today, is not the world — a sphere from which it is increasingly isolated by its own carefully-cultivated specialised uselessness — but rather, about itself — to monologue with plangent insecurity, seeking to reassure itself about its continuing place in a universe of ever-multiplying, unavoidable, functional non-art images.
Take, for instance, a painting like “Our New Quarters”, mentioned above. As images go, there’s not really much to it. Four kinked lines plus some lozenges, black onto military green, make a building. Another line or two implies a tree, forlornly impeding the horizontal thrust of the structure behind it. Why should that provoke any response at all in any of us? But then the minute we read the caption (in this case, unmissable, as it’s painted across the lower portion of the canvas, destroying whatever frail spatial illusionism the kinked lines may have asserted) and understand its implications, suddenly the scene takes on qualities unbounded by the actual marks on the painted surface. No matter how much we might distrust or even dislike Tuymans’ work, all the associations come flooding in: the books we might have read or the interviews we might have seen, the old films and photographs and survivor narratives, the things we feel about race and coercion and man’s indifference to his fellow creatures, the first or second-hand experiences of violence that colour our understanding of the past — even the personal pain by which (for there’s no other way to do it) we try to gauge the suffering of others. What we bring to these images is, in other words, not simply a case of saying that mass murder is wrong — all together, now, kids, “mass murder is wrong!” — but something far more interesting, which is the disparate and totally individual tangle of thoughts and associations that can be evoked, under the right circumstances, by something so minimal and hieratic that it hardly counts as an image at all. And this, I think, is what interests Tuymans — the enduring power of an image, any image, to bring down upon our heads an avalanche of meaning totally extrinsic to it. A concentration camp, the face of a politician, a bed, a pillow, a wound — the image itself is almost incidental, because the point is less the image itself than its disproportionate power. Nor do I think that Tuymans much cares about the nature of this power. He simply wants to make sure we feel its force.
We get the art we deserve
And at that level, at least, there can be little doubt that the present exhibition at Tate Modern succeeds handsomely. Tuymans has persuaded the gallery’s management to remove those terrible cloth screens that usually cover the windows. He was right to do so. Not only do his paintings, unlike Hopper’s, mostly benefit from the odd flood of natural light, which lets their thin layers of colour and complex tonal relationships expand to the utmost — they benefit, too, from the opportunity to compare their limited and stylised content with that of the big, complicated, messy world outside. Meanwhile, there’s a happy hour or more to be had, wandering through the echoing emptiness of those galleries, letting the images and the wan colours and the slightly melancholic atmosphere work their magic. The result is contemplative, dreamy, memorable and highly personal. Few, I think, will emerge from the experience with a heightened understanding of the geopolitics of the past century, or the nature of good and evil, or even of the menace possibly implicit in a range of household objects and everyday scenes — and those who do will run the risk of impacted self-delusion. Rather, the rewards here, for those who are willing to seek them, lie in a slightly heightened awareness of the strange ways in which we seek to extract meaning out of the sensory world around us.
There is, finally, one more related point to be made here about Tuymans’ significance as a contemporary painter. It has to do with the whole “is painting dead?” debate. As Tate Modern’s own press material puts it,
In the context of the new information age, many artists felt that painting was a deeply conservative form of expression which did not match the heterogeneous nature of contemporary experience. Tuymans’ work specifically addresses the challenge of the inadequacy and ‘belatedness’, as he puts it, of painting.
But as anyone who spends any time looking at the art market will tell you, the notion that painting is somehow “inadequate” or “belated” is little more than a dandyish signal of confraternity exchanged amongst a select circle of High Art curators, critics and practitioners. While the odd international exhibition makes headlines by rejecting anything on canvas, and a certain sort of art student spends more time debating theory than picking up a pencil, at the same time — back in the real, non-art world — a wide range of people, of varying incomes and levels of art-education, continues to create, commission, collect and admire this “deeply conservative form of expression”. And despite the social pressures that stop them from discussing it, more of this sort of stuff goes on in the art world itself than one might initially assume. Would Tuymans’ work still have the same charge if he simply photographed, or worse still, filmed that same set of old photos? Would critics still get so worked up if the distance between the tragedy of his subject-matter and the beauty of his surfaces was not so extreme? Tuymans, as I mentioned above, had a bit of a wobble in the early 1980s and left painting for film-making — only to return, a few years later, to the forgiving, understanding bosom of his old yet unwithered medium. This seems to me, at least, an indication of how much relative importance he accords to these two spheres of practice. Sneakily, I suspect he rather enjoys paint and the things he can do with it, and knows that we do, too.
Of course there are great ages of painting and relatively embarrassing ages of painting, and it’s all too clear which sort of age we inhabit. But you need the time-frame of an insect, or the teleological inclinations of an old-fashioned Marxist, to extrapolate from this temporary hiatus the collapse of what must, surely, be close to a basic human impulse. The truth remains that art still gets to us — man-made marks still get to us — in the way the sterile stuff of “the new information age” never seems, despite the best attempts of its exponents, to do. And Tuymans, I suppose, has the good sense to take advantage of this, while at the same time accepting critical praise in whatever garbled form it takes. Tuymans is not, by any sane standard, a great painter. He probably could not carry off representational versimilitude if he tried. He’s limited, mannered and sometimes more than a little pretentious. Yet his faults and his obsessions do, at least, have the benefit of being entirely representative of the art-historical climate that produced him, with all the self-congratulatory subjectivity, self-referential obsession and romantic daydreams of death that this implies. Spending time with his work may not result in learning much about the world outside our heads, but it may well result in learning something about ourselves, and the limits that the whole concept of “art” has served, over the past century or so, to draw around the practice of image-making. Tuymans is not, ultimately, a painter of history. He is, for better or worse, the authentically insecure, uncertain, recognisably familiar voice of our own sad cultural times.
Luc Tuymans will be at Tate Modern from 23 June – 26 September 2004. Tickets cost £6. Concessions apply.