in Frieze | 06 JUN 94
Featured in
Issue 17

False Memories

Luc Tuymans

in Frieze | 06 JUN 94

Antwerp in the rain. The rain danced on the sill and some slanted in through the open window. It rained in the room where Luc Tuymans paints these modest, almost prosaic canvases, each one a dirty little secret, the moment that precedes disaster, the evidence of a crime, the quiet detail.

There's another room, behind the first, with a big squalid bed, a lot of papers lying around and a blotch on the ceiling where the rain once worked its way in under the roof. This room with the iron bed, a room with all the colour sucked out of it is the kind of dismal room he'd put into a painting, with the stain on the ceiling like a flower or a lesion. It's an arrested place where an atmosphere has moved in like a squatter along with the damp and the dust.

'The studio,' he said, 'is an ashtray,' as though painting were some dreadful solitary vice. Painting, for Tuymans, is a kind of violence, though in his paintings nothing happens. Something has already happened, and is waiting to happen again in the stillness.

A painting from 1990 called Secrets portrays a man whose unlined face is turned inward with somnambulistic inexpressiveness, revealing nothing of who he is, what he thinks or feels. It is a painting of withdrawal, an almost entirely anonymous portrait, like one of those photobooth pictures its owner threw away. Until, that is, one notices the cut of his jacket, the military tunic of a German officer from World War Two. The title indicates that there are secrets, but declines to elaborate them, while the painting's only clue to its meaning is a bit of trimming on the collar, the breadth of the lapels. The painting was originally titled Shame. Tuymans' paintings illuminate the darker corners of modern European history, the terrors of someone else's childhood, an image of a town one has never visited but knows as a name on a map, a face recollected but which cannot be placed. Stranded fragments from an autobiography, a pathetic memento from a life now forgotten.

Here is a painting that reconstructs a picture of a pair of geese which used to hang on his wall as a child, and which terrified him - just as watching Disney's Snow White for the first time, he was horrified by the picture's animation, the idea that a drawn and painted figure could move. Imagine the feet of the geese, pinwheeling through his sleep, the beaks snapping on long necks.

Here is a photograph of Heydrich, the glamourous playboy Nazi - 'he had a lot of girlfriends' - whose urbane, tanned face has been stuck onto the painting and overpainted with a pair of sunglasses. This image, a panel in a group called Die Zeit (Time) (1988), has been mistaken, grimly, for a self-portrait. He's half-amused by this thought, but it's uncomfortable. I'm uncomfortable because of Tuymans' eyes, eyes like Jack Palance. Lizard eyes, constantly flickering to the edges of what's visible, as though he's wary of what's behind him, wary of what he cannot see. He mentioned them himself, telling me they were probably responsible for getting him jobs as a heavy in bars and nightclubs, even though one would in no sense regard him as typical bouncer material. But it was work that paid his way through all the art schools he ended up getting thrown out of, and a job he only quit when he found himself pounding someone's teeth out one night. He repeats the story with a certain relish: I've heard it three times.

Here is a painting of some figures standing in a sunlit garden with a blue pond, a white fence and a house with green shutters. It is the kind of image that could hang unnoticed on a café wall. Here they are, these people, this sunny morning. Guten Tag. This unremarkable, sunny scene is based on the mismatched scale buildings, figurines and other embellishments which lend a pathetic sense of reality to model train sets. Working from this Lilliputian world, manufactured in post-war Germany, Tuymans recreates a wistful heimat - a girl in a peasant dress, her arm raised in greeting, a woman behind her and a man, all standing on the grass. Auf Wiedersehen. These people, remember, are made of lead. There are no innocent images in Tuymans' paintings.

At the close of his novel, How German Is It?, Walter Abish writes: 'Is it possible for anyone in Germany, nowadays, to raise his right hand, for whatever the reason, and not be flooded by the memory of a dream to end all dreams?'1 In Belgrade, a boy cycles in endless circles, describing a figure of eight in the snow. A man in a hotel watches him. Luc Tuymans stands in the window of his room and looks down at the boy (What was the number of his room? What floor? Imagine his face pale with reflected snowlight) and later makes a painting. The boy has gone and leaves behind him a figure drawn in the snow which, when seen from the vantage point of the window, is also the mathematical symbol for infinity. An abstract sign which ended up, later, scratched into the dirtied whites and greys of a small painting.

The small primed canvases are tacked directly to the wall, worked on, then stretched later. For a long time he used the worst stretchers, and still uses the cheapest paints. He began to work this way because he was broke (he used to repaint his images over and over again on the same tired canvas) but the sorry, abandoned quality of his pictures has come to be incorporated into the content and the meaning of the work.

In some paintings the whites of the grounds have been yellowed, prematurely aged, and sometimes he underpaints with a medium which makes the subsequent layers of the painting crack. The canvas matches the tone of the discoloured paper he'd used to make a drawing on some time before. There's a painting called Body (1990), showing the sexless torso of one of those child's zip-up pyjama cases disguised as dolls. A restorer at the museum which bought the work told Tuymans that the cracking of the image would probably continue till all the paint had dropped off. 'Then,' Tuymans smiled, 'they will have no body'.

Time, with its inevitable decay and damage, is embedded in these paintings - they have been made, he has said, with an idea of duration in mind rather than newness. They are regressed, retarded images. It is as though he wishes to disclaim their authorship, to push it back into the past (someone else's past) while at the same time the ruined quality of the work becomes a sort of trademark. 'And it's good, isn't it,' he said, 'to have a trademark?'

The paint is put on grudgingly. Sometimes it looks like squeamishness. It is almost styleless, artless, applied with disregard, a deliberate absence of expertise, an unstudied touch. The paintings are often completed extremely rapidly, as an instinctual act, to escape the trap of virtuosity and self-regard: virtuosity, Tuymans says, destroys meaning. Handwriting overtakes most painters till there is nothing left but grandiloquent style; most paintings are fakes. Most artists fake their own work after a certain point in their careers, when they have nothing left but style, nothing left to say but 'here I am'.

Whether he is painting the pattern found on a piece of old East German wrapping paper, working from an old newspaper photograph or from a watercolour sketch, Tuymans paints with a total lack of innocence - although it may look like naiveté, contracting enormous catastrophes into a few sorry, niggling brushstrokes. His paintings are an index of moments, of dislocations. Scraps of reality, served up in their most reduced but telling form, all sharing the same emotional flatness, belonging to the same world of repressed, strangled feelings.

A painting of some ghastly candlesticks which decorate his mother's mantelpiece and a painting of the interior of a gas chamber at Dachau cannot, of course, convey the same emotional intensity or the same sense of moral outrage: the first is funny - a kind of kitsch Morandi - while the second is appalling, with its vacant, jaundiced space, its abbreviated delineation of the drain set into the floor, the industrial fitments of genocide plumbed into the ceiling and walls. If this is shocking (he wanted to paint a taboo image), there is also something shocking about his unscrupulous use of such disparate images... A child's bedroom, a bottle of domestic cleaning fluid with its jaunty, meaningless logo, Ilsa Koch's table lamp, with its shade of Jewish skin. His work is a dismemberment, a probing at fragments and wounds.

The series called The Diagnostic View (1992), a sequence of pictures mostly of men in pyjamas and dressing gowns, is based on medical documentary photographs. You can't tell what is wrong with the patients exactly: but their eyes don't meet you, they have troubled faces and a bad colour. Tuymans is good at pallor, and he can reel off the diseases these people are harbouring: this one, anaemia, this one, sclerosis, this one, cancer. And some of the sickness gets into the paintings, into the pores of the canvas and into the paint. Other paintings in the series depict just a pair of naked legs, a woman's naked breast, a single bruised breast, chopped by the edge of the painting.

Tuymans paints the corners of things, or things that seem to have been glimpsed at the periphery of vision, things about to disappear, hidden things. Or things looked at so hard they come to lose their names and their familiarity, slowly growing transparent, and dissolving back into the space they occupied to become only a memory of significance. A face seen from such close proximity that it fills the canvas with a lump of blurred pink. In 1975 he painted a portrait of an uncle who died during World War II - 'He died, the house burned down, I never knew him'. It is painted with an awkward, direct stylelessness. Tuymans was 17 when he made it.

The secret a painting holds can be quite literally locked out of sight: A typical, middle-class Belgian detached house, built in a bland, mediocre style, standing in its well-groomed plot; a perfectly ordinary bourgeois home. What interests Tuymans is what cannot be seen. It is important to know that behind the closed door and unfathomable blind windows there's all this filth going on inside. The painting is derived from a memory of just such a house. He says he's not interested in inventing things.

Seeing paintings such as these for the first time, how do we know what is encoded within them, what their iconography entails? There is something about the relentlessness of the compositions, their moments of emptiness, or the enigma of their titles, the implacability and vulnerability of the surfaces and what they contain. The weird tonality, the colour leeched of brightness.

One of the stories we tell ourselves is that painting now is over, that it is finished. All to the good, then, for this painter, for whom painting is always a kind of lie. The exhaustion of the medium provides yet another layer of metaphor in his work. If painting is dead, then it leaves painters free to paint, to enter a world where time can run backwards.

An abstract painting whose network of horizontals and verticals is a memory of Mondrian, but one that is derived from the pattern on a dishcloth. Mondrian's clarity expunged the image, replacing it with pure, clean structure. To echo that pictorial hygiene with a pattern on a dishrag allows one to see Mondrian's work not as an inexorable historical development towards the finality of painting, a cleansing of painting leading to the end of images, but as an image itself, a moment that went wrong. Tuymans' painting is not a parody but a usurpation, in which one version of history is replaced with another, an icon of a hope dashed, a world recollected and reduced to its scantest features. It becomes difficult to distinguish, looking at these paintings, between what one knows for oneself and what one has been told. It is as if these paintings, hanging on this wall, belong to a time in the past when such things were still made. They are the artefacts of a culture which has declined, whose time is over.

Further 'abstractions' take wrapping paper, the designs which emblazon domestic products and television station test cards as their motifs. They furnish the same world as the rest of his work, with its uneasy rooms, ugly decor, model sailing boats on a pond, its bathetic world of boredom and violence. Tuymans' work, with its mustiness, guilt and unease could only be the product of a European mind. Is it possible to stand on any railway station in Europe and not see that the tracks slide out of view in an unbroken ribbon toward a distant siding in Silesia? It is as though the artist wants to insinuate what he has seen and felt directly into the mind of the spectator, so that these images, already belonging to the past, might become your memories, my memories, false memories.

1. Walter Abish, 'How German Is It?', Faber & Faber, London, 1983

Note: Remarks attributed to Luc Tuymans are from conversations with the author and from a talk given by Luc Tuymans at Chelsea College of Art & Design in March of this year. Luc Tuymans provides his own commentary (in German) to his works in the catalogue 'Disenchantment' produced for his exhibition at the Kunsthalle, Bern in 1992.