A familiar Walt Disney scene flickers silently in an empty chapel: a wicked stepmother offers a poisoned apple to a beautiful ingénue. A very young Luc Tuymans saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) in the 1960s and was
terrified by the movement of its animated images. The boy grew up to be a painter who learnt that the film had been one of Adolf Hitler’s favourites, screened expressly without sound in the Führer’s home cinema. Several decades later the mute projection serves as a perfectly eerie prelude to this exhibition of the intellectual influences and source materials of Tuymans’ paintings. Paying homage to the artist’s first consciousness of the power of the image, it also announces the entanglements of memory, personal haunting and historical trauma that are at the heart of his oeuvre.
Since the late 1970s, apart from a brief interlude as a filmmaker, Tuymans has been making some of the most restrained and unsettling paintings of our times. Whether through an image of diseased skin – a reference to Europe’s traumatic past (the Holocaust, colonialism) – or an empty gaze, Tuymans’ paintbrush at once mimes and vitiates Realism, often to troubling effect. His signature aesthetic and ethereal palette are known to draw heavily from history, photographic sources and filmic techniques such as cropping or sequencing, but the intricacies of the exact ways the artist uses these influences have never before been shown. Rectifying that, ‘Dusk/Penumbra’ includes nearly 20 paintings spanning his entire career, as well as notebooks, film stills, props and documentation of an early performance piece Feu d’artifice (Firework, 1982), a selection of books important to his development, sketches, found photographs, Polaroid studies, illustrated medical books, concentration camp documentation and documentary films.
‘Dusk’ suggests that crepuscular moment when nothing is quite hidden from sight yet nothing is clearly visible. Tuymans’ selection of source materials is as effective in evoking those paintings that aren’t present in the show as those that are, avoiding the explicit or didactic in favour of producing something more like the vague haze of remembering. Within the villa hosting the exhibition, specially constructed walls were hung with paintings on one side and source material on the other. One can understand, perhaps better than ever before, the extent and complexity of Tuymans’ use of moving images and photography; countless Polaroid studies reveal how involved the artist’s preparatory process actually is. Even when seeming to replicate found documents, Tuymans often undermines them, shifting the position of the gaze or layering multiple versions of an image so that the painted result reflects no ‘true’ or authentic view. Some materials on view are revelatory but hadn’t served the artist in any direct way, such as the excerpt from a documentary film featuring Reinhardt Heydrich, mastermind of the ‘final solution’ and subject of Tuymans’ Die Zeit (Time, 1988). In the film Heydrich crosses a conference room, rubbing his nose as he walks. Showing this absent-minded gesture made by a Nazi reveals, as do Tuymans’ paintings more generally, that the absurdly mundane detail may speak more loudly than anything spectacular.
For all the materiality of his canvases, the ideas conveyed seem more imperative to the artist than their painterly forms; creating relationships between works is as important as any single work. The show’s paintings are at times painfully and strangely beautiful, such as Exhibit I (2002), in which the palest hues render a splayed monkey and its swollen genitalia as if seen by a voyeur with gauze over his eyes. Next to it hangs the utterly disquieting Die Wiedergut-machung (Restitution, 1989), an unassuming diptych of hands and eyes that happens to have been reproduced from contact sheets recording Nazi experiments on prisoners. An underlying violence unites them. Seeing the source materials for those or other works makes it all the more patent whence the violence comes. Adrian Searle once said that there are ‘no innocent images in Tuymans’ paintings’. He was right. But perhaps more than that, Tuymans makes us realize that there are no innocent images, period. Because history has not been innocent.
The presentation of the show in the Casa Serralves – built in the 1930s by a reviled Count with money earned off the backs of young men sent out to World War I (quite literally; he sold army uniforms) – couldn’t be more apt. The exhibition channels the haunting ambience of the building so that, as a whole, it functions in much the same way as Tuymans’ paintings do; chilling you for reasons that remain mysterious and troubling.