An interview with Luc Tuymans

View of Nice. Luc Tuymans. Menil Collection, Houston. 2013. Foreground: The Secretary of State. 2005. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Looking today at the works of Luc Tuymans, the most important figurative painter to emerge in the last three decades, it’s easy to forget just how strange they looked to the art world of the 1980s. Time has made them less unusual, but not less perplexing. His stern, almost banal paintings depict some of the most violent passages of history — Belgian colonialism, the Holocaust, the war in Iraq — with unsettling economy and washed-out colors: grays, ochres, and bilious blues and greens. He paints each one in a single day, and almost always draws his imagery from photographs, films, or his own iPhone. (One source image, of a populist Belgian politician, was the subject of an ugly dispute: the photographer accused him of plagiarism and won substantial damages, though she and Tuymans later settled.)

Tuymans’s office lies near the port of Antwerp — his studio is a short walk away, hiding in a courtyard. On the day we meet he wears all black, a little white paint speckling one of his trouser legs. He lights cigarettes with the regularity of a metronome. We speak about Flemish art history, the meaning of novelty, and the unpromising future of Europe, and though he speaks boldly he isn’t ever careless: his words are as precise as his paintings are murky.   × Jason Farago

For years, whenever you’ve spoken about the history of painting, you’ve always come back to Jan van Eyck as a model of artistic discipline. I’m always surprised when you invoke Van Eyck — the intellectual appeal is clear, but I don’t see the reflection in your own painting. Can you tell me what Van Eyck has meant to you?

First of all, when people talk about Belgium, there are basically two names that come up. One is Magritte, because of surrealism. The other is James Ensor, because of the grotesque, and as a predecessor of expressionism. Or one talks about Rubens. But one forgets to talk about Van Eyck, who is important for the region, and important for our mentality. I think this country is not so much a country of surrealism and the grotesque; it’s much more a place of realism as such. And Van Eyck was one of the people — as an individual artist, indeed as one of the first named artists — who heightened the idea of the real by making it actually profane. Although working under the cloak of religion, beneath which all knowledge fell while he was working, he got away from the mimetic imagery of Christianity and opened the image to the world.

His religious painting becomes so hyper-real, so exact, that there’s almost no room for God.

And that imagery is quite unforgiving. And that is the link between his work and mine, basically. Talking about Van Eyck is talking about the most powerful painter in the western hemisphere. It is not Leonardo da Vinci. It is nobody else but Van Eyck.

You still feel the force of Van Eyck in front of the self-portrait in the National Gallery, the one with the turban that says “Als Ich Kan” on the frame.

The so-called self-portrait. Also, the motto, “if I can,” means: I’m very humble, but behind my humility, there’s gigantic ambition. Which is also very true for this region. So that’s the link.

You studied art history after going to art school, is that right?

Well, I was junked out of every art academy. Then, as a working student, I studied art history.

I know you had already begun to think about film at that point, but when you were looking at art history, were you looking with the eye of a painter at that point, or were you thinking more in abstract academic terms?

Much more from a visual point of view. Though since the art academies were quite a disappointment — not only was I thrown out, I was disillusioned with them — I thought that theoretical knowledge would be more interesting. Which it wasn’t. The most contemporary art was probably something like Ensor, not much further than that. So that was quite tedious, in a way.

What kind of contemporary art were you looking at in the 80s? Did you have any exposure to the neoexpressionists coming out of New York, or the Neue Wilden out of Cologne?

Yes, sure.

Did it not interest you?

No, not at all.

Why not?

There were some exceptions, like the early work of Anselm Kiefer, which I thought was interesting, until I went to see a show in the 80s at the Stedelijk, when I saw these gigantic paintings with too much material. That was a bit over the top, I thought.

What was the attitude to painting when you were in art school?

The attitude to painting was quite difficult, in the sense that a lot of people didn’t paint anymore. Except at my last stop, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, which provided a so-called classical training — but quite lethargic, so also not really interesting. In a way, I’m probably more self-taught than anything else, I suppose.

Did the short period you spent as a filmmaker have anything to do with your difficulties in art school?

I turned to film because, at that point, the world had become too tormented, existential, suffocating. I had to get away; I didn’t have enough distance. And by accident, a friend shoved a Super 8 camera in my hand. And then I started to shoot Super 16, 35 millimeter, and so on. And then I came back to painting.

Did cinematography inform your paintings of that time?

Yes, because you can only make a close-up with film; it doesn’t exist in real life. The way you start to edit imagery, and especially the distance imposed by the lens — film gave me an opportunity to translate that into painting.

In Gas Chamber and Our New Quarters (both 1986), you depicted Nazi concentration camps as featureless modernist interiors, and they’re both spare, pallid paintings, almost cursory. Gas Chamber was initially a watercolor you made on site at Dachau, whereas Our New Quarters is based on a postcard the Nazis distributed to prisoners — an image of Theresienstadt, the “model” concentration camp, that was really just a stopover before Auschwitz.

It was more about the translation of the document than about an image. With Gas Chamber that was fairly easy to see, in the sense that the paper of the watercolor yellowed, and that was taken into account in the painting. The image I drew on for Our New Quarters is taken from a postcard that was glued into a book of Alfred Kantor, who made a whole book of drawings from his experiences in three camps: Theresienstadt, Schwarzheide, and Auschwitz. It’s a combination of drawing, photography, moving imagery. Our New Quarters does that in a very simple way: a military background, a nondescript green dark color, on which I actually painted very fast the barracks of the postcard. But then the painting was not finished, so I mixed some white with the yellow, so it lightened up. And wrote.

It’s one of the few that has text.

That finished off the painting. That painting was the first that dealt with the idea of taboo, breaking a taboo. Having not experienced such horrors, I didn’t think it was morally possible to do it, but nevertheless, I did. And then Gas Chamber came after.

Was there an element of being young? It might have been easier for a painter at the beginning of his career to risk representing what everyone says cannot be represented.

I suppose so. There is a sort of innocence, or daring. That must have played a role. Although, I had been circling around that thing for a long time; sooner or later it would have come out.

You’ve spoken about your family history during World War II: your mother’s family was part of the Dutch resistance, your Flemish father’s family were collaborators. How explicitly were you wrestling with that family history in these paintings? Or was it more abstract? Were you representing the unrepresentable as a way to grapple with the relevance of painting as such?

It was lingering. A sort of phobia. I had a fascination with that time period, because I had clearly made a decision not to make art for art’s sake. I wasn’t interested in slotting into a tradition of modernism or postmodernism — to try to position myself in such a way was not an option. The only option was to work from the real, and to look at a time period that was close to mine, historically, and which was decisive. Apart from the autobiographical element, it’s also one of the periods when Europe lost its powers. With the idea of the Holocaust comes a psychological breakdown. Those elements were culminating, and had to culminate in a lot of imagery.

And yet a lot of people who embraced your works in the 1990s had the exact opposite reading: that this was painting about the impossibility of painting, or about the impossibility of representation. Did that annoy you? Did that sound wrong to you?

No. It was actually totally predictable. That’s the problem. The problem is that life is very predictable, and therefore extremely boring.

My first gallery show was at a gallery that only showed post-conceptual art, in Antwerp in 1988, for which I paid the costs. And the day of the opening there was a colloquium at the new MuKHA [Antwerp’s main contemporary art museum], and everyone that was important in the art world was there. The gallery was right around the corner, and people saw the show — and understood the paintings not as paintings, but as images. So from the start, there was this idea of a conceptual image. But that was the only way to put it across at that point.

If you were being really cynical about it, you could say you had perfect timing.

That I was coming out with the work at the worst possible moment, therefore the right moment.

The early works are incredibly spare, almost monochrome. In later work, like those in New York recently, the images are opening up.

When I started to paint again in the 80s, I started to do it out of an element of reduction. Having started as a painter that was working informally, with a lot of gesture and color, the very first paintings after the films were based on drawings. Enlarging drawings into a painting. Now, a painted line is not something like a drawn line. It can be an outline, or a shadow, or nothing at all. I never had that element of distance before. It was much more a graphical understanding. To reduce in order to create meaning.

But now, much later in life, I yet again allow myself a bit more painterly freedom. Which is okay. I’m not the type of painter that just paints or creates a style, because I think that’s the death of everything. Of course there is a mark, but the mark is like handwriting, or riding a bicycle. Otherwise you lose the intensity of what you’re doing. When executed, it has to go fast, though you should not see the speed with which it is painted. You should first see the image, and then how it is made — that is another rule. After the conceptualization of the image, which takes months, all the ideas and images on the computer, on the iPhone, all that work gushes out in one burst.

Which is necessary, because at that point, I change. You have different kinds of intelligence: you can think, but you can also think with your hands. At that point, I don’t want to think anymore, I want to concentrate on what I physically can do.

You don’t know exactly what is going to happen when you go into the studio, then.

That is primordial. Because otherwise I could just show the photograph.

One of the ironies of your art is that, although you grapple with some of the weightiest themes of recent European history — colonialism, nationalism, war, economic development — you don’t do so as a history painter. Not, in any event, as we understood “history painting” in the eighteenth century, when painterly genres were ranked: grand historical scenes at the top, and then portraiture, landscape, still life. You like to get at history through those “lower” styles — you literally painted a still life of fruit and a water jug as a response to 9/11.

It’s not totally impossible, I suppose, to do history painting today. It might be more difficult to go at it as Poussin would have done it. But not in terms of the forms, not in terms of the rationale, which could still be valid and interesting. It is always about finding a translation to what is contemporary.

But I wouldn’t talk so much about history painting, so much as about how relevant an image is in historical terms. I think history paintings were also trying to be relevant at some point, though they could not be divorced from power. And power still very much exists. Violence creates a tremendous amount of imagery, much more than happiness, which is a more abstract concept with fewer consequences. And violence can be anything. It can go from raw, bloody mutilation to the psychological.

It is always difficult to depict violence, or the act of violence as such. If I now would paint a decapitation by some member of ISIS, I don’t think that would be relevant. Much more relevant would be the moment before or after. That is something I learned from Fritz Lang, a strategy from film. Fritz Lang never showed violence, only the moment before or after. In M, the mother screams, the balloon floats away, and you know what happened.

I suppose that was the impulse behind your portrait of Condoleezza Rice [The Secretary of State (2005)]. Abu Ghraib is already accounted for, it doesn’t need to be painted as such.

This painting was created out of the fact that, first of all, she was part of the Bush administration, and yet an aberration within it. Politically she was an aberration. Being black, and having overcome racism in order to get somewhere. And then the Disney-fication of the woman, being good, bad, or whatever. We never knew, and we don’t know what it all added up to, and exactly that fascination is why I painted Condoleezza Rice. Not necessarily out of a moral judgment, but much more out of fascination.

It was interesting when the painting was first shown. It was very topical; she was still the secretary of state in 2005. A lot of the people from the museums came to look at the show and had a gigantic problem with it, because it was still so topical. Glenn Lowry, the MoMA director, decided immediately that it must go into a public collection, because going into a private collection, it would be misunderstood. That was a very correct apprehension.

There were Republican collectors who said they would never buy work by me anymore. Years later, in 2010, my touring show went to the Dallas Museum of Art. And my assistant and I went to the Kimbell Museum, where they only collect up until the nineteenth century. The museum director came out and shook my hand and said it was a shame they couldn’t collect any further than that, because what I did for Condoleezza Rice is what Andy Warhol did for Marilyn Monroe.

I want to ask you about A Belgian Politician (2011), your painting of the Flemish populist Jean-Marie Dedecker. I’m not even going to bother to ask you to repeat your arguments in this absurd lawsuit. But I do want to ask: do you think successful people in Belgium are punished?

We are not even talking about a country. We are talking about a zone. Because the French-speaking part of Belgium does not agree with the verdict at all. So already we have a community problem. We are also talking about two different mentalities: this side center-right, the other leftist. We are talking about a revolution this country is going through, one that has almost led to the breakup of the country, and then there is the identity element, and all those things play out.

Everybody knows my opinion towards nationalism, and in particular Flemish nationalism, or the mayor of this city. [Antwerp’s mayor since 2013 is Bart De Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance, a conservative populist party that supports an independent Flanders.] I have painted a right-wing politician. Now there is this plagiarism question, which cannot be plagiarism anyway because it is a painting. Legally, it could only be a breach of the copyright of this particular photographer. Which is also, in a sense, ludicrous. If you follow European law, which also Belgian law should follow, which the judge did not, this whole case would be dismissed. But there are rivalries that are being played out, for the last two decades. They are trying to find a loophole to pin somebody down, to publicly discredit somebody.

This whole thing started with a newspaper. I had a call from a very brutal and aggressive journalist, who did not announce herself as a journalist, of this particular newspaper. I asked for the phone number of the photographer and I phoned immediately after. The photographer said she was honored, but there was a problem. I said OK, we could rectify that: we could name her, mention her, whenever the painting was published or shown, or we could discuss further what was needed. To which the answer was, “Is that everything?” So then, the next day, the newspaper published part of the conversation, not at my request, and the whole thing exploded.

And the whole controversy exploded again after the verdict. It backfired in that sense. An exceedingly large waste of time.

But the more constructive point — and that’s what we’re going to go for on appeal — is not so much the controversy of the small underdog photographer woman and the arrogant bastard rich artist. No, we’re going to go for what it means. What the idea of parody means in an extended version and how this proposal, which already is a guiding line within European law, could become law.

And we are going to do an investigation into the lawyers of this woman. Because what they do is actually illegal. You cannot use the law to make money. So that’s the approach. Very clear and decisive.

It also shows you one other thing, that the media have become nothing more than tabloid press. This newspaper used to be a quality newspaper up until it changed its editor-in-chief, and they think this is a possibility. It also makes you more wary of the media, and more careful. On the other hand, it makes you aware of how stupid public opinion is, and what populism is all about.

That’s the real thing I want to talk to you about: populism, and how what’s happened around this painting fits into a larger question about what’s happening in this country and on this continent.

The good thing is: the painting is the right painting. It’s a painting of a right-wing politician, being painted after a photograph that I made with my iPhone from this particular newspaper in which this photograph appeared, cropped in such a way. Apparently it’s the cropping of the photograph, which still is questionable because a lot of newspaper photographs are cropped according to layout. But there is more than a year between the photograph in the newspaper with the text, and my painting which doesn’t come with a text. And also my painting is, decisively, a painting that I have made. The photograph by the photographer is a press photograph, so it is not an artwork. It is intentionally not an artwork. The judge doesn’t see the difference, which is totally idiotic.

I’ve never made a mystery about the fact that I use imagery that exists, that comes out of a newspaper or anywhere else. Which I think is elemental as a question of freedom of speech. If you can’t do that anymore, in what way can you actually be contemporary? Imagine if I had asked the PR of Condoleezza Rice to make a painting of her! This type of freedom you have to have in order to criticize what we are living through. Painting is an anachronism: it’s a different medium, it’s in a different size, a different tonality. All of those things are not really infringing on what the photographer’s photograph means.

Maybe the more interesting story is the lawyers. What is the larger component there?

The larger component is very simple: it’s just money.

Nothing more political?

Could be, I don’t know, but that is hypothetical. But for sure, it is money. And it’s also because I am a well-known artist. This is also the reason why the judge put the sum so high, and this is why you’re punished in this country for being good and famous, instead of respected. The judge then came to the point that we have to do this because Mr. Tuymans is a globally well-known artist, therefore it’s that high. What kind of an explanation is that on a legal level? It’s also clear that the judge was either incompetent or lazy, or just said fuck it, it’s too complicated — let them go to appeal.

Belgian populism was already a theme of your work before the euro crisis began to bite. But now that Europe is collapsing all around us, populism has a scarier element: it has become not just a vessel for disgruntled citizens, but a reaction to establishment politicians who have utterly failed to stem Europe’s economic meltdown.

There is an elementary relapse into nation states, into populism. There is also a spreading out of anti-Semitism, from France to Britain, which is actually very weird. But there is no other solution than the European community. There is no other solution.

For the last four years I have been collaborating with people like José Manuel Barroso, Rem Koolhaas, György Konrád, Michelangelo Pistoletto, in order to create culture on a European level. It’s very difficult due to the whole apparatus of the European community, but also because of the exceedingly insane disbelief of how important culture is. The case with this woman, for example, has totally underestimated the power of culture on a global level. Even within the European community, it is still underestimated. So we are planning a specific event in Brussels in five or six years, which will be similar to Documenta.

Although in five or six years there might not be a European Union as we have it now.

As I said, there is no other solution. There is a problem with the European community because they are now looking for a new narrative. Like, if you look at the euro, the banknotes don’t even depict anything real, because that would be a problem for the nation states. In former banknotes of nation states, or in Switzerland, you would see artists or writers. Those things have totally been discarded from the euro, which I think is stupid. Why would that be a problem? That doesn’t mean you have to go for a European mentality that is close to the idea of the Übermensch, though that is also a possibility. But you should not disregard what has happened in European history. It is insane to do that. Culture has never been fixed to boundaries, and always gone over frontiers, and has never been just the exclusive property of a nation state. We are talking about ideas, and ideas the state cannot claim.

Koolhaas often says that if the European Union wanted to reform itself, it should bring in people from China.

He’s right. I’ve done several projects in China on the highest level, with officials, which is a brutal experience, because nothing is to be negotiated. It is a very authoritarian regime, still. On the other hand, they’re moving very fast and are very curious. They send people to study at our universities, and we don’t. That is a disaster in terms of getting to understand a continent that will for sure be one of the most powerful.

Europe has changed. It’s an inward-looking place now. I wonder if you find the smallness of the political discussion in Belgium and in Flanders almost satisfying.

Belgium is in the heart of Europe. Brussels is the capital of the European community. The potential of this country is so big. But seeing the smallness of this nation, which has never been a real country…. It’s always been a country of individuals, never a country of groups, which makes us very accomplished on a creative plane. The problem is that there has never been an organized system to support that, which toughens the individuals and makes them even stronger outside of the country, but not inside their country.

It is a missed chance not to apprehend the fact that you have all these possibilities, this extreme diversity on such a small patch of land, and not take it into account in a constructive way. We come back to Van Eyck, who opens up the world. In this age you see people trying to close it down.

Jason Farago is editor of Even.