Tate Modern’s retrospective reveals the darkness at the heart of Luc Tuymans’s work. It also exposes his talent for evasion, says Waldemar Januszczak
Tuymans has, for instance, had a showing at White Cube, the hippest venue in the neurotically hip London hot spot of Hoxton. During the press skirmishes that preceded the opening of his recent New Blood exhibition, Charles Saatchi stood me in front of a huge Tuymans painting he had just bought at huge expense and demanded to know what I thought of it. Saatchi himself considered it to be one of the masterpieces of our times and told me so in precise terms. The painting showed a giant blow-up of the corner of a black birdcage and was, trans-parently, a big, black evocation of imprisonment. I told Saatchi that I quite liked it.
He seemed disappointed in me. Had I told him what I really thought of it — that it was weak and melodramatic, that its symbolism creaked, that it did nothing much for me at all — the poor man might have burst into tears, so obviously was he besotted with his new Tuymans.
You’ll be sensing by now that I don’t really know what to make of Tuymans.
As the whisper about his importance grew into a roar about his greatness, I have on several occasions positioned myself expectantly in front of his work and waited to be hit. Until now, it hasn’t happened. So it was with a real hunger for impact that I bounced into the curious retrospective of Tuymans’s career that Tate Modern has organised for us. For me, it felt like a make-or-break occasion.
Tuymans is Belgian. He was born in 1958. The Tate show looks back at the past 15 years of his career, but it isn’t arranged chronologically. Instead, various paintings from various epochs are combined for various reasons in a journey of 13 rooms, to give us, in essence, 13 separate installations. With most artists, this approach would inevitably lead to jumpiness and confusion, as pictures from 15 years ago found themselves hanging next to new ones. But Tuymans doesn’t do jumpiness. His style has changed extraordinarily little in 15 years. All his paintings, from whatever era, share a paleness and a stillness that effectively unites them.
“Someone left the cake out in the rain/I don’t think that I can take it/’Cause it took so long to bake it/And I’ll never have that recipe again,” I was moved to hum in the presence of all this pressed-flower melancholia. Fortunately, there was nobody else in the gallery with me at the time. Most of Tuymans’s pictures look as if they’ve been left by a window in a garage for a decade, where the sun’s bleached them and the damp’s sucked out their colour. This immediate sense of encountering a sad and forgotten treasure trove from the past is enlarged by the car-boot sale randomness of the imagery. It can be a flower. It can be a house. It can be a medical chart. It can be a head. It can be a toy. You never know what you are going to see next in a Tuymans room, but whatever it is, you may be certain that it will seek to have about it that nostalgic charge an old doll might have when encountered again in the attic by its middle-aged owner.
The opening room, for instance, consists of three paintings, the first of which shows a plant, the second an abstracted diagram of the female reproductive organs and the third an empty party costume with stars and stripes on it, of the type that pom-pom girls might appear in at the head of an American victory parade. Interestingly, the plant and the reproductive organs are both painted in a fierce Islamic green, an unusual addition to Tuymans’s reliably pale palette. Stars and stripes with Islamic green — even at the basest of art levels, the level of crude colour impact, Tuymans’s paintings feel as if they are somehow involving themselves in global history. Which they are. And this, above all else, is what the exhibition ahead underlines, over and over again.
Have you been to Auschwitz? If not, then go soon. Every citizen of the modern world ought to visit there at least once. Not just because Auschwitz serves as such a scary reminder of the evil that is achievable in the world if we humans set our mind to it, but because I reckon Auschwitz needs to be counted as one of the most influential spectacles on the planet where modern art is concerned. Those unforgettable glass boxes filled to overflowing with the discarded toys and shoes and prosthetic aids and blankets belonging to the gassed Jews have had a huge impact on art, from the melancholy vitrines of Joseph Beuys to the glassed-in dentist’s labs of Damien Hirst. Whenever you see a glass case in art, or a heap of poignant junk angling for tristesse — which is all the time in some shows — you are encountering an aesthetic descendant of the sights at Auschwitz.
Tuymans’s chief subject also turns out to be the Auschwitz experience. Several paintings are entirely explicit about this. The show includes various depictions of the camps that have clearly been taken from photographs. What seems to be a painting of a pale and minimal hotel room from a distance turns out, on closer inspection, to show a gas chamber. A chap with dark glasses in a study is actually a Nazi doctor. A skier who has fallen over in the snow is an image taken from a winter photograph of Albert Speer, Hitler’s favourite architect.
Once these more obvious images have flagged up Tuymans’s recurrent fascination with the horror of the Nazis, then all the other images in the show — the female reproductive organs, the toys, the labora- tories, the banal close-ups of taps and blankets and shelves and pills — begin to make grim visual sense along the same lines. With mounting creepiness, you realise that all the pale and wan imagery in this faded-feeling show is seeking deliberately to steal that damp-infected sense of horror that a case full of toys might have at Auschwitz. The phrase “the banality of evil” is bandied about in the exhibition’s captions, and it’s exactly the right phrase.
As I wandered among these pale and neurotic sights, it slowly dawned on me that Tuymans is the flavour of the month because his paintings are absolutely not the cute, pale, weightless gadflies, flitting from this subject to that, that I had previously imagined them to be. They are flavour of the month because, under the cover of all this gadfly lightness, they smuggle such huge historical subjects into the gallery.
So, am I saying that I have changed my mind about Tuymans, that this show has convinced me of his complexity and his worth? No. All I am saying is that I think I understand his work a lot better. But I still don’t like it. In fact, I think I like it less than when I went in. If Tuymans has important things to say, then why doesn’t he just come out and say them? Because saying things is hard. Hinting at them is easy. This smart, cute, itsy-bitsy imagery may well feign a profound involvement with its weighty subject matter, but in the end all it adds up to is a set of fragmentary quotations from other people’s photographs involved in a 15-year strategy of avoidance. I always knew that Tuymans was playing memory games with his imagery. What I hadn’t realised is what a ghastly tease his whole aesthetic is.