Luc Tuymans

How is it that Luc Tuymans’ apparently neutral and aloof paintings manage to be so unsettling? Does the viewer sense that there is something hidden beneath the surface, or is it simply a matter of their particular texture and style—the artist’s deliberate use of the “wrong” colors, for example? The paintings in Tuyman’s recent show entitled “Heimat” suggest that it could be a combination of both.

This series, which shared the same title as the show, dealt with themes related to the extreme right in Flanders. Tuymans’ approach in these paintings seemed in many ways familiar: one found the same diluted colors and distanced affect as in his earlier work. This body of work was perhaps his most disturbing thus far, however, since when one looked at the paintings it was impossible not to recall that in the artist’s hometown of Antwerp, an opposition party called Vlaams Blok (Flemish block) flirts openly with fascist ideology, portraying women, gays, and immigrants as second-class citizens. Using racist slogans like “[Our] own people first!” this organization has become one of the strongest political forces to emerge in a city that for decades has been governed by socialists.

Against this backdrop, it’s very hard to look at Tuymans’ paintings the same way one might have in the past. Flemish Village, 1995, depicts a reproduction of a painting that was found in an old magazine, complete with faded colors and creases. In this work an archetypal Flemish village becomes a horrifyingly claustrophobic place as well as an occasion for the most dangerous kind of nostalgia. Despite what the Vlaams Blok would have one believe, idealized scenes like this no longer exist as anything more than a collective memory. Flemish Village is thus ugly in the truest sense.

Yzer-tower, 1995, was even more difficult to look at. The awful phallic monument in the form of a gigantic cross that is depicted in this painting is the annual meeting place for anything and anybody to be feared in this small country: ultranationalists, religious fanatics, and—perhaps the most unsettling—overly nostalgic citizens who join hands to sing about the greatness of Flanders. In fact, the Flemish paper De Standaard every day prints on its front page the credo that appears in abbreviated form on this tower: “All for Flanders/Flanders for Christ.” In Tuymans’ painting this monument seems not surreal, but unreal. Whether the way he has painted this image—as though it were about to fade out of existence—represents wishful thinking or a hopeful prediction, the work itself remains an estheticized falsehood.

One could say that this is the essence of Tuymans’ oeuvre. We all make our own truths, see what we want to see. Just as one might not be surprised to hear that Joseph Goebbels’ favorite films were Gone with the Wind, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, one wouldn’t be shocked to find a painting like Yzer-tower hanging in the office of De Standaard’s editor in chief. As Tuymans has described them, his paintings are “authentic falsifications.”

Jos Van den Bergh