‘They’re not noisy, but they’re very strong. In a way, you could make that kind of connection between Tuymans and earlier Flemish painting, to art de vivre. It’s not flashy, but it’s unbelievably poignant. His work really makes the point... You have to react when you’re in front them. You experience them’ – B. Marden
‘Tuymans’ paintings are shot through with the kind of subtle beauty one finds in seashells when the glow of the sun has diminished and the sheen of the water has dried’ – H. Molesworth
‘I don’t want to make portraits on a psychological level. I take all the ideas out of individuality and just leave the shell, the body. To make a portrait of someone on a psychological level, for me, is an impossibility; I am much more interested in the idea of masks, of creating a blindfolded space of mirrors’ – L. Tuymans
‘Although her face is not visible, we seem to know this woman – we have met her countless times’ – M. Burki
Shrouded in soft, shimmering twilight, a faceless female figure emerges from the shadowy depths of Luc Tuymans’ Mrs. Stretching over two metres in height, it is one of the first large-scale paintings the artist ever made, and represents a sophisticated example of his enigmatic figurative practice. Executed in 1999, the work takes its place within one of the most important periods in Tuymans’ oeuvre, during which his interrogation of painting – and of portraiture in particular – came to be recognised on a global scale. Rendered with iridescent, almost holographic traces of pigment, evocative of a faded photograph, the work elegantly exemplifies the spectral apparitions which came to dominate Tuymans’ practice at the turn of the millennium. Faintly reminiscent of Jacqueline Kennedy, yet equally an archetypal 1960s ‘everywoman’, her identity remains ambiguous: wife, mother, daughter, widow, celebrity, anonymity. Part historical icon, part nameless female stereotype, she embodies the artist’s fascination with lost narratives and blurred recollections. With its liquescent surface and tantalising play of white on white, the image confronts the viewer like a waterlogged reflection – a tinted vestige of a past reality. As Marianne Burki has written, ‘Although her face is not visible, we seem to know this woman – we have met her countless times’ (M. Burki, Sammlung Oberholzer Im Dialog: Barbara Ellmerer, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Langenthal, 2003, p. 8). Between 2000 and 2006, the work was on extended loan to the Kunstmuseum Bern, and subsequently featured in Tuymans’ retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Geneva.
Described by Ulrich Loock as ‘allegories for a memory that has lost its object forever’, Tuymans’ paintings are frequently the product of collided source imagery, spliced and distilled within the artist’s imagination. The source image for Mrs, sketched on the back of an envelope, includes a fragment of photographed hair cut out from a magazine, which also formed the basis for Tuymans’ 2000 painting Hair. By filtering his subjects through second- and even third-hand sources – photographs, computer screen shots, television stills – Tuymans calls into question the stability of image production in the contemporary era. In works such as Mrs, in which the protagonist is stripped of all identity, Tuymans’ subject becomes representation itself. Spending no more than one day on each painting, his work imitates the speed at which everyday images are disseminated and digested. ‘I have to finish a painting in one sitting, in one blur’, he claims (L. Tuymans, quoted in Luc Tuymans: Intolerance, exh. cat., Qatar Museums, Doha, 2015, p. 43). Coming to prominence within a world that had declared painting dead, Tuymans asks what it means to create images in a world progressively saturated by imitations, likenesses and representations. By imbuing his works with flickering traces of past global events, he aligns painting with another major discipline that thinkers of the 1980s had proclaimed terminal: that of history itself. In Tuymans’ hands, painting is reborn not just a vehicle for representation, but as a means of tapping into a kind of universal memory. Like Mrs, the faceless figures that emerge through his painterly fog are eerily familiar: archetypes and silhouettes deeply embedded in our collective consciousness. Through smoke, mirrors and blindfolds, Tuymans transforms painting from a lost relic into a tool for piercing psychological enquiry.
The atmospheric ambiguity of Tuymans’ work – often compared to a muted television or a disembodied voice – is the result of his unique painterly technique, combining aqueous pigments with delicate brushwork. As Helen Molesworth has written, ‘Tuymans’ paintings are shot through with the kind of subtle beauty one finds in seashells when the glow of the sun has diminished and the sheen of the water has dried. Their faded sumptuousness nonetheless elicits a kind of consummate chill. Sometimes called the “Tuymans effect”, this affect of beauty is mixed with difficulty, coldness, restraint, and distance has several sources. Tuymans’ palette is muted beyond measure. His paintings are studies in a kind of monochrome in which colors are subjected to an excess of light, fading whatever intense hue might have once been present’ (H. Molesworth, ‘Luc Tuymans: Painting the Banality of Evil’, in Luc Tuymans, exh. cat., Wexner Centre for the Arts, Columbus, 2009, p. 18). Like an old photograph scanned into a computer, or exposed to the sunlight in a dusty attic, an over-saturated luminosity seems to pervade Tuymans’ paintings – an artificial glare that obscures the detail of the image. Molesworth goes on to explain how Tuymans’ ‘famed brushstroke’ - always running horizontal to the picture’s surface – creates a further level of remove, ‘a planar barrier that prohibits any sense of projective depth’. By holding the viewer at arm’s length in this way, Tuymans encourages us to distance ourselves from the figure as subject, and to refocus our attention on the act of painting itself.