Luc Tuymans in his studio. Photographed by Paul Rousteau

Studio visit: Luc Tuymans

Rachel Cooke discovers that even after 45 years, the artist is too engaged in the present — in this case a major show at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice — to be in the mood for a retrospective

At his Antwerp studio, a former launderette about 10 minutes’ walk from the city’s famous zoo, Luc Tuymans gestures at the wall, and the series of portraits that currently adorn it. ‘These guys,’ he says, with a nod. ‘They’re all John Does: painted from police photographs.’ For a moment, we both fall silent.

Tuymans’ announcement, as he is surely all too well aware, is at first slightly difficult to believe: these long-forgotten victims of crime, though painted in ghostly shades of brownish-grey, look so vividly alive. ‘Well, you make them alive again,’ he tells me, when I finally say this out loud. ‘The trick is to heighten the contrast in the eyes, something that’s not in the photograph.’

What draws him to a particular image? How does he choose which dead stranger to paint? ‘There’s a surgical element involved. They have to give me... an instinct. I must think: this is interesting, or weird. I have to paint it in order to understand it.’

Tuymans’ Antwerp studio is housed in a former launderette. Photograph by Paul Rousteau

Tuymans’ Antwerp studio is housed in a former launderette. Photograph by Paul Rousteau

The artist, dressed in paint-spattered black and navy, is slumped in a battered armchair, his phone and cigarettes on a small table beside him. His old studio, much smaller than this one, used to resemble, he will tell me, the famously unkempt space in which Francis Bacon worked.

When he moved, he worried that this vast, white room wouldn’t be intimate enough, for which reason there are what I come to think of as various nests dotted around it: a chair here, an anthill of cigarette butts there. Overall, though, the feeling is of light and space: a gallery, by any other name.

The canvas nearest to us — he gives it a sidelong glance, as if it might bite — was completed only yesterday. Tuymans is famous for starting and finishing a work in a single day — though, as he points out, this can mean six hours, or 14, depending on how things go. Either way, it’s an intense business.

He once likened the feeling that comes over him in the moments before he picks up his brush to stage fright, a description he still stands by. ‘People think it gets easier,’ he says. ‘You’ve had all that practice; you know the tricks. But it doesn’t. The nervousness remains. I suppose it’s a good thing. Imagine what you’d be without it: you’d be a... process  artist, nothing more.

‘In China, they recreate my paintings, and some are done so well even I cannot make the distinction between the copy and my work — or not from what I can see on my laptop. It’s kind of amazing, but it doesn’t mean  anything. There’s not the same intentionality there.’

There is a moment, he says, when he knows a painting is going to work, and that is ‘the real pleasure of it’. Such joy, however, is inevitably fleeting. ‘Being an artist is a profession, not a hobby. But it’s also a conviction. It’s with you 24 hours a day. You’re always looking, trying to figure out the next step, and, thanks to that, there’s never a moment of basking in your success. In this sense, the making of the work and the art world are entirely separate things.’

‘You make them alive again,’ Tuymans says of his portraits of long-forgotten victims of crime. ‘The trick is to heighten the contrast in the eyes, something that’s not in the photograph.’ Photograph by Paul Rousteau

‘You make them alive again,’ Tuymans says of his portraits of long-forgotten victims of crime. ‘The trick is to heighten the contrast in the eyes, something that’s not in the photograph.’ Photograph by Paul Rousteau

Tuymans has had cause to think about such matters more than usual in the past few weeks. A major exhibition of his work has opened at Palazzo Grassi in Venice: named La Pelle  (‘The Skin’) after Curzio Malaparte’s controversial 1949 novel, it includes more than 80 paintings dating from 1986.

In the autumn, the third part of the catalogue raisonné of his work will be published. ‘So then you start to realise that some of the paintings are 45 years old, and that is... freaky. I’m going to continue painting; hopefully, there will be another two volumes of the catalogue raisonné. But now we have to start to take care of the legacy.’

What does he feel about his career so far? He pulls a face. ‘The astonishing thing is that, apart from the four years when I gave it up [he began experimenting with film in 1982], because I felt it had become too tormented and too existential, I’ve been painting since I was 14. It’s kind of flawless: a never-ending story, and that amazes me. I’ve never had painter’s block.’

(From left to right) Luc Tuymans, Issei Sagawa, 2014, Tate; Murky Water, 2015, Collezione Prada, Milano; Le Mépris, 2015, Collection of Mimi Haas. Installation view at Palazzo Grassi, 2019. © Palazzo Grassi, Photography by Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti
(From left to right) Luc Tuymans, Issei Sagawa, 2014, Tate; Murky Water, 2015, Collezione Prada, Milano; Le Mépris, 2015, Collection of Mimi Haas. Installation view at Palazzo Grassi, 2019. © Palazzo Grassi, Photography by Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti

The Venice show is not — he wants to emphasise this — a retrospective. ‘Two thirds of the work was made after 2015. It’s a personal selection, a non-topical show that thrives on the idea of understatement.’ Nevertheless, his alarm at rising nationalism across Europe hovers over it, albeit obliquely (Malaparte, though Tuymans is reluctant to make too much of this, was a supporter of fascism in the 1920s).

‘I am part of a generation that is over,’ says Tuymans, who was born in 1958. ‘And this plays out at Palazzo Grassi, in a way. The adjustments that are going to have to be made [in the future] are inconceivable. This is the end of an era for liberal values. But still, you have to resist.’

What is the role of art in such a resistance? ‘It can go either way: it can become more vital, or more irrelevant. It can become just another aspect of lifestyle, or there can be an element of activism.’ He sighs. ‘Once you’re older than 60, life is just anger management. Not that I see that as negative. It keeps you sharp — and the times are rather... interesting.’

‘Painting is more than an object,’ says the artist. ‘It’s a way of thinking.’ Photograph by Paul Rousteau

‘Painting is more than an object,’ says the artist. ‘It’s a way of thinking.’ Photograph by Paul Rousteau

People like to say, rather glibly, that Tuymans single-handedly saved painting, having emerged at a moment in the 1980s when everyone said it was dead and buried. But this means nothing to the artist himself. In the modern world, painting is always, he insists, going to be an anachronism.

‘What I do is fairly traditional,’ he says. ‘But painting is more than an object: it’s a way of thinking.’ His early work dealt with the legacy of the last war (on his mother’s side, his Dutch grandparents were involved with the Resistance, while two of his father’s brothers were, he learnt as a child, in the Hitler Youth) and with Belgian colonial rule in Congo.

More recently he has taken inspiration from, among other things, the 1942 film The Moon and Sixpence (loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin), starring George Sanders. But whatever his subject, the process is broadly the same: he works from secondary sources (usually photographic stills) and his brushstrokes are at once highly precise and yet evanescent somehow, as if his paintings were flickering memories brought only briefly to life (he has said that his work ‘borders on the idea of abstraction’).

Luc Tuymans, Secrets, 1990. Private Collection, Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp. Installation view at Palazzo Grassi, 2019. © Palazzo Grassi, Photography by Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti
Luc Tuymans, Secrets, 1990. Private Collection, Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp. Installation view at Palazzo Grassi, 2019. © Palazzo Grassi, Photography by Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti

How easy was it for his boyhood self to announce he intended to be an artist? What did his parents think? (He attended art schools in Brussels and Antwerp.) ‘My mother was very talented at the piano. My father was extremely introvert — I never knew what the guy thought, let alone what he felt — but he was very good with his hands. He had a second job making fake dentures, and that was his real passion. So I inherited my brain from my mother, and from my father the tactile intelligence of the hands.

‘I drew as a kid. I was kind of autistic until I was 15, and it was a way to express myself and be appreciated by others. When I left home early, and decided to become an artist, they thought it was inconceivable. How would I live? They weren’t against it, but they were frightened.

‘When I had my first show in an empty swimming pool in Ostend, 5,000 invitations were sent out, and no one came. My mother started to cry. But both my parents were around to see my exhibition at Tate Modern in 2004, and they were proud.’

Did he know he would make it? Did he ever doubt himself? ‘I never thought about it at all. I had no strategy. You get lucky, and then you have to have enough brains to act on that luck.’

Luc Tuymans, Die Zeit, 1988. Private collection. Installation view at Palazzo Grassi, 2019. © Palazzo Grassi, Photography by Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti
Luc Tuymans, Die Zeit, 1988. Private collection. Installation view at Palazzo Grassi, 2019. © Palazzo Grassi, Photography by Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti

Tuymans has said more than once that, after Van Eyck, everything in art is just ‘dilettantism’ — another opinion he has never had any reason to change. ‘I still believe that,’ he says. ‘He’s the drama. I saw my first Van Eyck in Bruges when I was eight, and my first thought was: what the f *** is this? You are blasted away.’

Belgian art, he insists, is ‘all realism’, even Magritte: ‘Belgium is a creation, a fiction. The place didn’t exist until 1830. The fact that we were overrun by foreign powers gave us no time to be romantic, like the Germans, or rational, like the French. An element of survival was embedded into state life, and that is reflected in the visual.’

He has always lived and worked in Antwerp; it is central to his practice. ‘It’s great to be creative here. It’s based less on the group, and more on the individual. The particularity of the city: it’s one of the early city states. It’s very chauvinistic. It’s the city of the smart-arse.

‘When I first went to New York, it was so similar in terms of all the hot air, that element of overestimating things; a specific sense of humour. That’s why I’m still here, though it has changed. It’s a megalomaniac village, obnoxious and non-PC in a way that makes it liveable. But it’s also very multicultural, cosmopolitan.’

Luc Tuymans, Turtle, 2007. Private collection, Courtesy David Zwirner, New YorkLondon. Installation view at Palazzo Grassi, 2019. © Palazzo Grassi, Photography by Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti
Luc Tuymans, Turtle, 2007. Private collection, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London. Installation view at Palazzo Grassi, 2019. © Palazzo Grassi, Photography by Delfino Sisto Legnani e Marco Cappelletti

Tuymans talks in long, marvellously nuanced paragraphs, the words piling up in such a way that it’s all too easy to miss a joke, particularly since he almost never smiles. But perhaps the somewhat forbidding exterior is, today, just weariness. For the next few weeks, he will be travelling, unable to work; frustration is in the air, like dust.

‘Venice is the morbid city,’ he tells me. ‘That was my first impression, when I went there at 19 on an Interrail card. The atmosphere is interesting, but it’s also very strange. It works on your memory. It’s a perverse setting, in a sense.’

When people go to a gallery or museum, he says, they stand in front of a painting for between 30 and 40 seconds on average; most children are better at looking than adults, their innocence drawing them in. Nevertheless, perhaps this is a good, even a unique, moment for art.

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‘The art world, like the world itself, is in the process of being turned inside out,’ he says. ‘There is a disconnection there, and I find it interesting. The extreme distrust towards imagery and what it means — between what is fake and real, between what is perceived and intended — has been reinstated. I decided to create a body of work that departs [takes its starting point] from the real, so I am subordinated in this new reality.’ 

He coughs violently, and looks a bit cross once again, but I have the sense, too, of an underlying contentment. Beside us, a freshly completed portrait — and 700 miles away, a grand palazzo full up with the ‘authentic forgery’ that is his life’s work.

La Pelle — Luc Tuymans is at Palazzo Grassi, Venice, until 6 January 2020