Executed during the same year that Luc Tuymans represented Belgium at the Venice Biennale, Pigeons was premiered in an exhibition later that year at White Cube gallery in London entitled The Rumour. In that show, Tuymans showed several works that had at their heart the subject of pigeons, with the present picture being one of the largest and, in terms of subject matter, most overt. Tuymans very rarely painted on this scale up to this point and, of course, nothing in Tuymans' work is 'overt', as is best demonstrated by the discreet similarities and parallels between that exhibition and his highly-publicised contribution to the Belgian Pavillion at the Venice Biennale the same year, Mwana Kitoko.
In the latter series, Tuymans exhibited a range of paintings that chronicled and, with his customarily oblique and seemingly dispassionate perspective, his native Belgium's problematic colonial past. History, and the patterns of human behaviour that recur throughout it, provide rich fodder for Tuymans' paintings. As he was quoted saying in the exhibition catalogue for Mwana Kitoko, 'Violence is the only structure underlying my work. It is both physical and detached at the same time' (Tuymans, quoted in R. Storr, 'A Worst Case Scenario', pp. 13-39, Luc Tuymans: Mwana Kotoko, Beautiful White Man, exh. cat. from 2001 Venice Biennale, Ghent, 2001, p. 35). It is in this context that Pigeons and the other works in The Rumour should be seen: Tuymans has taken a documentary fragment, a picture of milling pigeons that recalls the birds both in London's Trafalgar Square and in Venice's Piazza San Marco, and has painted them with his uniqely deft touch.
What makes Tuymans' art so unique is his deliberations on time, memory, nostalgia and history as a basis for a painterly technique which is uniquely his own. In his work, one can sense an intellectual understanding and consumption of the history of painting, now pared down into simplified and sparingly applied pigments onto the surface of the canvas. The poetry lies in his innate ability to purge the pigment of the colours which we are used to, in the finely attuned textures which he applies and in the cropping he applies to the composition. By sapping the picture of colour and creating raised accents such as in the central bird's claw, Tuymans creates moments of unique sensation and nostalgia. In this painting, the cropping is also hugely important. Apparently arbitrary in its conceit, the closer one looks the more constructed it appears. The centre of the composition is relatively empty but the left side shows clear perspective as a mass of pigeons disappear into the distance. The menacingly large pigeons in the foreground look ready to attack whilst those in the background are pacified and comforting.
The birds themselves contain a range of references in their own rights. These grey pigeons are the poor cousins of the dove of peace, which has its own art historical legacy. In The Rumour, several of the paintings had as their source images from manuals of pigeon breeding, introducing the theme of eugenics; at the same time, those eyes, stripped of context and magnified on canvas to a point nearing abstraction, introduced the notion of surveillance and also, in their roundness, of fear. In this context, Pigeons takes on a Hitchcockian air, the birds wandering around in a manner echoing human behaviour and the volatility of the mob. There is the sense that these birds are themselves spreading a rumour, though they appear to be city pigeons rather than the carrier pigeons used in war and espionage in previous eras.
The title The Rumour itself hints at the menace that information can pose, at the confusion and even destruction that it can cause. Tuymans' own work functions in a way similar to the creation and spreading of rumours : often, he takes a source photograph, then immortalises it in deadpan oils. This, combined with judicious cropping, results in the picture becoming decontextualised, rootless; the sometimes sinister origins of each selected image being removed in a pictorial game of Chinese Whispers. The viewer's awareness of the often subversive or controversial source material that Tuymans favours adds a sense of danger, of the pitfalls of the hidden realities, the concealed contexts and meanings, even to a picture of birds on a pavement. The origin of the pictorial rumour is lost, but the message, the 'rumour' has gained new momentum.