"[Memory] always remains fragile. Every aspect of history is partly false, it's never complete" --Luc Tuymans, 2009
Rendered in a haze of high-value chroma, shaped by varying tonal inflections, a three-quarter portrait of an unidentified male figure clad in suit and tie gazes surreptitiously, almost menacingly from the frame, full lower lip protruding from a firmly set jaw. Coated in shimmering impasto, the image calls to mind a faded photograph of a past history closed to meaning. Its title, Rumour, fails to propose a point of entry, foiling rather than revealing signification. Created just prior to his cycle of highly politicized canvases, Mwana Kitoko, for the Belgian Pavilion at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001, the present work belongs to a separate cycle of seemingly innocuously themed paintings based on carrier pigeons and their trainers. Carrying the same title, Rumour, the present work bears the weight of the entire series of eight separate canvases and is the source of its powerful affect.
A figurative painter who relies on mechanically reproduced images for source material, Luc Tuymans is, almost paradoxically, highly suspicious of spectacular culture--the stability of the transmitted image, the veracity of its meaning. Simulated truth, second--and third--hand experience conveyed through photography, television, and video stills, is for Tuymans, the underlying subject of his representational paintings. Luring the viewer with luscious impasto, understated painterly gesture, and diluted coloration, Tuymans transcribes photographs into sensuous, wet-on-wet depictions. His suffusions of the image in complicating textures and overexposed lighting tug at memory, teasing the viewer into recollection. Titles, on the other hand, disengage the viewer from the immediacy of the work's tactile appeal. Tuymans mimics in painting the speed with which everyday images are captured: he spends no more than one day on a work and conflates the act of painting with mechanical processes, calling into question--even as he celebrates--paintings' status as a medium in contemporary practice. Tuymans' subject is representation--its fragmentary, layered, and obliquely associative charge.
The present work is no exception. A deeply personal painter, Tuymans' nevertheless presents a work redolent of art historical references. Tuymans, who is considered to have single-handedly revived paintings in the last three decades, has often looked back to his Belgian precursors of several centuries past. Posed against a corner space, rather like the Netherlandish primitive Petrus Christus's Portrait of a Carthusian, 1446, Tuymans' portrait, too, suggests the likeness of an anonymous person in three-quarter view. Yet, while the exquisite detail both of the visage of the lay brother and his placement in space are masterfully rendered in the earlier depiction, Tuymans flattens space by effacing the function of modeling through a reversal of tonal contrast, such that the dark suit of his "sitter" seems to be engulfed in the bright surround of reflecting light. Rather than using tonality to model bodily mass and to enhance recessed perspective as in the earlier work, Tuymans' figure is abstracted, not only through a blurring of the facial features, but also through the use of unmodulated contrasts of dark and light, a frankness of highlighting, and an angularity in the juxtaposition of tie and compressing frame, all of which create a rhythmic thrust away from the viewer, while emphasizing the distance from and the inscrutability of the figure itself. Indeed, the underlying thematic of this cycle is the tension between inscrutability and surveillance. The literal point of departure for the artist, carrier pigeons and their trainers, unleashes not only references to specific manuals for training carrier pigeons, but also a vast digital archive of photographs of trainers and their pigeons from the Great War and World War II, many of which can be readily sampled through the available present-day technologies.
This subject matter in turn touches on the notion of surreptitious surveillance and, of the clandestine passing of information, of concealment, of espionage--Nazi-era or Communist China agitprop tactics--even to present-day terrorist strategies. In this way, the looming figure that forms the subject of Rumour refers as much to the history of propagandistic images--the subterfuge behind the image--as it does to the history of composite imaging in art per se. The specific referent in this case is a digitally manipulated double-portrait of two icons of Western political history, what the artist on occasion has called "non-portraits," a conflation of images sampled online of Presidents François Mitterand and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Mitterand, former President of France (1981-1995), a Socialist and anti-Gaulist, his presidency nevertheless was characterized by strained US-French relations, as Mitterand's resistance to US economic and political worldwide influence became more and more entrenched over time. A subject of scandal throughout his political and personal life, the title Rumour both denotes Mitterand's public and private reinventions and describes the mode of his betrayals and trials. For all his military leadership of the victorious Allies during WWII, the Eisenhower presidency (1953-1961) was marred by rumor of a most insidious nature during the trials led by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy against so-called Communist sympathizers. Suspicion was at its height during these years of aggressive investigations by the House on Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, which were often based on no thing more than rumor. As part of a cycle of works under the rubric The Rumour, which include depictions of carrier pigeons and their cages, Tuymans suggests an analogy between the forced training and containment of these birds and the affect of rumor on citizens of both the U.S. and France, who not only are subject to such fabricated fictions, but are also made carriers of political propagandist strategies--often to their ruin. The iconic conflation of Mitterand and Eisenhower is a masterstroke, an adroit, if sly statement of appropriation and attribution.
By shrouding his portrait behind a veil of palpable tension, Tuymans recalls the work of Francis Bacon, whose somber portraits from the 1950s bring together a similar feeling of suspense. As the critic David Sylvester writes, "In these claustrophobic curtained setting, there looms up before us beings whose shadowy, ambiguous, unexpected presence takes command of any setting they survey, making real beings seem like shadows. They are as appalling as they are compelling, for these creatures faced with their tragic destiny" (D. Sylvester, 'Francis Bacon,' The British Pavilion: Exhibition of Works by Nicholson, Freud, Venice XXVII Biennale, Venice 1954). Just as Bacon's dark portraits of Pope Innocent X and somber suited businessmen become amalgams of physical people haunted by a hypothetic past, Tuyman's Rumour becomes a contemporary reinvigoration of the dark possibilities inherent in the human soul.
Formally, the power of the image in the present work comes not from its clarity and clear referent, but rather from its lack of definition and its seeming composite nature, further suggesting the composite nature of imagery tout court, its fragmentation and abstraction of reality. Tuymans' work is somehow also about excess--excess of light, of images, of information--and the corresponding lack of substance and meaning. As in other canvases from this series--an ominously caged darkened area, close-ups of the eyes of pigeons, a mysterious rear view of someone bending over--Tuymans' cropping enhances the sense of menace, even of assault. The narrative incoherence of this cycle creates an atmosphere of paranoia in which meaning is dissociated from image and from its linear history. Tuymans illustrates for us our own time in which the digital archive stands for our contemporary experience, disarranged, breached, impenetrable, and silent.
And what is "rumour," but the fabrication of falsehoods from fragmentary knowledge. And what is painting, but an ambiguous medium of depiction? With the present work, Tuymans asks how representation as such can succeed in a time of spectacularization and fractured simulacra. Even as the reflective, if nondescript facture seems somehow enfeebled, its power to command the viewing experience is firm. Complete in its sheer physicality, virtuosic in its luminosity, Rumour directs the intellect as it holds the eye. While grays, greens, and whites simulate the photograph, the compression of the image, the flattening of the picture plane, the tonal misinformation, the apparent multiple light sources refuse photographic clarity. Tuymans' titles beguile even as they offer a way toward interpretation. But that entry point is blocked through the decontextualization of image, its hermetic affect, what Ulrich Loock calls its "symbolic incompleteness" (L. Tuymans, quoted in H. Molesworth, 'Luc Tuymans: Painting the Banality of Evil' in Luc Tuymans, exh. cat, San Francisco Museum of Art, 2009, p. 24).
Rumour is a palimpsest of affective associations, painterly histories, and social and political narrations; it coaches us to approach the painted image warily by using the inherited tropes of portrait painting to undermine rather than clarify identity and meaning. The interest and excitement of a work such as this lies as much in its formal tactics as in its conceptual underpinnings, which question not only the nature of images and their conveyance, whether painted or mechanically reproduced, but also the nature of the viewer-image relationship. While seeming to paint images, Tuymans refuses representations of both perspective and contour. With both space and image occluded, the charge of Rumour comes from our urge to push through Tuymans' sensuous surface where image melts into gesture and iridescence, to penetrate the simulacra of representation--in order to grasp what it means to paint a picture in our time.