Bathed in incandescent twilight, the elegant profile of a carrier pigeon emerges from the vast, luminous canvas of Luc Tuymans’ Dracula (2001). Created for his major 2001 exhibition ‘The Rumour’ at White Cube Hoxton Square, the work is a monumental example of the artist’s haunting, attenuated paintings. Working from personal snapshots, television, the Internet and the analogue press, Tuymans distils his images through multiple layers of appropriation and restaging; painted with exquisite delicacy, they become charged, eerily evocative ciphers that seem to picture something like a collective memory on the brink of vanishing. 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’ (H. Molesworth, ‘Luc Tuymans: Painting the Banality of Evil’, in Luc Tuymans, exh. cat. Wexner Centre for the Arts, Columbus 2009, p. 18). Indeed, the pigeon in Dracula is touched with a fragile splendour: a rosy blush tints its breast; its dappled grey wing-bars glow with an edge of amber, echoing its yellow feet. Fixed to the pigeon’s leg is a scroll, its content and intent unknown. The title of ‘The Rumour’ is suggestive of Tuymans’ keen interest in the capacity of images to communicate meaning, and in the Chinese-whispers shifts in interpretation that can occur as they travel through time and into new contexts. The carrier pigeon, a central motif in the exhibition, can itself be seen as a metaphor for the unstable, contingent role of painting in delivering a message. Shimmering between doubt and belief, Tuymans’ works constantly question how far we can believe what we see; Dracula exemplifies his beautiful, ambiguous and unsettling vision.
The pigeon bears an uneasy proximity to a bird with a far more exalted place in art history: the dove. In Tuymans’ native Flemish, the same word, duif, can refer to both species. Where the dove functions as a well-known symbol for peace, hope and purity, however – an image heightened ever since Picasso’s famed lithograph La Colombe was used to illustrate the poster for the 1949 Paris Peace Congress – pigeons are more often seen as vermin. In Dracula, Tuymans subverts expectation by presenting the traditionally reviled creature on a magnificent and dignified scale. As a carrier pigeon, the bird is also loaded with social history. Tuymans notes that in pre-Revolutionary France, ‘peasant labourers were not permitted to own pigeons. That was a privilege of the aristocracy. The latter ate the pigeons, and used them as messengers. When the French Revolution broke out, the first thing the people who had belonged to a property owner did was to wring all of the pigeons’ necks’ (L. Tuymans, quoted in ‘The Rumour’, https://whitecube.com/exhibitions/exhibition/luc_tuymans_hoxton_square_2001). This narrative shadows the painting with the traces of anxiety and violence that are typical of Tuymans' subjects. For all its ethereal presence and understated palette, the work has a searing psychological impact. Where a dove might have stood as a straightforward emblem, Tuymans instead conjures a hazy, ambivalent, sensitive picture, flooded with intrigue and lit with the pale afterglow of manifold meanings.