Painted in 2000, Maypole is a seemingly faded, tranquil, festive image that thrives on the somersaults and sleight-of-hand manoeuvres so characteristic of Luc Tuymans' works. Through the fug of sepia, a lederhosen-wearing group of young men are raising their Maypole, celebrating the beginning of Spring. Maypole appears to be an oil reprisal of some snapshot of a Bavarian holiday.
Tuymans' pictures deliberately lull the viewer into a false sense of security. What is apparently harmless on the surface is usually tainted by violence even on some invisible level. A shard of context added to a painting opens the floodgates of disconcerting implication. Tuymans' own comments are revealing: "Here I used a page taken from a German propaganda magazine called Signal; during World War II this magazine was translated into Flemish, and I was able to purchase the issues covering several years from a second-hand bookseller" (L. Tuymans quoted in R. Storr, "A Worst Case Scenario," Luc Tuymans: Mwana Kotoko, Beautiful White Man, exh.cat., Ghent, 2001, p. 21).
The context of this image, found within a Nazi propaganda magazine changes everything, adding a sinister new level of meaning to the picture, just as the smiling features in the family snap that was the source for Gerhard Richter's 1965 painting Tante Marianne reveal nothing of his aunt's tragic death in a euthanasia camp two decades earlier.
In his paintings, Tuymans often scrutinises the most questionable aspects of both European and in particular of Belgian history by forcing us to think about the implications first of his images, and then of the world that had produced them. It is thus on a personal level too that Maypole functions, as is made all the more apparent by its sepia-like appearance: "I wanted to make my paintings look old from the start, which is important because they are about memory" (Ibid.). It is not any memory that Tuymans targets, but instead the wider societal memories that we have tried so hard to forget.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Maypole and its layers of meaning, past and present, hidden and evident. It is the fallibility of the medium that is the message here-- through Maypole's initial inscrutability and from the opaque mass of meanings, associations and interpretations to which the viewer subjects it, Tuymans manages to demonstrate to what degree each man is an island, to what extent true communication between humans is impossible. And crucially Maypole also hints at the disasters to which flawed and faulty communication can lead.