Luc Tymans: on pigeon power

Belgium's representative at this year's Venice Biennale explains why pigeons are not symbols of peace, how he depicts violence without actually showing it and why he returned to painting

Luc Tuymans

Luc Tuymans

The spare, understated canvases of Luc Tuymans have won him an international reputation for bringing contemporary relevance to figurative painting. Although he often works with highly charged themes—past titles have included Child abuse or Gas chamber—his paintings hint at hidden horrors rather than depicting specific incidents, and are as much about the power and meaning of images as painterly technique. As Belgium’s representative in the 2001 Venice Biennale, Tuymans combined earlier works with a new series, “Mwana Kitoko”(Beautiful White Man) which deals with Belgium’s colonial history in the Congo and the recently-appointed commission to investigate Belgium’s involvement in the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the founder of the Congo National Movement.

The Art Newspaper: The main theme of your new paintings at White Cube is the carrier pigeon. What attracted you to this subject matter?

The idea of keeping pigeons was the invention of the French nobility—they were used first of all as food, but then as messengers—every castle had these sort of Pantheon stone structures in front of every gate towards the estate.

Are you differentiating between pigeons and doves?

I think it’s the same thing. On one of my visits to France I was visiting a castle in Brittany and I went into one of these little buildings and there was this father who was explaining to his son that if you would multiply all the holes in the pigeon house vertically and horizontally, then you would get the amount of acres that the family actually owned.

The pigeon houses were sending out coded messages of power?

Absolutely. And of course all the farmers who lived in the grounds that were under the control of these people were not able to have pigeons because they were also the messengers. With the outbreak of the French Revolution, the first thing these farmers did was to kill the pigeons. So that reinstates my opinion that actually pigeons are flying rats instead of a symbol of peace or the religious symbol, where, of course, they are the messenger again, but in sublimated form. So the whole show is a kind of oblique reference to that. Therefore, in the only portrait in the show you don’t see a real pigeon trainer, but more an image of a very autocratic figure—it’s a concoction of a portrait and it reminds you more of the last days of Mitterrand—more the idea of a political figure. So it’s actually about that type of power, and in that sense an idea of class is induced into the show.

I am curious about the audience’s reading of your work. Are viewers expected to pick up these specific references or is your work more about presenting a mood?

I think the reading of the images will be extremely physical in the sense that Jay’s space gives you more of an idea of an institutional space than a gallery space, so it’s very clear that everything has to be formulated at once. Some of the works are going to be bigger, some are going to be smaller, and there’s also a work that consists of three parts, which is three eyeballs, which are very big blow-ups of the eyes of the doves or the pigeons: you see a sort of ring of flesh which defines the eyeball and either lets the eye sink in or pop out, so it gives a very de-naturalised feel. There’s also going to be a very large, oversized pigeon, a square with pigeons in it, and a sort of doll’s house or cage or space which is probably going to be the largest painting. Then there’s an image of a female figure in knickers who is bending forward, which is opposing the male portrait, in a sense. So I think you immediately get a feeling of things which are hidden and a message which is kept.

Your images may have a specific source and subject matter—be it the visit of King Baudouin I of Belgium to the Congo, or the Oberammergau Passion Play—but even if you are painting pillows, there is the underlying sense that they are really about power and repression and the distillation of information.

That seems to be an obsessive theme for me. It’s hard for me to make just a pleasant painting—which is good if you can do it, but it’s not one of my abilities. So in a sense it always turns around and comes back to the idea of focusing on the image itself—always trying to find a breaking point into the image, and this show is no different. In a way it is good that it parallels the show in Venice because the show in Venice is a bit more up front, and this is a bit more hidden and has another subtlety added.

It’s hard for me to make just a pleasant painting—which is good if you can do it, but it’s not one of my abilities

You first showed your “Mwana Kitoko” series in New York, but they had a very sharp resonance in the Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

I was asked to do the Belgian Pavilion at a very late stage and there were two possibilities: either to make a roundup of 20 years of painting or to do something with it. This was actually a chance you never get again—the architect who built the pavilion was a colonial architect—so everything clicked together with the colonial content of the group of works around “Mwana Kitoko”. It was a very particular show towards Belgium; the Lumumba Commission is still going on so it’s very topical.

You have talked about violence being the only structure underlying your work, but there is never any violence depicted. There is a sense of the possibility or probability, but never the actuality.

I think that is something which is in the lineage of painting traditions. If you think back to the paintings of Manet or the first collage, it is a type of violence in the sense that the imagery is numbed and the sound is taken from the image, which is already a very violent and nearly a political act. This was when I actually understood the subtlety of an event and the consequences or would-be consequences of imagery in that you could look at it in a very detached way and therefore actually dissect it. Violence has very different consequences. Whereas happiness would last about three minutes or less, the consequences of violence, either in a physical or a mental way, are prolonged—they make a bigger mark and they produce more imagery. From the Borgias to now, you could say that without violence you would not even have culture.

From the Borgias to now, you could say that without violence you would not even have culture

You always use pre-existing images as your starting point, but in your paintings you often push these images to the very edges of abstraction.

In an age where the media has become exceedingly powerful—I grew up with television—you have an extreme amount of information and a lack of experience, so that leads inevitably to this kind of abstraction whether you want it or not. It’s also about the fact that if you measure the attention span of people standing in front of a painting, it would statistically be 15, or at the most, 30 seconds. In order to make that longer you have to make the viewer work.

During the 1980s, you stopped painting and made films. Why?

I stopped painting because there was not enough distance which you need to paint or to make anything else, and I just didn’t know what would make sense for me to paint anymore. Then, by accident, I got access to a Super 8 Camera and the first films were black and white, made with highly sensitive film and filmed like a diary, every day. Then it went to 16mm and less like a diary and finally I got to work with 35mm and tried to make a real movie. It was about a boat in the harbour in Antwerp. It was partly documentary and I also got people to play in it. It was chained in the middle of the dock where people couldn’t get out because they couldn’t pay the money to stay in the harbour any more. It was an Indian ship and it was partly based on a story by a writer I like, Slauerhoff, who was a Dutch poet who travelled on the Java-China-Japan line. It was an attempt to break up the romanticism about travelling, the whole element of exoticism and narrowing it down to a very specific locality, which then again is not a locality because it’s a harbour.

But then you went back to painting.

I couldn’t provide the money any more, and also, by having this filmic experience, I went back to enlarging the things I couldn’t film. From then on, you can see very clearly the influence of film: cropping, foreshortening and enlarging the image, and so on. Also, for me there is a great similarity between filming and painting because both are very slow mediums. In a way, the only difference is that with a film you work with a group of people and with a painting you do it alone. Film is also a very fictitious thing, and in painting it is the same thing—in the process of making it, you can over- and over-paint.

But when you make a painting you do it all at once. You spend a long time immersing yourself in the image—often drawing it again and again—so that when you come to paint it, you do it in a day.

The process of formulating the image is to do it to the point that it is really dead and then, through the paint itself, it has to be resurrected. So that again is a difference between painting and film. When I come out of a cinema, I try and find one image in which I can recapitulate all the moving images, and painting does the opposite, since painting is already an immobilised element and so it should not be correctly remembered afterwards. Maybe, also, one of the reasons I came back to painting is the emblematic way itself of painting: whether the story in a moving image makes sense or not, you are always left with a narrative, because all the images are contextualised, whereas in a painting the image is decontextualised and so it goes to the brim of what meaning could be. In that sense it is extremely edgy. Painting has a very anachronistic position: it is no longer at the centre; it is now at the periphery of the whole art scene, nevertheless it is a huge influence because it is so embedded in our culture, and that’s where the power lies.

In your paintings it seems as if you are deliberately suppressing any virtuosity.

But again that’s also an irony because I started out as a very virtuoso painter. Through trying to become a bit more meaningful, I tried to reduce myself in order to go against my own aesthetics but then, by going against the grain, you develop another type of aesthetics which then again becomes your trademark. In a way, we’ll see, it all depends on how the whole thing evolves and where it will go to. I am very curious to see how far that detachment will go and where it actually will stop.


Background: Born Mortsel, Belgium 1958; lives and works in Antwerp

Currently showing: White Cube (5 September-13 October)

Previous shows include: 2001: Belgian Pavilion, Venice Biennale; SMAK, Ghent; 2000: Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery; David Zwirner Gallery, New York; Apocalypse, Royal Academy, London; 1999: White Cube, London; Kunstmuseum, Wolfsberg; 1998: Fundacão de Serralves, Porto (with Miraslav Balka); 1997: Kunstmuseum, Bern (touring to Berkeley, Bordeaux); 1996: Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp; 1995: ICA, London; Musée des beaux-arts, Nantes; 1993: Museum Hans Lange, Krefeld; Galerie Paul Andreisse, Amsterdam; Kabinett für Aktuelle, Bremerhaven; 1991: Centre d’art contemperain, Thiers; Kunsthalle, Bern; 1990: Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp; 1988: Ruimte Morguen, Antwerp; 1985: Belgian Art Review, Thermenpaleis, Oostende

• To read more of our best artist interviews over the past 30 years, click here for the full collection