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An interview with Luc Tuymans by Hilde Van Canneyt – “Painting is not just a pleasant experience”

These are translated extracts of Hilde Van Canneyt’s interview with Luc Tuymans (2011). It appears in her latest book 4321 vragen aan 123 kunstenaars: Hilde Van Canneyt interviewt kunstenaars (Borgerhoff & Lamberigts, 2020).


HVC: You've been painting in your same small studio for 30 years. You used to work at night, but nowadays you prefer to work with daylight. I also read that you now have a larger studio and also make larger works. You used to paint with a mirror behind you because it doubles the distance to the image and makes you feel its impact better. Do you still do that?

LT: Yes, I still work with a hand mirror and I have been painting with daylight for years, because I also had good light in my small studio: three quarters of the work that you will see at Bozar was still painted in that studio. But seven works were made in the new studio.


HVC: Is painting also a way for you to get chaos out of your head? Or do you see painting as therapy? Or do you distance yourself from the subject because you emotionally distance yourself from the sensual, erotic act of painting, so that you can remain insensitive to it? Because you try to paint emotionally charged subjects in an emotionless way.

LT: Painting is a habit for me, which I can do like someone else can ride a bicycle. I've never considered it exceptional, but I do experience it as exceptional. Why? Because it is so “erstaunlich”. I always start painting with the same intensity and stress. Painting is not just a pleasure experience. Despite the fact that I prepared all this for a very long time — and that I know what I have been doing over the years, because even the bag of tricks is known — it is still true that the first three hours of the process are very special, when one is working randomly. Although you know what you're doing, you don't really know what you're “doing”.

HVC: Do you feel a certain mental expansion while painting? LT: It's just concentration. It's a moment I've been working towards for months to achieve it. That is why it is so tight, because the “attention span” is very short for me.

HVC: Is that your podium moment? Like a musician who has been working on their CD for months and then is allowed on stage? Although that is contradictory, because a musician has an audience and feedback and you are just in that “explosion moment” on your own.

LT: At that point, all the preparatory material that I have put together has almost been analyzed to death. Due to the action of executing the painting, the image appears as a kind of resurrection. It is from the moment a few layers of contrast are added that the image begins to converge. Only then does the painting fun really begin, because one works towards the conclusion of how a situation will be illuminated. That is actually always amazing. How do you keep up with that?

I used to be able to enjoy it for two weeks after completing a painting, now two days at most. I make at most one painting a week, with the exception of a period in my life when I simply had to do more because of time pressure.


HVC: Do you follow the other painting Belgian Michaël Borremans (1963), who is also represented by Zeno X gallery? How does his approach differ from yours? Do you think he has a different public? LT: [expresses doubt] It's kind of hard to talk about another artist because he also exhibits at Zeno X in Antwerp and David Zwirner in New York. The direction that Michaël Borremans takes is almost the same as mine because it is also an international one. But I think his perspective is completely different, especially in terms of content. His scope seems to be one that starts less from realism. If it is a realism, then it is one that grafts itself into our time but still finds a kind of breeding ground that plays with a kind of confusion in terms of time and image reproduction. I think I do that a lot less. It is not my immediate interest, because my oeuvre fits in with reality and with a real history, however close it may be.

Because the whole idea of the Second World War has also been the total downfall of Europe. The Holocaust has therefore stimulated a psychological breakdown. I took that as a starting point, because it didn't seem to be part of a culture, but of course it is. Not from the fact that I'm agnostic in terms of, say, minimal art or modernism or even postmodernism. No, just because my opinion is that one cannot make pastiche by making art from art. One can be influenced by it, do something with it, but one cannot make something out of it. I also think that any art of any importance stems from reality.

If you’re interested in reading more, find the whole interview on Hilde van Canneyt’s website (Dutch language).

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