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The Scene discusses art and Antwerp's cultural heritage with Belgian conceptual painter Luc Tuymans.
The Scene: Why do you think Antwerp has produced so many great painters over the centuries?
Luc Tuymans: Well, first of all during the 16th and 17th centuries Antwerp was the biggest port in the known world. We were under Spanish rule, there'd been the Reformation and then the Counter-Reformation and Belgium as a whole -- which in the 1600s was linked up with the Netherlands -- was very important as far as trading was concerned. Everything passed through this city. There were Spanish traders, Italians, Portuguese here so you have this enormous cultural heritage. A lot of people passed through here, famous artists from abroad, so you have all these connections.
TS: Who were your influences as a painter?
LT: There are a lot of influences of course. The most devastating one is Jan Van Eyck. He was a Flemish primitive and, I think, one of the most important painters ever. The perfection of Van Eyck is unparalleled in the world. Already as a painter from the beginning you are traumatized by your own region. Apart from that, one of the painters that I really, really admire is El Greco and you have Velasquez, I mean all the names you can think of. And in Belgium there was one painter who you may not know who was a contemporary of James Ensor, also living on the coast at Ostend, and that is Leon Spilliaert. So those were my main influences in the beginning.
TS: How did you start painting?
LT: Basically as a kid, I was very shy and I drew a lot. I made a lot of drawings. I was bullied a lot at school also, for being shy and for not being very tall, but that's how it started. And it was an ability that could alter my position in a group because that was something that the group could admire, so in that sense there was an importance to it that I instinctively felt.
TS: You gave up painting for a while to pursue film-making. Why was that and why did you return to painting?
LT: Well I stopped painting for a moment because it became too in my face. There was too much distension and not enough distance to actually produce the imagery. After five years I came back to painting. Why? Because painting is a specific medium, you make a unique image. There is a link with film in a sense because painting and film are both about the approach to the imagery. Of course inevitably with film there is a narrative which then sort of disappears with the painting, but with painting you can also overpaint. Both mediums are very intensive and all about precision and it's actually this that makes painting so important.
What you can do with painting is make a more understated type of imagery that approaches an idea from a different angle. It's another medium, in another timescale. And that produces a cognitive image which is sort of branded in the brain. It has something to do with the idea of remembering the imagery but it's also to do with reconstructing the memory, because memory is something that is completely inadequate. That is where painting also comes in because it has its own inadequacy in that it is never complete.
TS: You always complete a work in one sitting. Why is that?
LT: It's not that I can't stop, it's just the idea that's how long my attention span lasts. And in order to create this very specific form of intensity it's very necessary for me to work in this way. It's just something that became a habit and then became a norm, so to speak; it's just the most convenient way for me to concentrate. I use drawings and before I begin painting the imagery is completely finalized. So the execution of the painting goes very fast, but the work before the painting, the conceptualizing of the image itself is a long period of time.
TS: Tell us about your last exhibition in New York.
LT: It was a show that was about ballroom dancing and Condoleezza Rice... it was a bit more complicated than that, but the idea was to make a show about the kind of difficult period the States is living though under the Bush government.
And the first idea was this idea of the musical, which is already a reminiscence of a certain type of conservatism within a society. If we think about the peak of ballroom dancing in the '30s and the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the '40s and then I upgraded it to ballroom dancing which has become highly popular again in the States and in Europe. I found this amazing image which was very convenient for me of the Governor's Ball where you had a couple high up in the image dancing and then you had the seals on the floor in which you could still read the word "Texas." And then this Secretary of State, Ms. Condoleezza Rice, came to Belgian and our minister of foreign affairs made this kind of sexist remark that she was a strong woman and not unpretty and that's where the two elements came together.
It's not so much the critique of the person itself -- the portrait is a cropped image of the face which on the one hand shows determination but on the other hand for the ones who don't like her it could be scary. But it could almost be an image that celebrates her for her persistence because still to this point Ms. Rice has to prove what she is going to do as Secretary of State. Then of course there are the rumors of the possibility of a first female president, so the show is about this undetermined situation the States is in.