These six watercolors, dating from 1986 to 1991, mark the first important phase of Luc Tuymans’ paintings. In works of this kind he formulated pictorial ideas that often derive from things he had seen, sometimes many years earlier; at this point he rarely used photographs as the basis for his paintings. Even the most modest of Tuymans’ paintings on paper already demonstrate an essential aspect of his work as a whole: he detaches a particular image from a wider context. That image is often not instantly “readable” in isolation, but requires a verbal commentary.
The contents of these sheets are childhood memories, on the one hand, and moments in collective history on the other. What Tuymans said in 1992 applies here: “The picture is the negation of the picture. The statement it makes is like a loss, something that cannot be reconstituted, it has become an irreversible memory … the whole can only be seen in fragments.”(1)
In a watercolor from 1987 Tuymans painted the arm of a chair from his parental home with a hand resting on it. “Toys” (1991) recalls a tin figure he saw as a child. He was fascinated by the thin metal form painted in a way that reminded him of carnival masks. “Halloween” (1986) is also based on a memory. As a child Tuymans cut out witches and stars, which were hung up at home as Halloween decorations. The childhood memories that Tuymans captures in these unpretentious little paintings are always steeped in fear.
In the two untitled watercolors from 1986 and 1987 the focus is on spatial perceptions; in the first they are connected with memories of visits to the subterranean aquarium at Antwerp Zoo. Tuymans was fascinated “by [the] arches and barriers, and by the aquarium itself.”(2) His spatial drawings call to mind the memory palaces that have been used since antiquity as mnemonic devices, with key terms from a complex context being associated with an architectural structure.
The watercolor done in 1989 that conjures up a timber-frame house with a few deft brushstrokes refers to a widespread notion of German-ness, and thus also to three oil paintings from the same year that Tuymans grouped together with the collective title “Recherches.” The subjects of these paintings are a lampshade made from human skin, a tooth that looks like a skull, and a display case with fabrics made from human hair in Auschwitz. For Tuymans the crux is that the misdeeds perpetrated by monsters come in the guise of mundane philistinism and banality. The romantic exterior of a traditional building conceals the reality of abominations; there is a similar relationship between the innocuous appearance of toys and fathomless fear.
(1) Luc Tuymans, “Disenchantment,” in Luc Tuymans, ed. Ulrich Loock, exh. cat.
Kunsthalle Bern 1992, p. 12.
(2) Conversation with Ulrich Loock, March 29, 2019.