This is a repost, originally published at Red Wedge in late 2013 and lost in RW’s various technical transitions to new website formats over the past two years. It is a review of “Nice. Luc Tuymans,” organized by the Menil Collection in Houston and on exhibition there from September 2013 to January 2014.
Concerns about ascendant fascism in Europe are central to this essay. That situation has obviously grown more severe over the intervening two-plus years, given, for example, the self-inflicted catastrophe of the left, Syriza government in Greece and the recent victories of the extreme-right National Front in French regional elections. My perspective is, for better or worse, deeply marked by the specificity of the period in which I was writing (the English Defence League? the “failing” austerity efforts of the Greek ruling class?).
This irruption of the real challenges longstanding, formal interpretations of Tuymans’ painterly work as, putatively, “allegories for the irreversible withdrawal of things.” This irruption also shines new light on art-theoretical concepts grounding such interpretations, particularly indexicality and its “securing,” or guaranteeing of, the presence of the real-world object in traditional, analog photography. The (unexpected) result, for painting, is a rejection of its historical demotion vis-à-vis photography and a reaffirmation of its ability to represent the real.
I have made a few changes for stylistic purposes only.
Fascism is ascendant in Europe. Influence of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (GD) has burgeoned in Greece, one of the countries most impacted by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Greece has also experienced one of the most advanced left political responses to that crisis: in multiple mass strikes and spontaneous youth uprisings since 2007; and in 2012, when left party SYRIZA came close to a plurality, and thus being able to form a government, in the election results.
GD not only holds the most reactionary positions of the conventional right, such as xenophobia and racism. Crucially, and this distinguishes fascism from conventional authoritarian states and right-wing parliamentarianism, GD also has a mass, militarized force to terrorize workers and oppressed peoples in the streets. GD thugs have attacked hundreds, including many immigrants; assaulted members of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) on live television; and recently killed the prominent, left-wing rapper Pavlos Fyssas, spurring outrage around the country.
The year 2007 was initially an economic crisis for the bourgeoisie, which subsequently attempted a transformation of that crisis into one strictly for the working class, in an effort to restore profitability. However, their moves in Greece – lowering wages, gutting social welfare programs, and privatizing public services, for example – have faced tremendous popular resistance. No end is in sight to this opposition, which has been intermittently successful. From a ruling class perspective, their austerity efforts are failing.
During such times, organizations like GD become a more viable alternative for the ruling class. Fascism’s mass mobilizations in the streets, strategies of terror, and breakdown of law can supplement or replace normal parliamentary parties, legalistic approaches, and the state apparatus – the police, the courts, or the military. GD is garnering favor within mainstream politics: it received over 7% of the vote – and reportedly half of the Athens police force vote – in the 2012 elections; and leading center-right officials are open to a possible government coalition with GD.
Even in areas lacking strong left resistance, like that of SYRIZA, fascism is growing. Notable are the Jobbik party in Hungary and the English Defence League (EDL) in the UK.
Fascism is also growing in areas less impacted by the economic downturn. This year’s massive, violent demonstrations in Paris against same-sex marriage were a breakthrough for the French extreme-right. A new “issue” has been discovered to thread together and re-cohere these disparate forces, such as those upholding: fascism; the Nazi-occupation regime of Vichy and Marshal Pétain; clerical reaction; the former colonial domination of Algeria; and the paramilitary Organisation armée secrète (OAS), which made multiple attempts to assassinate Charles De Gaulle in the 1960s.
These are new developments. Common on the left, the idea that fascism constituted a permanent, and imminent or immediate, threat to bourgeois democracy under monopoly capitalism was wrong and had baleful political effects. Capitalist states in Europe were primarily democratic after 1945, and remaining dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, and Greece were toppled almost four decades ago. Fascism can arise only in particular periods. Such a period is again at hand.
The works of Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, who has achieved international prominence since he began seriously exhibiting in the late 1980s, have been widely interpreted as having a calculatedly oblique relation to these major historical events, and others, of the last century. Organized by Menil Director Josef Helfenstein and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Toby Kamps, Nice. Luc Tuymans is currently on exhibition at the Menil Collection in Houston and focuses specifically on his portraiture.
Tuymans’ images, in isolation from one another, can be fragmentary and cryptic. Bodies sometimes appear only in parts, not wholes: the end of a finger filling the upper two-thirds of a canvas; or a forehead, rather than the face or profile, at the center of another canvas. People are depicted, but their identities are unknown. Faces are enigmatic. The titles are occasionally revealing (Christ, 1998) but can be as cryptic as the artworks themselves (Rumour, 2001).
Frequently, however, he has created and exhibited series of paintings with commonalities in their intended subject matter. The ultimate referents of those individual works then become clearer, through the site-specificity or geographic location of the venue; the ability to immediately relate one work to the others, within the gallery space; the similar or complimentary compositional approaches of the works; and the narrative trajectory of the groupings. Among these series are: Der Architekt, first shown in 1998 in Berlin at Galerie Gebauer and which concerned the Holocaust; and Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man, the initial site for which was the 2001 Venice Biennale’s Belgian Pavilion and which focused on Belgian monarchical and (neo)colonial rule in Congo-Léopoldville.
Political meaning does not simply inhere in a work of art. Such meaning is highly (though not exclusively) structured by the political situation, such as national specificities and the strength of emancipatory struggles on the ground. At times, audiences can bring more to understanding art; at other times, less.
Tuymans has described the reception of his Mwana Kitoko cycle in New York. Some in the African-American communities thought that the portrait of Patrice Lumumba – the leftist Congolese liberation fighter, assassinated shortly after he became Prime Minister of the newly independent country in 1960 – was one of Malcolm X. In the US, Lumumba was a better-known figure from the 1960s through the 1980s, when movements for black liberation and solidarity with African anti-colonial efforts were more influential. From another side, when the Guggenheim contacted Tuymans about acquiring the portrait of former Belgian monarch Baudouin, they believed the figure in the painting, unidentifiable through the title, was Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet. Tuymans dryly notes: “In Belgium, everyone knew who the person in the painting was.”
In an early (1996) essay, and discussing a number of canvases on the Nazi concentration camps, critic Ulrich Loock argues of Tuymans’ work:
Furthermore, of his body of work as a whole:
These two proposals are characteristic of much commentary on Tuymans and seem redolent of the worst excesses of postmodernist thought, prominent throughout the 1990s. However, shifting historical and politico-aesthetic contexts have impacted the logic of such critical assessments. These impacts are clearer in 2013.
In the US, Condoleezza Rice would be immediately recognizable in The Secretary of State, 2005, as she served in that office under President George W. Bush for four years and as National Security Advisor for the preceding four. With her trademark scowl, Rice resolutely gazes into the distance. The face is tightly cropped, as in a close-up; fills the canvas, which has the proportions of a cathode-ray television screen; and would spill over its frame, if we were to imagine its extension into the real world of the viewer. However, there is no sense of physical nearness; this image has been captured from afar. Further, Rice is squinting, eyes half closed; the mouth hangs slightly open, revealing a tooth, as if the image came from a haphazard pause in the playback of an analog videotape or digital file. This was not a conscious, orderly pose. These elements point to Tuymans use of mass-media images as a source for his painting.
That these violations of portraiture’s conventions provide no sign of Rice’s interior, emotional state – and only signs of her official capacity – is entirely apropos. Her structural position in facilitating the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the mass murder of hundreds of thousands there, overrides any concern with psychology.
Himmler, 1997-98, is based on a common, photographic portrait – one widely seen in the state sphere in Nazi Germany – of this architect of the Final Solution. Tuymans did not use an originally sized reproduction itself, but, instead, a smaller, incidental image which appeared in the background of a second photograph – of the Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich.
Tuymans usually begins from photographic or other images, both analog and, increasingly, digital. This applies for both historical objects, no longer directly and physically present for us, and contemporary objects, still present. The object itself is not depicted, but an image of it is. Traditional portraiture with a real-world sitter has one degree of removal from its ultimate referent (object > painting); Tuymans’ strategy has at least two degrees of removal (object > image > painting). Practically, there are further degrees of removal. For example, Tuymans’ source photograph of Heydrich came from an issue of a Nazi propaganda magazine widely distributed to the occupied European countries (object > image > media > painting). Frequently, in his studio, he re-photographs an image to further wash out color and degrade clarity – using, for instance, a Polaroid camera.
Based on a miniature, background detail, Himmler has little visual resolution; the upper body is a mass of tonal, dark grays. Given the original photograph’s official status, the pose of the figure is formal and militaristic, with the left arm stiffly held horizontally across the chest; that hand and cuff are lightened and accentuated. Heinrich Himmler’s identity cannot be confirmed through the face, which is smeared. The original’s existence as a portrait hung in many Nazi offices is signaled by a thin “frame” painted along the edge of the canvas. There is stage-like illumination from the right side, dramatically highlighting the flat background; the shadow of the figure against that wall indicates a shallow, pictorial space.
As with much of Tuymans’ art, there are severe chromatic restraint; modest scale, as the canvas is only approximately two-by-one feet in size; and a lack of traditional painterly gestures, such as sweeping brushstrokes or thick, almost three-dimensional application of paint. Metaphors of authenticity – of the creative and subjective expression of the artist – are absent. This is consistent with the centrality of pre-existing signs – of the highly mediated Heydrich and Himmler images – for Tuymans’ strategy. Those signs are not created, but, instead, appropriated. The short brushstrokes are insistently (though not exclusively) horizontal and do not follow the contours of the body. The restricted painterly style serves to flatten out the picture plane and attenuate the feeling of “projective depth” into the work. This further signals the source as a flat photograph.
Secrets, 1990, is, per Tuymans, a picture of Albert Speer, another key Hitler aide. Speer was convicted as a war criminal and ultimately served out a twenty-year sentence at Spandau prison in Berlin; after his release, Speer wrote a number of bestselling historical and autobiographical books. The eyes are closed; this metaphor points towards widespread skepticism about the thoroughness and veracity of Speer’s testimonies concerning his personal culpability in different Nazi atrocities. Within the genre of portraiture, the eyes are understood as a window into the “soul” or truth of an individual. With Secrets, not only is our access to that personal “truth” blocked, but Speers himself can no longer “see.”
The subject of The Heritage VI, 1996, is US white supremacist Joseph Milteer, who was affiliated with many southern organizations that terrorized the black civil rights struggle of the 1950s and early 1960s. (He has also been implicated, by assorted conspiracy theorists, in the plot to kill President John F. Kennedy, and this is what initially got Tuymans’ attention.) Nothing alludes to this sinister backdrop, as the work and Milteer’s demeanor suggest a cheery driver’s license snapshot.
Tuymans does not trace a projected image, when he starts a painting. Instead, he draws the image freehand, moving his view back-and-forth between the canvas and the source. His paintings are wet-on-wet and always completed within one day. If he is not satisfied with the end-result, he starts afresh. This rapid approach gives the works an imprecision and simplification, important to the necessary undermining of virtuosity and modernist authenticity.
Gray tonalities predominant in Himmler recall black-and-white photography. Sepias and earthen colors of Secrets similarly recall older techniques. The fading of an analog snapshot is evoked by the tinting and bleached-out effect of The Heritage VI. These formal properties become a metaphor for the past and the passage of time. Moreover, the very medium itself to which Tuymans is committed becomes a metaphor for the distant past: an allegedly archaic painting outmoded – in a deterministic and teleological way – by the force of technological change. The referent, then, is separated from us by time.
Loock’s first proposal that the paintings allegorize the “irreversible withdrawal of things” and “a memory which loses its object” would make that separation permanent. Those “things” and “objects” could never be present again. In terms of Tuymans’ works on Nazi crimes in the last century, the political context underlying such a proposal was the long absence of fascism itself, whether as a state regime or as a mass, reactionary movement. This absence extended well into the period of Tuymans’ practice and critical reception.
Past “things” and “objects” pose challenges to representational projects –whether in art, politics, or the study of history – and theories of representation themselves: hence the morass of more extravagant forms of postmodernist thought and associated debates. However, the putatively immutable “loss” or “withdrawal” that Loock posits is today immediately abolished by the current reality of a newly rejuvenated fascist menace in Europe – not fundamentally by any artistic, aesthetic, or other representational strategies, but by the material situation upon which they are dependent. The referent, separated from us by time, rushes forward and is unexpectedly present again, in the streets of Greece and in the battles between Golden Dawn and the antifascist, popular movements.
Loock’s second proposal concerns, not the representation of the past in general, but Tuymans’ chosen medium specifically. This proposal is only one instance of challenges to the very viability of painting that have prevailed for decades. Painting’s “failure” and “insufficiency” are related to Tuymans’ application of “important modalities of mechanical image production to painting, picking up on what threatens it.”
Concerning this “threat,” the thesis that photography is fundamentally indexical was proposed in 1977 by Rosalind Krauss and was a riff on the thought of American pragmatist and semiotician C.S. Peirce. Per Krauss,
Examples include: footprints, the physical trace of a person walking; a shadow; and bodily symptoms, marks of an underlying illness.
Distinct from the indexical is the iconic, which lacks that direct and factual relationship to the referent and is based on a relationship of similarity, or isomorphism. Furthermore, such an artwork’s reception by audiences and the (correct) interpretation of its referent, as intended by the artist, is governed by cultural conventions or a code. An actual shadow itself, cast from an adjacent object, would be indexical; a painting of that shadow, by virtue of being a painting and however “realistic,” would be iconic.
This thesis was applied to analog forms of photographic technology, which were mechanical and directly imprinted light onto a chemically treated surface. The photo, or its negative, was the physical trace of that light reflected from the object before the camera and was thus indexical, according to Krauss. Securing the very existence of the final photographic work’s referent, and confirming its past presence before the camera, this elegant thesis was highly influential. Conversely, it suggested a “threat” to painting, which is essentially iconic and thus unable to secure the very existence of its referent, the reality of which remains indeterminate.
Of course, specific properties of the indexed referent were still open to question. Photographic manipulation was difficult but possible with the necessary resources, from, for instance, authoritarian regimes. Also, the selection of the object to be depicted, the framing of the scene, the choice of color or black-and-white, the artist’s stylistic approach, and so forth are central to the ultimate social meanings of a work.
Today, the situation is changed, with the advent of digital photography; near-universally available tools, like Photoshop, for potentially endless revision of “original” images; and the ability to create pictures from scratch that require no source image at all. The results can be effectively indiscernible from a real-world thing of which they are a simulation; they may have an indeterminate relation to the real; or they may have no relation whatsoever. Unlike the “light-writing” of analog chemical and mechanical processes, these new, digital practices are not indexical; they cannot secure the very existence of the final work’s only-hypothetical referent and confirm its past presence before the camera.
With the indexical photograph receding into the past through the force of technological change, painting no longer suffers from its debilitating defect vis-à-vis the dominant media. Therefore, the “failure” and “insufficiency” posited by Loock no longer holds for painting, which, as iconic, is less akin to analog than to digital media (vis-à-vis which it has other merits and flaws).
The shifting status of indexicality voids the “failure” of a major form, painting, and makes it again a mechanism for representation. The force of the ontological real, the ominous reemergence of fascism in Europe, makes this past present again and accessible to such representation. The suspicion of representation characteristic of postmodernism was historically situated. As is demonstrated by Tuymans’ art concerning the atrocities of the last century, and debates around that art, shifting historical conditions have undermined foundations of that suspicion.
Paul Mullan is an activist and writer living in Houston, Texas, whose work has appeared in Red Wedge, The Great God Pan is Dead, Free Press Houston, and Marx and Philosophy Review of Books. Paul also blogs for Red Wedge at "Conditions" and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.