VENICE — Luc Tuymans is a figurative painter who is deeply suspicious about the power of visual representations. Fully aware of their seductiveness, he doubts that they can ever be truthful. And so the title of his exhibition, La Pelle (“the skin”), which comes from the 1949 Italian novel by Curzio Malaparte, is apt.
A brilliant fascist writer who reported on both the Russian revolution in the late 1920s and the German invasion of that country during World War II, Malaparte then worked for the American army in 1943 during its occupation of Naples, and also wrote about that experience. Then in the 1950s he was attracted by both Maoism and Catholicism. His real name was Kurt Erich Suckert; his chosen name, an inversion of Bonaparte, the good part, as Malaparte, the bad part, reflects his moral identity. Far beyond merely being completely cynical, he was passionately in love with presenting evil.
Installed on the three floors of Palazzo Grassi, on the Grand Canal near the Academia, this show of more than 80 works of all sizes is a full Tuymans retrospective. On the atrium floor is an enormous marble mosaic, “Schwarzbeide” (2019), which is based on a histoical incident in which black pine trees were planted around a Nazi forced-labor camp to hide it from local residents. The prisoners secretly drew the scene in images that are reconstructed here.
What looks like a bucolic scene thus is actually a prison. On the atrium wall there is a portrait of Albert Speer, the Reich’s Minister of Armaments and War Production. Then on the first floor you see a blurred reproduction of cathedral as depicted in a book illustration; a painting of a postcard send from inmates of a Czech concentration camp; and a portrait of a Japanese man, Issei Sagawa, who, in 1981, murdered and cannibalized a female student at the Sorbonne.
And the enormous “Still Life” (2002), more than five meters wide, is rendered in the style of Paul Cézanne’s watercolors. Then on the second floor is “Ballone (Balloons)” (2017), picturing a clown clutching a bunch of helium balloons, who hurts children with baseball bats; “Wandeling (Walk)” (1989), a painting of Nazi dignitaries strolling around Berchtesgaden; and “Frozen” (2003), an image of Chernobyl.
Tuyman’s images come secondhand from magazines, film stills, the internet, and iPhone photos, as if he feared personal contact with his mostly ghastly subjects. The one direct reference to Malaparte is “Le Mépris (Contempt),” a 2015 painting of the writer’s well-known modernist house on Capri, based on a still from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 movie of that title, which was filmed in that site.
But the whole attitude of this exhibition draws, obviously, upon Malaparte’s novel. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (1949). Theodor Adorno’s much quoted, often criticized statement was later revised by Adorno himself. But look at Tuyman’s subjects: concentration camps; Nazi portraits; a fake landscape; a fake woman’s body, which is just a doll; a book on religious architecture; the Nazi Haus der Kunst in Munich.
How, he is asking (in my view) can sophisticated people who know the powers of wickedness also, and often at the same time, practice evil? Tuyman’s practice, beneath the shadow of the concentration camps, poses that question. And his style of representation, bleached out almost to the point of invisibility, is perfectly adjusted to these subjects.
Housed on three floors of a grand palace on the Grand Canal in a show timed to coincide with the Venice Biennale, La Pelle certainly casts a shadow on the themes of the Biennale’s official exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times. In a perverse way, what times were more interesting than the era of the Third Reich? “A style of painting,” Meyer Schapiro wrote, “is often likened to a worldview, a mode of thought, a metaphysical system.”
Certainly that is the case for Tuymans. What counts, the handout at the gallery says, “is not the subject matter but how it is treated.” With his faintly colored images, Tuymans keeps his subjects at a distance. I don’t admire the worldview I see presented in his paintings. I think that, to the extent that they are taken seriously in implying that evil is omnipresent and seemingly inescapable, they are politically frivolous, if not downright destructive.
In that way, his way of understanding history is akin to the worldview expressed in Malaparte’s well-written novels. And yet, I admit, I have read those novels with fascination and I have looked attentively at these paintings. I, too, can be spellbound by evil. And so I do greatly admire Tuymans’ art for so perfectly expressing this worldview. As it has been said, better to have a personal style than none at all.
But I wouldn’t want to live with one of his paintings — not for all of the tea in China. Tuymans makes Francis Bacon at his most ferocious look agreeable. Marcel Proust, who was Tuymans’ literary hero, certainly was interested in portraying evil. But when he presents Baron Charlus’s ghastly sadomasochistic rites, he is very conscious of the role of play-acting. The Baron wants to pretend that the poor boys paid to whip him are murderers. But here, I confess, I am not sure who is playing what role, or where loathing ends and obsession begins. Which is to say the morality of Tuymans’ paintings will continue to elude me, even if they are, I grant, great works of art.
This is the second of three reports from Venice and Vienna. (See Navigating the Overload at the Venice Biennale and Reconciling Secular Art in Sacred Spaces.)
Note: My short quotation of Meyer Schapiro comes from his Worldview in Painting- Art and Society: Selected Papers (1999).
Luc Tuymans: La Pelle continues at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy, through January 6, 2020.