Between Past and Future

Hamza Walker, 1995

If the sum of historical events and movements of the first half of the twentieth century can be characterized as a very big bang, then on what note will the century end? Is there the possibility of it closing with a cool and haunting indifference towards the violent changes and events which have occurred throughout this century? Could this stance even be considered closure? Is the past ever closed, reconciliation ever complete? How does representation help or hinder our ability to negotiate with the past? Although there is no artistic medium which could genuinely answer these questions, none is better suited to restate the questions with greater clarity than painting.

A cry, deep anger moved across time into an ordinary day. This unattributed quote, which opens a catalogue for an earlier exhibit of Tuymans’ paintings, is a very generous clue to understanding his work. Although he has executed works in a series, for example the Diagnostic Views or the dozen or so paintings done after toys, Tuymans prefers to curate a variety of his works under titles “that in a way underline or try to catch the multitude of meanings present in a certain group of works.” For his exhibition at the Renaissance Society, Tuymans has chosen the title Superstition; a fitting title given that his work is permeated more by an overall mood, attitude or psychological state than any one precise meaning.

“Superstition” is a word rich with connotations. Its immediate synonyms include irrational, obsessed, apprehensive, haunted, credulous, possessed, and fearful. All of these words suit Tuymans’ work well. The painting Superstition derives its strength from just this sort of visual onomatopoeia. As one of Tuymans’ most expressive works, the bold almost symmetrical image of an enlarged insect looming before a violently cropped human figure, could be read as a hieroglyphic symbol for the word superstition. Language is bypassed and a link is established between the image and our innate understanding of its message all within the blink of an eye. In fact, one of the key features of superstitions are their symbolic character. Superstitions manifest themselves not so much in complex ritual as in chance occurrences with simple objects. Composed of such things as opening umbrellas in the wrong places, walking under ladders, or stepping on cracks in the sidewalk, superstitions are beliefs in very simple signs of fate. Tuymans however chose “superstition” for a very different reason. “This word acts as a double image, growing out of or opposing the body of work from which it emerged.” Read in this manner, superstition indicates not only our lack of belief in a spiritual sense but also our alarming skepticism and indifference towards our fate as signaled through a not so distant past.

All of Tuymans’ paintings are executed after existing representations. Whether he has used photographs, toys or sketches as initial source material, his chief subject matter is memory as opposed to direct observation of life. As critic Peter Schjeldahl states in an essay for the exhibition, “He does not paint “from memory”. He paints memory itself - his own or someone else’s, it doesn’t matter…” For Tuymans, it is not a question of how we see but a question of how we remember. Painting and memory share very similar positions with respect to reality. If painting’s intimate relationship with reality has been severed by its own disposition towards abstraction as well as the invention of other means of representation, then it is perhaps more appropriate that painting ask what was, rather than what is of its subject matter. If, at least on a theoretical level, painting has achieved historical closure, as has been suggested in the painting project of Gerhard Richter, to whom Tuymans on the surface is indebted, then painting is the medium of memory par excellence. As a medium, painting itself is memory. Memory however, is treacherous terrain, especially with respect to history and representation. No subject better illustrates this than the Holocaust.

Over the past couple of decades, German citizens have been made acutely aware of the problems inherent in constructing Holocaust memorials. Memorials are usually associated with the values and ideals of a particular place. When memorials refer to acts of brutality they are usually dedicated to those who fell at the hands of an unjust aggressor, reminding one of the victim rather than the offender. For Germany, the most immediate problem is how to represent to itself its own acts of barbarism. On the one hand, the problem has to do with the nature of monuments, particularly their authoritative form and their use by fascists. But the problem is compounded by issues regarding the dynamics of memory and representation. The Holocaust as an historical fact pales in comparison to the Holocaust as lesson and obligation. Its tragic nature exceeds the capacity of a memory whose function is the passive consumption of historical facts or abstract values. Memory, under the circumstances of such tragedy, is obligated to reconstruct the past, in the space of the present, meaningfully enough to insure against forgetting. If generations to come are to understand the Holocaust, what is required is active ‘memory-work’. The monument however, as the point where history achieves representation, actually threatens to displace memory. As professor James E. Young states, in his essay The German Counter-Monument, “Under the illusion that our memorial edifices will always be there to remind us, we take leave of them and return only at our convenience. To the extent that we encourage monuments to do our memory-work for us, we become that much more forgetful. In effect, the initial impulse to memorialize events such as the Holocaust may actually spring from an opposite and equal desire to forget them.” What is true of the monument can be said for any representation.

As the years following the Holocaust accumulate, so do both its representations and the generations who did not experience the horror first-hand. Artists of Tuymans’ generation are taxed with everything but the gravity of the experience. Memory as primary signification — the wedding of a sign or symbol, and in this case a recollection, directly to reality — is reserved only for those who lived through the event. For artists born a decade or so after the war, as was Tuymans, the Holocaust is a scar they did not earn. Unembodied, the Holocaust is pure memory, transmitted through stories and images. The further away from the Holocaust we get, the less it exists as an event and the more it becomes a series of representations whose horror and meaning are in jeopardy of being lost. Tuymans’ decision to re-present these images acknowledges not only the gulf of time between one generation and the next but also the shades of memory as they proceed from unbearable to indifferent.

Of the seventeen works presented in Superstition, three of them overtly refer to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust; Portrait, Gas Chamber, and Die Wiedergutmachung. Together, these paintings can be read as a Who, Where and What of the Holocaust. Yet, in each of these works, Tuymans resists the subject matter’s demand for a presence more authoritative than memory. Gas Chamber has the air of a dream which haunts rather than a reality which asserts itself. The image qualifies as too delicate and too indifferent an impression to be used as hard courtroom evidence. Its bare minimum of detail confirms that this is a very faint recollection which the viewer may never have known empirically. Wavy, uncertain edges give the impression that the interior is being lit from off scene by a lone candle. Once the candle is extinguished, the image will cease to exist.

Worse than forgetting is the mind’s ability to produce improper and uncertain substitutions. Who is the sitter in Portrait? This question nags like a name barred from consciousness by others which sound similar to the one you are searching for. As Tuymans states of Portrait: “The attempt to reconstruct a face can only show the deformation or the memory’s disintegration. The shadow is effacing specific characteristics; the possibilities to make an analytical identification have been gradually reduced, and only a fictitious but acceptable shape is left to the spectator. This familiar discomfort relates to an actual person, to Joachim Von Rippentrop, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nazi Germany.”

Die Wiedergutmachung takes its title and imagery from a television documentary. ‘Wiedergutmachung’ best translates from German as “reparations” and is actually the term used for money paid by the German government to victims of the war. The subject of the documentary was the reparations never received by the Gypsies. As it turns out, the medical official responsible for their repayment was a Nazi sympathizer. Following his death, undocumented contact sheets featuring images of the eyes and hands of victims of Nazi experiments were found in his desk. The contact sheets were broadcast and each of the two paintings represents their approximate size as seen on the artist’s television. Unlike Gas Chamber and Portrait, Die Wiedergutmachung holds the greatest discrepancy between image and source. Stylistically it bears none of the tale’s horror and formally it approaches an unresolved degree of abstraction. Like its contents, Die Wiedergutmachung is an image severed from its subject. In its voyage from contact sheets to television to painting, the image is unable to be fully reconnected to any reality.

With respect to how the subject of the Holocaust is handled, a most telling comparison can be drawn between the paintings of Anselm Kiefer and those of Tuymans. If Tuymans’ images haunt, then the paintings of Kiefer are an attempt to raise the dead. The urgency of the past, which is all but a psychological specter in Tuymans’ work, spills out of Kiefer’s picture plane. Kiefer’s exaggerated perspective, operatic scale, and use of mud and wheat from the fields of Nuremberg, extends his ground plane into our space. Whereas Kiefer’s paintings present themselves as a trumpet blast from the past, Tuymans’ paintings come across as the sound of the shore from a conch with the ocean nowhere to be seen.

What is wrong with this picture? That is a simple question to ask when standing before one of the Diagnostic Views. Slightly rephrased, can a picture tell us what is wrong? More specific to Tuymans’ work, can a painting tell us what is wrong? Tuymans asked a physician if photographs were still used as a means of diagnosis. In response, the physician produced photos from which Tuymans began this series. As the first step toward taking prescriptive action, a diagnosis rests on being able to identify symptoms which are the signs of an illness. If the symptoms, as discovered through direct observation of the patient, are the primary signs of an illness, and the photographs of the symptoms are signs of the signs of an illness, then Tuymans by re-presenting the photos as paintings has completely removed the symptoms from their source. Just as representations of the Holocaust have become pure unembodied memory, the Diagnostic Views represent pure unembodied symptoms. Freed from their source, the symptoms displayed by Tuymans’ patients are not going to be relieved. To recoin the title phrase of an essay by Baudelaire, we are truly in “The Hospital of Painting.” Unlike the resolution achieved in a ‘Before and After’ sequence, the Diagnostic Views suggest a perpetual ‘Before and Before.’ Oddly enough, none of the patients seem to be stricken with a disease which produces grotesque physical abnormalities. A fate more cruel than the disease is the cool, banal way in which the sitters have been captured. Read as portraiture, the Diagnostic Views share an affinity with the photographic portraits of Thomas Ruff. But while Ruff’s sitters merely illustrate indifference, Tuymans’ paintings embody the indifference of a sitter who has offered up their flesh simply as a matter of fact. In the face of symptoms which do not reveal themselves on the surface, what Tuymans’ images furnish instead is an indifference which speaks of repression.

Pleasure, pain, angst, fear, anxiety, loss; one way or another each of these sentiments has found its appropriate translation into paint. But what about indifference? Tuymans’ practice of painting after existing representations is indebted to Gerhard Richter. The earliest works for which Richter gained notoriety were a series of paintings executed after photographs. As Richter has remarked about the start of this practice:

“The question of what to paint showed me my own impotence, and often I envied and still do envy the most mediocre painters for their ‘intentions,’ which they mediocrely express with such patient persistence (fundamentally I despise them for it). I first found a way out of this in 1962: By painting from photographs, I was freed from the necessity of selecting or constructing my motif.”

Richter’s Badermeinhoff series as well as the portraits of slain nursing students serve as precedents of sensationalized images of horror which have been translated back into paint. For Richter however, these works exist within an oeuvre whose overall goal has been to signify painting’s decline from a position of authority and relatively fixed meaning to one of marginality and extremely ambiguous meaning. What link his abstractions and works based on photos is that, regardless of style, they still remain simply pigment upon a surface. Any meaning to be derived from either style is secondary. For Richter painting is an index of finite styles and a recording device of lost meaning. Indifference is part of this loss. Tuymans, however, inhabits Richter’s position not for the sake of confirming it as much as to play the role of skeptic. As critic Lester Bangs put it, “What are we confirming in ourselves by doting on an art that is emotionally neutral? And, simultaneously, what in ourselves might we be destroying or at least keeping down?”

For Tuymans the answer to this question is simple: violence. This is the undercurrent of Superstition. Like the symptoms of the sitters in the Diagnostic Views, the violence never erupts to the surface. It lurks like a threat, finding its only outlet in Body. Painted after a wounded doll, the violence depicted in Body remains symbolic rather than real, The real violence exists in the way the image is cropped. Our gaze is implicated in an act far more violent than the gashes in the doll’s sides as we zoom in only to lop off its head and legs. We cut to an immediate close-up in the hopes of getting a better look at wounds, which in their orientation may be read as misplaced signifiers of gender. More powerful than re-presenting cinematic images of violence against women is the way in which Body recalls these images from the subconscious to the consciousness so that one may sense rather than unconsciously deny their horror. Like the painting Superstition, Body reads iconographically and memory is indicted in a plot revolving around repression.

In Analysis Terminable or Interminable, Sigmund Freud speculates on what is meant by “the end of analysis.” Appropriate to Tuymans is Freud’s implication “that by means of analysis it is possible to attain to absolute psychical normality and to be sure that it will be maintained, the supposition being that all the patient’s repressions have been lifted and every gap in his memory filled.” As attainable as Freud knew this goal was, his still is a classical notion as to the type of space memory is. What he calls “gaps” Tuymans has exposed as black holes or the places where time and space collapse. An indifference symptomatic of a repressed history of violence is the consequence of such a collapse. Rightfully so, Tuymans’ fear and skepticism of these consequences indeed verges on superstition. For him, fate is not symbolized by what is coming towards us through the windshield, by the little thing floating in the center known as the rear view mirror.