Great Works: Gas Chamber (1986) by Luc Tuymans

The Over Holland Collection, In honor of Caryl
Chessman

There is something washed out, wrung out, or even bleached out about this painting by the Antwerp painter Luc Tuymans. It looks so pale and withdrawn from us, this almost cursorily limned, dully functional room of sorts, quite crude and almost childlike in its fashioning. Why is the mood of it so hesitant, so withdrawn? It is almost as if there has been a great deal of soul-searching before applying paint to canvas. The painter is drawing back from the emotional enormity of it all. He doesn't really want to begin...

It is based closely, almost slavishly, on a watercolour of the same year, which shows similar signs of what we might describe as a kind of spare and even awkward... perfunctoriness? And yet that word does not quite feel right. Perfunctoriness seems to hint at a lack of care, and even a kind of nonchalance. Surely not that then. No, not perfunctoriness then, but perhaps a fear of not being able to do the subject justice because it is still, 70-odd years on, too hot to touch.

This level of what feels like... let us call it holding back or a kind of studied level of physical and psychological disengagement, is not unusual in Tuymans' work. A few years after he painted the work you can see on this page, he created an entire series of curiously washed-out faces based on photographic images of sick patients. There is no evidence of disease in those faces, but there is the burden of the memory of disease or, to put it slightly differently, the burden of the after-image of disease. And burden is exactly the word that we require here. This is too terrible a subject by half. Tuymans finds it difficult to approach it, to do it justice. In fact, it is a subject that is much more written about than painted.

The watercolour upon which the work is based was done in situ, when Tuymans was visiting Dachau. Both these paintings are very modest in size – which, once again, must have been an issue for him. It would have been immoderate, and even jarringly expansive, to paint this room on a larger scale, to give, for example, too much attention to detail. It would have been to expose it to view to too great an extent. The message of its smallness seems to be this then: perhaps it ought still to remain a shameful secret, one from which we cannot but flinch, one that we would rather not record at all.

And yet he has recorded it, and he has done so by paying attention, in the form of painted hintings, to all that we cannot possibly see – which is, of course, everything that went on in this room and many others like it. There are stains on these walls, ill-defined – almost everything is ill-defined here. There are randomly blotchy cavities and a grille in the centre of the floor. Little more than that. This room is an utterly, blandly impersonal utility vehicle. The colours are almost cleansed of colour, scrubbed raw of all that colour offers by way of vibrancy and human engagement, until we are left with nothing but a kind of numbing tonal dullness of greys, off-whites, browns, all too pallid and unemphatic to stir the blood. And yet this very absence of feeling is, we feel, a troubling thing because the whole purpose of this terrible room was to raise human emotions to a fever pitch of uncontrollable despair. This kind of rendering muffles it all away, gags, mutes, suffocates all those deaths.

Everything is understatement here, because to speak too loudly, too forcefully, too vividly, too painstakingly of all of this would be yet another kind of abomination – or even hubris. The merest glance – and this feels likes the visual equivalent of the furtive, hurried glance and then a passing on – is chilling enough.

About the artist: Luc Tuymans (born 1958)

The painter and curator Luc Tuymans was born in 1958 near Antwerp, and studied art in Brussels. A formative influence upon his painting life was the sighting in Budapest, at the age of 19, of various paintings by El Greco. At that time, Tuymans was working as a railway guard. During the 1980s, he abandoned paintings in favour of video art, and much of his later work feels haunted by found images.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living