Squinting at the portrait of Queen Beatrix in Luc Tuymans's Antwerp studio, I observe that she has on a lot of blue eye shadow. Tuymans responds simply: "She likes her eye shadow." Tuymans has captured both humanity and strength in this portrait. Commissioned for Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, he photographed her in her castle amongst her extensive art collection, suggested here through cursory brush strokes.
Tuymans represented Belgium in the 2001 Venice Biennale with a pavilion that captured both public and critical attention. Focusing on Belgium's relationship with the Congo, Tuymans teased out questions of colonialisation in his detached yet haunting paintings. Although he himself claims he is not a political painter, he admits: "Art can have a political stance at a certain little moment of time. That series can be seen as the most journalistic series I have ever painted."
Tuymans's painting studio is in a nondescript modern building. Born in Antwerp in 1958, Tuymans has lived in the city his whole life. "The people here are quite reserved and they leave you alone." His personal troubled history is well chronicled and he needs little prompting to tell the story. "My mother was Dutch and my father was Belgian Flemish. When I was five there was a family gathering and there was a photo album out of which a photo slipped out, and it was Luc – the guy I am named after, an uncle who died in the war –and he is giving the Hitler salute. The Dutch side, the other side, was in the resistance."
Antwerp is a city that celebrates the work of Rubens, although Tuymans says he prefers the work of Jan Van Eyck, "who is probably the most important and best painter in the western hemisphere". He admits Van Eyck is a hard act to follow. "If you are brought up with that, what are you going to do with it? It is so f****ng perfect you are traumatised from the start."
Van Eyck, with his opulent figures, might seem an odd choice for Tuymans, whose unhappy upbringing may well be reflected in his favoured limited palette of earth tones, blacks, and greys. So it is a relief to see Queen Beatrix dressed in her favoured mauves, with her popping eye-shadow. Famous for painting his works in one sitting, Tuymans confirms: "I painted her in a day, starting at 10am and finishing at 1am the next morning."
Tuymans is dressed stylishly in designer black, with his silver hair sleekly cropped, albeit wreathed in smoke from the cigarettes he chain-smokes. I ask about one of his most notorious works – an unflattering portrait of Condoleezza Rice. He says: "My painting has become more important then Condoleeza Rice by now. A museum director actually congratulated me because what I did for Condoleezza Rice is what Andy Warhol did for Marilyn Monroe."
Luc Tuymans, 'Allo!', David Zwirner Gallery, London, 24 Grafton Street W1, 5 October until 17 November
Luc Tuymans, 'The Summer is Over', David Zwirner Gallery, New York, 1 November until 19 December
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