If you ask people to remember a painting and a photograph, their description of the photograph is far more accurate than that of the painting.
Executed in 2012, Luc Tuymans’ Allo! III is a painting of a photograph of a film still from the 1942 Hollywood movie The Moon and Sixpence, which was itself based on W. Somerset Maughaum’s eponymous 1919 novel inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin. The film and novel features protagonist Charles Strickland, a middle-aged English stockbroker who abandoned his wife and children to pursue life as an artist in Tahiti. In the final scene, after Strickland’s death, his doctor travels to the late artist’s primitive Tahitian hut and encounters his paintings – moments before Strickland’s indigenous widow sets fire to everything, destroying the paintings. The 1942 movie employed fake Gauguin paintings as props for these final scenes, which Tuymans regarded as “extremely kitschy” (the artist cited in Martin Herbert, “Luc Tuymans: On painting, filmmaking and how to look at art”, in ArtReview, October 2012). By recreating these final scenes, employing a style reminiscent of Gauguin’s work and a palette simulating the early-Technicolour concluding scenes of the otherwise black-and-white movie, Tuymans’ Allo! paintings offer a critique on Hollywood’s idealization of the artist as romantic savage as well as Modernism’s fascination with developing civilizations as the exotic Other.
Tuymans’ Allo! series, consisting of seven paintings, arose from an initial commission for Le Roi des Belges in London in 2012. Le Roi des Belges which was a ship-like installation on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank named after the boat Joseph Conrad sailed on the Congo River in 1890. Conrad’s trip would inspire his famous Heart of Darkness (1899), which later inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now (1979). Known for addressing a complex range of loaded political subjects, ranging from World War II gas chambers to Belgium’s troubled colonial history, Tuymans was chosen to reflect on the post-colonial issues addressed on board Le Roi des Belges. In particular, he was invited to create a work based on a particular scene in Heart of Darkness in which the ivory trader Mr. Kurtz speaks about two paintings he has made. Tuymans, however, went for a different direction, zooming in instead on the closing acts of Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. The artist’s resulting work Allo! was hung aboard the ship, where artistic and literary creatives were invited to stay and make work based on their experience.
Tuymans subsequently moved on to create a cycle of seven Allo! paintings that are as clever in their conception as they are aesthetically compelling – and unusually colourful for Tuymans’ otherwise restrained palette. Tuymans filters the sudden burst of brash hues of early-Technicolour in the film’s last frames with his characteristic muted chalky tones, creating a hazy hallucinatory trompe l’oeil effect of atmospheric ambiguity. With thick bold brushwork reminiscent of Gauguin’s late 19th century Tahitian paintings, Tuymans models his sensuous forms sculpted in iridescent light, which are evocative of holographic traces. The result is evocative of a faded photograph, compelling the viewer inwards whilst always on the verge of fading away, as if slipping from total recall of memory. The Prussian blue of the doctor’s jacket and fedora, designed to contrast with the exotic coral reds and yellows of the rest of the scene, becomes instead wholly merged with the background narrative. The sequential series evokes graphic illustrations or cartoons; however, the multiple layers of representations featured within a single work places extreme emphasis on the medium and process of painting.
What makes it all the more interesting is that, barely visible but just noticeable enough, is Tuymans’ own reflection in the screen as he photographed the movie on his television. The scene in Allo! III is thus not only several layers removed from the image we seem to instantly recognise; but one that furthermore involves and implicates the artist and viewer. A là Manet in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, the painter makes the viewer aware of his/her position towards the complex internal narrative of the painting, and with that our position towards Western colonial history as it is depicted within it. Perhaps it was the fact that the English painter’s hut was burned down by his wife shortly after the paintings are revealed in the movie that inspired Tuymans. His approach towards his subject is certainly very ironic, as Adrian Searle describes it: “a joke on modernism, dealing with fake ideas of the new, the exotic and the colourful” (Adrian Searle, ‘Adrian Searle encounters... Luc Tuymans’ Allo!, The Guardian, 4 May 2012, online). Ben Eastham further describes Tuymans’s work as “obliquely critiquing art’s tendency to exoticise other cultures” (Ben Eastham, ‘A Necessary Realism: Interview with Luc Tuymans’, Apollo Magazine, August 2015).
Tuymans’ wit is demonstrated by a final, unlikely influence on the present cycle of paintings: a bar near Antwerp’s Red Light District, where the owner keeps a parrot that cries Allo! any time a customer walks in. The exotic bird can be seen as a symbol of the remnants of colonial exoticism – and it might come as no surprise that the colours of Allo! III and the parrot are nearly identical – coral red, blue and yellow. Superlatively exemplary of Tuymans’ acclaimed practice that engages visually and conceptually with pre-existing imagery in order to offer multi-layered narratives and critiques on a wide range of political subjects, Allo! III ranks amongst the strongest works within the artist’s oeuvre.