Rendered in a delicate palette of pastel blues and pinks, Luc Tuymans’s Versailles belongs to a celebrated series of nine paintings executed in 2007 and exhibited together at Zeno X Gallery in the same year. The blurred contours and muted colour palette suggest a landscape drawn from fading memory; however, based on a carefully selected found photograph, which the artist revised only slightly to achieve a completely frontal, clear perspective, this painting possesses a marked cinematic quality that is typical of Tuyman’s acclaimed practice.
Usually painted from pre-existing imagery, Tuymans’s work often portrays slightly out-of-focus glimpses of reality. Furthering the mantel of artists such as Gerhard Richter and his 1960s body of Photo Paintings, Tuymans’s rich archive of source imagery is drawn from magazines, television footage, and Polaroids, as well as more recently from his own iPhone photos, which he often prints out and re-photographs several times before transforming them into paintings. Tuymans carefully chooses his photographic and cinematic sources to formulate his pictorial concept, while the formal changes to perspective provide a means to make the content more precise. His works principally allude to the question of originality in painting. As the artist reflects: “I thought I had made something original, and then discovered that it was impossible. The idea of the original faded away and after a short crisis that gave me a new idea: all you can do is make an authentic forgery. I wanted the paintings to look old from the start, which is important because they are about memory” (Luc Tuymans cited in: Ulrich Loock, et al., Eds., Luc Tuymans, London 2003, p. 36). With a dream-like pastel palette and an atmosphere of whimsical belatedness, Versailles alludes to the central concept of Tuymans’s practice: the intricate relationship between memory and representation.
Despite the title of this painting which refers to the famous palace commissioned by Louis XIV, the painting is in fact based on an image of another prominent French château, Vaux-le-Victome, which belonged to the King’s affluent financial superintendent, Nicolas Fouquet. In 1661, shortly after the palace was built, Fouquet was imprisoned by the King who deemed his castle to be excessively luxurious. That same year Louis XIV commissioned Fouquet’s architect, Louise Le Vau, landscape architect, André le Nôtre, and painter-decorator, Charles Le Brun, to expand his own hunting lodge at Versailles into a more extravagant version based on Vaux-le-Victome. As the two buildings and their lavish gardens bare significant resemblance to one another, Fouquet’s château is often used in movies as a filmset proxy for the Palace of Versailles. By choosing to title the work Versailles, Tuymans therefore blurs the boundaries between these two places, and in doing so telescopes notions of reality and reminiscence by asserting that memory and images can be at once unreliable and deceptive.
Versailles belongs to a group of nine paintings which Tuymans created for his exhibition Les Revenants; a show dedicated to the artist’s long-standing interest in the Jesuit Order and its influence on the socio-political landscape of European history. The works in the group present various subjects connected to the Catholic Church, ranging from the interior of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome through to a depiction of Pope Benedict XVI. The series also includes a portrait of a boy, entitled The Valley, based on an film still from the Village of the Damned (1960) which the artist saw as an indirect reference to the educational system promoted by the Jesuits. Tuymans was particularly interested in the Order’s educational projects which he regarded as pivotal in Europe’s history of visual communication, especially given the Order’s use of metaphorical images to express abstract ideas – a process that corresponds closely with the artist’s own work. Through Versailles, Tuymans examines the power that the Jesuits held at the French court; notably, Louis XIV selected members of the Order as close confidents who advised on matters including the lavish interior decoration of Versailles. As the Order reported directly to the Pope, it operated above the French clergy relying solely on the support of the French monarchy. Tuymans thus alludes to the Jesuits’s systemic and institutionalised power, in which the Order’s direct connection to Rome is conveyed by the beautiful fountain, which Tuymans has likened to the fountain of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Speaking of the series in general, Tuymans has noted that the title Les Revenants also refers to an eponymous book by Jean Lacouture, which recounts the decline of the Jesuit Order after the French Revolution and its later resurgence in the Nineteenth Century. As the title of the series translates directly to ‘the returned ones’ or ‘the ghosts’, this series of nine paintings can be seen as a study on the remarkable power of the Jesuits as visibly imprinted on European heritage and visual culture.
Versailles and the greater series of works from Les Revenants constitute an important moment in the artist’s oeuvre. Today, works from the series are housed in major museum collections and prominent private collections worldwide, while major international exhibitions dedicated to the artist, such as Tuymans’s 2009 solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the current exhibition La Pelle at Palazzo Grassi in Venice, celebrate this critical phase in the artist’s career.
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