An Interview with Luc Tuymans Romanticism – a European phenomenon

The Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, born in 1958, is co-curator of an exhibition at the Dresden Albertinum in which he has four masters of European Romanticism encounter artistic positions of the present. In an interview he explains why this is often anything but Romantic.

Luc Tuymans (right) with the director of the New Masters Gallery, Professor Ulrich Bischoff, in front of Tuymans’s work “The Architect”; Luc Tuymans (right) with the director of the New Masters Gallery, Professor Ulrich Bischoff, in front of Tuymans’s work “The Architect”; | © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Galerie Neue Meister Mr Tuymans, does one catch the European zeitgeist with exhibitions about Romanticism?

You can at any rate find ideas in contemporary society that are similar to those of Romanticism. More and more people are developing, for example, a need for harmony, a desire for feeling and for a more intense experience of nature. They want the world to be, so to say, “healed”. These are thoughts, desires and ideas that also form central themes of Romanticism.

Romanticism inspires artists to this day

“Las Gigantillas” by Francisco de Goya; “Las Gigantillas” by Francisco de Goya; | © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid Does the Dresden exhibition, which brings together sixteen artists from 200 years of art history, show this?

The exhibition doesn’t treat Romanticism as a social desire for wellness or more experience of nature. That isn’t its theme. The theme is rather to delve more deeply into the Romantic epoch. It is, to begin with, a European exhibition. In Constable, Delacroix, Caspar David Friedrich and Goya, it presents a long forgotten time. In this sense, it doesn’t deal with current positions. Many artists of European Romanticism worked with light and darkness – for example, Caspar David Friedrich. In this they shook the established artistic ideas around 1800. The exhibition shows how these positions have inspired and influenced artists to this day. Cézanne, for example, related his work to the pictures of Delacroix; for David Claerbout, John Constable is an influence.
The video projection “The Quiet Shore” by David Claerbout, from the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris; The video projection “The Quiet Shore” by David Claerbout, from the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris; | © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013 To what findings and insights should this delving into Romanticism lead?

We are, in terms of time, going back into the epoch of Romanticism, but actually of course there’s no going back in time. The exhibition leads to a response of Modernist and contemporary artists to then. The idea behind the exhibition is the question of how a visual perception of Europe can look. And in this sense it is also anti-Romantic, a confrontation with the real, if you like.

Loans and new works produced especially for the exhibition

“The Wounded Robber” by Eugène Delacroix; “The Wounded Robber” by Eugène Delacroix; | © Kunstmuseum Basel The idea of bringing Old Masters together with contemporary art is a popular staging device. How did you select the exhibited artists?

I’ve now been the curator of eight large projects, but I’ve initiated none of them. In each case I was asked to take on the task. So too this time: Ulrich Bischoff, the Director of the Gallery of the Old Masters, approached me with proposals for the Old Masters and other artists to be exhibited. These include loans from the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid and the Tate Britain in London. One of the seldom exhibited drawings of Goya on ivory comes from the Dresden State Art Collections.

David Claerbout, Jeff Wall, Gerhard Richter, Per Kirkeby and you yourself have produced new works especially for the exhibition. How did that come about?

The contemporary works contributed to the exhibition are by artists some of whose works the Albertinum already possesses. In 1998 the museum acquired my picture of a fallen skier entitled The Architect. It’s based on a photo of Albert Speer on winter holidays, which was shown in a television documentary. I photographed and altered it. The picture shows Speer, Hitler’s Minister of War, fallen down skiing. In my work I annihilated his identity. In place of his face is only a white hole. The work I did for the exhibition, on the other hand, is a very personal picture. It shows what I see everyday in Belgium at the door of my neighbour’s house: broken glass. I photographed this glass with an iPhone and then abstracted. Though the glass is in fact transparent, because of the abstraction it seems to be opaque.

When, like you, one was born and has grown up in Belgium, can one be a Romantic at all?

No, one can’t. We had eighty years of war, were repeatedly subjugated. One has to survive. Then there’s no time for Romanticism.

“Constable, Delacroix, Friedrich, Goya. A Shock to the Senses”
New Masters Gallery, Albertinum, Dresden

Exhibited artists: John Constable, Adolph Menzel, Max Liebermann, David Claerbout, Eugène Delacroix, Paul Cézanne, Per Kirkeby, Luc Tuymans, Caspar David Friedrich, Vilhelm Hammersøy, Mark Rothko, Gerhard Richter, Francisco de Goya, Èdouard Manet, Max Ernst, Jeff Wall.