Sarah Urwin Jones

One reviewer once rather memorably described the pale, powerful quality of the Belgian artist Luc Tuyman’s work as “barely there, like an evil spirit passed on the stairs.” His subjects have ranged from a Japanese cannibal to a Gas Chamber at Dachau, from Condoleezza Rice to Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, although the subjects themselves aren’t really the real subjects. Tuymans is an artist who questions the fact of painting itself, what we see and don’t see, what we withhold or repress, what we choose to remember or forget. He aims, he once said, “to make people reconsider what they are seeing.” Often labelled one of the preeminent practitioners in contemporary painting, he has also recently, and most curiously, been found guilty of plagiarism in his native Belgium for a painting which he had deliberately based on a newspaper photograph.

“I’ve been interested in Luc’s work for a number of years,” says Pat Fisher, Principal Curator of Edinburgh University’s Talbot Rice Gallery, talking on the phone during the exhibition hanging. For the Edinburgh show, Tuymans has created three works which sit alongside works by Enlightenment portrait painter Henry Raeburn. “I sent Luc an invitation many years ago to come to see our wonderful collection of Raeburns because I knew he was a fan.”

The Raeburns are all images of university academics, posed, as per Raeburn’s wont, with the tools of their respective trades. “It’s intriguing to see these portraits in a white cube space,” says Fisher. They are balanced, she says, by Tuymans’ “response to or interpretation of his response to Raeburn in three new paintings of hybrid canaries, relating their hybrid specialism on their perches to these academics.”

“Tuymans is a challenging artist,” says Fisher. “There is always this mixture of beauty and a slight subversion. The canary paintings are quite remarkable in that sense. Audacious.” Fisher says she had told Tuymans that the Georgian part of the gallery was once the ornithology section of the university’s Natural History Museum. “It was a hall full of birds.” Fisher doesn’t imply that this is the reason that Tuymans chose to paint canaries. “His work is not about meaning this or that. It is about layers of illusions and ideas. But I don’t think it’s insignificant that these are hybrids. And that all creatures like that can be bred in a very specific way.”

For Fisher, it is the way that Tuymans can distil an image “from something very specific into an essence” that makes his work profound. “And he handles it all in wonderful pale glazes of colour, the strange washed out way he creates subtlety and tone.” If you were going to describe the quality of his work, it is, she says, simply visually compelling.

Running alongside The Tuymans and Raeburns –which of course have their own draw, this being a rare occasion in which they are shown to the public – is the first in a series of exhibitions that explore the archives of Edinburgh College of Art, which became part of the University of Edinburgh in 2011.

Impulses Towards Life explores the figurative works of art used for teaching purposes in the art college collection. “These were works brought by the college directly to teach students in life classes. There are some lovely gems in the collection, including a Barbara Hepworth that hasn’t been seen since 1947,” says Fisher. “They would have been tacked up on a board, part of the academic rigour and training of undergraduate students.”

The link to Tuymans is implied, too. “It’s no accident that these two exhibitions are alongside each other,” says Fisher. “Tuymans is in essence a figurative painter, but in simplifying things he is reassessing that notion.” So, too, did the artists of ECAs collection, who range from Barbara Hepworth to Henry Moore, Elizabeth Blackadder to David Michie. “It is quite astonishing to see these life studies from artists who became well known for perhaps other things in their later careers, displaying the dexterity of how they could draw the human figure hand to eye.”

Luc Tuymans: Birds of a Feather/Impulses Towards Life

Talbot Rice Gallery

University of Edinburgh

Until December 19