Nick Hackworth

Luc Tuymans, Tate Modern

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Luc Tuymans, who is in his mid-forties, is the most important European painter of his generation. His deadpan style and engagement with his subject matter, ranging from the banality of domestic objects to the Nazi death camps, has wrought enormous influence over younger artists — especially in Britain and Germany.

In his first major retrospective in the UK, some 70 works appear to be haphazardly displayed, eschewing the logic of either chronology or theme. Images that carry with them the expectation of significance — such as Gaskamer, of a gas chamber, or Navy Seals, which copies a television image of American troops victoriously relaxing in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces — hang beside representations of door handles, simple portraits and casually abstract studies.

The juxtaposition is deliberate, though, as is the deadening mutedness of Tuymans’s palette and the general quickness and lightness of his painting. It strips away all romanticism and cruelly mimics the operation of human memory and thought, in which the quotidian and the profound sit side by side without contradiction. This ruthlessness is exemplified in Still-Life, a huge painting made in response to 9/11, which sets some fruit and a jug of water, vaguely depicted in washed-out colours, against an expansive white background. The work delights in its visual awkwardness, the objects being absurdly large and almost insubstantially faint, and in its apolitical content, which undermines all clichéd responses to such events.

Tuymans’s melancholic vision extends from the reality he depicts to the medium through which he does it. Painting can no longer be heroic, he seems to say, but is as insignificant as all the objects and events in the world. A truthful, though depressing, conclusion.

Until 26 September. Information: 020 7887 8008.