The ‘La Pelle’ exhibition of Luc Tuymans in Palazzo Grassi kicks off the 2019 art season in Venice. If this exhibition is a measure for the numerous art events which coincide with the Art Biennale 2019, art lovers are up to a mind-boggling year. Prior to my visit, I had already seen many works of Luc Tuymans and I visited almost all exhibitions at Palazzo Grassi (since it was acquired by François Pinault). The combination of the monographic paintings in the classical palazzo, however, brings out the best of both and made an indelible impression.
In this post, I will give you some flavour of the ‘La Pelle’ exhibition, as well as background information on Luc Tuymans and on the history of Palazzo Grassi.
The exhibition shows more than 80 paintings created by Luc Tuymans between 1986 and today, and one in-situ work. Caroline Bourgeois (curator at Pinault Collection) made a stunning selection of art works from the Pinault Collection, international museums and private collections to show the best of Luc Tuymans in the beautiful setting of the former residence of the Grassi family. Even though they were painted over a 30-year period, the monochromatic paintings blend perfectly.
The title of the exhibition ‘La Pelle’ (The Skin) refers to the novel of the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte. Similar to the book, the very intense paintings with an underlying, often dark, message get under your skin.
Even though several works relate to the war and Nazism, you might not notice this at first glance. The ground floor of the atrium for instance has been replaced by a marble mosaic in white and grey/green tones. ‘Schwarzheide’ was created for this exhibition, based on Luc Tuymans’ 1986 painting with the same title, but fits flawlessly with the original floor of the palazzo. When you first admire it at the ground level, you feel like walking in a forest. However, once you realize that the forest is the one around the forced-labor camps in Germany during the war, and the lines refer to the uniforms, you will look at it with totally different eyes from the first and second floor. Hence, what looks like just a beautiful work tells in fact a very strong message. I had a similar feeling with ‘Wandeling (Walk)’, one of his earlier works of 1989. It made me think of a walk in the snow shown on older Christmas cards or on Bruegel paintings. However, it is based on a photograph of Nazi dignitaries strolling around Berchtesgarden, near Adolf Hitler’s residence.
I personally also liked ‘Mountains’ a lot, as well as ‘Sundown’, ‘The Shore’, ‘Pillows’ and many more. It’s very hard to pick one, and I’m sure you will prefer other ones. Looking back at my pictures, I still notice new elements which I hadn’t seen while visiting the exhibition. The variety of the collection is even more obvious now. The combination of small and large paintings, monochrome and colourful, abstract and figurative and the underlying messages make this exhibition very intriguing. I could visit it several times and never get bored by it.
Of course, the ‘Venedig (Venice)’ painting was one which I didn’t want to miss. It is inspired by a painting that Luc Tuymans saw at the Bauer Hotel. It makes me think of the Bucintoro, the offical boat of the doges of La Serenissima. According to the exhibition guide, it ‘seems like a critical representation of the trappings of power, wealth and orientalism that are unique to Venice’.
INSIDER TIP: Take an exhibition guide at the entrance and read it while you go along the exhibition. It is one of the best ones I have ever read. Descriptions of art works can be quite fluffy, but Caroline Bourgeois and Marc Donnadieu give you just enough information to grasp the second layer of the paintings. I personally always first look at the painting, make up my own mind about it and only then read what the artist wanted to show. This makes me watch it a second, or third, time, but from a different point of view. As you have read above, I’m most of the time completely off-target, but that’s the beauty of art.
Luc Tuymans (°1958) is a Belgian artist, who lives and works in Antwerp. He is considered as one of the most influential painters of the international art scene, as he contributed throughout his career to the rebirth of figurative painting in contemporary art.
His paintings are often influenced by historic events and triggered by a found image, which ranges from a Flemish Old Master painting to contemporary mass media. Luc Tuymans uses this imagery as inspiration to create and visualize a work of art. The painting itself is done in less than 24 hours. The easily-recognizable, sparsely-coloured figuratives start from the gap between the image and what it represents. They often involve a secondary, introspective narrative. The hues in the sober colours make these monochromatic paintings very powerful.
The works of Luc Tuymans are featured in leading public and private collections worldwide and are included in major solo and group exhibitions every year. So far, he created approx. 600 paintings. ‘La Pelle’ is his first solo exhibition in Italy, thanks to François Pinault who is one of the major collectors of Luc Tuymans’ work. You might however already have seen his art in Venice as he represented Belgium at the Art Biennale 2001.
Since François Pinault acquired Palazzo Grassi and transformed it into a contemporary art museum, it is a well-known stop for art lovers visiting Venice. Walking around the palazzo, I often imagine how it would have been to live here when it was one of the largest residences in Venice.
The palazzo on the Campo San Samuele was built for the Grassi family, a family of wealthy merchants, by architect Giorgio Massari between 1748 and 1772. Palazzo Grassi was the last palazzo to be built on Canal Grande before the fall of the Venetian Republic (see my post ‘A short introduction to the complicated history of Venice’).
In 1840, the Grassi family sold the palazzo due to financial problems. It passed through the hands of several owners, amongst whom Giovanni Stucky from the Molino Stucky on Giudecca. In 1951, Franco and Paolo Marinotti transformed the residence in the International Centre of Arts and Costume. The open courtyard was therefore covered by a semi-transparant roof. Their projects explored the relationship between art and fashion. These included solo exhibitions by contemporary artists such as Asper Jorn and Lucio Fontana, and exhibition designs by Bruno Manari and Carlo Scarpa (more info in ‘Carlo Scarpa’s dual passion for art and architecture’). In 1983, Palazzo Grassi was bought by Fiat as a space for art and archaeology exhibitions. Gianni Agnelli hired the Milanese architect Gae Aulenti to adapt the building to his requirements.
The French art collector François Pinault acquired Palazzo Grassi in 2005. He hired the Japanese architect Tadao Ando for a restoration, which combined the grandeur of the palazzo with the needs of a modern art museum. Palazzo Grassi reopened its doors in April 2006 with the exhibition ‘Where are we going?’. Since then, several major exhibitions have been hosted in this wonderful location. The exhibitions vary between monographic exhibitions (such as Damien Hirst, Sigmar Polke, Urs Fischer) and group exhibitions (such as The Illusion of Light, The World Belongs to You).
If you want to visit the ‘La Pelle’ exhibition, you still have time until January 6, 2020. It was one of my 19 reasons to visit Venice in 2019 and I haven’t been disappointed. I therefore highly recommend it. The ticket also allows you to visit ‘Luogo e Segni’ in Punta della Dogana.
If you want to admire all the paintings at ease, you can order the catalogue of ‘La Pelle’ online. Luc Tuymans is also working on a Catalogue Raisonné with an overview of all his works. 2 volumes are already available, and the third one will be published at the end of this year.
Enjoy your visit!
(Painting in the banner: The Shore – Luc Tuymans – 2014)