Illegitimate I is a large, portrait-oriented rectangular painting by the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans. The entire canvas is painted in shades of deep green that have been applied in different thicknesses, over which an amorphous shape has been outlined in even darker green paint towards the right-hand side. This shape is mostly symmetrical, although its outlines have been rendered loosely and are less distinct in some places, particularly around its upper half, which features a nebulous patch of much paler green paint. The indeterminate shape of this form, and the way it seems to float against the expanse of green, gives it the appearance of an apparition, accentuated by the figurative associations of its shape, especially the rounded, head-like part at its top and the two longer shapes either side, which resemble arms. However, its ambiguity prevents definitive readings and the form could also be seen to represent a crudely articulated sketch of the female reproductive system, or the stigma, stamen and petals of a flower.
Created in the artist’s Antwerp studio in 1997, Illegitimate I belongs to a series of nine oil paintings made that same year, another of which is also in Tate’s collection (Illegitimate III 1997, Tate T07408). Each of the paintings in the series share the main title Illegitimate and are thereafter distinguished by sequential Roman numerals, from I to IX. Tuymans made Illegitimate I by applying the oil paint to the canvas with broad brushstrokes before rubbing back layers and then adding further paint to the surface while it was still wet. Of the nine works, Illegitimate I and Illegitimate II appear to be the most closely related due to their dominant green tones. However, while the imagery of Illegitimate I is enigmatic, Illegitimate II is more clearly suggestive of a room in which some kind of vegetation is growing, perhaps representing the interior of a botanical research laboratory.
It has been suggested that Illegitimate I may also allude to scientific or medical phenomena. The art critic Richard Cork has described the painting’s hue as ‘toxic’ (Cork 2004, p.29), while Tuymans has observed that it is the colour of ‘contamination’ (Luc Tuymans, exhibition text, Tate Modern, London 2004, http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/luc-tuymans/luc-tuymans-room-1, accessed 17 November 2014). For an earlier series of paintings collectively titled The Diagnostic View 1992, Tuymans painted portraits based on medical photographs of patients with various illnesses. As the art historian Joseph Leo Koerner stated in a discussion of The Diagnostic View, ‘Painted, the symptom (the image) becomes the sickness itself’ (Grynsztejn 2009, p.42), an observation that could also be applied to Illegitimate I, in which a sense of ‘contamination’ is conveyed by the sickly green paint and the ghostly appearance of the cell-like shape depicted.
Although they are each titled Illegitimate, it is not clear when viewing the nine works that comprise the series how this word unites them, or what its meaning might be. In its common usage, the word ‘illegitimate’ carries with it connotations of unlawfulness and is typically attributed to individuals or acts that fail to conform to established rules or standards, whether legal or ethical in nature. By attaching a pejorative word to the ambiguous shape that floats in the noxious green of Illegitimate I, Tuymans may be suggesting that the scene represents something socially or morally unacceptable, if not explicitly sinister.
In this respect the painting relates to the artist’s interest in themes that elicit emotionally uncomfortable responses in the viewer. For example, some of Tuymans’s best-known works, such as Gas Chamber 1986 (The Over Holland Collection), make reference to atrocities of the Second World War and the Holocaust. With this in mind, Illegitimate I could be seen to allude to the horrors of Nazi Germany’s chemical and biological research, which included experiments with poison and human sterilisation. Tuymans has explained that such historical references are present, although not explicit, in his work:
My paintings are not smack in your face, but there’s a history of violence not portrayed, but constantly there, at different levels: mutilation, disappearance, not showing things. Violence creates many more images than happiness will ever be able to.
(Quoted in Jackie Wullschlager, ‘Luc Tuymans: The Painterly Pessimist’, Financial Times, 11 February 2011, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/bb3eba30-3563-11e0-aa6c-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3JGGlPTjK, accessed 17 November 2014.)
Illegitimate I was first shown at the forty-seventh Venice Biennale in 1997. Several of the works in the Illegitimate series were shown in the artist’s 2004 retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern, London, and in his review of the exhibition Richard Cork described Tuymans’s output as a whole as ‘a deeply disconsolate body of work, bearing with relentless skepticism on the failings of our time’ (Cork 2004, p.29).
Richard Cork, ‘Super Creeps’, New Statesman, vol.133, no.4700, 9 August 2004, p.29.
Emma Dexter and Julian Heynen (eds.), Luc Tuymans, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2004, reproduced p.31.
Madeleine Grynsztejn, Luc Tuymans, San Francisco 2009.
Supported by Christie’s.