Illegitimate III is a large rectangular painting by the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, which depicts a headless female figure wearing a blue, red and white gymnast’s or acrobat’s outfit. Her body is cropped below the knees and is positioned slightly left of the centre of the composition. The figure is set against a hazy, off-white background that gradually darkens towards the top right and the lower two corners of the painting. Although the costumed figure has no head, her body has an appearance of solidity and structural weight due to the shading applied to elements of her torso and limbs. Despite this, the light tones used by Tuymans and the pale background give her the appearance of being seen through a mist or screen.
Illegitimate III was created in Tuymans’s Antwerp studio in 1997 as part of a series of nine paintings (Illegitimate I to Illegitimate IX) that were all produced by the artist that same year. Tuymans made Illegitimate III by applying the oil paint to the canvas with broad brushstrokes and then rubbing and adding further paint to the surface while it was still wet, and once dry, he left the work unvarnished. Tate’s collection includes another of the works in this series, Illegitimate I (T07413), which presents a more ambiguous scene than that offered by Illegitimate III, featuring the dark green outline of an indeterminate shape set against a background saturated with brighter green paint.
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 overall 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. In this work, the word ‘illegitimate’ might reflect the fact that the central figure bears no clear identity or solid presence. Unlike traditional portraits that rely on the physiognomies of their sitters to convey personality, Illegitimate III requires observers to find clues about the identity of its headless subject by scrutinising instead subtleties of the figure’s posture and colourful attire. The absence of the neck and head is contrasted by the solidity of the body so that the figure appears both present and absent, a possible fake or ‘illegitimate’ entity.
The light tones of Illegitimate III and the way in which its central subject seems to emerge from a misty setting are characteristic of many of Tuymans’s canvases. The artist has acknowledged the importance in his work of the notions of visual memory and its erasure, and regards artworks as objects that convey the passage of time. In a 2011 discussion with the American artist Kerry James Marshall, Tuymans said:
Art creates its own time span and in that sense also creates its own time lapse: you are looking at something that accords time to an image, as it is made and as it shows itself.
(Tuymans in ‘Artists in Conversation: Luc Tuymans and Kerry James Marshall’, BOMB magazine, vol.92, Summer 2005, http://bombmagazine.org/article/2733/luc-tuymans-and-kerry-james-marshall, accessed 17 November 2014.)
Illegitimate III was first shown at the forty-seventh Venice Biennale from June to November 1997, before being included in an exhibition of five works from this series entitled Luc Tuymans: Illegitimate at the Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp, from December 1997 to January 1998. Several of the works in the Illegitimate series were shown in the 2004 retrospective exhibition Luc Tuymans 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).
Ulrich Loock, Luc Tuymans, London 2003.
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.33.
Supported by Christie’s.