Tuymans has painted imagery related to the Holocaust throughout his career. It is typical, however, that he does not approach this complex subject directly, but through incidental details and clues. For instance, the fallen skier in Der Architekt 1998 derives from a film-still of Albert Speer, the architect of the Third Reich, filmed by his wife during a skiing holiday. Similarly, an image of walkers in the snow, Wandeling 1989 (Walking) (on display in Room 8), is taken from a photograph of a Nazi entourage in Berchtesgaden near Hitler’s Alpine villa. These anonymous images undercut the historical weight of their subjects, and reveal Tuymans’ fascination with the banality of evil, the ordinariness of those who commit terrible crimes.
Recherches (‘Investigations’) 1989, also refers to the Holocaust through oblique hints and allusions. The triptych shows, at first glance, a collection of harmless everyday images: a lampshade standing on a table, followed by a blurred image of a tooth, and a window onto a shop or laboratory. These are all details of objects from museums at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, which immediately presents a different reading of each image: the lampshade, tooth and laboratory refer to the terrifying Nazi experiments with the human body. Science, genetics and eugenics are also the subject of Die Wiedergutmachung (‘Reparations’), 1989, a painting showing a grid of expressionless eyes and flailing, helpless hands. These images were inspired by photographs of hands and eyes taken by a doctor who had performed experiments on gypsy twins during the war. Tuymans has written: ‘The idea of expressionlessness, complete helplessness within these pictures, is humiliating. They are about the idea of science, how life has become an object.’