Belgian artist Luc Tuymans is one of the world’s most celebrated painters.

He is known for figurative works, which use photographs and film as their source material, and whose dark resonances are only revealed when their labels are read.

Issei Sagawa is a portrait of a Japanese cannibal who killed and ate his fellow student Renee Hartevelt at the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1981. Sagawa was found unfit to stand trial and deported to Japan, where due to a series of legal loopholes he was eventually declared ‘sane but evil’ and released. He now enjoys cult status.

Tuymans’s portrait of Sagawa is not a conventional likeness, but a painting that resembles a blurred, bleached out photograph. It is based on a childhood photo of Sagawa that appeared in a documentary film and was captured by the artist on his phone. The killer is shown wearing a grotesque mask and an explorer’s hat.

The painting can be seen as part of Tuymans’s larger body of work, which features a number of oblique portraits of men associated with violence and terror. Among them are his portrait of SS chief Reinhard Heydrich and a painting of Nazi architect Albert Speer as a fallen skier. These haunting, ghostly canvases challenge the value of history painting and raise questions about truth and celebrity in photography and film.

Issei Sagawa now joins the Tate collection alongside Tuymans’s gift of a second canvas called The Shore. Together they represent superb examples of recent work by a remarkable painter at the height of his powers.


The artist, David Zwirner Gallery

Exhibitions at Tate Modern

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