Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden
at Tate Modern, London
By Floriana Piqué
Painting as a practice of pleasure.
And the painting as an object of pleasure.
Her hands dipped into paint, she does not need
a brush – she uses her hands to paint.
A purely physical pleasure of touch and gesture.
The body pursues its own ideas.
Historically painting was seen as female but, the
males were the painters, and the females the models.
Now the female (the daughter) takes the main role.
She paints herself.
The model becomes the artist. She creates herself.
She is not there to please you. She pleases herself.
The question is not “ Who is she”, but “ Who are you?”
Marlene Dumas, ‘ The Artist as a Painter’, 2007
Marlene Dumas, Rejects 1994-2014 Private collection © Marlene Dumas
With these words Marlene Dumas alludes to one of her most delicate and yet most poignant, emotionally charged works: The Painter (1994). Exuding from a pre-existing image, a picture of Helena, Dumas’ daughter at age four, this painting can stand as the summa of her way of being a painter, a figurative painter, today.
We are confronted immediately with all the characteristics: no background, no depicted illusions of the recognizable details of a life. There is no evidence of warmth or affection between the painted and the painter; working from a photo and not from a model probably severs every imaginable link and frees the artist from any constraint.
The most striking features of this small ghost-like figurine are the hands, covered in reddish and purple-bluish paint, and a piercing gaze that captures the viewer and drives him into the void. The child seems an apparition from nowhere, an ambiguity enhanced by legs that fade out on the canvas.
Marlene Dumas The Painter 1994
The Museum of Modern Art, New York © Marlene Dumas
Dumas’ work is a collaborative work, hence the question “Who are you?” She always implies a spectator, demands a continuous, fruitful dialogue with the public.
Dumas’ paintings originate always from a photo. To understand her compulsion with images we have to go back to her biography. Born in South Africa in 1953, a period of apartheid and censorship, Dumas reacted to the starvation of images in the years of her education and formation with a singular, impellent hunger for images throughout her career, since 1976 when she moved to the Netherlands.
In the retrospective at Tate Modern, where the contribution of the artist to the choice of the works and their installation is indicative of her collaborative, conversational way with the curators, the Rooms follow at times a sparse chronology or a number of themes.
For the past thirty years, Dumas has primarily painted human subjects; she is at her best when the subject is not recognizable or famous.
The exhibition opens with Rejects, 1994-2014, a bold choice of a work in progress which covers an entire wall with small heads of women and men, in ink, acrylic and crayon on paper.
Originated from discarded portraits from various series of works, this iconic installation draws deep from the character and psychology of each individual and shows Dumas’s singular ability to reflect the complexity of humanity.
Marlene Dumas Lucy 2004
Tate. Purchased with assistance from Foundation
Dutch Artworks and Bank Giro Loterij, 2007© Marlene Dumas
“The groups of portrait heads are very addictive. One can’t stop once started. It’s as if one wants everyone you have ever met or seen, to be touched by your hand. The dead and the living. Sometimes I get scared that it can become too obsessive and that one can’t get out of this trance. Everyone is different and yet quite similar. All discrimination becomes senseless and useless. The notion of good and bad drawings also disappears. (M.D., Portrait Heads, 1996)
In Dumas’s work, a rare combination of liquid, immaterial painting and rich coherent writing provides the viewer with a multi-faceted approach: there is always a balance between the artist’s intention and the effective realization. Nothing is alluded, nothing is hidden.
The Image as Burden, 1993, also the title of this retrospective, is a metaphor of a reversed Pieta’. The primary source is a film still from George Cukor’s movie Camille (1936), where a dying Greta Garbo is carried by Robert Taylor and it came to symbolize in this small-scale painting the struggle of the artist with images.
In the same Room, Girl with Head, 1992, shown at Documenta 1992 is again a confrontation between a secondhand image and painting on canvas.
“It is not the relationship between painting and photography that is the most prominent question today. The fact is that the photographic, not photography as a specific medium but a particular mode of signifying, is affecting all the arts at the moment. (M.D. Photography, 1990)
Dumas’ paintings exhibited in her first solo show in New York in 1994 are here in Room 9, a room dedicated entirely to her daughter. Alongside The Painter we find Reinhardt’s Daughter, 1994 and Cupid, 1994, both homages to the American abstract painter Ad Reinhardt. Both paintings are based on the same pre-existing image, one painted in whitish colours, the other in dark: a deliberate allusion to Reinhardt’s theory on the colour black.
In 1995 Marlene Dumas participated in the Venice Biennale, Dutch Pavilion, where she presented a series of unusual narrow, tall canvases: elongated naked female bodies, Magdalenas. With these emaciated nudes, naked but not revealing, the artist defies the symbolic figure of Mary Magdalen as it appears in the iconography of the history of art.
We encounter other metaphors in the late nineties series of naked figures, like Fingers, 1999, Silk Stockings,2000. Dumas sorted out graphic, explicit material from a huge amount of images, usually classified as pornographic or erotic, oscillating between revealing too much or hiding what it’s all about. Among the multiple media sources, we find on this occasion Polaroid photographs taken by the artist herself.
The subjects of the images – pin-ups, strippers, pole dancers – are not the models here, since they are present only as images. As a consequence, the paintings constructed out of a sense of abstraction emphasize a tension toward beauty.
“Art should not illustrate or be tied to the likeness or a specific time and place. That is why, even now, I mostly paint naked people, because I still can’t picture the sublime with a dress on.
(M.D.,Alice Neel, 2010)
Throughout Dumas’ oeuvre her engagement with politics is persistent, from a dominant anti-racist attitude and empathy toward freedom fighters, to a strong vision and unique reflection on women.
On the last wall of the exhibition, three big canvases – three heads of dead women - are hung together to emphasize the artist’s reflections: Lucy, 2004 – a reference to Caravaggio’s The Burial of St. Lucy -, Stern, 2004 – a dead portrait of Ulrike Meinhof of the German Red Army Faction, Alfa, 2004 – a Chechen rebel killed in Moscow in 2002. A fourth and even stronger canvas completes this critical way of looking at Women and Death: Skull (of a Woman), 2005, being that of the French woman Charlotte Corday who killed Jean-Paul Marat.
Where Dumas’ painting prevails even more is on the big canvases or, as she put it, her territory paintings. Her political commitment mixes a new dimension of architecture in the landscape and human figure. In The Wall, 2009 and The Mother, 2009 the architectural elements barely dissolve into quasi-abstract shapes, while the small, black figures of humans seem to acquire centrality and substance.
The distinctiveness of Dumas’ painting is a restricted palette of colours; even when she uses a blue or magenta, it is on the livid side of the hue. Despite the meager variation of colours, her way of combining white, gray and black renders a final effect of psychological intensity and substance.
Every room in the exhibition is unmistakably a Dumas room, every work on the wall declares itself immediately as Dumas’ work, and everywhere the spectator feels a dense atmosphere, impregnated by her personality.
Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden at Tate Modern, London until 10 May 2015.
At Foundation Beyeler, Basel, 30 May – 13 September 2015
Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London.