by Roderick Conway Morris

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Marlene Dumas and the Art of Life

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 20 February 2015
Marlene Dumas, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
Genetic Longing, 1984



Marlene Dumas grew up in South Africa in the 1950s and '60s and recalls her love of going to drive-in movies. 'Yet I never wanted a camera,' she writes in the catalog of her latest exhibition, at Tate Modern here through May 10. 'I loved to play and draw in the sand. I loved the illustrations of fairy tales, and the stories of the Bible and American cartoons that were around. I drew bikini girls on the back of cigarette packets to impress my parents' friends.'

A procession of bikini girls, 'Miss World,' is one of the first works on display in 'Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden' at the Tate. With more than 100 of her works, the show is her most extensive European retrospective to date, curated by Kerryn Greenberg and Helen Sainsbury. The exhibition travels on to the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland at the end of May.

The artist was 10 years old when she drew 'Miss World' in crayons, revealing precocious artistic talent and an acute and quirky eye. That picture was imaginatively created from various images of the event she had seen. It was only in the mid-1980s that she would begin to use specific photographic sources or images drawn from movies as starting points — though in the final work sometimes little or nothing of the initial material remains.

An Afrikaner, Ms. Dumas, 61, was raised on a wine farm in the Cape Province during the apartheid era, when access to images was severely limited by censorship and television was yet to come — perhaps leading to the budding artist's intense scrutiny of those images that were available in films, newspapers and magazines.

After studying art at the University of Cape Town, she won a scholarship in 1976 to continue her art education in the Netherlands, where she has lived ever since. Conceptual art was becoming more prevalent at the time and Ms. Dumas applied her graphic skills, wit and imagination to making works in this style.

Among the pieces from these early years in the Tate show are a large collage, 'Don't Talk to Strangers,' that incorporates the opening and closing lines torn out of letters she had received, and a big pencil sketch of a house plant representing her rebellion against Dutch domesticity, 'I Won't Have a Pot Plant.'

But the desire to paint the human body and face proved overwhelming, Ms. Dumas said in an interview at the exhibition. 'I thought I had found a way not to paint but to do works on paper, with collages and drawings,' she said. 'But it came so naturally to me to use the figure, because that was what I had always done, to use the human form, that I couldn't do it without it.'

This personal 'return to order' gave rise in the mid-1980s to a series of larger-than-life portraits, in bold colors, that zoom in on their subjects' faces, to the exclusion of any recognizable backdrop. Some allude to political issues, such as the tense 'Genetic Longing,' portraying a multi-colored woman with folded arms and a sideways glance, and 'The White Disease,' which depicts a European woman suffering from a skin condition. Others are more intimate, like the powerful 'Martha — My Grandmother' and the later portrait of Moshekwa Langa, Ms. Dumas's fellow South African artist and friend.

A distinctive feature of Ms. Dumas's oeuvre is her abiding interest in portraying black subjects. In the early 1990s, she undertook a major project in which she investigated the properties of black ink on thick paper to represent black faces. Her source was initially pseudo-anthropological postcards of 'types' of often naked Africans, but she excluded the bodies in order to focus on the individuality of their faces. She later supplemented them with faces found in African-American magazines, like Ebony. The result is a wall of virtuoso brush-and-ink sketches in the Tate show entitled 'Black Drawings.'

In 1995, at the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Ms. Dumas displayed a series of tall, narrow canvases called 'Magdalenas,' inspired by the biblical figure Mary Magdalene. Some of them are now brought together at the Tate from public and private collections. For these engaging and sometimes satirical works, the artist has drawn variously on classical statues of the Venus pudica, covering her breasts and pudenda with her hands; the nudes of the great Renaissance Venetian painters; and Manet's 'Olympia.'

Some of Ms. Dumas's most memorable images are of children, including her daughter Helena. Several of these are displayed in the exhibition, ranging from the serene close-up of her daughter sleeping, 'Helena's Dream,' to 'The Painter,' an emotionally charged study of a naked, scowling toddler, her hands stained with color after a finger-painting session. The artist has described these haunting portraits as 'imagined beings, closer to the world of ghosts and angels, daydreams and nightmares than real people.'

Another series visits grief, with paintings of the murdered Italian writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini and his mother; the distraught Anna Magnani in Pasolini's 'Mamma Roma,' based on a close-up from the film; and Ingrid Bergman weeping in 'For Whom the Bell Tolls,' in which paint is streaked with water as though by tears. This exemplifies Ms. Dumas's assertion in the catalog that 'the content of a painting cannot be separated from the feel of its surface.'

An element of wicked humor is also evident in this sequence, with 'Glass Tears (for Man Ray),' Ms. Dumas's painted version of Man Ray's famous photograph 'Larmes' (with its unnaturally huge, glassy, bead-like tears) juxtaposed with her update on this theme, a blotchy-faced, dry-cheeked woman, entitled 'Waterproof Mascara.'

'The public display of nudity has always been one of my main artistic interests, as well as the reasons given to justify or ban it,' Ms. Dumas wrote in the catalog for her show 'Strippinggirls' in 2000. In the second half of the 1990s, she produced pictures based on pornographic magazines and photographs of strippers, with broad brush strokes and exaggerated, unnaturally strong colors. These are displayed in a side room, with a warning to visitors as to their explicit adult content.

The artist has also recorded her reluctance to use live models for these works. 'I worry about what they think of me and I get even more worried about what they think I think of them,' she wrote in the 'Strippinggirls' catalog. 'And then I lose the freedom of the amoral touch which for me is a prerequisite of a good painting.'

The starting point for a number of the paintings in the last rooms was clearly photographs of conflict in the Middle East: 'The Mother,' of a woman mourning her young son in a Muslim cemetery; 'Mindblocks,' of an Israeli roadblock in the West Bank; and 'The Wall,' which appears to be a depiction of Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem but in fact portrays Jewish pilgrims against the backdrop of the wall dividing Israeli and Palestinian territories near the Tomb of Rachel.

Ms. Dumas has described these pictures, which are on a larger scale than any of her previous works, as her 'first landscapes.' They mark a new departure in the career of a painter who has brought an original sensibility to her art, consistently produced compelling images and who is clearly still at the height of her powers.

Marlene Dumas. The Image as Burden. Tate Modern; through May 10. Fondation Beyeler, Basel, Switzerland; May 31 through Sept. 6.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024