finding a new future for painting at marlene dumas' tate modern retrospective

Looking for meaning between the pornographic tendency to reveal everything and the erotic inclination to hide what it's all about.

by Felix Petty
Feb 4 2015, 11:15am

Marlene Dumas, Mamma Roma, 2012. Private Collection © Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas first made headlines in 2008 when her painting, The Visitor, a dark scene of a group of prostitutes hanging out by the yellow glow radiating out of a doorway, sold for £3.1 million, making her the most expensive living female artist. But it's here the headlines stop; this is no brash YBA retrospective, even if Dumas rose to fame in the 90s too, she isn't obsessed with gold, glam, glitz and money, the legacies of conceptualism and pop, or courting controversy and the shock of the new. Instead, and following on from the Tate's Sigmar Polke retrospective, continues the institution's move towards a subtler, less showy output. We are now in, of course, a new art era, the big names of 90s Brit Art have moved from irreverent enfant terribles into irrelevant middle age. There is, of course, plenty to shock, plenty of sex, hints of pornography, paintings of the infamous and evil, borrowings from pop culture and the mass media, but Dumas' work is quieter, understated, less aggressive and more contemplative, and slots perfectly into a post-financial crash art scene, no longer so obsessed with big names, bigger prices, celebrity and consumption.

Born in 1953, in Cape Town, Dumas moved to the Netherlands in the mid 70s, and came to prominence in the mid 80s. After arriving in Amsterdam, to study at Ateliers 63, she met the English collage artist Dick Jewell and fellow South African, Michael Oblowitz, an avant-garde filmmaker, who introduced Dumas to the work of experimental directors like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Derek Jarman and the city's seedy red light districts and porn cinemas. Growing up in South Africa, Dumas had few examples of original artworks to turn to for inspiration, or even to the TV for images, which wasn't introduced in South Africa until 76, the year she left for Amsterdam. Instead Dumas began using magazines and books for access to art , and began painting from these second hand sources, a habit that she's retained since and forms the backbone of her practice.

Helena's Dream 2008. Kunsthalle Bielefeld © Marlene Dumas Photography Peter Cox

There's a delicacy to the early paintings that make up the first rooms of the show, many on rice paper and adorned with fragile magazine clippings and torn out lines from letters, the lines are scrawled and fervent, literally scratching out the themes that Dumas' work will return to again and again over the years; the limitations of representational art, the feminist potential of portraiture, the politics of pop culture, and the metaphorical link between art and sexual exploitation.

One theme that emerges, and is continually returned to, is the distance between the source material that Dumas paints from, these pictures cribbed from magazines and newspapers, and the final image she paints, and how this distance can become our focus for interpretation. And it is totally centred upon the female body. Like in the painting the exhibition takes it title from, The Image As Burden, painted from a still of the film Camille, showing the dying Greta Garbo being carried off by her lover.

There are portraits of naked girls, suggestive and luridly teenage, titled knowingly, Give The People What They Want, in which a young, black girl, stands naked, holding a towel behind the back, or in Waiting For Meaning in which a nude figure reclines across a bed, possibly dead, or instead waiting for a lover. These are nudes as allegories and political commentaries. This focus on interpretation feels like the emotional core of the exhibition, how "secondhand images" Dumas says, "can generate first-hand emotions."

Scope Magazine Pin-up 1973. Private Collection © Marlene Dumas

This plays out perfectly in the diptych Great Britain, which puts Naomi Campbell and Princess Diana next to each other; each reflecting the other's reductive, dehumanising, public image with a dialogue between them bridging class, race and possible images of femininity. As Dumas says; "the male painter uses nudity to promote higher aesthetic values, the fashion model to promote clothes, the porn industry to promote masturbation, and actresses only do it if it's part of the story." In the contrast between these two images, Dumas finds all these feminine archetypes, all struggling to break free.

Dumas also draws comparisons between her work as an artist and titillation of the erotic; "my art is situated," a display note says, "between the pornographic tendency to reveal everything and the erotic inclination to hide what it's all about."

And this reaches its most inscrutable in the paintings of her daughter, Helena. Most strikingly in The Painter, an image of her child as a painter, hands caked and dripping in red and dark blue paint that could easily be interpreted as blood. Dumas hints at a violent, misogynistic history of painting, a history of capturing a mute, idealised female form, yet The Painter is ghostly, ethereal, a haunting apparition, a blood soaked baby coming out of the whiteness of the canvas to claim its stake in the history of art.

The Image as Burden 1993. Private collection, Belgium © Marlene Dumas. Photography Peter Cox

Dumas doesn't really paint backgrounds, everything is wiped of context and pushed into extreme close up, highlighting visceral facial emotions, leaving viewers to read into the contorted eyes and mouths, free floating in the negative space and the looseness of painting that blurs the bodies and faces into the blankness of background. Dumas' skill is in the fact that she can easily turn this style to similar, emotional effect in images of her child, her dead mother, stills from films, and the images of war.

This is what makes the last rooms the most unsettling, the paintings of conflict and war; paintings of the dying, the martyred, the perpetrators and guilty, the innocent and the victims; she painted Osama bin Laden and his son Omar, Jews by a wall, dead Palestinian girls, and the focus remains the same, without judgement or hate but with honest inquiry into the face we present the world and how the world reads it. And the forms in the room take on an unsettling quality because of what the face reveals and conceals, how her painting can decontextualise political violence yet retain an ability to shock. Like in Dead Girl, a painting made in 2002 from a clipping Dumas had been keeping since the 70s of a dead Palestinian woman, who was killed whilst attempting to hijack an aeroplane, yet her eyes still stare at the viewer, echoing throughout time.This has its antithesis in three paintings, Lucy, Stern and Alfa, all from 2004, featuring three dead female bodies, close up on their faces, eyes closed, mouth twisted somewhere between agony and ecstasy.

It is in this space where the exhibition really succeeds, in the seeping and blurring of image between its uses, as document and as painting, of woman as fashion object, pornographic image, as classical symbol. Is the blindfolded man to be executed or playing a game? Is the naked women a pornstar or pleasure seeker, was that mouth open in agony or ecstasy, are those eyes closed in death or rest?


Text Felix Petty
All images © Marlene Dumas