Marlene Dumas - Selected Press | David Zwirner

Marlene Dumas

- Selected Press

They don’t get much bigger in the painting world than South African–born, Amsterdam-based Marlene Dumas, known for decades for her quasi-Expressionistic, washy Impressionistic, blurry photo-based paintings of troubled hot spots, naked babies, dead bodies, women mourning in cemeteries, armed soldiers, sex, terrorism — and who, in some way, created my social-media persona. One day in the early 2000s, bored with posting my status on Facebook as “Working” or “Getting ready to go on a trip,” and fresh from seeing a Dumas show, I wrote something to the effect that I found Dumas’s use of the photo, her painting style, and her opportunistic subject matter not to my liking — and said so (people went bonkers against me). Even though Dumas’s work still strikes me as repetitive, in this show she has upped the ante with what seem like more personal pictures of her daughter, pregnancy, women’s bodies, and something sexier than ever before — more honestly abject, closer to a human coil.

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Libidinous, spectral, languid, unflattering: Here are four adjectives to describe the portraits done by the Amsterdam-based South African artist Marlene Dumas, the only woman alive to have had a full-scale painting retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (This may say as much about the status of painting as it does about gender inequality.) A fifth adjective is divisive: Few other artists have elicited as much acclaim and dismissal as Ms. Dumas, whose humid compositions, in thinned oils and permeated with sex or violence, seem to leave nobody cold. This first New York outing in eight years, titled “Myths and Mortals,” offers evidence for both camps, but more for her boosters — above all, in erotic works on paper as provocative as anything she has ever done.

A series of upright, full-length nudes, many on narrow, 10-foot-tall canvases, are the most assertive paintings in this new show, though not the best. Men and women, as well as one couple, appear against washy backgrounds of vermilion or teal, and the confining proportions make the nudes appear as specimens: A pregnant woman (the artist’s daughter) has her arms pinned up on either side of her face, while a male nude could be a cadaver on the autopsy table.

Like her fellow Dutch-speaking figurative painter (and Zwirner stablemate) Luc Tuymans, Ms. Dumas draws on photographic sources for her paintings — but where Mr. Tuymans saps his subject matter of emotion, Ms. Dumas supersaturates it. That works best here in several smaller close-ups of women’s faces in ecstasy or anguish, with skin of European or African tones, but also of blue or chartreuse. Other pieces feel overheated and underthought, like a garish, vacant Bride of Frankenstein that is both literally and metaphorically drippy.

But the paintings on paper — my word. Ms. Dumas did the 33 works here to illustrate a new Dutch translation of Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis,” and although she has not shied from sex before, here her usual bluntness gives way to a rapturous eroticism in which ink has its own salaciousness. She paints the couple, and the boar who kills Adonis, with a watery black wash familiar from Chinese literati painting; the lines of Venus’ hair or Adonis’ arms appear calligraphic at times, while their bodies and mouths are puddles bleeding into one another. The stains of the ink become carnal, indecent smirches — degrading, seductive (the two are the same here) — and in “Venus Mourns Adonis,” just eight and a half inches tall, the tearful goddess’s face and hand drown in an agonizing pool of pigment. Ms. Dumas made her name through art of a certain cruelty. In tenderness, she may have made a masterpiece.

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A painting by Marlene Dumas of her pregnant daughter Helena — her belly wide and full, her hands raised at the elbow, her feet splayed — stood nearly 10 feet tall in the South African artist’s studio here two weeks ago.

It was the night before a few dozen of Ms. Dumas’s new paintings would be shipped to New York for her first solo exhibition there in eight years, and the artist was drinking white wine and still contemplating which works would ultimately end up in the show.

Several other monumental nudes, both male and female, were propped against the walls in two light-filled studio spaces, representing what she calls “strange, mixed-up figures, not quite human.” Interspersed among them were smaller oil paintings of bodily fragments: a lipstick-smeared mouth, a single breast and several renditions of two faces entwined in a kiss.

Ms. Dumas, 64, walked through the space, its floor littered with half-squeezed paint tubes and its tables topped with art history books, museum postcards and photocopied images. “They are, in a sense, individual works,” she said of the paintings, but they all have something to do with “attraction, sensuality and desires.”

This is Ms. Dumas’s newest body of work, “Myths & Mortals,” which just opened at David Zwirner’s West 20th Street gallery in Manhattan and is on view through June 30. Half of the 61 works were painted in the last three months, she said, while others were from 2016 and 2017. They start with a series of ink wash illustrations Ms. Dumas made to accompany a narrative Shakespeare poem, “Venus and Adonis,” which inspired her to explore issues of eroticism, but also power and violence. They led her to examine similar themes in a series of paintings.

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In ‘Venus & Adonis’, one of Shakespeare’s few long poems, Venus becomes impatient with the hunter Adonis – the child of a tree – for refusing to kiss her. She is tormented by his indifference, and in turn by her own immortality, for she suspects his apathy is because she is a god and not a woman. No matter, for soon Venus finds Adonis’s purple corpse in the woods, slain by a boar. His death produces a single flower, coloured the same as Adonis’s flesh, that Venus weeps over. Such are the cruel symmetries that define the ancient world. In her first New York exhibition in eight years, Marlene Dumas has illustrated this poem – and the moody emotionality of those symmetries – in numerous paintings on canvas and paper (all ranging widely in size), each in her eerie, watery style. Dumas depicts Venus as a pleading figure, as the titles of her ink wash drawings (each slightly larger than the size of an A4 paper) of the god make clear: Venus pleads, Venus forces, Venus insists (all 2015–16). Paintings and drawings from 2018 continue Shakespeare’s themes without explicitly illustrating the poem, including pregnant bodies, kissing couples, an iPhone, nipples and so on. In these cloudy, pretty pictures, Dumas recasts Venus’s complaint of representation as ‘lifeless, cold and senseless stone, / well-painted idol, image dun and dead’ as its best asset in capturing the god’s stark loss of her mortal lover to nature’s brainless and bloody aggression.

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In 2001, when I was on a working trip to Paris, a perceptive French sculptor friend recommended an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou by Marlene Dumas —a name vaguely familiar to me, at the time, but unaccompanied, in my mental artists’ file, by an image. The show, mysteriously titled “Nom de Personne (Name No Names),” proved to be a works-on-paper retrospective—the artist’s first.

I was immediately captured by Ms. Dumas’s urgent, broadly handled works in ink and particularly impressed by the “portraits,” each with a distinctive appearance and personality, conjured up by an apparently infinite range of gestures, washes and marks. Despite the artist’s French name, these drawings seemed distinctly Northern, with the bluntness and intensity of German Expressionism, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that their author was born in South Africa, in 1953, that she had Dutch ancestors, and that she had lived in the Netherlands since 1976; she was a Northerner by default. More unexpected was learning that Ms. Dumas’s work was all photo-based, since the heads I admired were so individual that they seemed testimony to the power of direct, unmediated observation.

Fast forward to 2015, Tate Modern and “Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden.” Described in the press materials as “the most comprehensive retrospective survey of the artist’s work in Europe, to date,” the show begins with notebooks kept by a 19-year-old South African student and paintings made a couple of years later when that student enrolled in a Dutch art school; it ends with works made in 2014 by an internationally acclaimed artist with Dutch citizenship. In between, we discover paintings on canvas and ink drawings of larger-than-life heads, full-length nudes, Ms. Dumas’s daughter as a young child, raunchy strippers, political commentary, and more, from early experiments with a variety of conceptually based approaches to an idiosyncratic, continuing series of portraits of “Great Men.” The selection is a tasting menu, offering examples of important groups of works—Ms. Dumas often produces images in series—sometimes presented in multiples that evoke the original conception and presentation.

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Marlene Dumas (b1953) has been called ‘the world’s most interesting figure painter’. Her beautifully painted works, which can be seen in museums worldwide, explore themes of sexuality, love, death and shame, while borrowing from popular culture, art history and current affairs. She draws from her extensive archive of images collected over the years, as well as photographs she has taken. ‘Second-hand images,’ she has said, ‘can generate first-hand emotions.’

Central to her practice has been the human figure – often naked or partially clothed – with subjects ranging from her daughter and celebrities such as Amy Winehouse and Phil Spector to the more notorious likes of Osama bin Laden. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, under apartheid, Dumas moved to the Netherlands in 1976, where she came to prominence in the mid-1980s. Tate Modern’s large-scale survey is the most significant exhibition of her work ever to be held in Europe, charting her career from early paintings through to new works on paper. To coincide with this, Tate Etc. brought together a fellow artist and a magazine editor to talk to her in her Amsterdam studio – about porn, politics and personalities.

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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.

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There is a painting in this show of the man who murdered the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh, shooting him repeatedly before slashing his throat. It is delicate and pale, materialising in beautiful veils. There is another of Osama bin Laden in the glowing stained-glass hues of a Rouault. Should they be quite so gorgeous, these canvases? Should these men get such lavish treatment? Who should appear in a painting?

The art of Marlene Dumas, born in South Africa in 1953, is painterly and provocative in about equal measure. You notice the method – fluent, sumptuous, the paint sinking into the canvas in translucent stains, the brush carrying its licks and swipes with gliding expertise – at exactly the same moment as the subject, which is always human, often vulnerable, violent, suffering or dead. That’s the first disjuncture, a sort of double take that forces the viewer to think twice about why the subject has been painted in this way. The second question is more primitive: simply, who’s in this painting and why?

Dumas has been painting lone heads – and occasionally bodies, naked – for more than 30 years. The isolating focus gives a certain grandeur to each image. A damaged face floats in black watercolour on white paper, puckering the surface so that the pain seems redoubled. A heavy head thickens around the eyes, which hold a strange light, particularly in the self-portraits, so often her strongest works.

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"I paint because I am a dirty woman.” Everything that is radical and enjoyable about Marlene Dumas’ art, as well as its limitations, is implied in that statement.

Tate Modern’s new retrospective celebrates Dumas’ significant, distinctive contribution to contemporary figuration: the sensuality yet restraint of her washed textures of thinned, translucent paint; the smudgy, ugly hues, often suggesting bruised flesh, and the political play with colour; a confrontational approach to the female form, in which the cropped figure asserts itself in dramatic close-up on a neutral ground.

Unafraid of sources as provocative as porn magazines or sensational news reportage, Dumas challenges centuries of the male gaze. The traditional nude is reprised in “Fingers” with a woman on all fours absorbed in her own pleasure, pale buttocks thrust towards the viewer, livid purple fingers between legs. The female body in “Woman of Algiers”, a title referencing Delacroix and Picasso, and in “The Trophy”, is politicised: a naked prisoner is held up, as if for exhibition, by two police officers. Imitating the censorship of the original newspaper shot published in 1960 during the Algerian war, Dumas blocks out breasts and genitals with slabs of black paint — metaphor for history’s silenced voices.

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In Marlene Dumas's office, a huge space that takes up the ground floor of a Thirties block in a residential district of Amsterdam, are the beginnings of an exhibition. A miniature model of Tate Modern sits on a table, postage-stamp-sized pictures glued to each of its tiny walls. Press clippings and catalogues are arranged in stacks, and three different proposals for show posters are tacked to a low window. Dumas's long-time studio manager - an elegant blonde named Jolie van Leeuwen, who acts as a protector and friend to the 61-year-old artist - is busy at a keyboard, taking enquiries from press and galleries.

Dumas had been speaking animatedly, flicking her apricot-blonde curls from one side to another, when she leapt to her feet and pulled out a silk scarf printed with Damien Hirst pills. The Hirst scarf is a sample of what could be made as a gift-shop item for her own show - a hundred-work retrospective, the scale of which reflects Dumas's stature as one of the most significant painters in the world today. She is clearly amused - flattered? half-horrified? - by such merchandising decisions. "I did think, maybe I'll make a scarf. I mean, I'll never do it otherwise…" She wants to know Vogue's opinion: wouldn't the little droplets on the surface of her work For Whom the Bell Tolls, a super-close-up portrait based on an image of a tearful Ingrid Bergman, make a nice pattern for a scarf?

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A wall of faces greets you in the opening room. Dozens of ink and graphite images look back at us, wonky and misproportioned, but also weirdly right. They’re called Rejects – do their sometimes wild imperfections signal failure, or something else? This is a good way to begin. Should we reject them, too? The series is ongoing, and Marlene Dumaskeeps them close – a family full of flaws. It’s their faults that make them human.

There are faces everywhere in these rooms of sex and death. Even when she is painting the dead, Dumas’s work is full of life. Near the end of Tate Modern’s Dumas retrospective are her large, oil-painted heads of Saint Lucy, leftwing German militant Ulrike Meinhof and an anonymous young woman shot by Russia’s Alpha anti-terrorism forces in the 2002 Dubrovka theatre siege in Moscow. The heads remind me of sexual rapture as much as death. I wrote about these paintings 10 years ago, and they’re even more alive to me now.

Born in South Africa, Dumas deals in the paradoxes and ambiguities of both painting and life. Who knows, when they begin a painting, how things will end up? If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Among these heads is a picture of the skull of Charlotte Corday, who murdered the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat in his bath. It’s like a cratered moon. Corday went to the guillotine “without rage”, Dumas observes.

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Seven years ago, Marlene Dumas briefly became the world’s most expensive living female artist, a dizzying upward move that was reported, somewhat breathlessly, in newspapers from New York to Tokyo (her 1995 painting The Visitor was sold by Sotheby’s for £3.1m; previously, her prices had stood at around the £50,000 mark). Yet her name remains, here and elsewhere, relatively unknown. She is, you might say, the world’s most un-famous famous artist, beloved of curators and collectors, but lacking any of the tinny razzmatazz – the self-publicity, the production lines – we’ve grown accustomed to when it comes to 21st-century art. Thanks to this, the huge retrospective of her work at London’s Tate Modern next month – it will include more than 100 of her provocative and intensely dark paintings, drawings and collages – is, at this point, a hot ticket only for those in the know.

As I walk to her studio – she works on the ground floor of a tall, gabled house in an area of Amsterdam popular with both hipsters and immigrants from north Africa – I wonder about this. At first sight, it’s confounding. Dumas’s work is every bit as outrageous as that of, say, Tracey Emin, and about 50 times more interesting (unlike Emin, she looks outwards, her interest in the human body extending beyond her own to those of other people). But then I meet her, and it’s suddenly less of a mystery. Two things about her are immediately apparent. The first is her prodigious energy, which comes at you like a gale force wind. She is, quite simply, unstoppable: garrulous, clever, curious, enthusiastic. The second – this is the important part – is her modesty, her uncertainty, her artistic humility. She takes her work very seriously indeed, but herself not at all, and the jokes and self- deprecation come thick and fast. “When I start work on a painting, it’s total kitsch!” she wails at one point. “When I painted myself pregnant, I couldn’t do the legs, and the blond hair made it look like a bad Klimt!” she cries at another. No other artist I have interviewed has ever come close to making statements like these. Their acceptance of their own brilliance was simply part of the deal.

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Let us take a pair of portraits – one well known, one not – and see what they suggest about the work of Marlene Dumas. The first is an emblematic oil painting on canvas derived from a photograph, as ever with Dumas (aside from a few early works). The Painter (1994) depicts a naked child, standing alone, glowering defiantly, her paint-smeared hands hanging by her sides. This work graces the cover of the catalogue for Dumas’s first European retrospective, ‘Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden’, which opened in September at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the artist’s home since she arrived there from South Africa as a young woman in the mid-1970s.

The second image is a casual photograph reproduced as supplementary material in the exhibition’s catalogue. Taken some years after the snapshot on which The Painter is based, it features the same little girl: Dumas’s daughter Helena, aged nine. Dressed in white, she stands demurely in a corner of one of the Stedelijk’s galleries, amid a group show of art from the Netherlands, dwarfed and hemmed in on both sides by huge paintings by her parents: Dumas and her Dutch partner Jan Andriesse. Her mother’s two works, looming darkly to her right, are three-metre-tall portraits from the mid-1990s ‘Magdalena’ series, many of which are personifications of the archetypical ‘fallen woman’ redeemed. In the painting hanging nearest the little girl, Magdalena (Manet’s Queen/Queen of Spades) (1995) – based on a magazine image of the model Naomi Campbell – the naked woman’s ankles and feet are pale, as if blackness were a body-stocking that might be pulled on and off at will. A century and a half after the controversial reception of Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), to which the work’s subtitle alludes, it is hard to imagine a painting inciting a comparable mixture of moral outrage and aesthetic affront. That said, Dumas’s picture is simultaneously alluring and disconcerting in its own (im)modest way. Given that the artist’s rendering of the dark-skinned figure is barely distinguishable from the shadowy background, the viewer’s natural inclination is to approach the painting to discern its detail. The giant Magdalena’s crotch sits at eye level, and this close encounter is a bit like bumping into a naked Neytiri, from the 2009 film Avatar, down a dark alley. Meanwhile, to young Helena’s left is a shimmering expanse of rainbow-like gradated colour in her father’s signature mode of late-Modernist abstraction.

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One measure of genius is the life force — what Harold Bloom has dubbed, referring to Samuel Johnson, “Falstaffian vitalism.” The South African-born artist Marlene Dumas has such astonishing vitality. On the occasion of our recent meeting in Amsterdam, she gave me her full, intense attention for the better part of nine hours and several bottles of wine between us (“I always think some wine is nice, don’t you?”) before bundling me into a taxi to my hotel, while she calmly strolled back to her studio in the midsummer twilight for a couple more hours of hard work.

Her airy office and studio are shaded by leafy vines on the ground floor of an apartment block in a residential neighborhood to the south of the city center. On the corner are a Turkish greengrocer — as I passed, the owner impressively halved a watermelon with a machete — and a modest beauty salon obscured by dusty windows. So warm was her welcome that I almost remember her hugging me (she didn’t). In her rapid, digressive speech punctuated by laughter and tinged with an Afrikaans accent — she often interjects “nee” or “and so” — she offered me an early aperitif and we sat down to chat for what was supposed to be a few minutes before heading over the road for lunch in a local cafe.

I was interrupting the preparations for her upcoming major retrospective, which opens at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam next month, before going to Tate Modern in London and the Fondation Beyeler near Basel, and which represents the largest exhibition of the artist’s work in her adopted home country to date. Dumas, a rare visual artist who also writes — “a dual talent, like Van Gogh,” her partner of nearly 30 years, the painter Jan Andriesse, said — likes to participate in the dialogue about her own work, and wanted to revisit as many critical texts as possible, both her own and others’ writing, for the exhibition catalog, which is being produced in three languages. “This was probably the wrong book to do it in,” she mused in her office, its large tables covered in papers — proofs, copies of articles and reviews of her work, news clippings as yet unfiled in her room-size source archive. “It has caused an enormous amount of problems, and an enormous amount of work.”

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Marlene Dumas likes to talk dirty. She quips about foreplay with her paintings, muses on the similarities between artists and hookers, and insists: “There are no virgins here.”¹ In this last instance, she is referring to the fact that her subjects are mostly recycled from photographs, but her lineup of sluts and hookers, Magdalenas and Miss Januarys, equally fleshes out her claim. Time and again, Dumas has included herself among her tarty company, warding off tiresome defenses of her fraught subject matter with a spirited offensive: by claiming the role of the gritty, grimy woman.

Dumas doesn’t just talk dirty; she paints dirty. Her surfaces—ragged with turpentine, smeared and fingered—betray a painter unafraid to soil her hands when a cloth won’t do. Lodged beneath fingernails, veining palms, Dumas’s medium becomes, in South African writer Marlene van Niekerk’s evocative phrasing, paint as taint.² It stains. It functions as incriminating forensic evidence. Yet if Dumas’s hands are sullied, inked up and ready to be fingerprinted, it is because, like all of us, she is part of filthy histories. But unlike most of us, she doesn’t try to wash herself clean. And so Dumas’s studio has become a crime scene—littered with head shots of her victims, draped in the canvases that have become their shrouds.

Dumas has famously compared the canvas to a grave, her subjects strung within its sepulchral embrace, the stretcher the cross on which they are impaled.³ But here it is less the coffin that interests me than the dirt tossed in after, the soil that covers it. Dumas has exhumed one so-called dirty picture from the vault of art history—the personification of Liberté as a female nude—dusting it off to produce her own spectral and cryptic oil painting Liberty, 1993. This pseudo Liberté is a shifty-eyed column of inscrutability with a face ringed in blue: A bruise? A mask? A trace of painterly capriciousness? Undecidable. What is clear, however, is that the figure’s black, naked, prepubescent body tears at the Western tradition of the art-historical nude. And it is one nude in particular that Dumas confronts: Eugène Delacroix’s forward-thrusting, tricolor-seizing Liberté in his celebrated Liberty on the Barricades of 1830. Dumas’s rendition counters with a wooden pose and broken wings. Turpentine-soaked slashes pin Liberty’s biceps to her trunk; her forearms splay out from the elbows; blocks for wrists end in sprays of talon-fingers. These hands reach for nothing. Haunted, as we shall see, by the twin specters of colonialism and pornography, Dumas’s Liberty peers askance at the vexed convention of inscribing political transition on the nude female body.

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