Born in Cape Town 1953, Marlene Dumas has had a long and distinguished career. After studying psychology, Dumas focused her energies upon painting, often referencing the darker side of the human psyche. Sex, Death and Love, are often explored in depth, as well as Homosexuality, Shame, Celebrity, Religion, Gender and Race.
This retrospective shows a diverse plethora of work spanning her entire career. In the first room we are greeted by her ‘Rejects’, almost monochrome and darkly melancholy paintings of larger-than-life faces that fill an entire wall and intimidate all that enter. To begin a retrospective with paintings that you essentially been rejected from other projects is a bold move curatorially, and one that in this instance has definitely paid off. Dumas is not one for convention, and in this the show doesn’t disappoint.
These gritty portraits set the theme for the whole show, and some even appear as if they have been painted with real dirt. It is difficult to avoid the icy chill that these works issue down your spine. On a few of these paintings the eyes have been cut or burnt out, to reveal other painted images beneath, peering through. This twinned with the vast foreheads and blank stares, makes these paintings appear as if they are deathmasks of the recently deceased. A chilling indication of things to come, and an apt way to begin the show.
In room two the large blueprint collage ‘Love verses Death’ poses much subtler and unusual questions. It is less bold and striking than the first room, and for this reason could be overlooked. Simple line drawings of people, with the recurring image of the Caritas Romana (a man being breastfed by his daughter to save him from starvation), show not only her true skills of draftsmanship, but also her knowledge of, and interest in, the darker and more esoteric sides of art history.
Dumas’s paintings are dark and dangerous, the skin on many is painted so thinly and transparently that it appears as real skin. Not the perfectly smooth and radiant skin of the classical portrait painters, but pale and unctuous and unglamorised. Like that of a corpse.
Many of the paintings are larger than life sized and hung higher than eye-level, two devices that are utilized to emphasize the haunting and forceful nature of the works. Dumas paints things that are often swept under the carpet, but here she brings them out into the open and forces us to look.
Her colour palate is unusual, choosing blues and greens for areas that are usually pink and red. This serves to heighten the feeling of unease felt upon viewing the works, as one is forced to wonder what purpose this strange juxtaposition serves. A panorama of navy blue and purple spans the forehead of one African male, suggesting immense wisdom.
Corpses also feature heavily in the show, sometimes life-size and prostrate. One of these is titled ‘Dead Girl’, and is painted from a photograph that Dumas found and then kept for twenty years before painting it. This kind of connection to a subject is how she has been able to paint such a haunting and yet beautiful portrait, long after the girl has gone.
Displacement is often hinted at throughout her oeuvre, which echoes her own displacement from South Africa to The Netherlands in 1976, where she still lives and works today. Censored paintings of a nude woman being led away by two soldiers still retain the black modesty boxes added by the publisher of the source photograph. These boxes do nothing more than heighten our awareness of her nakedness, and show how out of place and vulnerable she is in-between these two men, who hold her arms apart to expose and display her frailty. Dumas did two different paintings of this same photograph, both of which are in the show.
Another key element in this show is the text, cleverly written titles such as ‘Evil Is Banal’ and ‘The White Disease’, add another dimension to the already poignant paintings about evil and race. The painting ‘Magdalena’ in room seven, for example, has exaggerated birthing hips that represent fertility and traditional ideals of beauty, but small and awkward breasts that hand limply on her chest. This is hung with the contradictory subtitle ‘Out of Eggs, Out Of Business’, suggests and then subverts what the painting itself depicts.
As well as these clever titles there are many quotes and poems by Dumas herself. Her quote; “Painting as a form of exorcism or therapy”, suggests what she sees as the values of art.
Dumas has compared her paintings to ‘action paintings’, which are focused more on their gesture and method than on their subject matter. Dumas would often disregard the brush and paint with her hands or other parts of her body, if the painting necessitated it. The paintings are not there to depict exactly something as she has seen it (often she will do two completely different paintings from the same source photograph), but as a way of creating something new. “Art is not a Mirror. Art is a translation of that which you do not know.”
Her work is unapologetic in its starkness and brashness, and the viewer is merely a voyeur to many of these paintings. In describing a nude painting of her daughter Dumas remarked, “She is not there to please you. She pleases herself.” The painting exists as an autonomous entity, unconcerned with our opinions on its meaning or our pondering on the ethics of the subject matter. This quote is also important as it sets a clear boundary between this type of non-sexualised nudity depicted in her paintings of children, and the other forms of erotic nudity in her watercolours.
Never one to fall in line, this show breaks many rules. Paintings of Princess Diana are hung in the same gallery as Osama Bin Laden. Innocent portraits of children are given haunting titles, and nothing is deemed too controversial.
Marlene Dumas is a painter that shows the world as it really is, rather than how we wished it were. Her paintings are honest and brutal, showing us things that we would often turn away from. She rejects how media often glamorizes the vacuous and ignores the important, and she forces us to do the same.
Marlene Dumas once said that “Painting is about the trace of the human touch”, and in this show she has shown that this includes not only the pristine and the perfect, but also the dark and macabre elements of human life. This show proves that there is a true and unique beauty that exists in the obscene, and it shows us that we cannot experience one fully without also understanding the other.