Intimate, Tender, Violent: The Larger than Life Paintings of Marlene Dumas
A lifelong study of emotion and its presentation through the human form, Marlene Dumas is a South African artist and painter that has exhibited all over the world and is renowned for her sexually explicit paintings of naked bodies.
Often concentrating her work on portraits and figurative forms, Dumas moves away from the traditional concept of portraiture and demonstrates instead an exploration of emotion, feeling, and mood.
Taking inspiration from ready-made and mass-produced images found in newspapers and magazines, the artist is fascinated by iconography, whether in the female figures of religious martyrs or the celebrities found in the present day.
Dumas also works with her everyday surroundings, creating compositions based on photographs of her family as it grows from husband to daughter to grandchildren.
From ink to charcoal, to oil and acrylic paints, Dumas comfortably takes ease in presenting her subject matter in various media, using colour (at times, the lack of it as well) to hone in on and explore ideas surrounding sexuality and shame, politics and violence, life and death.
Having grown up during apartheid-era South Africa, Dumas has often broached and worked on themes of racism and social inequality.
Her work has similarities with the likes of Francis Bacon, Martin Kippenberger, and Maya Bloch.
LIFE AND TIMES OF MARLENE DUMAS
Dumas was born on Sept 3, 1953, in Cape Town, South Africa. She studied fine arts and ethics as a subsidiary course at the University of Cape Town between 1972 and 1975, initially starting to paint in 1973.
Dumas continued her art studies at Ateliers ‘63 in Haarlem in the Netherlands, an independent art school which today is located in Amsterdam and renamed De Ateliers.
Later, between 1979 and 1980, Dumas studied psychology at the University of Amsterdam, having considered a career in art therapy, which she decided to not pursue.
In 1982, along with another young artist, Rene Daniels, both were invited to present work at Documenta 7.
Dumas’ first solo museum show was held in 1984 at Centraal Museum in Utrecht, titled Ons Land Licht Lager Dan De Zee (Our Country Slightly Lower Than The Sea), while her first solo museum show abroad was organised only a few years later at the Kunsthalle zu Kiel in Germany, titled Waiting (For Meaning), with a focus on the nude female form.
In 1995, the artist was invited to represent the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and exhibited along with Marijke Van Warmerdam and Maria Roosen.
She has been the recipient of the Vermeer Prize (2012) as well as an honorary doctorate from the University of Antwerp, an honorary degree as Doctor of Fine Arts at the University of Cape Town and the Rolf Schock Prize in the Visual Arts (2011).
Dumas’ works can be found among the following permanent collections: MoMA, Tate, Pinault Collection, Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Collection S.M.A.K. and Centraal Museum Utrecht.
Dumas currently has solo shows at Palazzo Grassi in Venice, titled Open-End and Musee d’Orsay in Paris, titled Le Spleen De Paris.
Since 1976, she works and resides in the city of Amsterdam.
MARLENE DUMAS' ARTISTIC STYLE AND TECHNIQUE
Working with the technique of wet-on-wet Dumas paints thin layers of paint with thick layers.
At times the subject matter takes on a ghostly feel as if they are behind a veil making them appear almost transparent or on the verge of disappearing, as the thinner paint dribbles down the canvas, similar to watercolour when washed down.
Dumas has developed a distinct style, with a muted application of a pale palette, often separating the subject from its surroundings with an abstract background of an unspecified space or none at all, removing the person from any worldly references.
Moreover, Dumas extends the figure to render them larger than life, full body portraits with a height of three metres, often with unnatural perspectives to create a surreal depiction of the subject.
Nude figures are often in Dumas’ work, from an acrobatic stripper in Candle Burning (2000) to the elongated form of a pregnant Venus in Birth (2018).
In the early 2000s, Dumas collaborated with photographer Anton Corbijn, together they visited nightclubs in the Red Light District of Amsterdam to work on the art book Stripping Girls (2000).
Dumas also looks for inspiration in pornographic magazines and slightly morphs the subject in her own work, by changing the colour, and transforming the shape of the face and body.
The subject, as with most of Dumas’ works, takes over the space, yet at the same time the genitalia is not the sole focal point as intended with the original image, the focus has shifted towards the person, the emotion created.
Dumas paints nude figures where shame does not play a part, the body is celebrated in its various forms.
In the self-portrait, Drunk (1997) Dumas presents her own body as, in her words, "naked, old, drunk and female".
A self-portrait that exposes a vulnerability, yet there is no room for shame.
In Amazon (2016), a three-metre high oil painting based on a Polaroid photograph Dumas took of her daughter Helena as a young adult, Dumas celebrates the strength of women by referencing tall Amazonian warriors.
MARLENE DUMAS USES ICONOGRAPHY AND READYMADE IMAGES
Marlene Dumas, Pasolini, 2012. Collection of the artist/Ph: Peter Cox, Eindhoven © Marlene Dumas
Following the success of the pop art movement and like many other figurative artists during the 1960s and 70s, Dumas also began to interpret the use of pre-existing images in her works.
She has addressed the use of basing her paintings on photographs from current events and past and modern-day faces in her book Sweet Nothings: Notes And Texts.
“I am an artist who uses second-hand images and first-hand emotions,” she wrote. Examples of Dumas’ use of readymade images include the portraits Pasolini (2012), Oscar Wilde (2016), and the famous still of Italian actress Anna Magnani from the 1962 Pasolini film as she screams, the portrait shares the same name as the film title, Mamma Roma (2012).
MARLENE DUMAS' NOTABLE ARTWORKS
'GREAT MEN', 2014 - ONGOING
Marlene Dumas, Great Men, series of drawing from 2014, Collection of the artist. Installation view, Marlene Dumas. open-end at Palazzo Grassi, 2022 / Ph. Marco Cappelletti con Filippo Rossi © Palazzo Grassi © Marlene Dumas
The celebrated Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) is also included in a series of drawings titled Great Men, an ongoing work of ink pencil and metallic acrylic on paper from 2014.
First exhibited during Manifesta 10, the European nomadic biennial of contemporary art which was held in St Petersburg, Dumas presented Great Men.
A series of 16 portraits of famous gay and bisexual men who have made a mark on history, such as Allan Turing, James Baldwin, and Sergei Eisenstein, among others.
Dumas specifically presented these works in response to Russia’s laws against the promotion of homosexuality.
'DEAD MARILYN', 2008
Marlene Dumas, Dead Marilyn, 2008. Kravis Collection / Ph: Peter Cox, Eindhoven © Marlene Dumas
Based on an autopsy photograph of Marilyn Monroe published in a 1985 Dutch newspaper, Dumas painted the portrait with pale blue hues, giving a ghostly feel to the famous image.
Dumas has commented on it, saying, “I never wanted to paint Marilyn before, although Hollywood has always intrigued me. Andy Warhol made the best portraits of her as a star: timeless and superb.
"But looking at the sad, desolate images made after her death, I saw the end of the 'American Dream'.”
In preparation for her show "Measuring Your Own Grave" at MoMA, New York, she noted: “It also relates to my own history because my mother died in 2007. And I did not know how to give form to that experience… this old newspaper image fell out of all my boxes of things while I was looking for something else.
"And it was this autopsy photograph of the dead Marilyn Monroe … this Dead Marilyn seemed to also express a certain end of a certain era … In a sense, it is a portrait of death. But it is also a portrait of Marilyn Monroe. It is a portrait of a period. It is a portrait of one’s own potential death.”
Marlene Dumas, The Painter, 1994. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fractional and promised gift of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg, 2005/Ph: Peter Cox, Eindhoven © Marlene Dumas
In 1989 Dumas gave birth to her daughter Helena, who became the subject matter of several works, such as The Painter (1994), and the Super 8 film My Daughter (2002).
At the age of five, Helena became a collaborator in the works themselves.
In Underground, a 28-part series of page-filling portraits, the black and white ink wash works initially created by Dumas were continued with the added decoration and colours of Helena, leaving her own mark and leading to a total transformation from the initial to the final piece.
The faces come to life with glittered dots and small handprints, makeup sometimes added or bright red lines over the eyes, Helena was given the freedom to touch and draw on her mother’s work, which previously had been forbidden.
Similar in style to Great Men, Betrayal is another political work presented in a grid of black and white ink on paper portraits.
The 29-part series reflects on Dumas’ upbringing in apartheid-era South Africa, where its citizens would be categorised according to race, ethnicity and appearance.
Dumas invites the viewer to study the portraits, to see the people as individuals and not categories; the portraits are based on a range of existing photographs, from friends, and acquaintances in the art world, to Nazis and one frog.
According to Dumas, the frog is a reference “to an evil omen, like the frog in the disturbing Bergman film The Virgin Spring (1960)”.
Cover Credit: Marlene Dumas, Betrayal, 1994. Private collection, Courtesy David Zwirner/Ph: Emma Estwic, New York © Marlene Dumas
Writer | Glesni Trefor Williams
Glesni Trefor Williams is a Bologna-based art journalist/translator from North Wales, who focuses her writing on contemporary art and interlinked exhibition spaces. She has written for Lampoon, Spinosa Magazine, and is an arts contributor on BBC Wales radio. @glesniw