Marlene Dumas, For Whom the Bell Tolls, 2008
Tate Modern’s exhibition subtitle ‘The Image as Burden’ is taken from a small painting replicating a film still showing a dying heroine carried by her lover. It symbolises Marlene Dumas’ relation to her source imagery: “the challenge of working with an image that becomes an artwork”, according to Tate.
Marlene Dumas was born in 1953 in Cape Town, South Africa and moved to Amsterdam to gain exposure to the wealth of art in Europe. Amsterdam was a natural choice given her native Afrikaans tongue. Her South African heritage is not dominant in her practice though; she paints black and white people but there is no overt reference to Apartheid in her works.
Dumas always paints from photographs, recalling Francis Bacon in my view, who preferred not to see his sitters in the flesh but to rather work from their photographs. Helen Sainsbury, co-curator of the show, insisted on the role of Marlene Dumas as an artist interpreting images and her responsibility in choosing images. In Black Drawings 1991-2 for instance, Dumas worked from colonial postcards that show bodies of black people as a part of a group but she focuses on their faces and individuality.
I asked myself whether there is a Marlene Dumas way of painting. I noticed thin paint – oil (mostly), watercolour, ink, acrylic – small but expressive eyes and a scary gaze, black or flamboyant colours, in close-up portraits to erase the “irrelevant background”. Her portraits are not flattering – beautiful Naomi Campbell is tricky to recognise. Even her own daughter Helena is depicted in a frightening way, at least to the external eye. In The Painter 1994, Helena originally stands in puddles of paint but Dumas removes the background and leaves her staring gaze and blood-like coloured hands to the audience.
Tate Modern’s exhibition is comprehensive and shows the talents of an accomplished artist. Marlene Dumas is a painter of women, famous and unknown, a feminist who uses erotic images, but also touches on religious and political views by revisiting photojournalism. Her interest in cinema is also highlighted by Tate’s curators in her choice of close-up formats, Italian film director Pasolini is present and influential in her art, as she questions why can films make you cry but not art.
Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden runs at Tate Modern until 10 May 2015 – after a first stop at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam – and will then travel to Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel (31 May 2015 – 6 Sep 2015).
Marlene Dumas, The Painter, 1994