Dead babies, zombie brides, sex workers, Osama bin Laden, Phil Spector without his wig; welcome to the world of Marlene Dumas. The subject matter Dumas chooses for her paintings certainly isn’t for all tastes. “Crude” and “offensive” are among the labels that have been applied to her work. “She’s one of those artists who seems to get away with daubing bad portraits of unrecognizable people,” I read in one recent blog. Even Dumas’ supporters concede that “there’s nothing pretty or consoling about her art.”
South-African born but Amsterdam-based since 1976, Dumas certainly likes to dwell on the dark side: desire, decay, longing, bereavement and death — all the big, existentialist concerns are her principal themes. Nor does she ignore “hot-button” issues like the Israeli-Palestine Conflict (as in her painting “The Wall,” 2009), the cult of celebrity (her 2011 portrait of Amy Winehouse) or homophobia (the “Great Men” series of gay icons, 2014-present). There is much black humor, and many sly digs at, among other things, some contemporary white male artists.
This retrospective of Dumas’s work at Tate Modern is a scaled-down version of the one that recently ended at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam: with just over 100 exhibits, it’s roughly half the size of the Dutch show. Broadly organized by theme, it’s well laid out in the Tate’s bright, airy galleries (how other London public galleries must envy the Tate its temporary exhibition space!)
Although her early work included collages, by the late 1970s Dumas had settled on being a figurative painter, and she’s stuck to her guns ever since. Her subject is humanity in all its forms. From the outset she swam against the then-prevailing tide of Abstract Expressionism, although her work has always been conceptual, not at all realist.
Her use of the appropriated image lies at the heart of her work; Dumas never works directly from life. She draws inspiration from printed media — now collected in a vast archive in her studio — as well as borrowing from cinema and other artists she admires, from greats of the past like Caravaggio and Holbein to more recent painters like Ad Reinhardt. Her sources may be secondhand, but the emotions she generates from them in her paintings are, as she herself rightly says, firsthand.
I must admit I do sometimes find her work difficult to fathom. Even the title of the show, “The Image as Burden,” derived from a painting she made in 1993, is somewhat ambiguous. Her titles often don’t help much. Why, for example, did she call her self-portrait of 1984 “Evil Is Banal”? Nor are the labels in this exhibition, written by the artist herself, particularly enlightening, although they are certainly entertaining, poetic even. “Don’t worry,” Alex Katz apparently once advised her, “you don’t have to explain everything.”
And in any case, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy this exhibition without bothering too much about the exact nature of Dumas’ take on the world. Because in this age of mass media and digital images, this show is, above all, a celebration of the physicality of paint. The timing is opportune: now 61, Dumas is at her creative peak.
Standing in front of her work allows you to appreciate all those qualities, such as simplification, distortion and variation in scale, that are usually lost in reproduction. She applies paint — sometimes dry, more often deliquescent — seemingly without effort (she does indeed work very fast, often producing a major work in a single session). Her use of blurred, ghost-like outlines and her garish, even ghoulish, palette have become her hallmarks, much imitated by artists of a younger generation. Far from resting on her laurels, though, Dumas is constantly finding new ways to work. In “Helena’s Dream” (2008), for example, she achieved the silky smoothness of her daughter’s face by tipping the canvas from side to side; “like a lullaby,” she explains, characteristically.
Although I admire her oils, my personal preference is for her works on paper, a generous selection of which have been brought together here. Most are “portrait heads,” which she tends to produce in series format, such as the “Black Drawings” (1991-92), in which Dumas explores colonial stereotypes of black men in myriad monochromatic tones, a happy marriage of form and content. She uses diluted black ink wash with a brio that few other living artists can match.
It seems extraordinary to me that some people are still asking themselves: “Has painting had its day?” Not while artists like Marlene Dumas are around, it hasn’t.