The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


How Does It Feel To Feel? The Ardent Imagery Of Marlene Dumas
John Quin , June 4th, 2022 08:00

A comprehensive retrospective show at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice

Marlene Dumas, Betrayal, 1994, Private collection. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York. Installation view, Marlene Dumas. open-end at Palazzo Grassi, 2022. Ph. Marco Cappelletti con Filippo Rossi © Palazzo Grassi © Marlene Dumas

The deep, deep, pain of feeling: Marlene Dumas knows it all too well and she conveys her passions quite brilliantly in her intimate paintings. Her oeuvre majors in emotional intensity. How to do so without appearing gushy or mawkish? Rare is the artist who connects so effectively with the viewer’s own gut reaction to life’s challenges; there’s no schmaltz here, no sugary sentimentally. In a word her work has ardour.

Fittingly, this career retrospective is a highlight in Venice, where over 80% of the artists shown in the current Biennale are women. Dumas can be seen as something of a Mother Superior figure to those in contemporary pictorial art; she attracts supplicants. She can be viewed as a font of wisdom and inspiration to a younger generation of painters, many of whose works are to be found nearby at the enormous displays at the Arsenale and the Giardini. There’s plentiful evidence of her particular genius down by the Grand Canal.

Appropriate too that these works are only a few feet away from the all-surrounding waters. Ripples and aqueous reflections are mirrored in the fluid surfaces of her canvases. Although most of the works here are in oil Dumas’ lightning quick gestures have the immediacy of the best watercolourists. Speaking of past greats, Peter Ackroyd once noted that “the emotion and passion of the Venetian painters are to be found precisely in the revelation of the surface”. He was talking about Tintoretto and Titian but could easily have been writing about Dumas; her surfaces, oxymoronically, are deep.

And Dumas’ obsessions chime with those of historical Venice itself, the big ones: Sex and Death. Guillaume Apollinaire once called Venice ‘le sexe même de l’Europe’ and when it comes to painting it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to apply a similar title to the Netherlands-based Dumas. The show begins with a sequence of startlingly loud and lurid depictions of the body. Some of her glowing nudes appear stridently ardent, urgently sexualized, as with the explicit nocturnal posing of the lilac Turkish Girl (1999) or the hot pinks of Miss Pompadour (1999). Your own face might flush a similar hue confronted with such stark exposure. Then there’s a D-rection (1999) where an embarrassed young man seems unsure what to do with a turgid purple hard-on. Fingers (1999) features a rear view of a female splaying her genitalia with one hand, two fingers giving it the V to those watching her, a blunt snub to those with fragile sensitivities. But it’s the silver-grey mop of hair (a wig?), quickly and expertly painted in swift bold strokes that gives the painting its real humour. The work shouts at the timid: Deal with this if you can, if you can’t – up yours!

Here’s Ackroyd again: “There has always been a certain sensuousness and voluptuousness in Venetian art, most clearly seen in the female nudes of Titian. Planes and lines are supplanted by curves”. Dumas goes further and takes back control of the female body and its representation – it’s as if she’s at war with Gustave Courbet’s semi-porno L’Origine du monde (1866), the Frenchman’s ultimate capture of the heterosexual male gaze.

As evidence for Dumas’ irritation at such male appropriation take The Gate (2001) or The Immaculate (2003): both of these vulval paintings are not targeted at the priapic geezer. They do not work as erotica or pornography. Both teeter on abstraction but argue quite simply: this is what female genitalia look like from certain angles, in certain lights. Magnetic Fields (for Margaux Hemingway) (2008) is arguably a more aesthetic take, the mons pubis in side-view seen as landscape, a forest on a gently curving hill.

Dumas’ feminism is elsewhere underlined in many other works. With The Visitor (1995) we see the backs of five prostitutes waiting in a line as if for inspection by some unseen john. Dumas’ sympathies are clearly with the women. We don’t see their faces; their humiliation is hinted at in their stiff posing, hands clasped behind their backs, but their dignity is preserved.

Marlene Dumas, (from left to right) Eye, 2018, Private collection, iPhone, 2018, Courtesy David Zwirner, Alien, 2017, Pinault Collection. Installation view, Marlene Dumas. open-end at Palazzo Grassi, 2022. Ph. Marco Cappelletti con Filippo Rossi © Palazzo Grassi © Marlene Dumas

Like the vagina paintings, Birth (2018), too, delights in the quirks of anatomical specificity, this time of the immediately post-partum body with its milk-laden breasts and darkened areolae, the shock surprise of the abdominal streak of pigmentation known as the linea negra. Drunk (1997) is yet another nude only this time a comically serious self-portrait with the artist staring out at us, frankly confrontational albeit with blank amusement; she’s clad only in black flip-flops. Dumas’ butterfly red facial rash is mirrored south by a patch of sternal sunburn: you’re reminded of Maria Lassnig’s similar honesties, a joint approach that reveals a rude lack of embarrassment and an armoured pride (the naked body as identity, as shield) in what both artists knew was theirs and only theirs.

And what of post-partum life, what of children? Dumas is very very good on kids. Take Die Baba (1985), a boy, a toddler, with big black eyes and a precocious side parting – he looks at us accusingly, knowingly. There’s no moustache of course but he has the sneering look of a juvenile Hitler, his majesty the baby, a domestic tyrant about to smash your new camera. Or there’s young Eden (2020) with his brilliant shock of curly hair and his suspicious gaze as if challenging the racism he’s sure to encounter. We recall Dumas is from South Africa and her long-standing disgust at the previous apartheid regime.

As for life after childhood Dumas’ political eye is unfazed: she has made a life’s work of attacking prejudice, racial and otherwise. An ongoing series of works, Great Men, highlights a list of gay or bisexual men who have known institutional repression. As a South African, Dumas has seen the worst that man can do. As a fan of Pasolini she captures a freeze frame from one of his early movies. In Mamma Roma (2012), we confront a coruscating depiction of pain: a primal scream, the pathetic collapse of Anna Magnani’s facial features. How to look at this and not feel pity? This is modern art going mano a mano with the Italian greats of the Venetian golden age.

More recent tragic events – the Iraq and Middle East wars - are referred to in Blindfolded (2002) and Anonymous (2010–2016). Here we see the tortured; here we are forced to witness the complicity of our governments in acts of evil.

And here’s Peter Ackroyd again, this time on Tintoretto: “some have sensed in his pictures a certain anxiety – an unease, an insecurity”. That would be about death of course, death in Venice, Venice as city of the plague. The antipode of Dumas’ fixation on sex is, of course, death. Take this small canvas dominated by an image of a recumbent female head, eyes closed, facing rightwards. The skin is white with livid patches of blue around the cheeks, the earlobes: the paint around the lips looks like smeared grouting, the pale hair lifelessly swept back with the merest hint of pink highlights. This is Dead Marilyn (2008) taken from a post-mortem photograph of the star as she lies on a gurney. What we see is not photo-realism: Dumas’ cyanosed smudging, her streaks of grey that appear to collapse the nose, neither prettify nor cheaply détour this catastrophe into a vision of horror. What we have here is pity solidified, a painting that makes us gasp at what happens to beauty, what happens to us all. A painting that lays it out: no matter how famous or lucky or wonderful we are – we die.

And here’s another corpse, this time that of Louis F. Celine in the punningly titled The Death of the Author (2003). The irascible old Vichyite is caught at peace: this time the head facing left, a white sheet covers his intemperate vicious mouth. We recognize those eyebrows, that high forehead as it lies on a pillow. There’s a hint of pistachio or pus green in one eyebrow, a tinge of rose pink in one closed eye. The gobby ranter from Clichy is now silenced forever and again we pity him and ourselves. We miss his loony exaggerations, his rat-a-tat ellipsis, the unflinching stare at humanity’s perfidy…

Lastly there are the deaths of those closest to you. Dumas made a painting of her mother’s grave – Einder (Horizon) (2007–8) – where the predominant ultramarine and black cemetery ground is hauntingly enlivened by a Monet-like mass of brightly pastel coloured flowers. Here’s hard evidence of the love that can sometimes be there for those lucky enough to have had it at the end.

Marlene Dumas, Open End, is at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice, until 8 January 2023