Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, curated by Leontine Coelwij at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam from 6th September 2014 to 4th January 2015
rough lash of colour / dark spread of blood /some blue Marilyn, mouth round a bottle / dead lips kissing the ground/ washed edges, /liminals, borders, demarcations, / bleedings of colour /grey the only possible resolution? /stippled black, drip of water or paint / local, here, now /faces graze the edges, brush /the base of their paintings, /their life breathes out, finds /us, out here /out here among the women /the raunch and gesture of her arm /takes our bodies, splits our legs, unfolds /our arms, banks our troubled heads in serial rows /asks how it is to be human
Amsterdam, Holland, Dumas’ home town, an odd mix of high respectability (the land of the pot plant in the window, the dressed up frontage) and out there liberty where anything goes, (cannabis coffee bars; sex shops; gothic delights).
The opening room holds two paintings: one is ‘Dead Girl’ 2002. Dark red blood slides across her mouth. The other is ‘Bashfulness’ of 1991: a young girl, toes pointing in, stares down at her feet. Dumas has been deeply involved with curating this retrospective. She does not intend it to be an easy ride.
At the very least, this exhibition will be about gender and cruelty. The drawing in the room (yellowing, hard to read) says something else: this is where Dumas’ work fully engaged with some of the politics which she grew up with in South Africa. This is the artist as commentator.
Facing us, in the next room, is a large painting of a young man with an erect and purple penis. Parents earnestly explain the artistic nature of the image to giggling children. Into the land of the pot plant, Dumas has chucked a few grenades in the form of highly erotic and in some cases pornographic images.
‘I paint images, not portraits’. ‘The Image as Burden’ refers to Dumas’ 1993 painting of that name – but also to the political and religious weight that the contemporary artist carries around with her. The pose of the two figures in the painting reminds us of a secular pieta. The female image has been sacrificed. And the contemporary female artist has been left with the burden of finding us a replacement.
Dumas’ answer to this weight of purpose is to present us with ourselves. Painting after painting shows us human bodies and faces. Each of these is distinctive – when you look at a wall of her inked, drawn, mask-like heads, they are clearly very different from each other. But they are not at all portraits of particular people even if particular people have provided the photographs which they’re made from. She is mediating what she sees; taking the images that the world throws up, plonking them down in front of us so that we can decide what we might want to do with them.
In her catalogue conversation with Theodora Vischer, Dumas talks about the way she paints – rather than, as is more usual with this artist, about what she paints. ‘I wanted to be a modern painter. At a certain stage, the need to get rid of the background, making it as flat as possible, became very important.’ In a country where de Hooch, Vermeer and Rembrandt (no wonder she doesn’t want to paint portraits!) are looming residents, one can see her point.
Dumas says that ‘for some time I’ve been thinking about how to represent space in a painting’ and in her most recent paintings she has started to move more towards the full length depiction of people in groups rather than concentrating on the close up. In ‘The Widow’, the painting of Patrice Lumumba from 2013, she uses depth, full length figures and some detailed passages of paint. The woman’s blue tinged arms, the dark shadows on her skin, the blackness of her face contrast with the sketched skirt with its slight red lines, so that the fact of her nakedness is emphasised and made more touching as she walks so publicly with her grief.
This suggests that Dumas is ready to move on into new territory. Her predilection for drawing; her concentration on the figure; her distortions of the body; her interest in eroticism and pornography all link her with artists such as Egon Schiele in the past and Jenny Savile in the present. It would be interesting if she took her defiant attack on bourgeois sensibility (‘I won’t have a potplant’) into new and larger territory, away from the close up image and out into painting.