With its oppressive image of a bleak and bloated visage, The White Disease is a masterful symbiosis of figurative form and content, executed in Marlene Dumas's main medium of paint. The artist depicts a larger-than-life-size face of an anonymous woman, which a skin disease has disfigured and distorted. Dumas obliterates the face with a white, mask-like wash, depicting the flesh, stained with slight spots of chalky color, with nuance. The painting visually projects racism as a serious and lethal illness, actively critiquing and resisting racial intolerance.
Executed in the mid-1980s, The White Disease belongs to a series of paintings entitled The Eyes of the Night Creatures, which explore recurring themes in the artist's oeuvre, including racial and ethical intolerance. The painting resembles the format of some of Dumas's most significant works, portraying numerous faces, which she grouped into categories such as "models" and "rejects." The mid-1980s also marked the height of apartheid in South Africa, which the artist witnessed herself while living there. Apartheid's racial taxonomy would classified Dumas as "white." Dumas drew from the subject found in her collection of source imagery, appropriating a photograph taken by a friend who was working in a place for people with skin diseases. The image inspired her to depict racial intolerance artistically, having strongly portrayed that a matter of perspective can invert the ideology behind racial problems.
The White Disease serves notice that the "disease" of white supremacy is not contained only in South Africa, nor did apartheid invent it, but rather it is a timeless and universal affliction. Dumas elevates the subject to meanings that transcend the personal sphere, into more general human experience. As Dumas states, "I have not come to propagate freedom. I have come to show the disease symptoms of my time. I am a good example of everything that is wrong with my time" (M. Dumas, quoted in A Girl for All Seasons, 1986). In personifying humanity, the portrait exhibits a fixed field and formal stillness that evokes psychological, not pictorial, drama. The White Disease's exterior sickness penetrates the subject's inside, and transforms her into the mask-like face of the oppressor, ill both physically and mentally, and the expression of both the condemned and the condemner.
Dumas sets the disembodied portrait against a neutral background and deprives it of any context, a common feature in many of her works. The artist uses this device to increase the picture frame's abstraction, and to magnify the figure's isolation and alienation. The frontal gaze confronts the viewer, and the close-up format evokes intimate discomfort, while heightening the portrait's communicative force. As the artist distorts dimensions and proportions, she transforms the viewer's vision of reality. The face's size and the canvas' vertical orientation, for example, conjure authoritarianism, a power larger than an individual's life.
Dumas also distorts chromatic and tactile variations, striking a visual relationship between the surface of the skin and that of the painting. The painting recalls her predecessors in the history of figurative painting (like Théodore Gericault, Hans Holbein, Egon Schiele and Leon Golub). Dumas's element of skin color acquires great significance, and the flesh achieves high importance. White translucent paint creates a ghostly shade, alluding to the illness that inflicts her subject, while water-saturated colors lend the portrait and its physical and physiognomic plasticity an unreal, immaterial transparency, suggesting the fugitive nature of life, and the bleak circumstances of death.
We can see the artist's brushstrokes in the layering of pigment, and the soft interweaving of facial elements, creating a painterly rendition that reveals and at times conceals the figure. The figure's paleness is marred by charred lips, and tender features created by impasto, as slender and fragile as life itself. The face's contour and expression also fade away: the forehead almost disappears through the hair, the eyebrows are barely noticeable, and Dumas replaces the shape of the nose with a pink spot of color - all signaling a loss of humanity, and an indifferent psychosomatic state.
The portrait also reveals a unique depth, with eyes that open onto fathomlessness - behind them lays the interior stripped of appearances. The piercing gaze fixes on a distant point, a look that seems to dissolve into itself. Squinted watering eyes and sealed lips hint at resignation or condemnation, revealing a sorrow at injustice, which perhaps arouses the viewer's empathy. The disease causes loss and disintegration of the self - both moral and physical damnation - a state the portrayed subject witnesses conscientiously. In its attempt to subjugate others, The White Disease results in self-annihilation.
The White Disease stands as one of Dumas's finest explorations, and challenges the characteristics of traditional portraiture as a politically invested genre; not coincidentally, she has acknowledged that it is one of her favorite paintings (Day to Day, NPR, June 20, 2008). The artist reveals a new face to help understand universal racial intolerance, while simultaneously achieving a powerful pictorial statement. Dumas desires to dignify the individual, celebrating diversity and the humane in times of identity crisis. She reminds us that crimes against humanity register inside and outside the flesh, and that The White Disease is not solely a discourse of terror, but also one of hope. The subject is therefore timeless, and the painting's meanings are exhaustless, a phantom with visible traces of a destructive disease, still uncured today.