A wash with translucent layers of amethyst, blue, pink and green, Marlene Dumas’ Loreley (The Saga of the Polluted Rhine) is an exquisite large-scale example of the ink and watercolor paintings that defined the artist’s output during one of the most significant
decades of her practice. Through their unique engagement with enigmatic female subjects, as well as their delicate mastery of
aqueous media, it was these works on paper which, according to Dominic van den Boogerd, “established [Dumas’] reputation as one
of the most prominent European painters of the 1990s” (D. van den Boogerd, “Hang-ups and Hangovers in the work of Marlene
Dumas”, Marlene Dumas, London 1999, p. 32). Executed in 1998 — an outstanding year during which Dumas was awarded both the
Coutts Contemporary Art Award and the David Röell Prize — the present work was shown at the Kasseler Kunstverein in the first
installment of the Damenwahl exhibition series, entitled Dangerous Women and Defeated Men. The mythic Rhine maiden Loreley — the beguiling yet deadly siren of nineteenth-century German folklore — takes her place within Dumas’ pantheon of supermodels and
soothsayers, mermaids and madonnas, aliens and goddesses. As part of an oeuvre renowned for its enquiry into gender, eroticism and the figural presence in art, Loreley fixes the viewer with a steely sapphire gaze that is at once disarming and bewitching, foreboding and entrancing. It is this kind of disruptive encounter — positioning the viewer as both the voyeuristic observer and the self-conscious observed — that lies at the heart of Dumas’ practice.
Having cultivated widespread acclaim for her painterly visions throughout the 1980s, it was in the watercolor and ink wash works of the 1990s that Dumas’ artistic ambition found one of its most refined and eloquent means of expression. Though widely hailed as a figural painter, often compared to the likes of Edvard Munch, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Dumas has emphasized that she is less interested in bodies so much as the encounters and conflicts that take place between them. She does not paint flesh, she explains, but rather skin — the sensuous surface that bears the marks of identity and registers the first physical contact between beings. “Painting is about the trace of the human touch,” Dumas has written; and it was the watercolor works that allowed her to enact this very conviction (M. Dumas, “Women and Painting”, in M. Dumas, Sweet Nothings: Notes and Texts, Amsterdam 1998, p. 75). In a series of notes from 1997, Dumas explains, “Paper used on the floor. Watery ink thrown onto paper like a big blob. Work with Japanese and Chinese brushes very quickly while still wet. Hold paper up to let water run down or from left to right, to create skin-like texture” (M. Dumas, “Notes”, 3 May 1997, collection records of Museum of Modern Art, New York). Dumas works in close proximity to the paper, kneeling before it on the floor so as to catch the flow of the paint as quickly as possible, and adding facial features and contour definition afterwards with a brush. Through the sensory, tactile nature of her working methods, Dumas creates figures that confront the viewer like ghostly illusions, born in a moment of fleeting physical encounter between the artist and the paper. Hovering on the edge of abstraction, with their liquefied colors still bleeding across the surface, these are not bodies but membranes: ethereal records of the artist’s touch.
Standing at over a meter tall, Loreley is a majestic and lyrically haunting example of Dumas’ technique. Paying homage to the ultimate femme fatale — the siren fabled to have lured sailors to their deaths on the rocks of the Rhine — it occupies an intriguing position
within Dumas’ enquiry into gendered presence in art, following on from important watercolor series such as Female (1992-93), Models
(1994), Pin-ups (1996) and Wolenkieker (1997). With a proclaimed interest in “dangerous women”, Dumas’ typology of characters
includes religious icons, contemporary pin-ups, mythical creatures, fairytale heroines and supernatural beings. Often modeled on
images from the media and pornography, Dumas’ women combine overt eroticism with a domineering subversion of the viewer’s gaze,
challenging us to look them directly in the eye and forcing us toquestion our own position as voyeur. Whilst historic depictions of Loreley cast her as an ivory-skinned nude combing her long flowing hair upon the rocks, Dumas’ painting places her center-stage,
unabashedly exposed against a stark white background. Stripped of any context, she appears like a ghostly beacon, a totemic symbol of lust and power that is both seductive and yet ultimately untouchable. The viewer is simultaneously enthralled and repelled, torn between looking and looking away. This Loreley is an enigma, revealing all yet disclosing nothing in a manner that, like many of Dumas’ works, may be said to recall elements of Andy Warhol’s practice. As Tilman Osterwold has written of her watercolor works, “The empty white surface on the mostly unpainted paper negate any reality-related clues about the surroundings; there are no concrete background and levels of meaning to influence the personal and artistic physiognomies. An everything and a nothing that liberates and conceals at the same time” (T. Osterwold, “Water-colors as physiognomies”, in Marlene Dumas: Wet Dreams, exh. cat.,
Städtischen Galerie, Ravensburg, 2003, p. 12).
In the spirit of this ambiguity, there is equally an unsettling dimension to Loreley that, in a twist typical of Dumas, places the viewer in
a position of unease. With its dark, watery palette and mottled, glimmering surface, it is difficult to ignore the lingering impression that this is in fact a figure submerged in the depths of the river itself. Subtle strains of tragedy begin to encroach on our perception. With
her hair turned green and her skin turned cold, is Loreley’s defiant gaze in fact an icy stare of helplessness? Indeed, Clemens Brentano’s 1801 ballad Zu Bacharach am Rheine concludes with Loreley falling to her own watery grave in the river she once presided over. There are also overtones of Oscar Wilde’s short story The Fisherman and his Soul, a text which inspired Dumas’ early depictions of mermaids, and whose conclusion sees the tragic death of both the protagonist and the mermaid whose beauty ensnared his affections. Dumas’ title hints at a more contemporary fate - the pollution of the Rhine, an ongoing twentieth-century saga that wiped out entire populations of water-dwelling creatures. Through Dumas’ fluid artistic hand, Loreley is reduced to a watery illusion, transfigured into a murky reflection of her former beauty. Toppled from her mythic pedestal, she becomes one with the very substance of Dumas’ medium. “The water-color swallows the human substance”, writes Osterwold; “the skin and the face become the water-color’s ‘nourishment’; the essence of the content is transformed into artistic material — it is no longer that which it once was” (T. Osterwold, “Water-colors as physiognomies”, in Marlene Dumas: Wet Dreams, exh. cat., Städtischen Galerie, Ravensburg, 2003, p. 24).