Marlene Dumas's paintings occupy an ambiguous twilight world of suggestion, implication, tension. Nowhere is this more clear than in The Peeping Tom, painted in 1994. In this picture, a naked figure is shown crouching, perhaps looking through a window. The pose of the subject is reminiscent of Degas's celebrated pastel at the National Gallery in London of a woman drying herself, a work that in turn had inspired Francis Bacon, alongside whose works Dumas was herself exhibited at Turin's Castello di Rivoli in 1996. In this way Dumas has invoked several strands from the history of art, introducing a complex game of appropriations which is deliberately muddied by her use of photographic sources in her work. These are sometimes from her own snapshots and archives, and are sometimes found images from magazines. This adds a layer of near anonymity that renders The Peeping Tom all the more potent and mysterious. Is it a part of an overhanging narrative? It appears to be, yet as Dumas herself has pointed out, her art is less narrative than, 'suggestive, it suggests all sorts of narratives, but it doesn't really tell you what's going on at all' (Dumas, quoted in B. Bloom, 'Interview', pp. 7-29, D. van den Boogerd, B. Bloom & M. Casadio, Marlene Dumas, London, 1999, p. 12).
Dumas's picture has a clear erotic aspect. The title heightens the sense that there is something taboo happening here; yet she has also made the viewer complicit in this act. She has placed the entire nature of viewing, of art, of display and of viewing under scrutiny, implying that it may be the artist and the viewer, rather than the subject crouching furtively in the picture, who are the Peeping Toms. However Dumas, in taking that image, embracing it and then rendering it in oils, has granted it a new incarnation. The image itself has taken on a new life, a new existence and a new status through her own intervention: 'When I started to embrace the ambiguity of the image, and accepted the realization that the image can only come to life through the viewer looking at it, and that it takes on meaning through the process of looking, I began to accept painting for what it was' (Dumas, quoted in D. van den Boogerd, 'Survey: Hang-ups and Hangovers in he Work of Marlene Dumas,' pp. 32-85, van den Boogerd, Bloom & Casadio, loc. cit., 1999, p. 37).