'The images I deal with are familiar to almost everyone everywhere. My 'models' have already modelled for someone else. There ain't no virgins here'
(Marlene Dumas quoted in Marlene Dumas Selected Works, exh. cat, Zwirner and Wirth New York, 2005, p. 9)
An arresting image of four uniformed boys smiling with radiant non-naturalistically coloured and slightly demonic mask-like faces while gathered together outside the school gates, The Schoolboys is an outstanding two-metre-long canvas that belongs to an important series of works depicting groups of school children that Marlene Dumas made in 1987. Drenched predominantly in a range of dark hues that mix and contrast deep viridian green, Prussian blue and burnt umber into a shimmering field of colour, the painting hovers between abstraction and figuration, photographic realism and painterly invention, to create a sharp, intensified and almost hallucinatory image of its all-too familiar subject matter.
With its concentration on the cheeky smiling faces, the sharp angular white stripes of the boys' blazers, graphically and formally emphasising them as all members of the same privileged group, and their manifestly 'at ease' poses, hands firmly set in
pockets, The Schoolboys presents an image that at first glance seems to capture the essence of the playground gang. Indeed, with their smiling faces - here slightly blurred by Dumas's delicate abstracting sweeps of the brush and intensified colour - all turned sharply towards the viewer, the boys seem almost to leer or mock the viewer's status as an outsider.
A complex mixture of what Dumas has described as 'second-hand images and first-hand emotions', the painting is one of series of major works depicting groups of figures that she first painted and premiered at two exhibitions held in Amsterdam in 1987: 'The Private versus the Public' at the Galerie Paul Andriesse and 'Century 87: Today's Art Face to Face with Amsterdam's Past' at the Schuttersgalerij in the Amsterdam Historical Museum. As the title of these exhibitions reveals, Dumas concern with these works was with group imagery in both the private and the public sphere and throughout history. In contrast to other paintings in these two exhibitions such as The Teacher (Sub A) or The Teacher (Sub B) for example, which used formalised groupings of figures such as the school class photograph to explore the relationship between individual identity and the rigid collective regimentation of the group, The Schoolboys presents a 'private' or self-organised informal grouping.
Where in The Teacher (Sub A) Dumas had presented a formalised sequence of young mask-like faces seemingly subdued to the rigour of the school grid in a humorous painterly reworking of the concept of the class photo and the class yearbook, in The Schoolboys Dumas has explored an image of the school group as it manifests itself outside the regimentation of the class. The relaxed informal composition of the figures is one that is both instantly familiar a clearly derivative from a family photograph probably taken by one of the boys' parents. Dumas always works from photographic source images drawn from a wide variety of media, and as the title of her 1987 exhibition at the Galerie Paul Andriesse made clear, it was with this seemingly invisible border line between the 'private' and the 'public' image that she was especially concerned in these paintings. Growing out of a previous series of paintings that concentrated on couples and the strange pictorial narratives that can be constructed in the viewer's mind solely from the body language existing between two painted figures, Dumas pursued this aim in 1987 into the larger context of the group. As the overt bravura of the boys' stances in The Schoolboys reveals, an entire world of hierarchy and posturing is written within the way that they have adopted their seemingly relaxed poses. It is in fact, the fascinating and noticeable differences existing between the postures of these boys - here emphasized as such by being translated by Dumas into a semi-abstract pictorial space - that forms the centre of her interest in this picture.
Dumas's work is rooted in an understanding of the human figure as a kind of visual lexicon of this sort of psychologically revealing narrative and on how the body in all its awkwardness or ease of posture can speak volumes about the nature of the human condition as a whole. It is this unique, and highly individualistic aspect of the body that is often caught unawares on camera and what Dumas's fluid and almost intuitive painting response to such imagery tends to draw out from her sources. It is also this individualistic nature of each figure that, as Dumas pointed out when she painted these 1987 paintings of groups, means that the group as an ideal, and any attempt at representing it is ultimately 'doomed to failure' but is precisely in this 'failure' that Dumas' interest in the subject of the group lay. (Marlene Dumas, Century 87: Today's Art Face to face with Amsterdam's Past exh. cat., Schuttersgalerij, Amsterdam Historical Museum, Amsterdam, 1987, p.111). 'I always wanted to be an abstract artist' she once said, 'There was a time when I didn't want to use the figure, but I went back to it because it carries so many psychological associations that are hard to name or pinpoint. My interest in the figure has nothing to do with anatomy but instead with what happens between people.' (Marlene Dumas Quoted in B. Balkenhol and M. Winzen, 'Hard or Soft, A Conversation with Marlene Dumas and Andries Botha', 1998, www.marlenedumas.nl) KA