Marlene Dumas is renowned for her frank, often sexually explicit paintings of naked figures. Ever since 2008, when one of her 1995 works, The Visitor, made her the world’s most expensive living female artist, her provocatively dark pictures have garnered press attention.
Less well known is that Dumas also writes poetry, finding ambiguities in verse similar to those she explores in images. She once said she wanted her paintings to be like poems, explaining that ‘Poems are like sentences that have taken their clothes off.’
Dumas is currently the subject of a large-scale retrospective at Palazzo Grassi in Venice. The show reveals just how wide and varied the artist’s subject matter is, ranging from the Dutch painter Holbein to the assassin of Jean-Paul Marat, Charlotte Corday, and from psychiatric patients to economic migrants.
She once wrote that ‘my best works are erotic displays of mental confusion (with intrusions of irrelevant information)’. In essence, her paintings evoke the messy and often frightening realities of living in the world today.
Dumas was born on the outskirts of Cape Town in 1953, five years after apartheid became a legal political system in South Africa. Her father was a winemaker, and Dumas grew up on a farm in relative prosperity. Life, however, was not without tragedy: when she was 12 her father died, and this was to have a profound impact on her practice.
Drawing came easily to Dumas. Aged nine she was sketching bikini girls on the back of cigarette packets to impress her father’s friends. ‘Come to think about it, I’m still busy with those types of images and imagination,’ she said in 1993.
After studying at the University of Cape Town, she was awarded a scholarship and left for the Netherlands — her parents’ active dislike of Great Britain (the former coloniser) influencing her decision not to study in the UK.
Coming from a repressive and censorious society to a Holland in the grip of a punk revolution was a culture shock. This was the era of identity politics and late second-wave feminism. Her guides were the philosophers Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes, whose diverse publications included works on mass media and popular culture.
It was while studying in Haarlem that Dumas discovered she preferred the anonymity of a photograph to painting from life. Much of her early subject matter came from pornographic magazines; later she began using newspaper clippings and Polaroids. Relatively quickly, two key preoccupations surfaced: sex and death.
The first emerged out of the transgressive atmosphere she witnessed in Amsterdam — the neon sex signs, the women in full make-up and high heels, the Stygian darkness of the adult cinema. Her portraits of strippers and prostitutes are strong and confrontational, with that bleary, slept-in quality of the red-light district by day.
This is partly due to her technique of using wet-on-wet materials: ink with lots of water, or diluted oil paint that she can keep wiping off until she has reached the desired effect. It creates a swollen, washed-out impression, distancing her figures from the viewer.
Her colours can be equally disturbing: a combination of bilious greens, yellowish whites and greys, smeary and fluid. Dumas once recalled that her father’s illness made his skin change colour very rapidly, and her portraits sometimes evoke the waxy pallor of sickness.
The artist tends to describe her paintings as ‘portraits’ and often works in series, with subjects ranging from Jesus and Mary Magdalene to close-ups of actors in movies she loves, such as Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour or Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.
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She likes to subvert historical tropes, too: her females may be naked, but they are no pushovers — a far cry from the pliable sex symbols of Western art history.
‘I use every kind of trick to get attention,’ she says. ‘Eyes that stare at you, exposed or deliberately covered sexual areas. The strength of primitive attraction that stems from recognition, the image that prostitutes itself. You are forced to say yes or no.’
Dumas has admitted in interviews that death is never far from the surface of her paintings. In a poem she wrote for her MoMA exhibition, Measuring Your Own Grave, in 2008, she explained that the title was ‘the best definition I can find for what an artist does when making art’.
Works by Marlene Dumas will be exhibited until 15 July 2022 in The Art of Literature, part of Christie’s London Now summer season of exhibitions, events and auctions