Accomplished in Marlene Dumas' distinctively fluid strokes of ink and watercolour wash, West is a portrait of Mae West, the American actress, singer, playwright, director, producer, novelist and sex siren. Part of Dumas' 1997 Wolkenkieker series, her expressive use of paint captures West's glamorous and provocative aura. Depicting her in a seductive pose, Dumas has emphasised West's curvaceous figure, her large eyes and painted lips. Imbued with a subtle metallic sheen, the richly tinted wash fades to an ethereal pink-purple towards the top of the figure, suggesting the white fur stole she was often photographed in, as well as her platinum blonde hair - both so evocative of Hollywood glamour.
Emanating sexuality and desire, West is exemplary of Dumas' use of the lone female figure to address questions of sex, gender and inequality. Exploiting the sensuality of paint, her work explores the ambiguities inherent in the way in which female sexuality is depicted in Western culture. Originally using overtly autobiographical material as her subject, Dumas has increasingly used cultural icons as her subjects, which still carry highly personal content. To Dumas, every portrait she paints feels 'like giving homage to everyone that you've been, or felt, related to', a feeling of connection that Dumas has linked to Mae West herself. 'Oscar Wilde said that if you are only capable of loving one person then you are quite limited. Mae West, who had so many different lovers, was once asked if she had ever found a man who could make her happy. She replied, 'Yes, many times'. My work is a record of all these people in my life' (M. Dumas, quoted in D. van den Boogerd (eds.) Marlene Dumas, London 1999, p. 18).
Mae West's iconic blondeness is also significant here, for the artist's own dyed hair is something that she links to her experience of being both and a painter and a woman. 'When I first mentioned being an artificial blonde, it was because I had been asked to write about why I paint, as a woman. The idea was that, apart from the fact that painting is dead, it's also for dead males. I thought, why always be on the defensive, why not turn it around? So I decided that instead of saying that in spite of the fact I'm a woman, I also like to paint, I'd say I paint because I'm a woman, I paint because I'm a blonde' (M. Dumas, quoted in D. van den Boogerd (eds.) Marlene Dumas, London 1999, p. 14). Equally, Dumas has decided to emphasis any culturally conditioned reaction to the female sex symbol. In response to somebody remarking that the eroticised nudes portrayed in the Wolkenkieker Series could be seen as perpetuating sexism, she countered 'I knew all about that, but that these are all the things that I used to worry about years ago. I don't want to make anti-images; I want to make more desires possible. It's not that the problems have gone away' (M. Dumas, quoted in D. van den Boogerd (eds.) Marlene Dumas, London 1999, p. 21).