The Quietus | Features | Craft/Work

Marlène Dumas, Treason, 1994, Private collection. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York. Installation view, Marlène Dumas. open-end at Palazzo Grassi, 2022. Ph. Marco Cappelletti with Filippo Rossi © Palazzo Grassi © Marlene Dumas

the abyss, Deep, pain of feeling: Marlène Dumas knows this well and she conveys her passions brilliantly in her intimate paintings. His work focuses on emotional intensity. How do you do it without sounding exuberant or cutesy? Rare is the artist who connects so effectively with the viewer’s visceral reaction to life’s challenges; there is no schmaltz here, no sentimental sweetness. In a word, his work has ardor.

With good reason, this career retrospective is a highlight in Venice, where more than 80% of the artists presented in the current Biennale are women. Dumas can be seen as a sort of mother figure superior to those in contemporary pictorial art; it attracts supplicants. It can be seen as a source of wisdom and inspiration for a younger generation of painters, many of whose works can be found nearby in the huge exhibitions at the Arsenale and the Giardini. There are many proofs of his particular genius near the Grand Canal.

It is also appropriate that these works are only a few meters from the surrounding waters. Ripples and watery reflections are reflected in the fluid surfaces of his canvases. Although most of the works here are in oil, Dumas’s lightning-fast gestures have the immediacy of the best watercolourists. Speaking of the great names of the past, Peter Ackroyd once noted that “the emotion and passion of Venetian painters is found precisely in the revealing of the surface”. He spoke of Tintoretto and Titian but could easily have written about Dumas; its surfaces, oxymoron, are deep.

And Dumas’ obsessions join those of historic Venice itself, the great ones: sex and death. Guillaume Apollinaire once called Venice “the very sex of Europe” and when it comes to painting it is perhaps no exaggeration to apply a similar title to Dutch-based Dumas. The show begins with a sequence of surprisingly loud and sinister depictions of the body. Some of her glowing nudes appear stridently fiery, urgently sexualized, as with the explicit nocturnal pose of lilac. turkish girl (1999) or the hot roses of Miss Pompadour (1999). Your own face might have a similar tint when faced with such exposure. Then there is a D-rection (1999) where an embarrassed young man seems to have no idea what to do with a turgid purple erection. Fingers (1999) features a rear view of a woman spreading her genitals with one hand, two fingers giving her the V to those looking at her, a blunt snub to those with fragile sensibilities. But it’s the mop of silver-grey hair (a wig?), quickly and expertly painted in quick, bold strokes that gives the painting its real humour. The work cries out to the timid: Deal with it if you can, if you can’t – do yours!

Here is Ackroyd again: “There has always been a certain sensuality and voluptuousness in Venetian art, most clearly visible in Titian’s female nudes. Planes and straight lines are replaced by curves”. Dumas goes further and regains control of the female body and its representation – it is as if she were at war with the semi-porn of Gustave Courbet The origin of the world (1866), the ultimate French capture of the heterosexual male gaze.

As evidence of Dumas’ irritation at such masculine appropriation, take The door (2001) or The Immaculate (2003): these two vulvar paintings do not target the priapic figure. They don’t function as erotica or pornography. Both waver on abstraction but simply argue: this is what female genitalia look like from certain angles, under certain lights. Magnetic fields (for Margaux Hemingway) (2008) is arguably a more aesthetic take, the mons pubis seen from the side as a landscape, a forest on a gently curving hill.

Dumas’s feminism is also underlined in many other works. With The visitor (1995) we see the backs of five prostitutes waiting in a queue as if being inspected by an invisible customer. Dumas’ sympathies are clearly with women. We don’t see their faces; their humiliation is hinted at in their stiff pose, hands clasped behind their backs, but their dignity is preserved.


Marlene Dumas, (from left to right) Eye, 2018, Private collection, iPhone, 2018, Courtesy David Zwirner, Alien, 2017, Pinault Collection. Installation view, Marlène Dumas. open-end at Palazzo Grassi, 2022. Ph. Marco Cappelletti with Filippo Rossi © Palazzo Grassi © Marlene Dumas

Like vagina paintings, Birth (2018), too, revels in the vagaries of anatomical specificity, this time of the immediately postpartum body with her milk-laden breasts and darkened areolas, the shocking surprise of the abdominal streak of pigmentation known as the linea black. Drunk (1997) is yet another nude but this time a comically serious self-portrait with the artist staring down at us, frankly confrontational if with empty amusement; she is wearing only black flip flops. Dumas’ butterfly-red facial rash is mirrored to the south by a patch of sternal sunburn: you remember similar honesty from Maria Lassnig, a joint approach that reveals a gross lack of embarrassment and armored pride (the naked body as identity, as shield) in what both artists knew was theirs and only theirs.

And what about postpartum life, what about children? Dumas is very very good for kids. Take Die Baba (1985), a boy, a toddler, with big black eyes and a precocious side parting – he looks at us accusingly, knowingly. There’s no mustache of course, but he’s got the smirking look of a boyish Hitler, His Majesty the Baby, a domestic bully about to smash your new camera. where there are young people Eden (2020) with his shiny mop of curly hair and his wary gaze as if defying the racism he is sure to encounter. We recall that Dumas is originally from South Africa and his long-standing distaste for the former apartheid regime.

As for life after Dumas’ childhood political eye is unfazed: she has devoted her entire life to attacking prejudice, racial and otherwise. A series of works in progress, big men, highlights a list of homosexual or bisexual men who have experienced institutional repression. As a South African, Dumas has seen the worst that man can do. As a Pasolini fan, she captures a freeze frame from one of his early films. In Mom Roma (2012), we are confronted with a gripping representation of pain: a primal scream, the pathetic collapse of Anna Magnani’s facial features. How to watch this and not feel pity? It’s modern art mano a mano with the great Italians of the Venetian Golden Age.

More recent tragic events – the wars in Iraq and the Middle East – are mentioned in Blindfolded (2002) and Anonymous (2010-2016). Here we see the tortured; here we are forced to witness the complicity of our governments in acts of evil.

And here is Peter Ackroyd again, this time on Tintoretto: “some felt in his images a certain anxiety – a malaise, an insecurity”. It would be death of course, death in Venice, Venice city of the plague. The antipode of Dumas’ fixation on sex is, of course, death. Take this small canvas dominated by the image of a reclining woman’s head, her eyes closed, facing to the right. The skin is white with flecks of livid blue around the cheeks, earlobes: the paint around the lips looks like smudged grout, lifeless pale hair swept back with the slightest hint of pink highlights. This is dead marilyn (2008) from a post-mortem photograph of the star lying on a stretcher. What we see is not photo-realism: Dumas’ cyanotic smudges, his gray locks that seem to sag the nose, neither beautify nor cheap DEVIATION this catastrophe into a vision of horror. What we have here is solidified pity, a painting that makes us gasp at what happens to beauty, what happens to all of us. A painting that states it: no matter how famous, lucky or wonderful we are, we die.

And here is another corpse, this time that of Louis F. Celine in the pun titled The death of the author (2003). The irascible old Vichyite is taken in peace: this time his head turned to the left, a white sheet covers his intemperate vicious mouth. We recognize these eyebrows, this high forehead resting on a pillow. There’s a hint of pistachio or green pus in one eyebrow, a pink tinge in a closed eye. Clichy’s gobby ranter is now silenced forever and still we pity him and ourselves. We miss his wacky exaggerations, his failed ellipses, his unwavering gaze on the perfidy of humanity…

Finally, there are the deaths of your loved ones. Dumas painted his mother’s tomb – Einder (Horizon) (2007-2008) – where the predominantly ultramarine and black cemetery floor is hauntingly enlivened by a mass of Monet-style pastel-colored flowers. Here is tangible proof of the love that can sometimes exist for those lucky enough to have had it in the end.

Marlene Dumas, Open End, is at Palazzo Grassi, Venice, until January 8, 2023

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