Marlene Dumas

The Image as Burden

Marlene Dumas’ exhibition at Tate Modern is intense. I walk along the stark white walls of the museum rooms and notice that only blue, brown and black subjects surround me. Numerous faces stare at me, some of them in painful agony, with tears dripping from their cheeks, others with a serene unfocused stare that characterises the blank gaze of death. I understand why my friends and colleagues did not enjoy their visits, though I completely disagree. Marlene’s portraits might be dark, but they are also infinitely intriguing.

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Marlene Dumas, 2008, Waterproof Mascara

Marlene was born in Cape Town and moved to the Netherlands in 1976, when she was in her twenties. Her work includes many subjects of (South-) African appearance; dark nudes with blue hues of reflecting light mixed in the brown paint that forms the skin. A dark portrait of supermodel Naomi Campbell – though not South-African of course – shows a wealth of colours in addition to the various browns, most of them quite unexpected to be included in a portrait.

Her black-and-white works are possibly even more powerful. One of the exhibition’s walls is covered in about a hundred ink-on-paper drawings of African faces, each of them different, all subtle caricatures of the sitters. They seem nothing more than a few strokes of the brush, but I am sure all of the subjects are strikingly recognisable.

And that is the impression I get from many of her drawings. For instance, another room holds a collection of scraps of paper with people and objects scribbled on them, seemingly sketched in haste, but after taking a closer look, definitely done with great determination. It shows the thought process behind her work, as some of them are indeed sketches for later works, but it also characterises her drawing style and the way she looks at the concept of art.

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Marlene Dumas, 1994, Models (ink drawings)

Throughout her career Marlene has been very much influenced by photography and other media, because they made her wonder about the relationship between the ‘original’ (the subject of the photograph), the ‘image’ (the photograph itself) and her own representation of it. The exhibition title ‘The Image as Burden’ is linked to that thought, as she tries to show what a painting does to the image or original it is based on, as well as what the original or image does to the painting.

The exhibition gives a great overview of Marlene’s oeuvre and is structured along the important themes of Marlene’s work: love, death, desire, and guilt, but also the human body, stories of South-Africa and the role of the artist. She is very clear about the latter: the artist should only present stories and ideas (though they might be confronting), but it is up to the viewer to interpret them in the way they find most suitable.

— The Image as Burden is still on at Tate Modern until 10 May and on 16 April the artist will do a talk at the museum. 

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