There is a deathly stillness to Marlene Dumas’ paintings. They are like mug shots or crimes, the details long forgotten, or bodies laid out on a mortuary slab. And yet even that factual certainty is elusive; they seem constantly in flux, metamorphosing into something else. They are haunting, unsettling dream images that stick in your retina but evade knowledge.
Some are dead – Dumas’ grandmother for instance, a phantom deity cast in forensic blue light (‘Martha’, left, 1984); others are not, most emphatically the artist’s own self portrait entitled ‘Evil is Banal’ (below right, 1984). Most of Dumas’ work focuses on people – often close-up portraits of the face excluding any background – showing her abiding fascination with psychology. Even when using oils the paint substance has a watery, insubstantial quality, conveying the sense that expressions, emotions, motives or thoughts are slippery and cannot ever be truly known or pinned known. The title of her self-portrait is based on the famous phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann; the simple portrait is consequently subverted, becoming somehow sinister, disturbing (the colours of fire and bruises), yet perpetually ambiguous.
The large scale, close-up portraits in this arresting central gallery mark a maturity of style and creative progress; some of the others on display were part of an exhibition entitled ‘The Eyes of the Night Creatures’ of 1985, which similarly combine psychology with allusion to powerful and pointed effect. ‘The White Disease’ (below left, 1985) shows a pale, bloated face with unseeing but piercing blue eyes that could as easily be a corpse floating just under water as the suffering patient it is based on. The title too can be read literally as reference to a skin disease, or as a racial pun on the apartheid system in South Africa, where Dumas grew up.
Dumas’ relationship with the media is key to her art. She works from ‘found’ images – press clippings and photographs – rather than directly from life, and an inclination for painting on paper results in works seemingly as transient as their inspiration. The works have a power of immediacy, but not of permanence. As well as the material used, Dumas is drawn to media images as subject matter, viewing the political as a subject that art can and must address.
‘The Woman of Algiers’ (right, 2001) shows how effective her approach can be. Based upon a 1961 image taken during the Algerian war of independence, the horror of the situation and humiliation of the girl are felt with a sharp jolt; yet the anonymity of the figures – the retention of media censorship stripes, the harsh cropping of the soldiers and part-deterioration of the girl’s features – highlights a perennial aspect of past news: headlines one day, forgotten the next. However, Dumas’ choice of title adds another layer to the image, recalling the famous romanticised Orientalist painting by Delacroix, ‘Women of Algiers’, which inspired countless artists from Renoir to Picasso. This brings into play a broader view of history and war, the universal tragedy encompassed within such specific events, linking the past to the present.
Moving away from the figure for the first time in her career, ‘Mindblocks’ (above, 2009) was part of the exhibition ‘Against the Wall’ of 2010 that focused on the West Bank barrier between Israel and Palestine. Dumas credits these as her ‘first landscape paintings, or should I say “territory paintings”‘ – recognising the centrality of the political in such work which makes the classical terminology of ‘landscape painting’ seem inappropriate. The lack of any other subject matter brings the texture of the blocks of stone to the fore, stressing the materiality of the paint itself. Only the faint road markings stretching to the horizon remind one of the political import of the painting. It is this restraint – the imposingly large canvas which yet does not shout its message – that is so impressive in Dumas’ later work.
Themes of the fragility of life, death and the female body sit alongside each other throughout this exhibition. The series of large vertical canvases collectively entitled ‘Magdalenas’ depict the female body as both human, nude and vulnerable – capable of eroticism and shame – and as goddess-like, pure and inviolable. Some figures are conceptual – ‘Losing (her meaning)’ (below, 1988) is purposefully anonymous, conflating the idea of meaning in art to the meaning of a life. Others are historical female figures whose identification brings its own background story – though the series of heads of dead female subjects in the final gallery give only clues to their identity. ‘Lucy’ (above left, 2004) is based on Caravaggio’s ‘The Burial of Saint Lucy’, while ‘Stern’ depicts in similar fashion the Red Army Faction terrorist Ulrike Meinhof who died in her prison cell in 1976 (the title alluding to the German publication that first printed the image of her corpse).
By juxtaposing the infamous with the unknown, cropping and selecting, Dumas plays with out preconceptions of people and politics and in her pale fluid strokes manages to convey how time and context continually shift meaning like waves eroding the shore.