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‘You start with the image’: Marlene Dumas at the Tate Modern

The Image as Burden: this painting gives the Marlene Dumas retrospective currently on display at the Tate Modern its name. Marlene Dumas, The Image as Burden (1993). Private collection, Belgium. © Marlene Dumas. Photo: Peter Cox. Tate Modern

Marlene Dumas, South African-born Amsterdam-based artist, is perhaps one of the most significant practising contemporary painters. And, according to the curators of The Image as Burden at the Tate Modern in London, this is “the most comprehensive retrospective survey of the artist’s work in Europe to date”.

Since the early 1970s, Dumas has produced paintings that focus mainly on the human face and body. Unlike similar figurative painters among the Pictures Generation, which dominated contemporary art in the early 1980s, Dumas survived the supposed “death of painting” that followed. Like many figurative painters of the 1980s, Dumas acquires her sources from image-rich mass culture. Unlike many of them, however, she appropriated imagery secure in the faith that images can still emotionally affect us.

Art theorist Fredric Jameson has argued that visual culture in the 1980s was becoming saturated, and we have become collectively desensitised to the potential emotional power of photographic images.

He compared Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes, sparkling and superficial images of new high heels, with Vincent Van Gogh’s heartfelt and humanist paintings of gnarled old boots from a hundred years earlier. He found that Warhol’s shoes had lost something fundamentally human; a sense of the individual person – person-ality.

In the 1980s, artists of the Pictures Generation appropriated images from mass culture to prove exactly the same point. But Dumas never did agree. In her words:

There is the image (source photography) you start with and the image (the painted image) you end up with, and they are not the same. I wanted to give more attention to the what the painting does to the image, not only to what the image does to the painting.

Marlene Dumas, Helena’s Dream (2008). Kunsthalle Bielefeld. © Marlene Dumas. Photo: Peter Cox. Tate Modern

Dumas’s retrospective at the Tate Modern, covering 40 years of her practice, is a forceful restatement of this position. The exhibition convincingly reinforces the power of figurative painting to veil, distort, focus and manipulate an image, to draw out of it (or inject into it) something that might not be apparent in the original photographic source.

The exhibition starts on an off-beat note with a wall of ink and graphite portraits on paper, titled Rejects, 1994-2014. These are literally her rejected works. Where we might usually expect a grand artistic statement or a supposed originary moment in the artist’s practice – such as Damien Hirst posing with a dead human head at his Tate Modern retrospective in 2012 – Dumas serves first up her missteps and failures.

Throughout even her earlier work, we see themes and approaches that characterise Dumas’s entire practice. The themes that recur in her practice – identity, sexuality, gender, death, celebrity, vulnerability, beauty and ugliness – all emerge early.

Evil is Banal, 1984, is a good example here.

The title inverts Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil, a concept explored in her 1963 book on Adolf Eichmann’s trial and the bureaucratic support that sustained the Holocaust. In this painting, Dumas gives the face and hands a wash of bruised blue.

As in many of Dumas’s images of faces, the eyes possess an unnerving clarity. Others, such as the teary faces in Waterproof Mascara, 2008, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, 2008, are subtly contorted in ways that echo the more apparent depiction of emotion.

Marlene Dumas, Evil is Banal (1984). Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands. © Marlene Dumas. Photo credit: Peter Cox. Tate Modern

By the same token, images of the dead, which reappear time and again in Dumas’s paintings, are rendered disconcertingly vacant. Dead Girl, 2002, depicts a female face, stained, bruised and with matted hair, lying lifelessly on her side.

Other images of the dead – such as Death of the Author, 2003, The Kiss, 2003, Lucy, 2004 and Alfa, 2004 – seem to portray death through a more romantic filter.

In their treatment of sexuality, Dumas’s paintings are quite brutal – not only in the sense of being sexually explicit but in their matter-of-fact approach. Fingers 1999 and Miss Pompadour 1999 depict women posed from behind, naked with legs spread.

D-rection, 1999, shows a man from the side holding a dark erect penis. These sexual images are confronting for the stark ugliness of their portrayal of sexuality rather than their content.

A major theme across Dumas’s practice is celebrity and death, which appears explicitly in some of her work, like Dead Marilyn, 2008 and Amy – Blue, 2011, and more obliquely in the dual painting, Great Britain, 1995-1997, which pairs a painting of Naomi Campbell with a formal portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Marlene Dumas, Amy - Blue (2011). National Portrait Gallery, London. © Marlene Dumas. Photo: Peter Cox. Tate Modern

Similarly, Dumas created images of Phil Spector around the time of his trial for the murder of actress Lana Clark. Phil Spector – To Know Him is to Love Him, 2011, shows Spector in the wig he wore throughout the trial, and in Phil Spector – Without Wig, 2011, taken from his Police mug shot, looking somewhat like Heath Ledger’s Joker in the 2008 movie, The Dark Knight.

One of the more unsettling paintings that addresses death and the media is perhaps The Widow, 2003. The painting does not directly portray death, but is taken from a photograph of Pauline Lumumba after the execution in 1961 of her husband Patrice Lumumba, former leader of the Republic of Congo.

In the image, Pauline Lumumba is lead stripped and humiliated through Kinshasa. She survived the scene depicted here, and died only recently, aged 78, in December 2014.

A wall panel at the beginning of the exhibition suggests that, although often taken from images in the media, Dumas maintains the “human touch” in her work.

It was the absence of the “human touch” in Warhol’s work that Fredric Jameson claimed drains the emotional affect of his image. In some respects, Dumas and Warhol are similar artists – their obsessions with the mass-produced image, celebrity and death. Dumas has even painted several images of Warhol, such as a painting speculating what he might now look like had he not died in 1987.

Marlene Dumas, The Widow (2013). Private Collection. © Marlene Dumas. Tate Modern

But Warhol took death and, in the mechanical process of screening and repetition, flattened it out to the point of banality. Using the mechanical process of screen printing, he aestheticised media images of death, equating them with any other consumable, like Brillo boxes and soup cans.

Dumas’s approach, on the other hand, is more aligned with an older romanticist tradition, in which the painter attempts to invest something of their soul into the image. Her loose brushstrokes punctuated by unnervingly detailed eyes, her psychologically evocative distortions, de-machinise the mass produced photographic image.

So, while Warhol famously repeats the same image of the celebrity persona of Marilyn Monroe, Dumas paints her as cold dead blue flesh on the coroner’s slab.

Days after seeing The Image as Burden, some of Dumas’s paintings still resonated, especially Dead Girl and The Widow. Like any great novel or movie, the sense that something deep down has somehow been struck is a clear suggestion of the work’s psychological depth and affective potency.

Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden runs at the Tate Modern until May 10. Details here.

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