Marlene Dumas

An Artwork of the 19th Century that was and stays important to me. Even Fairies can be ok.

At the art academy where I started to teach in Holland in the 80’s, there was a girl who painted fairies and witches. I agreed with the other teachers that this was bad, even as kitsch! Yet I, nor anyone else, could explain to the student what in essence, was the problem with her work. In the end all the different explanations seemed to come down to the same conclusion, that with this kind of subject matter it was impossible to make a painting. If this was true, it would imply that by definition certain subject matter was unpaintable. This bothered me extremely, but I lacked evidence to prove my point. Then I discovered a tradition not mentioned in my art history books and only found in Britain in the 19th century, a speciality of Victorian Times: The Fairy Painters! The father of Sherlock Holmes did it, a few others did it, but the one who really did it for me was Richard Dadd. Years later my excitement about my discovery had cooled off a bit and I had to admit that almost none of these fairy paintings would make it to my list of top 100 artworks. Except for one. The Fairy Feller’s Master –Stroke by Richard Dadd [1] is a fantastic painting on all levels. It is wonderfully composed, layered, intense, intricate, complicated, decorative, elegant and mean. The moral of the story is: the problem is not the subject matter.

[1] The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke (1855-64), Richard Dadd, oil on canvas, 54 x 39,4 cm.

An Artwork of the 19th century that was and stays important to me. Even Fairies can be ok.First published in Frieze Masters. Ideas from the past in the art of the present, 2012, p.87; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014 [published on the occasion of Frieze Art Fair 2012].