It has always saddened me that the artform that chose me as its mistress did not make people cry. Music does. Books do. And bad movies do it even better. But not paintings.
There are some good explanations for this. Paintings don’t move. They don’t have the same type of narrative structure or succession of time as the moving pictures. There’s no build-up of tensions and release, like in a thriller. You see too much, all at once. Good paintings are made by the grace of their well-measured sense of distance. This distancing of affections makes them tough enough to outlast their time, but also too cool and controlled for the cheaper sensational thrill of moving someone to tears. When I saw the Prado for the first time, I stood in awe in front of Velazquez and I could see why he is considered the greatest European painter.
But I did not cry.
Then I walked into the room with Goya’s black paintings, they put their spell on me. I covered my mouth as if to prevent the devil from entering. The Fates does away with the abstraction versus figuration discussion. Everything is flat and deep simultaneously. The four sexually ill-defined figures are unsympathetic. They are forces, not human beings. It is as if he painted not the screams of humanity, but rather the silence of God.
I felt so alone and yet so at home. I bathed in this sensuous, ominous brew of ritualism and exorcism. I felt the Gypsies, Islam, Christianity and Africa, all at the same time.
And then I cried.
Goya’s The Fates. Originally published as ‘A brush with Genius: Marlene Dumas on Goya’s The Fates’, The Guardian, 04-06-1996, p.10; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, first edition Galerie Paul Andriesse and De Balie Publishers Amsterdam, 1998; and second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.