Hang-ups and Hangovers in the Work of Marlene Dumas

by Dominic van den Boogerd

Born on a wine farm near Cape Town in 1953, Marlene Dumas has lived and worked in Amsterdam for more than twenty years. Her dark, gloomy pictures dating from the 1970s were charged with anxiety and despair. The works on paper that emerged towards the end of that decade and in the early 1980s speak of love and desire in a witty, self-conscious way. Her expressive paintings and series of ink-wash drawings, depicting human figures and faces, have established her reputation as one of the most prominent European painters of the 1990s. As diverse as these groups of works may appear, they all reflect the same soul. The art of Marlene Dumas is vibrant, infectious, sexy – always looking at the erotic side of life. 

This chronological survey follows the artist’s own method of grouping works in exhibitions dedicated to specific subjects. The key themes in her extensive oeuvre are pinpointed, from the torn love letters of the late 1970s to the ‘Erotic Room’ of 1998, from Sigmund’s wife to Warhol’s child, from the female nude losing her meaning to the naked woman losing her senses. Should this approach provide an ‘unhappy frame’ for any of Dumas’ works (to adapt the title of one of her drawings1), it is perhaps because they lend themselves more readily to enjoyment than to the analysis of their meaning.

Love Letters

In the years from 1976 to 1983 Dumas mainly produced works on paper. These are often large collages combining drawings in pencil, ink or crayon, with text (a title or a quote), clippings from newspapers and magazines, and occasionally objects. The drawings have an informal look; the paper, cut from a large roll, has been scratched, stained, torn and sometimes worked on both sides. 

After Dumas’ debut show in 1979 at Galerie Annemarie de Kruyff, Paris, selected works were shown under the title ‘Unsatisfied Desire’ in her first exhibition at Galerie Paul Andriesse (Amsterdam, 1983). ‘Desire’ is the key word here. Events in Dumas’ personal life often provided the spark for these works. Usually the subjective experience is related to stories and images from films or books. Metaphorical figures such as spiders (The Spider and the Heart, 1983), shells (Burning Shell, 1982) and mermaids veil somewhat biographical intentions. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale mermaid surfaces in works such as Natural Disasters (1981), Mermaid with Heart (1981) and Mermaid with Tail (1981). In Mijn staart voor benen (Giving up my tail for legs, 1979–80), drawn on paper with a scaly texture, the mermaid is surrounded by shapely female legs. Her ambivalent nature stands for the tragedy of the woman who loses everything for love, or, perhaps, for the woman who sacrifices all for art. The Answer to the Marriage Proposal (1977–78), furnished with scribbles made while listening to the marriage proposal, speaks volumes on this theme. With I Won’t Have a Pot Plant (1977) the twenty-three year-old South African, having just arrived in the Netherlands, turns against the conformism of Dutch culture. Dumas’ intentions are clear: ‘I situate art not in reality but in relation to desire’.2 

Many of these early drawings deal with the complexity of human relationships and the feelings that accompany them – desire, longing, fear, constraint, subjects familiar to all. By the end of the 1970s, such vast topics were the order of the day in film, literature and pop music, but it seemed that painting was no longer permitted, able or willing to tackle them. Dumas has always been astonished by this: ‘There has to be a way to make an art about being in love. An art that is erotic, sexy, tender and filled with a darkness that is awesome, but not sick’.3 Why should she, as a visual artist, deny herself the subjects that Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alain Resnais and Werner Rainer Fassbinder were exploring so fascinatingly in film? 

Speaking about the influence of the cinema on her work, Dumas has said, ‘It was film that taught me the rules of imagination, not reality, nor painting’.4 That influence is evident in her use of images from films such as Last Tango in Paris (We Don’t Need Names Here, 1973), L’Empire des senses (Couples, 1978), Hiroshima mon amour (Tenderness and the Third Person, 1981) and Deep Throat (Veiled Woman, 1982). It is also apparent in her combinations of image and text – titles often redirect perception – and in her use of montage techniques that interconnect various references to the world beyond the artwork. 

How does one convey a love affair in a drawing? How concealed can such a reference be before it vanishes from view? In Don’t Talk to Strangers (1977) Dumas marks off the boundaries of confessional art. The work is made up of shreds of paper, torn from dozens of letters written to the artist. The opening lines (‘Lieuwe Marlene’, ‘My dear Marlene’) have been pasted on the left side, the closing ones (‘baie liefde’, ‘please answer me quickly’, ‘sod art and fuck the Italians’) on the right. In between, stripes painted in oil have penetrated deeply into the paper. We see only the beginnings and ends of the love stories; the rest has dissolved into blank lines. One of the letters begins ‘Dear Miss Dumas, I am sorry to say but the lines are disappearing’. Here, the artist is speaking to herself, in terms that express not only the futility of artistic confessions but also scepticism as to the permanence of her own feelings. That witty irony can also be detected in the colourful, haphazardly torn bits of paper that have been taped in a makeshift way to the surface; it is as though the strict, minimalist aesthetics of Agnes Martin have been crossed with the friskiness of a jukebox. 

Many drawings from these years give a sense of Dumas’ way of working, in which chance and surprise provide unexpected twists of meaning. The plentiful tears, cut edges and pencil lines along the sides reveal constant revisions to the framing. Pieces of white paper or fragments from other drawings have been pasted onto some works. The use of tape, pins and staples contributes to the unconstrained character of these montages. 

Nearly every work contains arbitrary, unjustifiable details. According to Baudelaire, who was convinced that coincidence does not exist in art, a fortunate discovery is simply the result of sound reasoning in which several deductions have been skipped. In his view a successful work of art is a machine, and every part has its raison d’être. In a good work of art therefore, nothing can be taken away and nothing added without ruining it. In short, the work cannot be anything other than what it is. Susan Sontag, how-ever, comes closer to the nature of Dumas’ approach when she writes, ‘Every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, knows that it could well have been otherwise. The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is made up not of the inevitability or necessity of its parts but of the whole’.5 

Just as Don’t Talk to Strangers places a humorous slant on the aesthetics of Minimalism, Love Hasn’t Got Anything to Do with It (1977) puts the stylistic codes of Abstract Expressionism to the test. (The fact that both titles are negative statements is no coincidence: these are the years of punk, of the Sex Pistols and Blondie.) The drawing, made up of sharp zigzag lines and long scratches, vacillates between absent-minded scribbling and anxious self-expression. Disappointment in love may have played a role in the making of this work, but the end result – as emphasized by the title – is anything but sentimental. It may be that, like a graffiti artist, Dumas finds the confirmation of her existence in her markings, but this does not mean that every scribble from her hand is an authentic surge of the heart. 

Those who give free rein to their emotions, slapping their souls onto the paper – or pretending to do so – may be praised for an artwork that seems to be sincere and true, but they renounce the very nature of art, which is at odds with the genuine and the real. Art, as we all know, merely simulates the truth. (According to Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘We have art in order not to perish from truth’.) Making art requires that peculiar ability to be involved with, and at the same time, completely indifferent towards, the subject. This mixture of empathy and detachment is not foreign to Dumas. The ‘Love Letter’ series, the ‘Mermaid’ series and such drawings as The Death of Angels (1979) and Tenderness and the Third Person (1981) demonstrate that a credible image of love or desire presupposes a certain amount of distance from the subject and – of equal importance – a degree of artificiality. The passionate kiss on the silver screen, no matter how faked, is simply more convincing than the earnest smooch in a wedding photograph. 

It is for this reason that Dumas continually questions the effect of her images, their impact upon the viewer. Those who look at the torn-up photographs of duos in the collage Couples (1978) can see from the colours which figures belonged together: the two lovers from L’Empire des senses, Keeler and Profumo, Sartre and de Beauvoir, and an infamous murderer of women and his wife. The logic of this matchmaking is undermined, however, by two fragments of a blue patch of water that do not form an entity. Like a virus in the system, they interfere with the oneness of the couples and inadvertently show that, due to the strong psychological suggestion of divorce, a torn-up photograph of a couple makes an impression very different from a ripped photograph of a pond.

With this gesture, Dumas distances herself from Wassily Kandinsky’s theory that ‘the impact of the acute angle of a triangle on a circle produces an effect no less powerful than the finger of God touching the finger of Adam in Michelangelo’.6 For Dumas, the choice of a particular motif is important. The subject is more than a mere excuse for painting something. It is this semiotic issue that distinguishes the collage- drawings from Rauschenberg’s art, with which they occasionally share superficial similarities.


No matter how expressive a work may be, its impact remains dependent upon the empathy of the viewer. As Susan Sontag has suggested: ‘Art is seduction, not rape. A work of art proposes a type of experience designed to manifest the quality of imperiousness. But art cannot seduce without the complicity of the experiencing subjects’.7 To Dumas, art is a frog that has to be kissed before it reveals its true nature (Art Is Stories Told by Toads, 1988). ‘When I started to embrace the ambiguity of the image, and accepted the realization that the image can only come to life through the viewer looking at it, and that it takes on meaning through the process of looking, I began to accept painting for what it was’, she has said.8 Many are moved by a film or by music, relatively few by looking at a painting. Dumas must have come to the realization that one should paint like Marvin Gaye sings.

Face to Face

Many of the paintings produced by Dumas during her years at the University of Cape Town are gloomy in character. Dedicated to Other People’s Rainbows (1973) conjures a remark by Constantin Brancusi, written down in Dumas’ notebook: ‘The sky that man believes to be blue is not, it is black beyond’. The paintings of figures, faces and occasional nudes are obscured by a haze, as though, after considerable effort, they have been only partially extracted from the dark mass of paint. 

Compared to these ashen, sombre paintings, the portraits she began to make in 1983 and exhibited at Galerie Paul Andriesse in 1985 under the title ‘The Eyes of the Night Creatures’ flicker like technicolour film images. There are parallels with the photographic work of Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon – particularly with the unsentimental way in which Arbus portrayed the singularities of others and with Avedon’s technique, in the portraits of his father, of isolating his subject in a white void. Intrigued by the impact of these portraits, which seemed so much more humane to her than representations of the human figure in post-war painting, Dumas used photographic modes such as the close-up and the zoom-in for her portraits. 

All the works are based on photographs, either reproductions in magazines or Polaroids which the artist made of loved ones, friends and acquaintances. The faces fill the canvases. They are larger than life-size, but – accustomed as we are to the proportions of movie stars – that scarcely strikes the eye. In the background there is little or nothing to be seen. All attention goes to the expression of the features, the gaze of the eyes. Many of these paintings are confrontational, like a smack in the face. It is as though someone else’s face is being pushed into ours; as though a stranger holds us captive with his stare. 

Each of the sixteen works is painted in a way that befits the subject – or to put it more precisely, the formal function of the subject matter is to determine the style of these paintings. The series goes from the Gauguinesque logic of Genetiese Heimwee (Genetic longing, 1984) to the Klimt-like decorum of The Girlfriend (1986), from the impressionistic brushstroke in Het Kwaad is banaal (Evil is banal, 1984) to the cheap tricks of billboard painting in Jule – The Woman (1985). By means of this diversity Dumas wished both to escape identification with a specific type of subject (like the linking of Rubens to a particular kind of female figure, for example) and simply to indulge her enjoyment of different methods – without, however, wanting to draw attention to this, and only when she saw reason to do so. 

As Ulrich Loock has said, the series is by no means an attempt to raise stylistic discontinuity to the level of a programme.9 In this respect Dumas differs from contemporaries such as David Salle, Julian Schnabel and Rob Scholte, who would seem to regard style as a commodity in the department store of art history. Style – and the work of Dumas attests to this – is not the dressing-up of subject matter but the manifestation of the inner nature or, as Jean Cocteau called it, the soul of the artwork. Again, Susan Sontag’s words are relevant: ‘Even if one were to define style as a matter of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an opposition between a style that one assumes and one’s true being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face’.10 The different types of painting in the series do not give rise to a medley of styles. On the contrary, in all of the paintings the same mode of visual thinking comes into view – a style that is specific to Marlene Dumas, not as a principle but as her ‘manner of being’.

What these paintings exhibit is a fickle coherence, a consistency among the separate parts that is only roughly defined. The texture is lively. Developed details alternate with hastily delineated forms. Brushstrokes, scratches and smears are clearly visible. Some parts of the surface bear scarcely any paint, others are thickly laden with it. The use of colour can hardly be described as an expressionistic heightening of outward appearances for the sake of some inner need. Rather, the interplay of hues occurs independently of the subject matter, as though the colours do not ‘bond’ with the motifs and can easily change positions. The painting (that which is presented) and the depiction (that which is represented) live both apart and together on the flat surface of the picture plane. It is as if the areas of colour move alongside and across each other, as though they have been established only temporarily throughout a continuum of hectic, changing relationships.

This activity and tentativeness is familiar from Dumas’ earlier drawings. The diffuse contours, the unspecified residual forms and the unfinished parts are like the tears and cuts in the montages. One could call them escape routes in the monolithic construction of the image.

Martha – Sigmund’s Wife (1984), based on a snapshot from Time magazine, has a rough, seemingly ‘unfinished’ quality. In the scanty, transparently painted face, the mouth has dis-appeared, whereas parts of the forehead and nose are crimson. The effect is tragi-comical. What we are to think of Freud’s spouse remains uncertain. That we see her as ‘the wife of ’ says enough in itself. As Alice Jardine has commented, ‘We think in couples even when we try very hard not to – based on the force of the copula, of copulation’.11 

Ambiguity is also evident in Het Kwaad is banaal (Evil is banal, 1984), the subject of which is the artist herself. She is looking back over her chair, her chin resting on her hand, her eyes fixed on something that remains out of sight. Her blonde curls, painted like Bonnard’s blossoming mimosa, create a shimmering halo; the countenance is bleached out in a whitish light. The lines that cut across the pupils give the gaze a cold, strange quality. On several occasions it has been suggested that the bewildered expression of this self-portrait reflects the awkward feelings of a sweet young girl who is white in South Africa and therefore part of the oppressive system of apartheid whether she likes it or not.12 The title is borrowed from Hannah Arendt’s reports on Nazi bureaucracy. In the painting Dumas speaks for herself.

The artist’s South African background also plays a role in The White Disease (1985). This painting, whose subject is pallid skin, thinly painted in semi- transparent layers, is based on a medical photograph of a patient with a skin complaint. Thematically, this work is related to the white negro in Albino (1986). It lends itself to a comparison with Der Diagnostische Blick IV (The diagnostic view IV, 1992) by the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans. Both are inspired by medical archive photographs, both are close-ups of faces, rather than conventional portraits. In Tuymans’ painting, the countenance of the patient is flat, even and impenetrable, its expression completely blank.

He shows illness as it is seen by medical science: mercilessly, without regard for the individual. Dumas, on the other hand, allows us to peer through the filmy skin, as it were. Here the affliction of the skin represents a much broader tragedy, known in white South Africa as ‘the black problem’ – a rather obscene expression that has been reversed in the title of the painting.

These paintings of faces are not portraits in the usual sense of the word. They are more about Dumas’ ideas, associations and experiences in relation to the depicted figures. The relationship itself is the subject of The Space Age (1984), which involves us, as in a cinematographic montage, in the exchange of glances between the artist and her boyfriend of that time. Here, two paintings have been joined together, divided by a narrow margin. With their pale, bruised faces the individuals appear hurt and troubled, like the night owls in Nan Goldin’s photographs. They look at us as they must have looked at each other when their love affair came to an end: left to themselves, aware of the distance that divides them, like planets in their own orbits. Together with The Occult Revival (1984), which also portrays a personal relationship, The Space Age is among the works referred to by Dumas as her ‘couples’.13

Polaroid Children

Following the singles and the couples, several large paintings with groups of figures were presented in 1987 at Galerie Paul Andriesse under the title ‘The Private versus the Public’. The tension between two subjects in the couples has given way to a tension between the individual and the group. In these works depicting schoolchildren, the focus is not so much on the expression of the face, but on the dynamics of the group as communicated by the poses of the figures. The images are governed by the conflicting dynamics of differentiation and regimentation. Suggestions of imposed group loyalty, hierarchy and segregation contribute to their dismal tone. The representation of groups, Dumas has stated, is doomed to fail, as are groups themselves.14 

The body language of the lanky adolescents in The Schoolboys (1987), who hang about quasi-nonchalantly with their hands in their pockets, hints at swagger and bravura. In The Teacher (sub a) and The Teacher (sub b) (both 1987) the children are sitting and standing in tidy rows, hands folded, legs together, just as they should be, the teacher enthroned in the middle. The little girls in The Turkish Schoolgirls (1987) are squeezed together in two rows, hand in hand, smiling engagingly at the absent photographer.

Whatever their body language expresses, the figures in these paintings have one thing in common: all have exposed themselves to the lens. As Dumas wrote, ‘My people were all shot by the camera, framed, before I painted them.’15 This is nothing new: even Delacroix, Degas and Manet painted from photographs. ‘I deal with second-hand images and first-hand experiences’, explains Dumas.16 ‘I paint after the photo – the distorted afterglow of chemical reproduction, filtered through my clumsy attempts towards natural perception, and the preservation of a dubious habit.’17 

Dumas’ ‘dubious habit’ of making a picture is infected by the common practice of taking a picture. Painterly conception cannot exclude photographic vision, the mode of signifying of our age. The world that Dumas paints is the world as it appears via photographic reproduction, and that world is flat, since monocular vision reduces everything that comes into view to gradations of light on a surface. Whereas Jasper Johns opted for flat motifs such as flags, maps and targets, Dumas paints faces and figures that have been flattened by photographic reproduction. 

The qualities of the photographic source material have crept into these paintings: frontality, loss of detail due to over-exposure, lack of focal depth, and distortions in proportion. Despite these characteristics, however, the works are still basically painterly. Painting – and this is what makes it such an archaic activity – is the application of paint onto a carrier; the painting owes its existence to the traces of the hand that paints it. For Dumas, the photograph is no more than a starting point for an idea, a composition, an image that by no means restrains her all-en- compassing painterly inventions of colour, gesture, texture and all the other features that are alien to the photograph. Ulrich Loock has succinctly described this practice as ‘painting in order to implement and undermine the photographic flatness of the world’.18 

Whilst making no hierarchical distinction between the photographic and the painterly image, Dumas is acutely aware of the differences between the two. The series of drawings Allergic Situations (1991), for instance, plays with oppositions between cyclopic vision and stereoscopy, between the dark room and the white canvas, the photographer’s allergy to chemicals and the painter’s eye infection. But what is possible in one medium may not be feasible in the other. In a photograph, a smile or a tear can look credible; in  a painting they may quickly take on a ridiculous appearance. A photograph and a painting are simply not experienced in the same way, because each has a different relationship with reality. 

In The Human Tripod (1988), which deals with the distortion of reality, Dumas sets the (im)possibilities of photography and painting against each other. The painting is based on a photograph of Francesco Lentini, the three-legged man who made a fortune by exhibiting himself in short trousers. The photograph is probably a stunt, but the verisimilitude intrinsic to the medium is enough to make us believe in a grotesque freak of nature. A painting such as Picasso’s Paulo as Harlequin (1924), in which the painter’s son is blessed with three legs, has a completely different effect. Paolo’s surplus of limbs is immediately understood as the remainder of a compositional design and not, as in the photograph, as a bizarre mutation. If we compare The Human Tripod to Jeff Wall’s photographic work No (1983), then the reverse becomes evident. Wall’s photograph shows a prostitute being passed by a man who seems to have only one leg. That distortion is anything but alienating. The distortion in Dumas’ painting, on the other hand, is extremely confusing, perhaps largely due to the fact that the middle leg is automatically associated with the male organ, a suggestion that is emphasized by the eyes staring at the crotch and the position of the hands. The hormone level of this three-legged fellow is considerably higher than that of Wall’s one-legged cruiser. 

In relation to this work Marlene Dumas wrote, ‘Sexual organs. Between the motif and the traces of the hand falls the shadow’.19 It is a remark that anticipates subsequent works dedicated to the nude. 

Naked

In the history of art, no subject can have been explored more frequently than the female nude. The feminine muse, who has offered inspiration for centuries, must be thoroughly exhausted by now, for though she may still be good for selling tyres, in contemporary painting she plays no more than a minor role. The drawing series Defining in the Negative (1988) demonstrates, in a hilarious way, the trouble with casting undressed ladies in paintings nowadays. Next to sketchily drawn nude figures are notes such as ‘I won’t pose for Mr. Salle’, ‘I won’t sleep in Mr. Fischl’s bed’ and ‘I won’t be hung upside down for Mr. Baselitz’. Not that Dumas has a problem with men who paint naked women, but as there are hardly any female painters active in this area, male artists simply constitute her only frame of reference. Is the nude still a meaningful subject? Can the female nude, having been excommunicated by feminist theory, continue to be a model for the artist? Dumas herself has painted several nudes, which were brought together in the exhibition ‘Waiting (For Meaning)’ at the Kunsthalle, Kiel in 1988. The paintings speak for themselves, but their meaning is unclear. 

Waiting (For Meaning) and Losing (Her Meaning), both painted in 1988, are counterparts. In the first work we see a reclining body – no more than a black stain – whose face and sex are not indicated. Nonetheless, many have unquestioningly assumed that this is a female nude, and have gone on to associate
it with Danæ awaiting Zeus in the guise of a shower of gold.20 If it is so easy to ascribe a meaning to this painting (naked woman awaits inspiration, i.e., penetration) then it is just as easy to take it away,21 a fact alluded to in Losing (Her Meaning). In this painting, the body has largely vanished under water. Face and sex are again missing, but the title tells us that the figure is a woman. Is she Ophelia, floating lifelessly in the green water, as in Millais’ Ophelia (1852)? Or has she plunged into a sea of references? 

Those who search for meanings in Dumas’ work are opening Pandora’s box. Her paintings and drawings suggest a wealth of possibilities, but none of them offer a definite answer. They have unleashed many interpretations, so many in fact that the artist has gradually come to call herself ‘Miss Interpreted’. Generally, the attribution of meaning is based on the depiction and the title, which are both understood to be the representation, i.e. the articulation, of intentions. This is not consistent with the way in which Dumas’ paintings have come about. Just as her work does not arise from a single idea or motivation, its meaning cannot be defined in one-dimensional terms. 

The reticence of Waiting (For Meaning) and Losing (Her Meaning) contrasts sharply with the baroque profusion of the allegorical ‘Snow White’ paintings of 1988, which have given way to a deluge of interpretations. In Snow White and the Next Generation, Snow White and the Broken Arm and Snow White in the Wrong Story the artist figures as Snow White/Sleeping Beauty/nude model/role model/body of flesh and blood/photographer/ victim/corpse, lying on a bed/glass coffin/morgue, awaiting the prince’s kiss/ the empathy of the viewer/the appreciation of her beauty, while being surrounded/accompanied/spied on/commented on by dwarves/children/art experts/ bystanders. Take your pick. And as though there were not already enough to see and to interpret, the white woman in Snow White and the Broken Arm is often taken to be a black woman due to the ashen colour of her countenance. ‘They’re looking for Meaning as if it were a Thing’, wrote Dumas, ‘As if it were a Girl, required to take her panty off, as if she would want to do so as soon as the true interpreter comes along. As if there were something to take off.’22 

If the nude in the ‘Snow White’ series is buried under meanings, then in Waiting (For Meaning) and in Losing (Her Meaning) it has been stripped of meaning. Looking at these nudes, we realize that, in fact, we don’t know what we’re seeing at all: a living or a dead person, a man or a woman? The most basic information is missing. These paintings refuse to make sense of the nude. As such, they remind us that the world behind all cultural constructions is profoundly meaningless. The frightening feeling of being lost engendered by this experience is counteracted by the attribution of names, of meanings. The ‘Snow Whites’, with their countless references to literature, sexual and political issues, provide every opportunity for this. They function by excess of reference, and Snow White’s fate is that of Manet’s Olympia. The ‘meaning’ paintings, on the other hand, with their cursory, unspecified indications of the nude, are shrouded in the silence of the pictorial. Here, the nude is more akin to the subject in Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus (1880). Broken up and re-established on a different level, the subject is heavily invested, not with meaning but with something more significant: presence.23 

Interpretations rarely escape preconceptions. Take, for instance, The Particularity of Nakedness (1987), an intimate portrait of a naked man on a monumental scale. The reclining figure is stretched out like a panoramic landscape. The pose of his body expresses sensuality and vulnerability; his face betrays anxiety. This painting has been criticized by one commentator for ‘having too many horizontals’ and by another for the passivity of the man – it was regarded as a ‘homosexual’ painting. Both critics felt that this image of masculinity lacked strength; both wanted it to be ‘erect’ in one way or another.24

Creating the Newborn

After the series of nudes, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw an extensive group of works whose subject matter is babies and pregnancy. It is somewhat surprising that these are not major subjects in visual art, not even for female artists who have introduced their own bodies and biographies into their work. Dumas, intrigued by the unfathomable processes of creation and having become a mother herself in 1989 (‘now I’m no longer one of the boys’), has dealt with the subject in different ways. Central to this group of works is the enigmatic relationship between existence and its origins, in terms both of human life and art. These works have been presented in exhibitions such as ‘The Origin of the Species’ (1990) at the Staatsgalerie, Munich, and ‘Ausser Reichweite von Kindern’ (‘Keep out of reach of children’, 1991) at Galerie Stampa in Basel. 

The four-part work The First People (I–IV) (1991) shows a quartet of babies, boldly painted in thin areas of colour and crawling lines. The paintings give expression to the enormity of new life, to all of the potencies and forces – good and evil – that are already fully present in those wriggly bodies, those wildly swaying arms and legs, in that unstoppable growth and expansion by which they already seem to burst out of their frames. What is disturbing about this work is not so much the dismantling of the Pampers idyll – infants happen to look like this – but the adult dimensions of the figures and their upright positions. Painted from photographs showing ‘aerial’ views of reclining babies, they have the look of colossal pop-ups. 

It is constantly amazing, this new life, which has come about beyond our range of vision and which now stares straight into our eyes. The eyes are the windows of the soul, it is said, but what do we actually see in the eyes of the baby? Six years earlier Marlene Dumas had painted Die Baba (The baby, 1985), an infant with an unfathomable facial expression that subjects us to scrutiny. Other predecessors of The First People are the drawings and lithographs with the title Fear of Babies (1986). These images, partly derived from Dick Jewell’s photo litho print Cosmo-Babies (1978), show the fears, doubts and uncertainties behind the rosy clouds. Cupids scented with innocence are nowhere to be found; children from Chernobyl and the progeny of Nazi collaborators push their way forward. Fear, however, is not the only motivating emotion. Drawings such as My Baby Looks Like a Frog (1987) and Flap Your Wings (1989) betray amazement at the magic of nature, and the four-part drawing series Before Birth (1991) expresses awe for the transmutations produced in an embryo through the overpowering urge to live. 

The two paintings Before Birth (1989) and After Life (1989) are opposites in terms of subject and the subject-related treatment of paint. The foetus in Before Birth, painted in a thin, glassy way, makes one think of an alien from a science-fiction film or an imaginary type of mollusc. The image also brings to mind the shock that must have been produced by the first photographs of unborn babies. After Life (the title alludes to painting from observation) shows an infant as it appears immediately after birth: like a wrinkled old man. The head, modelled in thickly applied paint, lies on the canvas like a mask. 

The analogy between natural and artistic creation is developed in two large paintings, Pregnant Image (1988–90) and Warhol’s Child (1989–91), both of which evolved over a number of years, and, together with The First People, are among the most accomplished works in this group. 

Pregnant Image shows a kneeling pregnant woman, who scarcely seems to fit inside the frame. Her uncomfortable pose limits freedom of movement; her gaze suggests absent-mindedness. Arms on her back, her blouse hanging open, she offers an unobstructed view of her round abdomen, her breasts and genitals. The belly, a sacred (and weighty) shrine, draws the eye. Normal as it may be, pregnancy creates a mutation of the body that is as mysterious as it is overt. The hybrid figure is assembled on the basis of photographs of different women, the dark head seeming to belong to another body. As in some of the pregnant nudes painted by Alice Neel, pregnancy is pictured here as a dismembering of identity. The title relates pregnancy to the image rather than to the woman herself. If, after the years it took to paint, which are inscribed at the bottom of the image, this raw and discomforting painting is finally ripe enough to bear meaning, it is to Dumas’ credit that it does not show the laboriousness of its materialization.

The impossibility of determining the beginning and the end of the creative process is reflected in the infant subject of Warhol’s Child, cursed with a body as big as an adult’s. The king-sized youngster has a horrifying presence. She does indeed resemble Andy Warhol, particularly due to the eyes and the spiky hair. A strange creature, she is all the more so due to her alleged father’s reputation as an impotent, gay man. This illegitimate daughter of the man who wanted to paint like a machine is Dumas’ tribute to Warhol’s art, which displays a perfect synthesis between realism and artificiality. 

Professional Pretenders

Children, particularly girls, also figure in a number of metaphorical paintings that were shown in ‘Ask Me No Questions and I’ll Tell You No Lies’ (Isabella Kacprzak Gallery, Cologne, 1992) and in ‘Give the People What They Want’ (Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp, 1993). The titles of these exhibitions refer to such problematic issues as artistic integrity and the public life of artworks, concerns that have been surfacing regularly in Dumas’ work since the 1970s. 

Small as these paintings may be, their materiality is flamboyant. The figures have been painted roughly in heavy, dark contours. Large areas consist of coarse brushstrokes. The contrast between light and dark is sharp, the use of colour sparing, by which means the simple images have gained graphic strength. As is the case with nearly all works by Dumas, these are painterly transpositions or ‘falsifications’ of other people’s images, which have been mercilessly stolen by the artist, distorted and used for her own purposes. The sincerity of her intentions is impossible to assess, because the intentions of a painter are distinguishable only in the form of the painting. 

Deceit (1992) and Evidence of Virtue (1992) constitute an interesting pair in this respect. Both works show nearly identical images of a girl who is holding up a cloth. In some cultures it was customary for a bride to show her husband the blood-stained sheet after the wedding night as proof of her virginity – a piece of evidence that was easy to fabricate. The title of the first painting refers to this, that of the second to the notion of ‘good faith’. The difference cannot be detected from the images 

That which can be said about the cloth of the deflowered bride holds true for Dumas’ paintings: a ‘good’ painting has nothing to do with ‘good’ intentions. Her work is repeatedly described as being emotional, sensitive and therefore sincere. Ever since the Romantic era, when painting became a projection of the artist’s persona, we have been familiar with the image of the hypersensitive painter, suffering intense emotions of grief and joy that were enshrined directly and ‘sincerely’ in the work of art. Nevertheless, the truthfulness of an artwork has little or nothing to do with the honest transcription of feeling. Schaammeisje (Bashfulness, 1991) can be called a successful painting for a variety of reasons – for the captivating image of the bashful angel-without-wings, the striking colour combination of alizarin crimson and greyish mint green, the sure and thrifty use of paint – but whether the artist was genuinely ‘ashamed’ (as the word schaam indicates) holds no importance. When the private diary of emotions is transcribed into the artwork, the question raised is not whether this has been done with sincerity (or with authenticity for that matter), but rather, what purpose is served by this projection of the artist’s persona. 

Give the People What They Want (1992) shows a girl exposing herself. The tiny cloth covering her body has been opened, allowing us to see her nakedness from head to toe. The image, taken from a pre-war anthropological photograph of an African woman exposing herself to the camera, is reminiscent of Cranach’s nudes, who have removed their only piece of clothing, a transparent veil. Is this what the public wants – a gratification of voyeuristic desire? Is service to the people, which is so basic to whores and revolutionaries, objectionable when it pertains to art? Or are artists, like prostitutes, no more than professional pretenders? Who are exposing themselves, and to whom? Who wants what? Before you know it, the open cloth will turn into a garment of confinement, as in Straitjacket (1993). 

In Equality (1993), Justice (1993) and Liberty (1993) great ideals are embodied by little girls. The figures of the children lighten the moral and political weight of the themes, tempering the sexual power that is so characteristic of the women who personify abstractions in such paintings as Delacroix’s Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826) (in which, incidentally, they were attributed a status denied to them in society). In these savagely ironic paintings, the little sister of Lady Justice and her friends play with the elasticity of so-called universal values, which are, after all, applied differently in varying situations. Nowhere are these small figures more at home than in the courthouse, the setting of The Benefit of the Doubt (1998), five gigantic wall tapestries designed by Dumas for Charles Vandenhove’s new Palace of Justice in Den Bosch, the Netherlands. 

Head and Front

Drawings constitute an important part of Dumas’ oeuvre. Many of these are quick sketches that channel a stream of thought, association and commentary prompted by what more or less coincidentally appears on the paper in the process of working. Crude and straightforward, many of these drawings are distant relatives of cartoons and bathroom graffiti. During the early 1990s, Dumas made several large sets of drawings of faces in ink wash called ‘Portrait Heads’, some of which are among her best works. The first group work from this series is Black Drawings (1991–92), followed by the larger scale groups Models (1994), Betrayal (1994), Rejects (1994–), Chlorosis (1994), Jesus Serene (1994) and Underground (1994–95). 

The Black Drawings have been painted layer upon layer, wet into wet, using black ink wash (with some sepia, green and blue here and there). They engage with the nuances not only of the colour black, but also Western stereotypes of black identity as sustained by the media. In this work the group which is homogenized by the common denominator ‘black’, has been differentiated in 111 separate and highly varied faces. In the early 1980s, Dumas dedicated a number of drawings to political persecutions in her native country, such as The Tenth Floor (1982), the subject of which is a notorious security police office, and Three Women and I (1982), in which three wives of persecuted black leaders have been united. In these works Dumas attempted to incorporate the darkness of everyday politics in South Africa by copying newspaper images, but they lack the directness, the clarity of form and expression that is manifest in the Black Drawings and which is refined in subsequent series.

Models (1994) groups one hundred faces, mainly of women, all of whom sat as models at one time. Among them are the muses and mistresses of old masters. We recognize Juno as she was painted by Correggio, Lucretia as seen by Cranach, Rembrandt’s Bathsheba, Vermeer’s girl with the pearl, Manet’s Olympia. These are arranged cheek-to-cheek with present-day cover-girls and movie stars such as Anita Eckberg, Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Schiffer. Just as Madonna imitated Marilyn Monroe, these contemporary blondes appear to have modelled themselves on the Barbie stereotype. The world-wide reproduction of their likenesses is thoroughly consistent with their role as models, and their real personalities have been flattened by this public existence. The great diversity of Models gives rise to the question of how we actually look at all those idols and icons, what desires, fears and preoccupations we project onto their images. The fact that they are all rendered with the same technique, with a non-hierarchical presentation, enables us to see these benign seventeenth-century belles and unapproachable contemporary vamps like girls in a beauty contest. All are shown as illustrations, not so much of women, but of the way in which women are represented: as the model of ideal beauty. 

Jesus Serene is a collection of portraits of the man whose appearance no one can describe with certainty. Eleven years earlier, his face had appeared in some left-over paint (Jezus is Boos, Jesus is crossed, 1983). This later series vacillates between the exceptional and the conventional. The drawings are based on paintings and sculptures of Christ figures throughout history, but among them are portraits of friends and colleagues who have similarly serene expressions. Disengaged and spiritualized, they are no longer with us. In the pools of diluted ink, pigments have been added here and there, so that a hint of colour drifts across the portraits. The same is true of Chlorosis, a series of quiet, ghostly apparitions that seem to wither away from love sickness, weakened and dejected by their broken hearts. These floating, disembodied heads are waxen and watery. Subtle nuances set the tone; dramatic contrasts are absent. 

One hundred and eleven black faces, 100 models, twenty-one Christs, twenty-four languishing lovers – series such as these could go on endlessly. Each face is different, yet despite this considerable variation, one can hardly speak of unique portraits of separate individuals. As Ernst van Alphen has written, ‘The portrayed figures are not endowed with subjectivity in terms of original presence, but they acquire it in relation to one another. They are subjects because they are all different from one another. That is why they all deserve their own panel within the collective portrayal.’25 For this reason, van Alphen discerns in this series ‘an alternative to both the authoritarian individualistic portrait and the deindividualizing formation of groups’.26 Interestingly, a deviant can be found in almost every group: a drawing of a frog in Betrayal, a snake in Models, and a piece of slate that absorbs all light in the Black Drawings. No group can exist without an outsider. 

The group Rejects is the only work with an undefined scope: in exhibitions, drawings are added to and subtracted from it at Dumas’ discretion. As the title indicates, it is comprised of drawings that have been excluded from other series and are consequently torn, cut, painted over or worked on in some way, their textures much coarser than the smooth surfaces of the other drawings. These are the ugly mugs that appear in the worst nightmares of the beauty queens in Models. The drawings in Underground also undermine the pursuit of the ideal. They have been worked on by Dumas’ young daughter Helena, who for once was permitted to do something usually forbidden: to get her hands on her mother’s work. (The success of her colourings was, by the way, no reason to exploit the ‘collaboration’ further.) 

The ‘Portrait Heads’ series shows, to a greater extent than the separate drawings that have come about over the years, the specific qualities of Dumas’ art of drawing: the fluid hues, the translucent surface, the areas and lines that sometimes describe a face and sometimes go their own way. Inspired by images of people mediated by reproduction, Dumas develops her works in alternating baths of photographic-illusionistic effects and nondescript stains, smears, grainy textures and dots. Particularly in the later series of large drawings of standing figures, such as the Magdalenas (1995), the act of drawing resembles, due to the incessant shifts between control and letting go, a physical performance – the ink wash being the protagonist – in which Dumas’ old fondness for action painting lives on. 

The Politics of Colour

‘Not from Here’, the exhibition at Jack Tilton Gallery with which Dumas made her debut in New York in 1994, unites several paintings referring to her ideas concerning artistry and the mechanisms of the art world. What these works have in common is a conscientious use of colour, which intermittently stresses the sovereignty of the painterly image and alludes to public preconceptions, for ‘once you change the colour of something, everything changes’.27 

In The Painter (1994) Dumas introduces the subject as a girl of about five or six years old. Rendered in a few sketchy lines and semi-transparent areas of colour (everything in this work is painted thinly and sparingly), the nearly two-metre-tall figure rises up against a practically blank background. The most striking colours are those of the hands. The right is blue, the left red: children paint with their hands, not with a brush. The girl stares at us manfully with her dark eyes: ‘Here I am – look at me!’ No-one who has seen her will forget her. 

Unlike many women who produce photo-text pieces, video or installation art, Marlene Dumas has seldom used herself as a model. Nor does she belong to the tradition that defines the artist-model relationship as ‘male painter-female nude’. Dumas’ model is a snap-shot of her daughter (tonal nuances in the little face betray the photographic origins of the image), who has cast aside her passivity and swung into action herself – model and artist at the same time. Due to the green haze across her face and the traces of blue on her belly, she looks like an alien, definitely ‘not from here’. 

Evidently, Dumas has little regard for the idea of the artist as genius; her painter has more the look of a noble savage who, judging by the contrast between the cool blue and the sizzling red, is in possession of contradictory powers, both positive and negative. Just as the pronounced navel – precisely in the centre of the painting – recalls birth, the soiled hands make one think of art’s archaic origins in body-painting. Painting is, moreover, often presumed to be feminine. (Legend has it that the first painting was made by a woman named Debutades, who recorded the silhouette of her lover in order to be able to remember him when he went off to battle.) 

Reinhardt’s Daughter (1994) and Cupid (1994), are two works based on the same photograph of a sleeping child. In Cupid, comprised of meandering lines against a predominantly off-white background, saturated colours are absent; minimal indications of lilac and orange along the contours of the body suggest that the depicted figure is white. Reinhardt’s Daughter, on the other hand, has been painted in dark colours against a sombre background, and the warm brown makes it clear that this is a dark-skinned child. Whereas Cupid brings to mind the blushing putti of a baroque ceiling fresco, Reinhardt’s Daughter refers to the all-black ‘Ultimate Paintings’ of Ad Reinhardt, which approach the vanishing point of colour distinction. Confusion between skin colour and the colours of the painting arises in The Secret (1994), where the piggy-pink neck and ears of the figure contradict the greyish blue of the rest of the body. A similarly chameleon nature characterizes the child in Thumbsucker (1994), partly chocolate, partly peach. 

In many works from the ‘Not from Here’ series, the specification of the race and sex of the portrayed figures is deliberately left unclear. ‘Imagined beings’, Dumas calls them, ‘closer to the world of ghosts and angels, daydreams and nightmares than to real people in the streets. In a sense, they are always “not from here”, which does not mean that they don’t play with our sexual fantasies and fears, and our political preconceptions’.28 The sober images are distinct but leave a great deal unexplained. The figure in The Secret has turned its back to us, as if what the painting is actually about takes place in secrecy. And though the girl in The Cover-up (1994) is pulling her dress over her head, one can sooner speak of concealment than of revelation. In Group Show (1994) we remain ignorant of whatever is evidently fascinating a gathering of naked people. While the figures have fixed their gazes on something that remains out of view, we asee ten pairs of buttocks. The image is fraught with sexual connotations (reminiscent of Pasolini’s Salo, in which bent-over youngsters are selected according to their posteriors) but is also slightly ridiculous: those who display their backsides are not only exposing themselves but are making a fool of the viewer in particular. 

The black humour of Group Show is reminiscent of a work by René Daniëls, a painter with whom Dumas shares not only a fondness for visual and verbal puns, but also a sardonic view of the mechanisms of the art world. Just as the herrings that devour each other in Daniëls’ Hollandse Nieuwe (1982) make fun of the art world’s overpowering appetite for the new, Group Show sneers at the constant inspections that take place in group exhibitions and thus obscure one’s view of the art.

Miss World is Drunk

Dumas has said that she is not a stylist but a sensualist. She does not polish her style, and nor is a stylistic programme her objective. She claims that she can deal only with things that arouse her senses.29 Her work has been placed in the tradition of Expressionism and compared to that of Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde and Francis Bacon. Owing to her self-conscious, ironic view of art production and reception, it has also been considered a form of neo-Conceptualism. Something can be said for both interpretations, but if any ‘ism’ truly applies to her art, it would have to be eroticism. In the work of Marlene Dumas, the soul of love songs, the porno blues, can be heard. Her recent exhibitions have been devoted to the themes of erotic seduction and sexual excitement. 

Mary Magdalene is an archetype of sexual temptation. She is the holy whore who cleansed Christ’s feet with her long hair, the fallen woman who lusted after God’s Own Son, who was turned away and was able to preserve her self-esteem only through penance – at least that’s how the story goes. Dumas puts her on stage in eight large paintings that were shown under the title ‘Magdalenas’ at the Venice Biennale of 1995. Again, these are ‘imagined beings’, compiled on the basis of a broad range of reproductions that include medieval devotional images and photographs of present-day supermodels. Dumas’ Magdalenes are the illegitimate daughters of Sandro Botticelli and Naomi Campbell, of Barnett Newman and Heidi. The figures loom forth in the semi-darkness, an unreal, subdued light brought about by the white linen between the areas of dark colour. Facial expressions and poses are telling. They have kept their dignity, these Magdalenes. They do not kneel, they stand. Though naked, they are not flirtatious nor seductive. Some present themselves timidly, others are cool and unapproachable. Their erotic aura is subdued, stripped as they are of the ecstatic passion that dominates many depictions of yearning Magdalenes from previous centuries. 

Very different are the young cover-girls and fashion models of the brightly coloured paintings in the exhibition ‘Miss World’ (Galerie Paul Andriesse, 1998). The girls in sexy underwear and fishnet stockings of We Were All in Love with the Cyclops (1997) adored the camera but now, it seems, they take pleasure mostly in themselves and in each other. The black woman with her skirt slipping down, wearing a transparent top of white lace (Ivory Black, 1997) and the blonde with arms akimbo, naked except for a tight, see-through top and one sock (Miss January, 1997), self-confidently display their pleasure in sexy clothing and the erotic game of dressing and undressing.30 The rules of this game have been twisted to their own liking. The part of the body that the stripper keeps covered until the last moment is plainly revealed by Miss January, adorning the very centre of the painting. 

The clothing in these works has been rendered with verve. In the wedding gowns of Ryman’s Brides (1997), all gradations of white are explored, not only in terms of hue but also of fluffiness, gloss, transparency, while the dresses of the society ladies in Colourfields (1997) give rise to a veritable orgy of splashy hues. But the judgement of Paris as to which is the most beautiful is inescapable, in beauty contests as well as in art. As Hubert Damisch has pointed out, ‘There is no beauty that isn’t spoken, declared to be such in and by means of a discursive act, a judgement’.31 

The concept of beauty originally designated what was sexually stimulating. Funnily enough, the genitals, however exciting to the eye, are rarely judged to be beautiful. Overt representation of the sex organs, male or female, is quickly rejected as pornographic. 

Pornography is the subject of Porno as Collage (1993) and Porno Blues (1993), each consisting of six drawings after photographs from sex magazines. In Porno as Collage the garters, strings of pearls and other cheap imitations of glamour evoke an atmosphere of vulgarity that is possibly the true comfort of pornography: the liberation from good taste. The scenes with two men and six women are neither titillating nor moving. The crude rendering of bodies, linked like sausages, is unflattering. Suck, lick, fuck – on and on it goes, time and again – that is the sensually stimulating perpetual motion of pornography. In Porno Blues the woman is alone and is sitting with legs wide apart on a mirror that doubles the image of her genitalia. This series strikes a different note, something between indifference and sadness. Unlike The Loneliness of One’s Own Hand (1983), an early drawing of two pairs of spread women’s legs that create the suggestion of masturbation without actually depicting it, Porno as Collage and Porno Blues come straight to the point. No image is more minimal than the pornographic one. It is somewhat surprising that, in both series, a softening of hard porn imagery, even a humanizing of the de-personalization that is intrinsic to pornography, has been acknowledged. The ‘turn-on’ power of the source material may be somewhat diluted in pools of thinned ink, but both groups clearly mirror the straightforwardness, the anonymity and the voyeuristic nature of photographs in ‘men’s magazines’. 

Other drawings of genitals, which avoid the pornographic fixation, are often hilarious. Hairy Penis (1987), for instance, is a naive and comical misconception of the male sex organ. The fellatio in Female Artist Thinking About (Abstract) Art (1990) cannot, as is evident from the title, distract the artist from her thoughts (and will surely go down the wrong way with some). The erection in Whatever Happened to the Greeks (1994) serves as a vehicle to make fun of the impotence of once-so-glorious Grecian art, and the crotch of the woman in Renaissance Perspective (1994) emphasizes the sexist connotation of Dürer’s famous engraving Man Drawing a Reclining Woman (1471). In Two Old Friends (1990), penis and vagina, both covered with cobwebs and overgrown with weeds, have dozed off into a hundred years of hibernation.

Whereas pornography presumes that anything can be shown, art prefers the veiling of things, which is the distinguishing characteristic of eroticism. In series of drawings of standing figures, such as Pin-ups (1996), Young Boys (1997) and Wolkenkieker (Cloud- gazer, 1997), the ‘erotic’ has given way to the ‘sexy’. The Pin-ups have been modelled on the sex kittens in Playboy centrefolds and Pirelli calendars (‘thrills for the low-budget class’, as the title of a drawing from 1986 reads). The Young Boys are taken from classical paintings of Saint Sebastian, from Bettina Rheims’ photobook Modern Lovers (1990) and from photographs of catamites who, demonstrating Oscar Wilde’s maxim that ‘youth is wasted on the young’, offer their charmingly boyish bodies for sale. Both series present fantasized images of the sexual body that remains eternally out of reach. The figures reflect this as hazy shapes, fleeting shadows, elusive phantasms. Wolkenkieker carries it to an extreme. The portraits of such sex idols as Pamela Anderson (Morning Dew, 1997), Cicciolina (Silverplate Staller, 1997) and Mae West (West, 1997) are dissolved in luminous reflective ink pools, sometimes mixed with metallic powder, as intangible as a cloud of perfume. Aren’t love and sex the only glimpse of heaven we mortals ever get?

Male and female nudes hang side by side in the series of drawings referred to collectively as ‘Erotic Room’ (1998), at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt. The series, whose theme is the pleasures of love and sex, circumvents the obscene as in the best tradi- tion of Japanese erotic art (Hokusai’s Young Octopuses – The Dream of Awabi, c. 1814, comes to mind). The inviting poses of the young men express availability (Love, Anticipation); the stances of the female figures are of total submission (Pleasure, The Insect). Here and there, the delight is eroded. Rings of dried ink in The Shrimp give the female body the appearance of an unpeeled crustacean. The nude, who formerly lost her meaning, now seems to be losing her senses.

The hang-ups of these works are beauty, seduction, eroticism, pornography and sex. Hang-ups, however can end in hangover, and Drunk (1997), a painting that was part of the ‘Miss World’ exhibition, is possibly the best portrayal of inebriation since Philip Guston’s Head and Bottle (1975). Drunk refers to the same social code as Degas’ The Glass of Absinthe (1876) and Manet’s The Prune (1878), by which the consumption of alcohol is a measure of machismo in the male world (as at the Cedar Tavern, where Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning tanked up), but a female can fall no lower than by having one too many. A naked woman wearing slippers is depicted with drowsy eyes, red nose and rosy cheeks. With her white, partially sun-reddened skin, her despondently hanging breasts and her unmade-up face, this mistress of Dionysius reaches an all-time low of sex appeal. A ghost of the young showgirls in piquant lingerie, she is a realistic counterweight to the illusion of eternal youth and beauty. Perhaps she is a distant relative of the sloshed old woman, meant to ridicule the divine figures of Hellenistic sculpture, Die Trunkene Alte, (The drunken old woman, c. 200 bc). Dumas’ intoxicated woman may not be very seductive, but her unembellished self-exposure makes her nevertheless engaging and disarming. 

In that respect, Drunk is similar to the bedraggled Self-Portrait (1980) of Alice Neel, in which no at-tempt whatsoever is made to smooth over the traces of age. Subsequent drawings for the exhibition ‘Damenwahl (Dangerous Women; Defeated Men)’, feature bent-over porn starlets exposing their asses, celebrating the pleasure principle. 

Perhaps delight in beauty is addictive. Perhaps aesthetic enjoyment is, as Hubert Damisch has suggested, a drug: ‘But while intoxicants provide immediate pleasure as well as an unequalled sense of independence from the external world … the subtle narcosis into which art plunges its adepts is fugitive and never so intense as to make them forget their real misery’.32 Drunk is a joke about the enjoyments of art. It pokes fun at being an artist (see the girl from The Painter, forty years later). 

We have experienced Dumas’ self-mockery in Drunken Mermaid (1993), a small painting in which the siren, rather than luring sailors with her song, is puking on a rock. The muse of Marlene Dumas is soused to the gills, and in Drunk it seems to be a jolly splurge. Rabelais, a notorious partaker, once wrote: ‘Always drink, never die.’ Baudelaire, not insensitive to the lure of the high himself, admonished: ‘One should always be drunk. That is the key to everything. In order not to feel the terrible yoke of time, which breaks your shoulders and makes you crouch towards the earth, you must remain intoxicated. But with what? With wine, poetry or virtue – the choice is yours. But intoxicate yourself.’

  1. The (Unhappy) Framed Artwork, 1990
  2. Dumas, Marlene, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, ed. Mariska van den Berg, Marlene Dumas, Galerie Paul Andriesse and Uitgeverij De Balie, Amsterdam, 1998, p. 20
  3. Ibid., p. 89
  4. Ibid., p. 116
  5. Sontag, Susan, ‘On Style’ (1965), in A Susan Sontag Reader, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1983, p. 153
  6. Kandinsky, Wassily, quoted in John Zerzan, ‘The Case Against Art’, in Apocalypse Culture, ed. Adam Parfrey, Feral House, Los Angeles, 1987, p. 123
  7. Sontag, Susan, op. cit., p. 143
  8. Jantjes, Gavin, ‘Marlene Dumas’, in A Fruitful Incoherence. Dialogues with Artists on Internationalism, Institute of International Visual Arts, London, 1998, p. 53
  9. See Loock, Ulrich, ‘Malerie und Bedeutung (am Beispiel einiger Bilder)’, in cat. Marlene Dumas, The Question of Human Pink, Kunsthalle Bern, 1989, pp. 49-52
  10. Sontag, Susan, op. cit., p. 139
  11. Jardine, Alice, quoted in Marlene Dumas’ Sweet Nothings, op. cit., p. 61
  12. See Bosma, Marja, ‘Talking to Strangers’, in Dutch Heights: Art and Culture in the Netherlands, no. 3, Utrecht, September 1990
  13. See van Winkel, Camiel, ‘Miscellanea, for Venice’, in cat. Marlene Dumas, Maria Roosen, Marijke van Warmerdam, XLVI Venice Biennale, 1995, pp. 121-126
  14. Dumas, Marlene, statement in cat. Century 87, Stichting Onafhankelijk Kunsthistorisch Onderzoek, Amsterdam, 1987, p. 111
  15. Dumas, Marlene, Sweet Nothings, op. cit., p. 24
  16. Ibid., p. 78
  17. Ibid., p. 52
  18. Loock, Ulrich, ‘Pictures incomprehensible but illuminating’, in Parkett, no. 38, Zurich, 1993, p. 117
  19. Dumas, Marlene, Sweet Nothings, op. cit., p. 49
  20. See Benezra, Neal, ‘Marlene Dumas: On Beauty’, in cat. Distemper: Dissonant Themes in the Art of the 1990s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, 1996, p. 35
  21. Camille Paglia offers an entirely different interpretation from Benezra’s of the pose: ‘A woman who is lying on the bed with her legs spread apart is not submissive. On the contrary, it is a position of total comfort, regal and commanding: “serve me and die” – that is actually the message.’ Quoted in M.G. Lord, Voor Altijd, je Barbie, Uitgeverij De Balie, Rainbow Pocketbooks, Amsterdam, 1995, p. 271
  22. Dumas, Marlene, Sweet Nothings, op. cit., p. 58
  23. See Vos, Marcel, in cat. Marlene Dumas. Miss Interpreted, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1992, pp. 102-107
  24. Dumas, Marlene, Sweet Nothings, op. cit., p. 62
  25. See van Alphen, Ernst, ‘Facing Defacement. “Models” and Marlene Dumas’ intervention in Western Art’, in cat. Marlene Dumas. Models, Salzburger Kunstverein/Portikus Frankfurt/NGBK Berlin, Oktagon Verlag Stuttgart, 1995, p. 69
  26. Ibid.
  27. Dumas, Marlene, Sweet Nothings, op. cit., p. 86
  28. Ibid., p. 84
  29. Ibid., p. 25
  30. See van Alphen, Ernst, ‘Miss Worlds Neue Kleider’, in: Texte zur Kunst, no.29, Cologne, March 1998, pp. 141-143
  31. Damisch, Hubert, The Judgement of Paris, University of Chicago Press, 1996 (Flammarion, Paris 1992), p. 43
  32. Ibid., p. 9

This text was first published as: Dominic Boogerd. ‘Hang-ups and Hangovers in Work of Marlene Dumas’. Marlene Dumas, London: Phaidon, 2009: p. 31-83

Copyright text: Dominic Boogerd