Long live the Legend: artist Marlene Dumas comes to Antwerp

by Danny Ilegems

An interview with Marlene Dumas: how does that go? To start with, her preference is for the interview not to take place. She hates ending up in a situation where she has to explain or refute the usual clichés about her work. And she would rather write than talk. She refers to the well-known statement by Vladimir Nabokov, the writer of Lolita: ‘I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished writer and I speak like a child.’

     ‘Unfortunately, I’m not as strict as Mr. Nabokov,’ she reports, to my relief, in a nocturnal e-mail. The condition, however, is that she receives the questions in advance, so that she has a few days to think about them. The answers arrive by e-mail, in the form of scans of eight densely written pages in beautiful, clear handwriting but with more things crossed out and inserted toward the end. The mail lands in my mailbox just before five in the morning. ‘Now I’m going to sleep,’ she writes in an accompanying message. ‘We can call about it tomorrow, but not before three in the afternoon since I’m not properly awake before then. Skyping I can’t and won’t do.’

     The conversation eventually begins at five and continues for an hour and a half. She laughs often and loudly. Posing for our photographer is ruled out. Her daughter Helena can, if desired, send a few snapshots though. Putting on airs, you think? Marlene Dumas has absolutely no airs. Her reluctance to do interviews is half hesitation and half self-awareness. Hesitation about ‘the childish blather’ and ‘cut-off sentences’ which she says come out when she speaks with a ‘questioner’. Self-insight because it really is true that she writes much better than she talks. Sweet Nothings, the collection of her writings published in 2014, is a rare literary pearl compared to the writings of many other artists. Poetic, philosophical and yet crystal clear. ‘I write about art in order to speak for myself, and to distinguish myself from the pedantry and academism of art criticism,’ it begins. ‘I am not impressed by ART neither disappointed, because I never believed in art as the Big White Hope anyway; or saw artists as larger than life.’ To give you an idea as to how big a legend Marlene Dumas has become: she has already taken part twice in Documenta, in Kassel, and the Venice Biennale, the international high mass of contemporary art. All important museums and private collectors, from every corner of the planet, have paintings by her in their collections. Over the past ten years, retrospective exhibitions of her work travelled to every renowned art institution of the Western world. She is represented by leading art galleries such as Frith Street Gallery in London and David Zwirner in New York, Hong Kong, London and Paris. When, in 2006, her painting The Teacher went for 3.34 million dollars at Christie’s, it was the highest price ever paid for work by a living female artist. Three years later her work The Visitor was auctioned at Sotheby’s for 6.3 million dollars. And now, in Antwerp, twenty-six new paintings by Marlene Dumas are hanging at Zeno X Gallery, the gallery with which she has been collaborating for more than twenty-five years. That anniversary is being celebrated as of this week with an exhibition titled Double Takes.

HUMO: You come from South Africa, live in Amsterdam and are meanwhile known throughout the entire world. Couldn’t you just as easily have skipped Belgium?

MARLENE DUMAS: ‘Oh no, help! Hong Kong does nothing for me, for a long time Paris wasn’t an interesting place for contemporary art, New York overrates itself and London is an island. Just give me Belgium!’

HUMO: How important have Zeno X and Belgium been for your development as a painter?

DUMAS: ‘Very important. To me, Belgium is the nutty twin brother of the Netherlands. Holland had Rembrandt, Belgium had Rubens. And Belgium is nearby. You can drive there by car. That makes a difference, since I don’t like flying. When I arrived here from South Africa – long ago, during the 1970s – I thought, by the way, that Belgium was a province of the Netherlands. But, at the same time, it’s far away. Look at the art: Vermeer and Mondrian are unsurpassed, but René Magritte and Marcel Broodthaers are fundamentally different. They established the relationship between images and words, which has become so essential to me.’

     ‘I still hardly know anything about the history and the politics of the Netherlands and Belgium. A country is a collection of individuals. And some individuals from Belgium helped me especially to become and to remain critical, of art and of myself. I see Antwerp as a small, somewhat scruffy and shabby version of Paris. While I may have a French surname, I don’t speak a word of French. But with the Flemish I can speak. That does create a bond (laugh). Although I mostly know Luc Tuymans from the interviews he gives. Because of his accent I don’t understand him well and can’t have deep conversations with him. My own Afrikaans/Dutch blend of language doesn’t help that of course (laugh).’

     ‘Oh, and I also like the name of my Antwerp gallery: Zeno X. Almost all big, international galleries bear the name of their founder. Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian, you name them. Frank Demaegd has managed to become an important, widely respected figure in the art world without operating under his own name. I find that brave. Because of the pandemic you now read everywhere that we have to learn to think stoically again. Three hundred years before Christ, Zeno was the founder of that Greek school of philosophy. [Editor’s note: The Stoics regarded the fulfillment of our social duties and life in accordance with nature as the way to happiness.] But there was yet another Zeno [Zeno of Elea, ed.], known for his paradoxes. Speaking of a name with content and levels of meaning. And then that indefinable, nameless extension ‘X’…’

HUMO: Do you feel connected with other artists from Zeno X?

DUMAS: ‘During the 1970s I liked American art, but at a certain point it became too much like advertising for me. Something was missing. And then along came Jan Hoet. He was not only a warm and charming man; his solidarity with the non-streamlined, with chaos and psychiatry also appealed to me a great deal. The work of someone like Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, another artist who has been with Zeno X for a long time, ties in with this. I’ve always found her work very special, although we’ve never had much contact with each other. The strong connection is, of course, the one I have with Luc [Tuymans, ed.] We’re more or less from the same generation, and we’re both painters. So we share the same problems, even though we each resolve these in our own way. Luc has brought his own themes into painting: the traumatized post-colonial world, the Second World War and the Holocaust, the fundamental unreliability of images. You could say that he took painting away from romantic mythology and put it back in the real world. I don’t find his paintings at all cold or impersonal. Quite the opposite: they vibrate with tension, they’re nervous and at times unexpectedly tender as well. In any case, Luc manages to move me more than someone like Gerhard Richter. Good painter, but his work doesn’t have the same disruptive effect on me as Luc’s does at its best: the sense of being lost that it expresses, the unease with the world…’

AFRAID OF MADNESS

HUMO: This new exhibition is partly the result of your collaboration with Hafid Bouazza. How did you get to know him?

DUMAS: ‘Five years ago Hafid asked me to make illustrations for his translation of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. I found it a difficult assignment. Then I invited him to come and look at my sketches. I had already read a great deal about him, but only little of his work. I did know his translation of Arabic pornographic love poems [Om wat er nog komen moet: pornografica, ed.]. One of those poems was included in the catalogue of my retrospective The Image as Burden. The themes from Venus and Adonis were further developed in Myths & Mortals, my subsequent show at Zwirner in New York. Among the paintings that put aside to be shipped to New York, Hafid saw The Origin of Painting standing there. “That’s Baudelaire’s The Double Room!” he said [a metaphor for the dual reality in which the poet lives: the poet’s feverish dream versus reality, which disrupts it, ed]. That painting did not then go along with the others to New York, but it has become the starting point for this exhibition. I will be illustrating Hafid’s translation of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, to be published next year.’

     ‘Hafid broadened my frame of reference. He allowed me to become acquainted with the metaphors from ancient writings, which are often very explicit, but also much more beautiful and subtle than the limited vocabulary that we now use. I use that knowledge not to copy the past, but to remain humble and not be content too quickly with every image that I think up. Try outdoing the Bible’s Song of Songs sometime!’

The Origin of Painting (The Double Room), 2018, oil on canvas, 300 x 100 cm

HUMO: Hafid Bouazza is no blank slate: literary prodigy, an upbeat critic of Islam, but also a restless seeker of highs and big consumer of alcohol and drugs. Are you soulmates?

DUMAS: ‘Hafid is a complex figure, as a person and as a writer. He confuses people, I think, which keeps them from seeing a number of his vital qualities. His sense of humor, for instance. Or the nuance involved in his books. Hafid is no easy writer, you know. I often have to read his sentences twice.’

     ‘Are we soulmates? We both became famous at a relatively young age – Hafid especially – that’s one similarity. And we were both struck by the fact that people got excited about the subjects that we brought up – with him it was Islam, with me Israel/Palestine – which made them overlook the rest. Although in my case that wasn’t accompanied by so much fuss and sensational stories as it was with Hafid (laugh). I know nothing about his experiences with drugs. We don’t share those experiences. I’ve always been afraid of madness and memory loss. In day-to-day life alone I barely have a sense of direction, and can’t remember numbers or chronologies, so what would I be doing with drugs? I’m certainly a lot less obsessive than Hafid. (Laughs.) I’m much less consistent.’

HUMO: Drinking and getting drunk are recommended by you, though. ‘It has to be dark and you have to be drunk,‘ you wrote in the catalogue of your show at the Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo.

Is that about making art? Is painting, with you, accompanied by a form of drunkenness?

DUMAS: (laughs) ‘Some of the things I say you shouldn’t take too literally. When I was younger, my work did often lead to getting drunk. That has to do with the total surrender needed to arrive at good art. You get so absorbed in what you do that nothing else matters, as in a high. Nowadays I’m intoxicated by art.

HUMO: I’ve heard that you mostly work at night, in artificial light.

DUMAS: ‘That’s right. And I like working on the floor. The best works start out that way: with the canvas on the floor and with me bending over it. As I get older that does get more difficult. It’s very hard on my back. Afterward, for days, I sometimes have trouble getting out of bed. During the day I sleep, I read, I mail, I make calls, arrange my stacks of old newspapers and listen to the wretched stories of others.’

HUMO: Do you paint every night?

DUMAS: ‘Oh, no! If there’s an exhibition coming up, I work nonstop. But once the deadline has passed and the works have left my studio, I sometimes don’t paint for months.

Then comes a period, usually, where I have an aversion to my own work. Actually I live and work in a very haphazard way. I’m easily distracted. I put off decisions endlessly, wrack my brains about questions I have to answer, as you’ve noticed (laugh). But even when I’m not working, everything revolves around my work and I’m busy day and night.’

PORN COLORS

HUMO: During the 1990s you became famous with quite explicit images referring to pornography. I remember your exhibition MD at M HKA in Antwerp. That was a succession of splayed-open vaginas and erect penises. How do you look back on that now?

DUMAS: ‘In the early nineties I had just turned forty and was full of life. Now I’m a grandmother of 66! Eroticism I’ll consider important until the end of my days, but porn is too boring for me now, and sometimes too scary. Suggestion is so much more interesting. The sexual act wasn’t in fact the theme of those paintings, and some of them were, in my view, not at all so explicit. The longer you looked at them, the less ‘in your face’ they became. (Ponders.) But people did see them as being pornographic. I keep on being fascinated by the way people look at images of genitals.’

HUMO: During that period you also did Stripping Girls, a project with Anton Corbijn. The two of you went to strip clubs, or met with strippers. Anton photographed the girls in black-and-white, with clothes on; you painted them on the basis of polaroids, without clothes. What was the story behind that?

DUMAS: ‘I was looking, at the time, for the kind of strip clubs you see in old films. You know: elegant ladies and well-dressed gentlemen, drinks and cigarettes, laughing and the buzz of voices, a scent of tension and eroticism in the air. I wanted to revive that tradition. But it was gone. Our dealings with the girls themselves were sweet, intimate and sensual, but their public performances were fast, hard and awkward. Now that I’m older, my work is much more about the decline of the body. (Doubting.) Although that isn’t entirely true either. In my exhibition Against the Wall there was no eroticism at all, but then in Myths & Mortals there was. It comes and it goes, and it comes back again.’

HUMO: The porn colors purple, pink and blue aren’t a standard part of your palette anymore?

DUMAS: ‘Porn colors? I thought those were colors from the gardens of the Impressionists, who once shocked everyone by painting the shadows of their trees in those hues. While we now find them very soft and ordinary (laughs).’

HUMO: You once called the artists of your generation asexual. ‘They prefer loneliness to sex,’ you wrote. ‘They’re so sensitive that they’re allergic to each other.’ Has that improved a bit by now?

DUMAS: ‘In the digital age young people complain about the fact that they no longer know what it’s like to touch someone. And now we’ve got the pandemic on top of that. Instead of being a potential lover, everyone is now a potential contaminant! Not exactly what you call sexy.’

HUMO: There is more and more death and decay in your work, along with historical, political and literary references. Has ‘low culture’ dried up as a source of inspiration?

DUMAS: ‘I once made extensive use of lowbrow phenomena like the pinup, that’s true. But nowadays we’ve become so used to that fusion of high and low culture, and to the abuse of both, that I no longer experience it as liberating. Donald Trump as president of the US! That I’m really not going to get cheerful about. Just let the Low go, for now.’

HUMO: Do you get worked up when your work is misunderstood?

DUMAS: ‘Sometimes. I do find that people look much too fleetingly. Myself included!’

HUMO: In one of your e-mails you quote Nabokov. He once said that the second reading of a book is the most important one. Does the same hold true for looking at art? Are there enough people who read your work twice?

DUMAS: (laughs) ‘Nabokov was right. Love at first sight, spontaneously falling in love with a book or a painting, that’s nice but often based on superficialities. Usually the passion subsides with a second reading. Only the real lovers persist and keep on reading. But how many of those people do you come across in your career? A handful? Observing well is an art in itself. And the more famous the artist becomes, the less closely people generally observe his or her work.

HUMO: Then you’re out of luck. Doesn’t fame do anything at all for your vanity?

DUMAS: ‘Sometimes. But most of the time it leads to annoyance, fear and distrust. I haven’t become calmer or more self-confident from it, if that’s what you might be thinking. Quite the reverse: all that wrong type of attention causes me to have less time to make things that I myself would like to look at for a long time. And what does it actually mean? There are plenty of artists who were very famous in their time and whom we now consider worthless. And vice versa. When an important scientist is invited to a conference, people commend his achievements and discoveries. When I show up somewhere, people say that my paintings are very expensive. That is then my claim to fame. Don’t you find that sad?’

CLIMATE OF FEAR

HUMO: Actually, your daughter Helena is the star of your oeuvre. The Painter (1994), the portrait of her that you painted when she was five or six, after she had dipped both of her hands into a jar of paint, is probably your best-known painting. And now she’s back again: one time heavily pregnant, one time with your grandson Eden in her arms. Is she happy with the attention?

DUMAS: ‘Yeah, sure. Helena finds it fun and funny to be part of my oeuvre. She does understand that the paintings in which she appears aren’t necessarily about herself, but as a model she does continue to inspire me, and that often results in good work. Sometimes she teases me about that: “Thanks to me, you are who you are!” (laughs) Now, the family portraits in this exhibition don’t have the same ambitions as the paintings related to Baudelaire and his world view. They’re more classical and reserved, you could say. And I don’t want to make defiant or shocking images of my daughter, my grandson or my son-in-law. For a long time I doubted as to whether they indeed belonged in this show. They were produced during the same period as the Baudelaire series, but that’s the only thing they have in common. At the same time I do like the simultaneity of dissimilar things (laughs). By which I mean that I’m always occupied with different things at the same time, that I have the tendency to wander off course. And Frank [Demaegd, ed.] has such a big gallery now.

I wanted to celebrate our collaboration of a quarter century, at whatever the cost, with nothing but new paintings. In recent years I’ve already had plenty of retrospective shows.’

Helena and Eden, 2020, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm

HUMO: What is, for you, the most interesting part of this show?

DUMAS: ‘The three tall paintings, without a doubt. [The Origin of Painting, The Making Of and Time and Chimera are each three meters in height and one meter in width, ed.]’

HUMO: Why?

DUMAS: ‘Because at first they appear to differ from my other work. But if you take a better look, that isn’t the case. For me, those three paintings express the essence of painting. It isn’t, in fact, the theme that determines an artwork, but the process – not what it represents, but how it has come about. I used an old technique of the Surrealists for this: the canvas lies on the floor, I pour paint over it – old mixtures in strange colors ­– and then I begin to move and to tilt the canvas. I use my brushes only to keep the paint from spreading across the entire canvas or to mark out, in a rudimentary way, the figures that take shape. That’s it. It goes very fast. The works that I’ve made this way do suggest figures, but no depth. They’re nothing but painterly illusion!’

HUMO: They’re very direct and monumental.

DUMAS: ‘The scale is important. As small depictions in a book they won’t work, I think. You’ve got to see them live. Frank was initially not so enthusiastic about them. They’re strange things, people will have to get used to them.’

HUMO: In the same rudimentary style, you’ve also painted a bottle which undoubtedly refers to absinthe, the favorite drink of Charles Baudelaire and Hafid Bouazza. And a dirty, toxic-hued, almost transparent rat.

DUMAS: Yes, that rat is nice, isn’t it.

HUMO: Rats are well-known spreaders of viruses and bacteria. Is it also about these times?

DUMAS: It’s about my time, about these times and about time. Baudelaire once said that the only good news a person can receive is that he dies. That was meant cynically, but now it sounds very relevant indeed, don’t you think? The pandemic has once again made clear just how easily a climate of fear can arise. We fight the thought of our imminent death with a fear that is greater than death itself. Just as in the age of the plague.’

HUMO: Are you yourself fearful by nature? Or do you have an optimistic character?

DUMAS: (laughs) ‘I’m rather cheerful by nature. But these days I’m also concerned, you know. For myself, and for the people around me. I don’t take any risks. I’m staying right at home with Jan [Andriesse, painter and her partner, ed.]. Helena does errands for us. (Ponders.) You know, I used to have a good relationship with my mother. [She died in 2007, just prior to Dumas’s first major show in her birthplace Cape Town, ed.] We could talk about anything. She prepared me well for the dreadful things that can happen in life. Also for the death of my father at the age of forty-eight, when I was twelve. That always helped me.’

     ‘But there are also days when I’m down. I always used to find science-fiction films with robots really scary, and look: now we live in such a universe. We only have contact via technology. I can’t see my own grandson. So I’m sitting here with my portraits of people full of emotion and eroticism.’

HUMO: Later they’ll say, in the art history books, that you were an important artist from the pre-Covid age.

DUMAS: (laughs loudly) ‘Yah! From the time when people still touched each other and even had sex with each other.’


This text was first published in Dutch as: Danny Ilegems. ‘Leve de legende: kunstenares Marlene Dumas komt naar Antwerpen’. Humo, vol. 4160, no. 22 (26 May 2020): p. 132-137

Translation: Beth O’Brien