Marlene Dumas

Making and Meaning

In the margin of Miss Interpreted 

by Marcel Vos


Meanings come and go. A painting can mean many things, but in the first place it must be something. Being precedes meaning. 

The drawings and paintings in the exhibition “Miss Interpreted” by Marlene Dumas reveal a creative relation between the world of the word and the world of the image. Titles, texts and statements interfere with how the image is viewed, and the image in turn obtrudes on the reading of the text. This symbiosis of word and image (which has a history going back centuries) gives us some idea of the methods of the artist and of the function of language in generating images. Particularly the collages and drawings, which by their nature are closer to the source, make clear the role played by the word in activating the imagination. (In the paintings the word usually withdraws to the title.) 

As long as this highly personal working process is not the subject of too much commentary, in other words as long as titles, texts and statements are more or less tacitly included while the image is considered, the alliance of word and image remains intact. The writer Goethe once said: “When I write down words, I see images rising before me.” And the painter Van Gogh created a parallel in letters.

Problems arise when the relations between word and image begin to play an explicit part in analyses and discussions. This can easily give rise to misunderstandings, as the title “Miss Interpreted” suggests. The alliance, which still took the form of a symbiosis in the working process, is then suddenly broken. It becomes at once clear that words and images, which are associatively mingled in our minds, belong outside us to different areas which may complement each other, but which by their nature cannot be simultaneously comprehended in the same mental act. Seeing and reading then go their different ways and the question of the primacy of word or image inevitably arises. 

In connection with this question, there can be no doubt that the title of the exhibition comes not from the writer but from the artist Dumas, who is aware that words, texts and titles, even when expressly intended to help us understand the image, are easily interpreted wrongly, precisely in relation to that image. What belongs together in the private domain breaks in two in the public domain, where there is: freedom of interpretation. 

The wish to understand a painting is, I think, different from the need to interpret paintings. He who wants to understand a particular painting will never lose sight of it as an object. He will look and reflect, examine and compare, weigh and balance, with no other purpose than to clear his view for that painting. An interpretive moment may be a part of this process, but no more than that. However, he who interprets because of a need to do so will try to make explicit what he believes plays a role as a conscious or unconscious intention, or what remains implicit in the painting by nature of the medium. This marks the beginning of the phase of conferring meaning, the reference, the purpose behind the form. Every word from the artist is then welcome – often more so than the image – because interpretation necessarily uses words, thus fitting in nicely with the language of titles, texts and statements. Translation is required only if one does not know the language involved. But the mere fact that titles and texts can be translated (with some loss of nuance perhaps) tells us much about the nature of words. A good title such as “Waiting (for meaning” can, if needed, be translated into Dutch, but no one would suggest for a moment that the painting in question needed to be translated from English into Dutch before it could be understood. This clearly illustrates the gap between the mental world of signs that refer and the sensory world of paintings that show themselves. The interpreter, if he is writing about the image, becomes embroiled in an inevitably unsuccessful attempt to articulate that which expresses itself in a non-verbal world. He is left with no alternative but to treat the image not as an image, but as a sign or symbol that must be decoded. He automatically clings to whatever can be named, the subject or theme, the scene or context, in short, anything that can be articulated in the discursive context of language. This inevitably brings interpretation to the slippery slope of reductions (or irrelevant additions). The tendency to see a painting as a channel of communication, i.e. as a medium through which ideas, thoughts and messages are transmitted, always leads to a process of decoding in which the painting as a form of expression in itself disappears. Those, for example, who in interpreting some of Dumas’s works reach the peculiar conclusion that they contain an element of voyeurism have become fixated on a few depictive aspects. They take no account of the fact that every inch of the painting shows self-awareness. It knows it is being looked at. It looks back. 


The question of meanings comes very much to the fore in Postmodernist art theories, partly in relation to the ‘return’ of the figurative. Modernism, so it is argued, reached a dead end of sterile, meaningless and formalist abstraction. With some satisfaction, Modernism was declared to be bankrupt, especially by art critics, and the great innovators of this century were given the blame for the problems faced by younger generations. It was claimed that Modernism had banned the depictive, which is of course nonsense since everyone knows and can see that a large part, if not the largest part, of modern art has always remained figurative. Abstract art was only one manifestation of Modernism, the one which after 1945 was regarded by mainly American critics as the inevitable outcome of a linear evolution. This distorted picture and the powerful influence it exerted was rightly resented by younger generations. Art originates with life.

But art does not originate from life alone; art is always partly about art. It cannot be denied that the development of abstract art represents a critical moment in the history of Western art. The simple fact that a painting depicting nothing is possible can never again be eliminated from ideas about art. (This moment is meaningless only to those who cling to the antiquated idea that abstract art is by definition hollow, decorative, formalistic and empty of content.) What became clear was that it was not essential for a painting to depict something. But since there were many superb paintings which did depict something, it was also clear that it was not essential for a painting not to depict something. Unfortunately, the terms abstract and figurative still suggest a contrast which does not exist and need not exist if the term abstraction is used in a much more fundamental sense. In his still unrivalled book ‘Painting and reality’ (1957), Etienne Gilson relates abstraction not to what is depicted, but to the process of making, where creation is abstraction. Insofar that a creative painter depicts something, that act of depicting serves the creative function. The best Jan van Eyck is also abstract in the highest degree. (The depiction itself and the degree of imitation are closely tied to prevailing conventions.) So just as a good painting is not good because it depicts something, so a painting which depicts nothing is not good because it depicts nothing. Neither of the two, depicting or non-depicting, is a sine qua non of painting. 

If it is true that abstract art dominated the art world in the fifties and sixties, it may well have taken courage for the younger painters to bring the depictive back into their work (just as earlier it took courage to disregard the conventions of the depictive). But a painter can never turn back to something that creative art has never been, i.e. depictive. 

It does, however, seem as if many breathed a sigh of relief at the ‘return’ of the figurative. At last you could again see what a painting meant; at last there was something to be said and something to interpret. Art was back in the ‘talking world’ (Gilson), and thus in the power of language – in part the language of early Expressionism and in part the new jargon of structuralist analysis. It seems to be art’s fate to have language for ever at its heels, whether it be the language of religion, philosophy, politics, sociology, iconology, depth psychology or whatever. Even Gombrich once called works of art ‘wrappings of verbal statements’, a regrettable pronouncement by a renowned scholar. No doubt language is involved in the making of art, but trying to peel off form from content – if that were possible – will leave you not with words, but with nothing at all. 


I have never been able to discern meanings in a painting unless I look through reading glasses and in the belief – which I do not share – that a painting consists of signs which must be explained. A work can, of course, be looked at in this way and sometimes there is nothing against this, provided that the interpretation is not seen as the equivalent of the painting’s content.

On the last point, I have always been amazed by how iconologists (and now the proponents of current representation theories) behave as if paintings were invisible and purely mental systems of meanings leading a floating existence without the least connection to anything material. The iconologist discovers, for example, layers of meaning. He analyses meanings that are hidden in the work or lie behind what is visible. He brings these meanings together in a concept which is then interpreted as the content of the work in relation to the period in which it was painted. In this way the painting dissolves into meanings. There is something behind everything. A skull is more than just a skull, a knife more than a knife, a colour more than a colour, a circle more than a circle.

Now what concerns me is not, of course, how valuable these interpretations may be in cultural history nor whether one interpretation or another is right. What matters is the artist’s attitude. He has to produce the painting. He is concerned not only with whether a knife, a skull, a colour or a circle means something, but with how these elements should be realised in the structure of the painting. that matters then is not the meaning, not what a colour or an object stands for, but the dynamic relation of form, colour and material. At this fundamental level a painting functions as a means of expression and not as a collection of concepts. This is where the heart of painting is revealed. 

This is not at all to say that meanings are unimportant in the making of paintings. On the contrary, they play a big part in the finding of themes, subjects and motifs. But meanings are not an end in themselves; they are the catalysts for a painterly and thus non-verbal content which may possibly include nameable meanings. For the interpreter (and for some artists) form and execution serve the purpose of communicating meaning; for the creative painter, on the other hand, meanings serve the purpose of creation. Thus a completed painting can never be resolved into the meanings which played a role in its making without fatal reductions.

Interpreting art, in whatever terminology, remains a process in which the actual work stands silent. The methods developed naturally give results that are confirmed by the work; the outcome is, after all, dictated by the method. He who first invents the metre must not be surprised if he turns out to be measuring metres everywhere. Similarly, the layers in our psyche in Freud’s vision are in the lust place layers in Freud’s vision. If layers of meaning are a painting with the aid of a particular model, that does not mean that those layers really exist. The model may once have been devised to solve practical problems, but the more it was perfected, the more it was seen as the reality it was supposedly investigating. It cannot be by chance that the rise of iconological interpretation kept pace with advances in photomechanical reproduction techniques. Once the method was perfected, the iconologist needed nothing more than books, texts, photos and reproductions. The reality of the work of art was traded in for the intellectual concept. Nor is it coincidental that the iconologist has a penchant for studying second- or third-rate work. Apparently, this is where there is no shortage of meanings. In fact, if meanings are really what matter, it is not hard for a painter to provide them. In this way the sterility of ‘ much Postmodern art is reflected in a taste for meanings, double meanings, ironic twists, stylistic quotations, appropriations, para- phrases, etc.

Art can be looked at from various points of view, historical, social, political, biographical. Each produces a different set of meanings. But the viewpoint of the maker is different again. Isn’t it the case that a creative artist has to struggle to find a way through a world of meanings to reach the special domain of art and to let the work be completely what it shows? This is not achieved by avoiding meanings – even if that were possible – or throwing them overboard like useless ballast, but by converting the germinative power of particular meanings into a meaningful painting, which is not the same as a painting full of meanings. To then go on viewing art as a language with meanings to be decoded is to let the painting as an object disappear. And that can hardly have been the artist’s intention.

Max Beckmann explained the position of the artist in striking terms in a lecture he gave in London in 1938: “When spiritual, metaphysical, material, or immaterial events come into my life, 1 can only fix them by way of painting. It is not the subject which matters but the translation of the subject into the abstraction of the surface by means of painting. Therefore I hardly need to abstract things, for each object is unreal enough already, so unreal that I can only make it real by means of painting.”

These are the words of a painter whose work has provoked multiple interpretations. In an essay on form, meaning and interpretation (1963; translated from French and reprinted in ‘Form and Meaning’, Princeton 1981), Robert Klein remarks that the difficulty of all hermeneutics arises from the paradoxical fact that in one way or another the solution precedes the problem. Miss Interpreted? How could it be otherwise? For even if interpretations are necessary, a correct or complete interpretation is by definition impossible. After all, the solution is the painting itself. Meanings come and go. Being precedes meaning.

This text was first published as: Marcel Vos. ‘Making and Meaning: in the margin of Miss Interpreted’. Miss Interpreted, Marlene Dumas (exhibition catalogue), Eindhoven: Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, 1992: p. 102-107

Copyright text: Marcel Vos