Miss Interpreted

What is the matter, little Miss Muffet?
Why so upset; because a spider
sat down beside her?

This is a question I can ask myself.
Did I not invite this misadventure
into my parlour? Sleeping with my door
open at night, smiling at perfect strangers?
This is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding
Rape, where the line between
seduction and whatever-it-was-you-got is a crucial point.

At the beginning of the 90’s, or the end of the 20th century, it is evident that the wor- kings of suggestive artworks need re-examination. It has become clear that all artworks that SUGGEST narrative put the viewer on trial. Or ‘on stage’, if you prefer the terminology of the theatre to that of the courtroom. In literature, in theatre, think of Ionesco, Beckett, Genet…, and in film: Resnais, Godard…, this is old news (in certain recent advertising there is an analogous development). They have dealt with ambiguous images in works that are built to accommodate a multiplicity of equally plausible interpretations. Yet works that do give the outsider the feeling of: If-you-don’t- know-it’s-no-use-me-telling-you. Wasn’t that what Gary Cooper said to Grace Kelly in High Noon? Yet all of these media deal with a type of storytelling and an unfolding of time from the start: while painting is ontologically of a different order and by its character ‘out’ of time. So even when you deal with paintings that show affinities with these art forms, you cannot ignore the important differences. While 20th century’s art in general ‘expresses’ rather tan ‘explains’ and ‘veils’ rather than ‘exposes’, ‘The privileging of reading over “imagening” was of central significance for conceptual art. (Linguistic Theory have taught us to read pictures, rather than to imagine meaning.)’[1] So here we are bending ourselves over backwards to ‘read out’ and ‘read in’; fools rushing in where angels fear to tread, eager to enter the work and posses the secret.

An old love of mine once said, just give me the one thing
I know you can’t give me,
give me a simple yes or no.

I never liked either of these terms
and if you’re not prepared for a
never-ending answer, don’t ask me no questions,
I’m not deliberately hiding something.
Take your healing hands off my broken sentences.

Night time
Night in the city is a fabricated thing where the stars are invisible. I like filmstars. Movies are shown in the dark. I like sitting in the dark especially during the day. Paintings are made in the dark.

Larger than life
I don’t have any conception of how big an average head is. (I don’t really have a conception of how big anything is, for that matter!) I’ve never been interested in anatomy. In that respect I relate like children do. What is experienced as the most important, is seen as the biggest, irrespective of actual or factual size. In movies everything is larger than life and yet you experience that as real(istic), all my faces are much bigger than human scale, yet no-one seems to acknowledge that, not that that is so surprising seeing that this capacity for enlargement is one of the principle characteristics of photographic vision and a method used by many an artist of our day. (Compared to artists like Chuck Close and Alex Katz my jumps in scale are relative.) From blowing up to zooming in, for me the ‘close-up’ was a way of get- ting rid of irrelevant background information and by making the facial elements so big, it increased the sense of abstraction concerning the picture plane. The use of photographic projection eliminated the main compositional and proportional choices. The elimination of the background also did away with the place of being, and environmental context.

As the isolation of a recognizable figure increases and the narrative character de- creases (contrary to what one might initially assume that this lack of illustrative information would bring about), the interpretative affects are inflamed. The titles redirect the work; however do not eradicate the inherent ambiguity. One cannot interpret the painting of Jule – die vrou without entangling some of the root metaphors applied not only to the female, but to the idea of portrayal in general.

My Night Creatures are alone. But if you compare them to the metaphysical loneliness and alienation that Giacometti conveys, they strike a warm pop(ular) note, or compared to the chill of Longo’s Men in the Cities or Barbara Kruger’s aggressive tones, I look like Dolly Parton.

Close ups
In an essay on Luchino Visconti, l’Innocente[2], Willem Jan Otten writes about the method of the zoom. ‘It is the movement of the lens that can bring a picture closer, WITHOUT HAVING TO MOVE THE CAMERA FROM ITS PLACE.’ He makes a distinction I have never thought of before, but which relates to the close-ups of my Night Creatures. It is not so much that you go to the object, (or subject for the matter) but that it is drawn towards you and sucked out of the environment (or context) until it becomes a close-up. It is a powerful and tyrannical method, for one thing, the human eye has no zoom lens. For the mediocre filmer it means instant failure. When Otten describes the end of the movie he mentions that Visconti avoids a Wagnerism (which is not unknown to him) ‘He is using the zoom much less and at the eventual suicide scene the camera stays at a large distance. As a camera should when someone comes to their end.’
I have used the close-up only for the human face. This method achieves an intimidating and confrontational effect, which was what I wanted: images combining intimacy (or the illusion of that) with discomfort. Eyes, no matter where the gaze is directed, have strong impact. It is self evident that the quick cheap thrills of immediate psychological impact can also turn out to be very tedious.

I did not paint Freud, instead I painted his wife.
‘Western Thought has always worked by oppositions. The law organizes the thinkable through oppositions. (Whether as irreconcilable dualities, or in comparative uplifting dialectics.) We think in couples even when we try very hard not to – based on the force of the copula, of copulation’.[3] Now I’m thinking of William Wegman and his dog Man Ray. His work can make me actually laugh about these matters. How he plays with the awareness of how we try to domesticate the other. And then there is Bluebeard and his last wife. They turned into one another like Bergman’s Persona.

Painting a naked man
I have drawn many things, but I have not made a painting of a naked man more than once, well, twice, the first embarrassed attempt was in 1975. The title of the painting done in 1987 is The Particularity of Nakedness. The title was inspired by the re-reading of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), in which he draws a distinction between the ‘nude’ and the ‘naked’ in European oil painting. At art school in the 70’s it was clear that no-one was inspired by the nude drawing classes anymore. The women (of color) who posed at the university had been there for many many years. Being a model had become their occupation. They had posed themselves into (still-life-like) generalised objects, devoid of erotic (or any kind of) energy. The rare occasions that the male nude (white) was acquired, it led to giggles or indifference but not to concentration. Now it seems that it was not the nude I was looking for, nor the posing figure, but the erotic conditions of life that I was after. Two ‘subjects’ confronting each other. ‘Apart from the necessity of transcending the single instant and of admitting subjectivity, there is, as we have seen, one further element which is essential for any great sexual image of the naked. This is the element of banality, which must be undisguised but not chilling. It is this, which distinguishes between voyeur and lover. Here such banality is to be found in Rubens’s compulsive painting of the fat softness of Hélène Fourment’s flesh which continually breaks every convention of form and (to him) continually offers the promise of her extraordinary particularity’.[4]

As we move from the Specific to the Type we come to:

Why do my pictures escape the ‘voyeuristic gaze’. This was a question put to me recently. My reaction was: I’m not a Peeping Tom, I’m a painter, I’m not even a photographer. But I think the answer is in the J. Berger quote above. The aim is to ‘reveal’, not to ‘display’. It is the discourse of the Lover. I am intimately involved with my subject matter in this painting. I am not disengaged from the subject of my gaze. With photographic activities it is possible that they who take the picture leave no traces of their presence, and are absent from the pictures. Paintings exist as the traces of their makers and by the grace of these traces. You can’t TAKE a painting – you MAKE a painting.

Private parts
Some comments from my viewers on the painting The Particularity of Nakedness: A woman (writer) told me she was very disappointed in seeing this work, she used to enjoy my older, more conceptional work, so much but what was I doing now – painting pictures for gay men. She called it a homosexual painting?! She said my male was too passive. Will we ever get beyond the hetero/homo dualism? A man (museum director) told me that the painting was a failure due to too many horizontals. It was apparently very hard to paint a good painting without any vertical elements. Just recently I saw that John Baldessari did a work Horizontal men (1984). He said it was the obverse of a man vertical, the measure of things. It was a vulnerable alternative. I liked that. The difficulties with this work made me think of the depictions of the sexual organs of Christ (remember The Sexuality of Christ? [5]) although somehow in the reverse. My male image was experienced as ‘not strong enough’. Both parties wanted him erected one way or another.

If we return to the female nude and notions of ideal beauty, we come to Manet who broke the rules with his Olympia, but then we see idealism replaced by the ‘realism’ of the prostitute, ‘(…) who became the quintessential woman of early avant-garde twentieth century painting’. John Berger does not make the link, but I do see a relationship between the position of the homosexual and the image of the prostitute in our western culture. The male equivalent of the ‘bad woman’ (the prostitute) is the gay male.

The human Tripod is not really a man. He is a construct. It is a painting relating the world of drawing with the world of photography. This reminds me of Jeff Wall’s No (1983). There you see a ‘one-legged’ man walking passed a woman in the street. The man is ‘distorted’ through photography. You don’t notice it unless pointed out to you because you know that although you don’t see the other leg, you do see the shadow. So you don’t miss it.
A Picasso painting (more drawing than painting) of a boy in clown suit with three legs is an attempt at deciding where to put the leg. It’s a formal consideration. We don’t read any other significance into the fact that his painting did not cover up the signs of his drawing, structuring or composing the work. This was still in his blue (or pink) period. It is because we know the history of his art. He is dead now and can thus also be looked at from the end to the beginning. (The Greeks entered death backwards in order to keep their past before them.)
John Baldessari used a photograph of a man that actually had only one leg, and gave him ‘back’ his missing leg through photographic intervention, art as an act of healing he described it. For me art is more a cleaning up process. I keep everything as valuable that presents itself to me and then I don’t know how to get rid of it again. I don’t live with my paintings. It is a relief when they go away. I don’t enjoy looking at my own work.

My paintings are not the executions of ONE idea or emotion that goes from (a) intention to (b) artwork. (Our notions of cause and effect are also in bad shape.) Drawings are closer and quicker in conveying immediate feelings. The more you move towards paintings the darker the wood becomes through which Little Red Riding Hood goes and it’s not only the wolf, but also the wicked witch and the seven dwarfs and Judas and Jesus and the journalists, that she has to face.

Once something has been made to look ridiculous, it can never carry the same authority again.

Now I’m not one of the boys anymore.

I was accused by women of misusing babies. It has been said that I mistreat grownups, but at least they could defend themselves and babies couldn’t. And even if a baby looked like that, they did not want to see them in that way, it was said. Then I was accused of speaking the truth but apologizing for it. Then I was very tired.

Keep out of reach of children
Art is not meant for children
Like poison and medicine
It should be kept out of reach

The playwrite Arthur Adamov recorded how an ordinary street incident first made him aware of the dramatic possibilities of mutual solitude. He saw one day two young girls passing a blind beggar on the street. As they passed arm-in-arm, oblivious of the beggar, they sang a popular song of the day: ‘J’ai fermé les yeux, c’était merveilleux’ (I closed my eyes, it was wonderful), exactly the opposite of what has always been thought dramatic. Here we have the absence of communication, the absence of human sympathy and emotion and above all, the absence of conflict.[6] When I think of Rembrandt and dramatic moments I think of The offering of Isaac where the gesture of the hand pushing on the boy’s face is unforgettable, or Lucretia with the dagger. With my own paintings, apart from a wine glass or two, or some camera’s, the characters are mostly inactive and empty handed. In most cases the drama is psychological rather than pictorial (especially in the portraits). As the potential for narrative increases by including attributes and/or action (the small boy in Snowwhite and the Wrong Story; the clutching of the camera in Snowwhite and the Broken Arm …) the paintings become more dramatic in a theatrical sense. In the Black Drawings, however, we are ‘back’ where we started with the Night Creatures, in some essential way. The narrative has dissolved into ‘presence’. The viewers are back in the courtroom.

[1] Nicolas de Ville on Gerard Hemsworth, in: Between Shopping and Reification, Self Portraits (cat.), Matt’s Gallery, London, 1978
[2] Willem Jan Otten, l’Innocente, 1976
[3] Alice Jardins, Death Sentences: writing couples and ideology, 1983
[4] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972
[5] Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Oblivion, 1983
[6] G.E. Wallworth N.V., The Theatre of Protestant Paradox, New York, 1971

Ask me no questions
and I’ll tell you no lies 

Intentions unclear (or never trust an artist).
How do you know my love is true?
How do you know I’m not a fake?
Why do you insist on my authenticity
when I warn you against my non-integrity?
Art is a low risk, high-reward crime.

Miss Interpreted. Originally published in Miss Interpreted, Marlene Dumas (cat., English Edition), Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1992, p.26-80; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, first edition Galerie Paul Andriesse and De Balie Publishers Amsterdam, 1998; and second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.