Marlene Dumas

On Photography and Modern Life

Whether you start with a photographic source or not, that doesn’t change the basic assumption that a (modern) painter is more interested in images that in the actual living of modern life; and that painters are more interested in images than in the actual living of modern life; and that painters are more interested in their own intentions than in their subject matter. When Picasso told Brassaï that photography had liberated painting from the subject, he meant it in a positive way, but this could also be understood in a negative way – one could say that painting is also free from the responsibility of caring for and about its subjects. We can paint anything without asking the permission of – or negotiating with – the original subject that has been photographed, because our ‘model’ – that is, all photography – has become public property. We do not have to be where the scene is taking place. But this is part of the tension of a good artwork, that one cares and at the same time, one does not really care. […]

Even though it seems to be the amateurs that take the most dangerous and important historical pictures these days with their mobile equipment, painters can remind us of the fact that while there is no progress in art like the ‘old’ moderns believed, that’s no reason not to portray the never-ending cross-dressing and makeovers, the camouflaged ways in which history repeats itself in our own time.

On Photography and Modern Life. First published in The Painting of Modern Life, Hayward Gallery, London, 2007; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014 [Selected fragments from a conversation between Marlene Dumas and Ralf Rugoff].