Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden

Through her extensive career, Dumas has been known for her prolific figurative artwork. She chooses always to paint second hand, from personal photos and newspaper and magazine clippings, alternating their realism and using blotchy inks and colours to create an image that is illustrative and intimate, regardless of the source and context.

The exhibition spans most of Dumas’s career and is the largest representation of Dumas’s work in Europe. A complete documentation of her infatuation with the very concept of identity and its meaning in a socio-political context is the one thing that connects the vast collection of works. The pieces span an extensive 14 rooms and upon entering each one, it feels like every room is a chapter of Dumas’s mind.

The skill in her work may lie in what appears initially to be a simplistic drawing, with almost childish smears of paint, blurrily applied in a way that sometimes only vaguely resembles a person and often crudely outlined. This view disrupted by the alarmingly confrontational expressions and features, beautifully textured skin created with loose brushstrokes and liberal applications of paint, allowing the figure to become lifelike, more like a flawed personal photo than a drawing.

As the exhibition progresses, Dumas’s ideas become easier to understand; what is initially viewed as a collection of random images start to piece together forming a larger picture. It is a confrontation of what the self is and how we label it. Her work is particularly potent because of the way she deals with second hand images, re-evaluating them. Her emotional response breathes life into them, removing the need for realism. Her renaming simple portraits and describing what she sees allows us to identify with them.

Dumas’s exploration of racial tensions, identity and sexuality blur and blend with her brushstrokes. The interlacing themes are seen through Dumas’s eyes and connect with one another in a way that could easily have been missed in another context. Skull depicts the skull of Charlotte Corday, the revolutionary and murderer of Jean Paul Marat. The skull itself is significant as Corday’s skeleton was examined by scientists who established she could not be a normal woman because she was capable of rational violence.

The works allow us to question what we know of ourselves in our examination of the pieces, such as the stark image of ‘The Woman of Algiers’, drawn from a photo in a newspaper. The image shows a nude woman held by the French military, offering us a bleak insight into how female sexuality is used as both an image of power and of vulnerability. This ties in with Dumas’s erotic images, painted in her delicate pastels, figures of both genders bend in compromising positions, exposing and contorting themselves to bare their vulnerability to the crowd. Although these images may initially seem explicit and personal they are little different to the rest of her work, where it seems that vulnerability and exposure is served to the viewer via the tenderness and intimacy of Dumas’s artwork.

Despite the sheer volume of work, the development of the idea of self is examined extensively and the exploration of identity within The Image as Burden is a fascinating study of the image as an experience, due to the striking effect of the individual images. It would be possible to write thousands of words to describe why one should visit the exhibition; to carefully examine the emotionally infused artworks; or to explore the influence of Marlene Dumas’s own confused identity as an artist and a South African, living in the Netherlands. However, the work is far better experienced in person. In a culture where we rely on labelling people, it is certainly worth viewing an exhibition which allows us to question why. A thoroughly thought-provoking exhibition.

Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden is on display until 10 May at:

Tate Modern

Image: Marlene Dumas, The Widow 2013. Private Collection © Marlene Dumas

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