It’s day TWENTY-ONE! I have to say that when I first put this artist’s name onto my list I was pretty excited to get to her. There’s something haunting and disturbing, yet real about her paintings. The more I researched this (the best way I can categorize her art is contemporary…maybe surrealist?) artist, I found her portraits and paintings mesmerizing. Some looked like old polaroids or damaged photographs. Let’s all learn a little about Marlene Dumas and then be intoxicated by my painting of an obese Asian baby!
Marlene Dumas (born 3 August 1953) is a South African born artist and painter who lives and works in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In the past Dumas produced paintings, collages, drawings, prints and installations. She now works mainly with oil on canvas and ink on paper. Stressing both the physical reality of the human body and its psychological value, Dumas tends to paint her subjects at the extreme fringes of life’s cycle, from birth to death, with a continual emphasis on classical modes of representation in Western art, such as the nude or the funerary portrait. By working within and also transgressing these traditional historical antecedents, Dumas uses the human figure as a means to critique contemporary ideas of racial, sexual, and social identity.
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1953, Marlene Dumas was raised on her family’s
vineyard just beyond the city limits in the semi-rural Kuils River region. Her native language was Afrikaans. As a student of painting at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art during the early 1970s, Dumas gained exposure to the decade’s preoccupation with conceptualism and art theory. Television was not introduced there until 1976, and most of the art she saw was in reproduction. It was photography, however – the work of Diane Arbus, in particular – that would have the greatest impact on the young artist during this period, introducing her to the “burden of the image” and the complexities of representing the human form. Accepting a scholarship to study at the Dutch artist-run institute de Ateliers, Dumas moved in 1976 to Amsterdam, where she continues to live and work. During these formative years, Dumas explored the relation between image and text in collages, combining clipped photographs, text, and gestural drawing movements.
In 1984, Dumas started painting heads and figures. Working almost exclusively from photographic sources, she draws her subject material from an ever-developing archive of personal snapshots, Polaroid photographs, and thousands of images torn from magazines and newspapers. A painting is never a literal rendition of a photographic source. For one painting, she may crop an original image, focusing on the figures in the far background of a photograph. For another she may adjust
the color, using her characteristic palette of grays, blues, and reds. Dumas’s portraits remove subjects from their original context and strip them of any identifiable information. This source material allows the artist to capture her human subjects in their own moment in history, yet provides enough distance for the subject to be quietly and respectfully observed: the awkward babies (The First People I-IV), a captured man (The Blindfolded Man, 2007), a posing pregnant woman (Pregnant Image, 1988–90), the face of a notable writer (Death of the Author, 2003), or the artist herself (Self Portrait at Noon, 2008). Executed in the mid-1980s, a series of paintings entitled “The Eyes of the Night Creatures” explores recurring themes in the artist’s oeuvre, including racial and ethical intolerance (e.g. The White Disease, 1985). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dumas produced a series of
works based around the subject of pregnancy and babies. Between 1998 through 2000, in collaboration with the photographer Anton Corbijn, she worked on a project called “Stripping Girls”, which took the strip clubs and peep shows of Amsterdam as their subject; while Corbijn exhibited photographs in the show, Dumas took Polaroids which she then used as sources for her pictures.
The personal and the historical collide in Dumas’s portraits. In Dead Marilyn (2008), a female corpse fills the expanse of a small canvas. This work marked the beginning of a group of paintings of mourning and weeping women, made in the year after the artist’s mother died. Dumas’s treatment of this infamous image of Marilyn Monroe reveals layers of meaning beyond its original source, which was an autopsy photograph. Smeared brushstrokes of white,
blue-green, and gray highlight the subject’s blotchy face. The small size of the work and the delicate rendering makes it a portrait of intimacy. Notions of celebrity, sensationalism, and the mystery of the actress’s own personal narrative come into question. In The Pilgrim (2006), Dumas shifts her critical interests in the public notoriety to an image of Osama bin Laden, whose relatively peaceful eyes and mild smile greatly contrast with the media’s typical portrayals. Seemingly cropped from its original photo, we have little sense of context, let alone what lies beyond the borders of the canvas. Stripping her subject of his public persona and historical importance, Dumas leaves us with a critique of both politics and identity. She has said that her works are better appreciated as originals, to mirror the at times shocking, discomforting intimacy she captures with her works.
The artist is also an avid educator, finding that:
- teaching [is] a very important thing, and not only because I teach [the students] things, but also because we have a dialogue,
and you see what you really want. You find things out. I still believe in the Socratic dialogue. Art is really something that you learn from being around people.
Visit her homepage here.
One of the most challenging aspects of this particular painting was WHAT to draw and then eventually paint. So I was stressing
mildly right from the start. I also kept thinking, “It’s gotta be weird…or I gotta make it weird.” Yes, I say “gotta” in my internal dialogue. I went through pages of awkward family photos (just look those words up in google if you haven’t done so already). They will keep you entertained for minutes…or hours depending on your obsession level. Long story short, at some point I realized that I either wanted to paint a portrait of someone’s awkward school photograph, a face of an awesome African American man or a weird baby. That’s when I happened upon an extremely obese Asian baby and thought, “Perfect, this is it.” I didn’t even sketch him out and just started painting.
So, that’s the reason why I don’t have many photos of my journey to this “little” guy…I just fell into kind of a trance and there he was!
I love him. I think he’s great and I think he turned out real. There’s something weird and haunting about this painting and I think that it represents a cycle of life and something disturbing…can’t really pinpoint exactly what. I made a joke to my friend Karli about how fun it was to paint this and that from now on, I was only going to paint pictures of obese babies, but on canvases that were 20 foot X 20 foot. HUGE monstrous canvases with enormous fat babies. Now don’t go thinking that I have something against fat babies…I was one of them
and I have proof.
I just fished that picture out and realized…maybe I should’ve done a self-fat-baby-portrait! Well, maybe next time. For now, please enjoy this other fat Asian baby. Can you tell I’m going a little insane yet from this project. Whew…see you on day TWENTY-TWO…pssst, that’s tomorrow.
Thank you to the amazing Marlene Dumas. What an inspiration and honor to paint a tribute to her art today. I have found another new favorite artist that I will be keeping my eye out for. I would LOVE to see her paintings in real life.