With a career spanning over 40 years, and portraits traversing almost every emotion, we take a look at the trailblazing work of Marlene Dumas.
A portrait artist for over 40 years, Dumas has engaged with a huge variety of subjects: portraits of the dead, portraits of the living, nudes, groups, couples, new-borns, children, and almost every emotion under the sun. Although her works are categorised as ‘portraits’, they often don’t represent an actual person, rather an emotion or a state of mind.
Focusing on the human figure, her work explores themes of race and gender, sexuality and violence, tenderness, guilt, innocence, and personal realities. Her relationship to her paintings is informed by her own identity, which embodies cultural divisions: Dumas was born in 1953 during the South African apartheid, later moving to the Netherlands to study, where she continues to live and work in Amsterdam.
Dumas’s choice to paint from photographs is political, when she became aware of the South African government’s censorship of images, it was, she says, an awakening. Using photographs clipped from magazines and newspapers, journalistic photographs, stills from films and Polaroids of friends, Dumas translates these into her signature style, which is often affected by her mood and emotions, “I am an artist who uses second-hand images and first-hand emotions.”
After growing up during the divisions of apartheid, much of Dumas’ work interrogates her own emotions from her lived experiences, such as female oppression and her duplicity as a white girl brought up under apartheid, adding an emotional intimacy to her work.
Her style is a riotous mixture of sensations: confronting the viewer both with boldness and tenderness, using both matte and reflective surfaces, wet and dry contours, neutral and dark, poignant shades; all working towards her eerie dynamic compositions.
“Painting is about the trace of the human touch; it is about the pleasure of the human body making something.” Interpreting images of extreme vulnerability, Dumas forces us to face inescapable existential questions such as ‘what does it mean to live, and die, in our own bodies?’ and ‘what does cruelty look like, is it in all of us?’
Dumas has helped trailblaze for women in the art world, with her painting The Teacher becoming the most expensive work created by a living female artist when it sold for £1.8m in 2005. Three years later, she broke her own record when The Visitor fetched £3.1m at Sotheby’s.
Sensuous and investigative, cruel and tender, Dumas’ work has obliterated the traditional aesthetic of portraiture, and stripped it back to reveal something both grotesque and sublime. “There is no beauty if it doesn’t show some of the terribleness of life, art is there to remind us that all laws about what is beautiful and valuable were made by humans and can also be changed by them.”