On Thursday (5th July) I went to a lecture by one of my favourite artists, Marlene Dumas, held at the Hayward Gallery. It was part of the Southbank Centre’s ‘Wide Open School‘, an experiment in public learning which has seen a month of classes, talks and workshops covering everything from sea-creatures in literature to macro-micro sculpture dance (I’d like to see that, please).

Considering the complex and often dark themes which Dumas’ art grapples with (her 2008/09 MoMA retrospective was called ‘Measuring Your Own Grave‘), I was pleasantly surprised by her warmth and sense of humour, and the fact that she gave a pretty hilarious talk. She was born in South Africa in 1953, and now lives and works in Amsterdam. She is one of the most celebrated and well-known artists of recent decades. A lot of people might have introduced her as a ‘one of the most celebrated female artists of recent decades’, but why pre-judge by sex? One of the most perceptive things that Dumas brought up during the lecture was the image that has been imposed upon her as an artist ‘dealing with womanhood’, ‘answering questions about femininity’, ‘addressing female issues’. This discussion was accompanied by a cartoon showing a man talking to a female artist. The man says: ‘Your work is surprisingly strong. Have you always been a woman?’.

However, while there is an issue of gender-labeling in the art world, Dumas’ art might be more concerned with femininity than she cares to admit. Interestingly, her first foray into the art world was through cartoons. She claims to have always loved them, and honed the novel skill of drawing super-speed pin up girls at a young age. We were shown a great clip of this in practice, but I can’t seem to dredge it up online. Contrasting early cartoonish work with later paintings suggests that the female ideal has always been an important theme to Dumas. It is as if her matuer works challenge her childhood self, who saw the perfectly permed pin-up as an image of perfection. The fact that she could draft their cartoonish forms so quickly and so formulaically demonstrates just how idealized they are.

‘Miss World’ 1963

Dumas’ raw sexual imagery both counters and follows on from her early obsession with pin-up girls, challenging contemporary ideals of female beauty and sexuality.

Dumas is famous for using a broad array of photographic source material. She has used images of celebrities and models, old master paintings, pornography, family photographs and Japanese call-boy catalogues, to name a few. She often takes several images from all manner of sources and merges them together in a single painting to form one final figure that passes comment on contemporary views of race, sex, and social identity.

We were shown several clips from documentaries about Dumas, and I even noticed a fleeting shot of Nobuyoshi Araki enjoying drinks with her in Tokyo. There works definitely share a thematic affinity. The clip below features the first (and I think only) time that Dumas allowed herself to be filmed whilst working. We couldn’t stop laughing at this, and nor could she, but it might have been a be-there-moment. The excerpt is from ‘Miss Interpreted’, a 1997 documentary following the artist in the lead up to an exhibition.

Dumas spoke a lot about poking fun at herself, and one documentary clip saw her strolling an empty beach and then a long tree-flanked path to the sound of sentimental acoustic guitar. It struck me that the makers of the film probably didn’t get the joke, which according to Dumas was comparing her to people like Dolly Parton–country girls who’ve made it in the city, and who do a good job of making fun of their own image (‘It takes a lot of money to look this cheap’). I think this ties in with something else she said about art and performance. She differentiated between the person, the artist that they perform as, and the work that they create, which can be ‘a residue of performance’. There were several moments when she broached more philosophical topics like this, but found herself tongue-tied and moved onto the next powerpoint slide or video clip. Actually, the difficulty which she has with talking about her work was the main topic of the lecture. It began with images other artists, such as Marina Abramovic, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, and she said: ‘I speak much better about other people’s work and it helps me to understand my own’. This final quote, for me, summarizes my impression of Marlene Dumas. She is clever, friendly and unpretentious. Despite enjoying so much success, her ego doesn’t seem swollen at all. She doesn’t claim to be some sort of singular artistic force, but admits to all of her influences and interests, managing to produce beautiful and highly original art whilst doing so.

From ‘Portraits of the Insane‘, a book used as source material for Dumas’ paintings.

P.S. — I’d like to add that I started reading ’50 Shades of Grey’ so that I could write about it for Books From the Top Shelf, but that isn’t going to happen because IT IS A TERRIBLY WRITTEN BOOK. Don’t believe the hype (unless you want to read something that assumes you have the mental age of about 6). If you’re looking for beautiful shades of grey, look no further than Marlene Dumas.

‘The Blonde’ 1993


  1. Pingback: A propos de Marlène Dumas | Florence Marceau-Lafleur

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