Marlene Dumas: Image as Burden

There are art shows currently in London – Diebenkorn at the RA, for instance, or Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern – you can – should – enjoy for their sense of colour, of form, of texture, of light; for the sheer pleasure of looking, of seeing, finding familiar, finding new. Sheer pleasure. Delight. Then there is – or there was until today – Marlene Dumas’ The Image as Burden, also at Tate Modern.

There is – don’t get me wrong – much pleasure to be found here in the manipulation of paint, the movement of line, the expressiveness of colour; there is even humour, though it’s not too long before the smile is smacked from the side of your face.

This is the art of confrontation: art as confrontation.

These faces, large portraits in close-up. Don’t look away, fucker! Look at me!

Although it’s the last morning, traditionally the time when people flock to shows they have not got around to and don’t want to miss, the galleries are far from crowded; more so than when I first visited a few weeks before, but not enough. [I want to got hold, somehow, of the hordes who shuffle slowly, reverentially, round in front of canvases like Monet’s water lillies, and drag them here by the scruff of the neck.]

The Image as Burden. You get the sense, from what she says, that there’s an uncertainty always for Dumas in what she does as an artist, what she paints. As if she’s never quite satisfied with the results. And yet painting is what she has to do. The work. Her work, a burden; images as burden.

She doesn’t use living models (because something in the traditional artist-model/male-female role feels – is – wrong?) but photographs; the people in her paintings have already, as she says, been framed, made into an image, an image which may already be, for them as subject, a burden. Because of their colour and ethnicity, their gender and sexuality. A burden which, in a sense, Dumas takes on and amplifies, forcing us to acknowledge it, be aware.

Love, death, pride, shame, identity.

Perhaps most striking are these big, close to overwhelming portraits which are so much a feature of the exhibition, faces filling the frame, little to encourage disengagement, distraction. Just the eyes, the paint, the picture frame, the forcefulness of colour: the eyes that don’t let you go.

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Towards the end of the exhibition, which, at Dumas’ suggestion, is arranged chronologically, are a number of paintings in which the subject matter is more specifically political in a non-personal sense, paintings that deal with international conflict, terrorism, martyrdom. One, Stern, uses as its basis the same photograph of Ulrike Meinhof, dead in her Stammheim prison cell, previously used by Gerhard Richter. Another, Dead Girl 2002 – again, hard to look at, hard to look away –  is based on the newspaper photo of would-be terrorist who was killed in her attempt to hijack a plane.

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But for me the single most striking image in the show is the 1994 work, The Painter, based on photographs of Dumas’ daughter, Helena.

images-1It’s the gaze, of course, like so many of the others in the show, challenging, confronting you, daring you to question, answer back; the pose, strong, assertive; the hands that have been dipped, one supposes, deep into paint; the right hand blue with the paint the child has smeared, as children do, across her body, the left hand dark red with paint reminiscent of blood, a forecast of (menstrual) blood to come. Above all, defiant; subject as well as maker; painter of her own portrait, mistress of her own image.

Seeing it the first time I was propelled back immediately to those evenings when I had sat at our daughter’s bed while she slept, no more than three or four years old and yet, it sometimes seemed (as in a different way it does now) that she was so much older than she looked, so much older than her chronological age. As if that head, that brain already contained everything and in feigning a kind of childish ignorance she was only playing a game, playing along – save for those moments when not in words but in a look she made it clear just how much she knew, how aware she was, aware of what was happening now and what was to come.

Historically painting was seen as female but, the males were the painters, and the females the models. Now the female (the daughter) takes the main road. She paints herself. The model becomes the artist. She creates herself. She is not there to please you. She pleases herself. The question is not “Who is she?” but “Who are you?”

Marlene Dumas

 

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