The bodies and cries of Marlene Dumas
About the exhibition "Open-End" which runs until 8 January 2023 at Palazzo Grassi in Venice.
Decomposing corpses, tense sexes, bodies and faces that are never embellished... Marlene Dumas' work has been dubbed "the most beautiful ugly painting in the world" by Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen, a professor of art history, who titles her article for this summer's contemporary art magazine Art Press. For "the least that can be said of Marlene Dumas' work is that it does not seek to seduce", she warns from the outset. "Open-End", the most important monograph in Europe by the artist, currently on show at Palazzo Grassi in Venice, confirms this. Born on 3 August 1953 in South Africa, Marlene Dumas lived through apartheid while studying fine arts in Cape Town before leaving at the age of 23 to study art history and psychology in the Netherlands and finally settling there. She has never sacrificed the subversive charge of her work to the canons of the contemporary art market.
In fact, she sacrifices nothing. When asked to choose between an identity as a Dutch artist or as a South African artist, since she is sometimes presented as one and sometimes as the other, she replies that she is multiple and much more. While she develops painting, imposing it as a gesture that is still essential and militant in the third millennium, she continues to keep drawing as her preferred mode of expression and to make collages. This great lady, who exhibited her work for the first time in an art gallery in Gouda in 1977, and then in Paris in 1979, was eventually nicknamed "the most expensive woman painter in the world". Because on the art market, her works of art for sale would soon reach new heights.
After exhibiting at the famous Paul Andriesse art gallery in Amsterdam in 1983, Marlene Dumas was 31 the following year when she had her first museum exhibition in Utrecht. Her authenticity already made her provocative, distancing her from the abstraction in vogue at the time. What she wanted was to return to the expressionism of her childhood drawings. She will only paint bodies and portraits with devastating intensity. Manifestos of humanity that will fuel controversy, particularly when in 2010 she paints the portrait of Osama Bin Laden. And when the Stedelijk Museum bought the painting in 2012, it was flanked by the series of drawings entitled "Young Men", featuring twelve men with Arab features, including suicide bombers and freedom fighters, but also young men from the Marlene Dumas neighbourhood in Amsterdam. The painter wants to confront the public with its prejudices, confronting it with the consequences of a media wave associating people of Mediterranean appearance with threat, danger, and stirring up racial tensions.
Media images will always feed Marlene Dumas' work. Like the shop windows of Amsterdam and the pornographic magazines. She made prostitution, guilt, innocence, violence and tenderness the themes of her paintings long before violence and the atrocity of the world became classic themes in the history of contemporary art, she talked about sex, and above all she brought together the anonymous and the famous.
It is vibrant pictorial matter that today invades all the spaces of Palazzo Grassi, the sumptuous Venetian palace on the Grand Canal, owned since 2005 by François Pinault and containing the famous billionaire's collection of modern and contemporary art. Vibrant, disturbing, moving, overwhelming material... Impossible to remain insensitive to it: the emotions gradually overwhelm the visitor along a path to be experienced as a journey into the intensity of existence. Marlene Dumas' paintings are as impossible as they are fascinating. They confront death, desire, pain... They are unforgettable.
There are no taboos with this painter, who is also renowned for her political subjects. Marlene Dumas is not accountable to anyone. No doubt the fact of having lived through something as crazy as apartheid, before suddenly discovering freedom at the age of 23 in Holland, has broken down all her barriers. The madness of the world feeds her art. She can paint anything. She is not afraid of any subject. The separation wall between Israel and Palestine, the bodies of migrants stranded on the shores of the Mediterranean... her paintings shake up and challenge, but they also stand alongside her great portraits of Charles Baudelaire or Oscar Wilde, testifying to her passion for literature and poetry.
With the complicity of Caroline Bourgeois, the curator of the exhibition, "Open-End" clearly affirms Marlene Dumas' lack of concessions by immediately placing the visitor in front of "D-rection", a painting from 1999 which represents a young man whose gaze is hidden by his fringe of hair and stares at the erection of his sex. "There is no sign warning children to stay away: painting, Marlene Dumas' in particular, but painting in general, is not for minors. Too bad for parents who venture into contemporary art venues without wanting to understand it," writes Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen in Art Press. Like Andy Warhol, Marlene Dumas paints Marilyn Monroe. But she is painting a dead woman. The bluish decomposition even begins to show on the star's face...
Because the body is not always alive. Because the body deserted by life remains a body, Marlene Dumas also paints "men and women famous for their work, their beauty, their singular destiny, or the anonymous, lives just as precious snatched away before their time, both equally reduced to the vanity of a flesh from which the red has withdrawn and which has the colours of the ice pack", writes Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen masterfully.
The art history professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure also anticipates the criticisms that could be levelled today at a 69-year-old painter who, for example, affirms her affection for Picasso, considering that the psychological violence he inflicted on the women who loved him should not be held against his work as an artist, and who devotes much of her work to valorising great men, notably in her series of "Great Men" portraits. "Marlene Dumas has painted enough of women's bodies and faces (...) to be accountable to no one, especially when it comes to her feminism.
The Painter", a painting of a little girl with an unspeakable expression and hands full of paint, was born from a photo of her own daughter Helena at the time, and has become "a form of allegory for the need to paint, and in fact an allegory for the now inevitably feminine painting", writes the author of this article, which makes this disturbing work of art the cover of Art Press.