Saturday, 9 May 2015

Marlene Dumas – the image as challenge

Great Britain
If ‘better late than never’ was the case with my recent visit to the Goya exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, then it was ever more true with a Friday evening trip to see an exhibition at the Tate Modern.

Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, has been on since February and finishes tomorrow.

I had half thought of visiting, but the first few months of the year have been manic, for various reasons. And I admit that, against that background, a combination of not being familiar with the artist and feeling slightly put off by the publicity image used, I hadn’t got past that half thought.

Fortunately, when visiting the Tate Modern last week to see the Sonia Delaunay retrospective, I’d picked up enough visual information to decide that I needed to see the exhibition.

And so it was that, after work on Friday, The Other Half and I headed back to the South Bank, for what was probably my first major exhibition by a living artist.

Dumas was born in born in 1953 in Cape Town, South Africa, leaving the country for Amsterdam in 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising.

Amy Blue
Here, the Tate has gathered together a body of work that encompasses her career to date – a career that clearly illustrates the influence of that background.

Dumas doesn’t paint from life, but from photographs: some she takes herself, others that she sources from various media.

These are far from being copies, however, but merely a starting point. And where the images remain figurative and, in cases of famous people, entirely recognisable, Dumas imbues them with a power and haunting quality that raises many questions – not least, how we look at our fellow human beings.

We begin with Rejects, a series of ink and graphite ‘portrait heads’, which includes the image used for the exhibition publicity material and which, within this wider context, makes sense.

These are not ‘rejected’ people, but primarily created from works that were initially rejected or incomplete, and the set was inspired by her home country’s ‘reject stores’ where you can by clothes with faults.

The Teacher
Once you know that, you start to understand what she’s exploring. Because exploration is what it is – there is nothing polemical about Dumas’s work: it is a starting point for contemplation or discussion.

One of the most perfect examples of this is in the two canvases that form Great Britain (1995-97). One is taken from a fashion shoot with Naomi Campbell and the second, from a royal portrait of Princess Diana.

Seen as a single piece – not initially the artist’s intention – they create a serious dialogue about ideas and representations of femininity and female sexuality. And because neither of them shows a representation of women that is highly sexualised, it makes that dialogue all the more interesting.

The Widow
In The Painter (1994) we are presented with a picture of the artist’s young daughter, hands covered in bright paint, a petulant stare challenging the viewer.

Part of what struck me about this was the simplicity of the grey sweep of paint that creates the child’s lower face, giving it that petulant expression. Indeed, it brought to mind the simplicity of Goya’s washes in the pictures I’d seen just a few short weeks ago.

Early this century, Dumas turned to more obviously political subjects. Two versions of a painting, The Woman of Algiers (2001) and The Trophy (2013) show a young woman being held, naked, for cameras.

Against the Wall
The Widow (2013) shows Pauline Lumumba walking bare-breasted through Kinshasa in 1961, in an act of mourning after the murder of her husband, Patrice, the first democractically-elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Against the Wall (2010) shows Jewish men waiting to go to prayer, standing alongside the Israeli security barrier – a visual reminder of the Wailing Wall.

The same room houses another large painting, The Mother (2009) – this time showing an anonymous woman in black, kneeling before an empty grave, with a framed picture of a young man near her. She is surrounded by more empty graves.

The Mother
She takes a classical theme of art in Forsaken, with a crucifixion, which has the Christ on the cross utterly alone, and is hung here in the same room as Great Men, a series of delicate portraits of notable gat men from both 19th and 20th centuries, which was created in response to attitudes towards homosexuality in Russia, and was first exhibited there in 2014.

One room contains a number of works that explored the dynamic of the naked figure (male and female) in art, pin-ups and pornography.

Again, this challenges the viewer to consider precisely how they view.

For me, The Teacher (Sub A) (1987) strikes a note of great familiarity, showing as it does a conventional school photograph (how I remember them!), while her portrait of Amy Winehouse, Amy – Blue (2011) is another striking work.

Her palette is muted, her sense of scale vast. But Dumas illustrates the power of the figurative in a world that sometimes seems to have forgotten it.

She paints terrorists and suspect, victims and more, constantly challenging us to consider our relationships with those pictures. Her work is full of questions about life, death, sexuality and power.

And one of Dumass greatest strengths is that she so carefully avoids the polemical; she doesn’t patronise the viewer, but instead invites you to consider.

Better late than never, as I said. This was a challenging exhibition that has left me with much to mull over. I’m very glad I made it.

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