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The mythical women of Marlene Dumas Hon RA

Published 14 November 2014

Marlene Dumas Hon RA’s paintings elevate women to mythic status. Here we celebrate the vision of a major artist as her powerful Amsterdam show comes to London.

  • From the Winter 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Figurative painting has had its vicissitudes in recent history, but still flourishes within the richness and diversity of art today. Nevertheless, painters of pictures, that is of representations of the world and the body, have had to evolve new strategies. Among them, the South African-born, Dutch-based Marlene Dumas Hon RA (born 1953) has been increasingly hailed as outstanding. Now, on the basis of her current retrospective at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, which travels to Tate Modern in February, we must recognise an artist of truly impressive depth and maturity.

    The strategy that she has adopted is one whose most immediate ancestor is Francis Bacon, although it goes back, highly appropriately in her case, to Van Gogh. It is essentially the approach to painting known to art history as expressionism, in which the image of reality is processed through the artist’s sensibility in such a way that it becomes personalised and transformed, even distorted, so as to, as the term implies, express the artist’s response to it. A crucial corollary of this approach, which gives it its central place in modernism, is that line, colour, form, texture, are freed from their representational function and become, again as the term implies, vehicles of expression in themselves.

    Bacon himself succinctly summed up the perfect expressionist painting as a work in which ‘the paint is the image and the image is the paint’. It is this elusive balance between the picture as painting and the painting as picture that Dumas strives for, and achieves.

  • Marlene Dumas RA, The Kiss

    Marlene Dumas RA, The Kiss, 2003.

    Oil on canvas. 40 x 50 cm. Private collection, London, copyright Marlene Dumas, photo Peter Cox.

  • For Dumas, as for other contemporary figurative painters, it is crucial that her subjects derive not from observation but from photography, which freezes the moment and preserves for us images of life and the world that we would never otherwise have. Through her choice of images, combined with her prowess as a painter, Dumas triumphantly succeeds in presenting us with a unique, deeply personal and powerfully pungent picture of what it is to be human, and in particular what it is to be a woman.

    Her vision of woman ranges from birth and childhood to suffering, sex and death. But at the heart of her art are paintings in which these all seem rolled together into images of woman as primitive priestess, or deity, or sorceress, that reach back in time through the myths of Mary Magdalene, Medea and Aphrodite, to the fertility figures of the Paleolithic period exemplified by the carving known as the Venus of Willendorf that is one of the earliest human artefacts that we now call art. Stunning among the works on show are hieratic naked giantesses, 6ft, some 9ft high, that create a numinous core, a chthonic inner sanctum, to the wider temple of the human condition that is this exhibition. Magdalena (Newman’s Zip), from 1995, perfectly illustrates Dumas’ acute awareness of her equivocal relationship to abstraction.

    The zip in the title refers to the trademark vertical stripes of the painter Barnett Newman, the most austerely abstract of the original American Abstract Expressionists.

    Dumas’s celebration of woman is profoundly sensual, frequently frankly erotic. But that is not to say she is uninterested in man. A section of this exhibition is devoted to her meditations on the persona of Christ. There are portraits of heroes and villains – Pasolini and Osama – and others. But the male is relatively rare in her work.

  • At the heart of her art are images of woman as primitive priestess, or deity.

    Simon Wilson

  • Yet a 3ft-high nude of an ithyphallic young man is among her most striking paintings. Titled D-rection (a pun with which she asserts possession of the thing depicted) it is from the show’s most openly sexual section, tellingly titled MD-light, another pun on her name and likewise indicative of the lighthearted and celebratory elements in her approach to the erotic. As a painting of a man in the process of ejaculation D-rection (1999) is unique, I think, in the mainstream of Western art. And it is an affectionate and vivid realisation of this everyday little miracle. In the stasis of paint on canvas Dumas’ brush renders in a palette of purples and pinks the chromatic complexity of the pulsing penis, and suggests in a flurry of paint the emerging jet of ejaculate.

    Within her overall vision each of Dumas’s paintings has its own narrative, and visually striking though they are, the spectators’ response is always enriched by knowledge of their context. Dumas is one of those relatively rare artists who is willing freely to supply this. Equally rare, what she says is clear and cogent as well as poetic. The catalogue is thus an indispensable companion to the exhibition. My advice is to see the show. Go away and commune with the catalogue. Then go back and look again – look better…

    Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden will be on at the Tate Modern from 5 February until 10 May 2015.

    Simon Wilson is an art historian and columnist for RA Magazine.

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