Marlene Dumas: Faces

By Wang Yang, translated by Long Xingru, Image Courtesy of David Zwivner


Marlene Dumas: Myths & Mortals 

David Zwirner / New York

28 April - 30 June 2018


Polonius: - (to HAMLET) What do you read, my lord? Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.


Here, the ambiguity of the text makes Polonius' question uncertain. And when it comes to those paintings which freeze-frame human faces, the subtle facial expressions of their subjects can portray a knot of conflicting emotions: even more uncertainties for Polonius. Transforming a natural face into an artificial portrait doesn't just alter it from an objective viewpoint: social and cultural elements also cause it to ferment. When the image is is composed these elements are blended, or challenged, to allow different interpretations of its meaning to arise. Portraits have evolved to a substitution of faces: they detach the variety of facial expressions from human bodies, and transplant them into the realm of abstractions, from where they are sublimated into “portraits” of their time.


An internationally renowned painter, Marlene Dumas has made a break from male chauvinism and is no longer narrowly categorised as a “female artist”. Her ouvre embodies sheer tension and is also restrained and profound. She never uses a wide palette of colours but does appear rich and “colourful”, which some critics have termed “spiritual expressionism”. However, her approach is not in fact solely spiritual but also realistic, expanding beyond the boundaries of pre-existing forms and concepts. In the artist's eyes, the first priority of painting is to depict sensational experiences intuitively, rather than striving for an illusionary “right of sppeech.” Even narrative structures, where they appear, should be subject to the rhythm of emotion. Realism can be seen as an equal starting point for the artist as she deliberately captures the figurative aspects of what she portrays, blending it with conceptual techniques and arriving at the realm of conceptual painting.


Vivid human figures have been the subjects of many of Marlene Dumas' paintings. Since the late 1980s she has created a number of series of facial portraits, such as her classic " Black Drawings" and Die Baba. She draws inspiration and gathers material not only from people everyday but also from printed media – fashion magazines, documentary photography, and advertising. Moreover her work is also nurtured by film storyboards and Japanes water-based woodblock prints: intermingled with the artist's own ideas, contemporary concepts derived from these sources. Her unique, lifelike portrayal suggests elements from African masks, and a gloomy obscure touch causes it to diverge from the conventions of European portraiture. She doesn't intend towards a subversive role, nor does she subscribe to being “counter-traditional” for its own sake. Perhaps someday her work will be thought of as an introspective self-analysis. She often features teenage girls, sick kids and depressed-looking black people – those of us usually seen as “vulnerable” and “marginalised” and not necessarily aesthetically pleasing. Yet, her delving often unearths the confusion and solitude that is so deeply embedded in human nature. Although human concerns are manifested through her unique perspective, Dumas offers no consolation or empathy, at least not intentionally. The artist has sometimes even received criticism for nudes with sexual connotations, or her depictions of people from different racial backgrounds.


An acute faculty for observation and a highly sensitive inner self are ubiquitous in the world of artists, but the extraordinary charisma of artworks is derived from the complexities of its creator. This spring, the David Zwirner Gallery in New York presented Myths & Mortals, an exhibition of new works by Marlene Dumas. In the works on paper for which she is famous, subtle sentiments are interwoven by clean, temperate brush strokes. She firmly confronts the viewers' confusion. While she continues to develop human-centered motifs, she decomposes the documentary functions of the image and re-interprets the intent of painting. In this exhibition, she debuted a series of works inspired by William Shakespeare's narrative poem Venus and Adonis (1593). The unromantic protagonist is a young wanderer whose face is both pretty and soulful. In other words, the face illustrated by the artist is no longer a property of the model, but a fragment of the universal soul. Through Shakespeare's words, Dumas injects elements of literature and mythology into the canvas, and detaches the human figure from the backdrop of real life: on the one hand she constructs the figure and on the other poeticises the omnipresence of melancholy. The sombre and the bright, the ambitious and the lucid, the depressed and the emancipated, reason and sense, arrive altogether seamlessly.


Marlene Dumas never layers details, and although she is meticulously skilled in painting from life, she transforms this practice by endowing the painting figures with breaths, echoing each stroke. She favours shades of grey more than fancy colours. Her paintings are tuned with a tender, dim, sexy, unimaginable and yet enchanting style, especially in her mastery of the colour black. Unlike the approach of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec or Aubrey Beardsley, Dumas' conception of black is not heavily decorative or merely for the purpose of polishing: on the contrary, elegant and transparently black pigments smudge the surface of the paper, tactfully dispersed, a trait which plays on the viewers' heartstrings. In some circumstances, she casually pours a mix of water and pigment over the paper: while the pigment blends with the water, she sketches with the flow, using minimal strokes that highlight the overall structure. Thus, what confronts viewers is not a tenuous material but a thickness of paint - a sound one. She used to say that even though black is not conventionally considered as a type of colour, smart use of black indicates a good painter. She started the attempt to work with black colour back in art school as she felt that piled bright colours would only appear vulgar. The boundaries between sketching, watercolour and oil painting almost no longer exist for her. Her oeuvre seems to be casual yet delicate, rough yet honest, sensitive yet highly contemplative.


Born in 1953 in Cape Town, South Africa, Marlene Dumas moved to Amsterdam in 1976, where she has since lived and worked. The route from Cape Town to Amsterdam does not just cross the equator, but also represents an unyielding decision to leap over geographical limitations, race and skin tone, gender and belief. She wanders among groups of people with her paintbrush, surrounded by solitary souls, on the margin of vulnerable lives. Like an explorer, she encounters a magical journey in which nothing could be expected. Perhaps joy lies in searching for the unexpected. The artist's trip begins and ends with this “hunt”, or, perhaps, there will be no ending, but an endless wandering, and hunting.


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She Speaks, ink wash, metallic, acrylic on paper, 30 × 23.5 cm 2015 - 2016, (detail)


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Alien, 2017


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Amazone, 2018


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Exhibition view of "Marlene Dumas: Myths & Mortals" at David Zwirner, New York, 2018