Marlene Dumas’ body of work has been described as a ‘beautiful and flawed’ world, and I can’t think of a better way to put it myself. She paints portraits, of famous people, infamous people, people who are close to her, strangers, and people we will never know of. Among her most famous portraits are Princess Diana, the late singer Amy Winehouse, disgraced music producer Phil Spector, Italian filmmaker and Communist Pier Paolo Pasolini – and Osama Bin Laden. All of them interesting people, all with a story to tell.
Dumas doesn’t paint from life but instead uses a photograph, saying she wants to paint with an amoral brush. She needs this distance, but despite it she always paints with sympathy. This sympathetic painting style, coupled with her straightforward titles – a painting of Phil Spector is titled Evil Is Banal – helps to give us an understanding of what she is trying to convey. He portraits – which are often just heads – are stark, often ugly, frightened, vulnerable. Mostly all stare out at us like criminals who have been caught and thrust before a photographer for a headshot.
Dumas is exhibiting at the Tate Modern in London from February 2015 until May 2015. The exhibition, titled The Images As Burden, brings together some of her starkest portraits yet. In Magdalena 2, a naked black woman stares out at us, painted loosely, her weak, emaciated arms hanging behind her back. In Mamma Roma, a human (sex undetermined) is caught screaming, their eyes blackened, the artist depicting torment. In Magdalena 1, what appears to be an androgynous African is again exposing themselves for us to observe them. Stripped of clothes, pride and dignity, they look frightened and guilty. But guilty of what?
Marlene Dumas is of South Africa origin, and would have witnessed apartheid firsthand, something she explored throughout the eighties in a series of paintings entitled The Eyes of the Night Creatures. From this series, The White Disease is a particularly potent piece that examines racial intolerance. As well as her experiences of apartheid, Dumas’ work – particularly in her early years – was influenced by photographer Diane Arbus, who established a repertoire of work that centred around marginalised people, such as dwarves and transgender people.
Indeed, a glance at Arbus’ work is telling when we try to understand where Dumas is coming from. Dumas certainly does not focus solely on marginalised people, but even the famous she has chosen to pick were all outcasts of sorts. Phil Spector was known for his eccentricity, whilst Princes Diana was barely accepted by the Royal Family. Amy Winehouse battled the bottle for a number of years, often exhibiting her personal demise and demons publicly. Whoever Dumas chooses to paint has a story to tell, and it is often one that is harrowing and ugly.