open-end, at Palazzo Grassi, Venice (through 8 January 2023)
Reviewed by Arabella Hutter von Arx
Four relatively small artworks greet the visitor in the first room of the Marlene Dumas exhibit, open-end, at Palazzo Grassi. D-rection shows a young man contemplating his rather large and purple erection. A bluish white face and a brown face unite for a kiss in a nearly abstract closeup, Kissed. The subject of a Turkish Girl exhibits her vulva by holding up her legs at an unlikely angle. Finally, in the small loose drawing About Heaven, unidentified objects are flanked by a Dumas poem about death and eroticism. The visitor is warned: the exhibition shows sexually explicit works, contemplates issues of our common humanity such as race, and does not shrink from the esoteric. Anyone seeking a comfortable experience better turn back.
The show, which spans from the early 80s to the present day, is organized along parameters of esthetics and narrative rather than the customary chronology. The curating of over 100 artworks is credited both to Caroline Bourgeois and to the artist. Each room is as carefully hung as an in situ installation, as if the artworks had been produced specifically for a room’s regal dimensions, for a wall, for an architectural detail. The bright Venetian light floods through stately windows and through a skylight covering the whole interior courtyard. The paintings, which tend to be of a small or medium size, typically have plenty of space in the large, airy rooms, to breathe. They weave a poetic dialogue with each other that, extending to the world, brings in poets, artists, filmmakers, Dumas’ daughter, and even the Palazzo Grassi, a neoclassical building from the 18th Century. The unlikely combination of serene, washed-out blues, greens and greys, of morbidity, of freakishness, of spontaneity, of elegance that together characterize Marlene Dumas’ style, could be termed ‘precious’ if the word didn’t have such negative connotations. The work plays cousin to the Baroque and the Neoclassical frescos, respectively by Giovanni Battista and Christian Griepenkerl, that decorate the ceilings with cherubs and nudes and heroes.
The most provocative sexual pieces are exhibited in the first part of the show, as if to get that out of the way. Their impact comes from tackling taboos, such as the depiction of female genitalia, or pudendum, Latin for “shameful thing.” A woman’s vulva is often naturally hidden unless she deliberately takes a pose which reveals it. And that’s exactly what they do in the seemingly pornographic images which Dumas intends to reinterpret. In Miss Pompadour, the woman exposes both her vulva and her anus while staring blatantly at the viewer. The anus and the erect sex are of the organs banned from Westerns art, associated as they are with bodily function, and with fluids in particular. Urine, stools, sperm, menstruations and other substances that blur categories of human/inanimate matter, inside/outside the body, trigger abjection as defined by Kristeva.
Dumas relentlessly probes all kinds of boundaries in the limbo between the original image and her reinterpretation. “This is not a child, this is a painting,” she replied famously when asked the age of the child in The Painter. In these ‘pornographic’ images, too, the viewer is not looking at the likeness of a woman, but at the likeness of a woman’s image as transformed by Dumas. While a painter might know their model personally, she has no relationship to these women as individuals but, rather, feels the urge to pull them into her world. These images are bound to impact her differently from the men targeted by the porn: Given that I have a female body that men tend to objectify, what does this image with its objectification mean to me? Dumas transforms the images by simplifying them to the point of abstraction, versus the photographic process that is more literal. The Gate deliberately refers to an abstract painting of the same name by Barnett Newman, which has one plane of a light shade of grey blue, two planes of dark brown. Dumas’ The Gate uses a similar composition to represent a woman’s buttocks and thighs, only it’s damn messy. Instead of flat planes, various volumes shade her thighs where they border the empty space between them, all lines blurred. By definition, alive is what can become dead. This abstract vulnerability can be found in a number of small paintings representing fragments of humans: lips, breast, mount of Venus.
It is unlikely that porn customers would find Dumas’ paintings titillating. In fact, the physical details of genitalia are barely sketched. The pose is emphasized, the willingness of the models to expose their private parts. In Fingers, the vulva is only suggested, but the fiercely red fingers opening it to the viewer pop up against the pastel blue of the flesh. Dumas further objectifies the body as a response to the objectification as it affects both the viewer and the model: the crudely painted face of Miss Pompadour has the vague, swollen features of an inflatable doll. This paradoxical approach is constant in her work as she reinterprets images of creatures (human, totemic, animal, zombie, mask, etc.), shaking the viewer into questioning their own categories.
In contrast to the model in pornography who is defined by her relation to the viewer, the woman in Spring is fully in charge of her sexuality, without a care for anyone’s judgement. A raucous painting with its use of humor and puns, it spits at academic allegories of Spring, and their implications of virginity and innocence. Not only is the woman masturbating with gusto, but a bottle of spring water, one would guess, is curiously attached to her body. Its liquid either sprouts up from the woman’s genitals, or flushes them down and trickles to the ground. Either way, she’s wet. The work is painted with gusto too, in a bold range of hues: saturated greens and reds and whites, in contrast to the washed out monochromatism that Dumas favors. This painting, from an image of Haitian voodoo, belongs to the few works unambiguously affirmatory, exhilarating as it is for anyone unafraid of female sexuality. The woman is looking inward, at her own experience, which is unusual for Dumas. Her subjects’ eyes play a most important role, seeing, seeking, returning the viewer’s gaze. Who is looking at who? The eyes of children especially challenge the viewer, always accusatory to some extent.
The stare of the girls in the Ritual (with Doll) sends shivers down the spine. In this reproduction of an official photo, a class photo most likely, girls all dressed up join hands to hold up a doll in full view. The features of the children have been distorted to emphasize the skulls, the noses and eyes faking the black holes of a mask or a zombie. Some of the girls’ eyes are painted too close together, their noses too high above the mouth, likening them to apes. We are not looking at an image of sweet, innocent childhood. These girls are about to perpetrate some horrible deeds on the powerless doll between their hands. Typically, horror can be understood as a combination of disgust and fear produced by creatures — zombies, freaks, serial murderers, monsters — that violate our accepted categories: living creatures, inanimate objects, etc. The ubiquitous Monet impersonations on hospital walls reinforce tepidly accepted categories of art such as landscapes with flowers, and pretty young women in long pink dresses, to promote a feeling of security. When our safe world is challenged, this triggers a heightened state that many people seek in films and books, less so in paintings as a norm. But there is more to the schoolgirls in Ritual (with Doll) than savage creatures about to go on a random rampage. Only the four girls in front are depicted in full detail. The others, rendered in grey tones and faceless, are anonymousm — the pack to its leaders. With the group cohesion, which has proven so dangerous in history, they seem to have made a pact to destroy their victim, without shame or embarrassment. The power of the establishment is fully behind them, just as it supported the horrors of apartheid in South Africa.
The death looming in Ritual (with Doll) acts as a symbol of the capacity of humans for evil, as it does in The White Disease, painted in 1985 at the height of apartheid. The chalky skin is whiter than natural, and stretches thinly over the blue eyes and the mouth as with a mummy. The face, expressing a dumb hostility, is as far as can be from that of a healthy, vibrant person of any healthy skin tone. A strange green blob grows out of the brain on the right side. This person, whether man or woman, is disfigured by a nasty disease affecting its color, its thinking. The painter represents this deformity with an element of disbelief at its abjection, subverting the theory that racists debase their targets by dehumanizing them. And, indeed, how abject is it that human-beings despise and ill treat other humans based on something as irrelevant as skin color and facial features?
Dumas’ reworking of images, this deliberate confusion of categories, quickly becomes as addictive as the thrills of serial killers for horror film aficionados. The transgressions affect her numerous paintings of children. In The Painter, one of her most famous works, the child looks like a murderer, huge forehead, deep set eyes, and her hands dipped in blood, red blood, blue blood. Or is it paint? Fierceness of the painter, who can not spare her subjects, nor herself. Children are not out to please people, they stare because they want to see the truth, they want the viewer to look at the truth. Snow White and the Next Generation, 1988, tackles children and sexuality with a combination of humor and morbidity that runs throughout the work. The fairytale princess is collapsed on a red blanket, her face averted, her black hair flowing down the side of the bed. Is she dead? More likely she is enjoying a moment of postcoital rest, her stretched shape in a perfectly relaxed position. Her body is beautiful, sensuous, all curves and volumes. The mount of Venus, right in the middle of the composition, figures as prominently as in Magnetic Fields (for Margaux Hemingway), a glorious close up that is the closest to a landscape Dumas will ever get to. If the composition reproduces the Disney version of the scene down to the drapes, the innuendos are more evocative of a soft porn movie. Snow White pays no attention to the dwarves, yet they could be interpreted as threatening, their bodies as chubby as cherubs. This next generation which will define our culture’s future could be urinating, or collecting themselves to adore the female form. The right side of the painting, much darker, has threatening overtones. Again, obscurity can be read as death, but also as battling the whiteness of the princess and her dwarves, another allegory of racism. A black dwarf is holding a mysterious shape, a black sword maybe, or he’s pulling a dark curtain across the scene. The colors in the woman’s body are sucked out, as if death had already started creeping up these legs. Dumas tends to make visible the mortality of her subjects, of which they themselves seem unaware.
Danger is looming. The vulnerability of humans, and particularly that of women, is apparent in many works, such as The Visitor, 1995. The women seen from the back, and the viewer of the painting by extension, are turned toward a brightly lit door. Their positions remind of Degas’ pubescent ballerinas, yet, scantily clad, they are more likely waiting for a John. For abuse, violence. Or salvation. Red Moon, 2007, is a spectacular painting that recalls a still from a film, rather than the Millais’ Ophelia which is said to have inspired it. The colors, the lights, the contrast, and the face floating in dark water make for a dramatic composition, the surroundings left to the imagination. The figure could be at risk, a lone head barely above the surface, but she could also be reveling in her freedom, her fearlessness. A breeze ripples the surface of the water. Danger is freeing when overcome. In Losing (Her Meaning), 1988, the woman is floating face down. Yet, it does not look like someone drowning or drowned. Dumas subverts our expectations by painting a body that has nothing morbid about it. On the contrary, it is beautifully fleshy and alive, bringing attention to her manipulation of the image. Rather than a physical drama, the painter questions the/her representation of the female body, as stressed by the title.
Blue Marilyn, 2008, on the other hand, clearly represents a case of drowning — by despair, by abuse of substance. The star blurs into nothingness down the lower left corner by absorbing some kind of poison from a bottle that plays the central role. Dumas favors a wet-on-wet technique in which she dilutes the paint to the point of resembling a watercolor. She often pours the paint onto the canvas, and adds with a certain bravado this element of chance to her process. The faded out surfaces confer an immateriality to her images, making them eery or ghostly. Yet Dead Marilyn, 2008, shows less desperation. Instead of a glorious sex symbol, a blue face looking childlike rests under a shroud, her hair sleeked back instead of the carefully set hair style of the film star, her nose melting, her mouth retracted. Pain is over, eyes are closed forever. The only horror is marked by the decomposition of what was probably the most desired flesh ever in history.
Famous people represented from photographic or painted portraits populate the exhibition, an unusual approach as portraits in museums and galleries are painted from people in the flesh. This kind of celebrity reproduction is favored typically by pop art or commercial art. Dumas’ versions could be seen as deconstructions, and some reinterpretation is certainly going on. But they can be seen primarily as homages.
The series Great Men celebrates notable homosexuals. The works were meant as a response to a law against homosexuality that was adopted in 2013 in Russia, where Dumas was showing at Manifesta. A real affection, and respect, shows in these portraits. She footnotes them, slyly, with the studious notes of a dedicated schoolgirl:
PEDRO ALMODOVAR Spanish film director, screenwriter, producer. He is a major figure on the stage of world cinema.
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
American writer, novelist, poet, playwright, social critic. “Love takes off masks that we fear that we cannot live without and know we cannot live within” — a quote that would speak powerfully to Dumas.
The portraits have the Dumas touch, painted in close up with a short stretch of neck at the most, somewhat distorted. In these ingratiating works, she lets herself be inspired by each particular creator: Rimbaud is delightfully elegant, Francis Bacon darkly introspective. Oscar Wilde is sensuous and dandyish. Organized in a grid of two lines, each piece retains its individuality, while they form together a personal gallery of modern martyrs. The room with three Pasolini themed works has a clear narrative. A closeup of Anna Magnani screaming with anguish in Mamma Roma expresses what Pasolini’s mother, represented in the adjoining painting, must have felt upon learning of her son’s death, what we should all feel when we consider Pasolini’s murder. Pasolini’s portrait belongs to the Great Men series, depicting the homosexual creator with deep respect and sympathy.
Dumas is obsessed intellectually with the human figure, yet a deep sympathy for the vulnerability of the human condition and its striving for dignity lends the work its emotional impact. This affection coexists with a passion for a very classical form of beauty apparent in the faces, in the bodies. The representations of abjection — as in death, morbidity, pornography, monstrosity, otherness — work as a revealer of classical beauty, as a negative, yet the positive image is also there, in a tension. The paradoxical in her work expresses itself also in its esthetics. This idealized form — which takes the breath away in Greek sculpture, Chinese Buddhas, Indian Gods, pre-Columbian artifacts, Pharaonic art — is alluded to in many of the works. While many of Dumas’ human faces look like masks, the painting Nefertiti represents an inanimate figure where the human face lurks under the hardness and perfection of the surface. A soul peeks through the eyes?
The exhibition ends with a painting of a mask entitled Persona, the Latin word for mask. A mask, a person. A person, a mask. Ad infinitum.
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Featured Image: Marlene Dumas, Losing (Her Meaning), 1988.
Pinault Collection. Ph: Peter Cox, Eindhoven © Marlene Dumas
Arabella Hutter von Arx is Paris and New York City Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Hutter von Arx is a writer and curator with a background in film and TV production. While producing for the BBC, Channel 4, Gaumont, Bravo (Inside the Actors’ Studio) then working as the executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers, she contributed regularly articles for magazines and European newspapers. Additionally to writing, she runs Gallery Particulier which has for mission to expand the reach of art in the community.