Lately, I haven’t been capable of engaging with poetic sadness in art. When it comes to focussing on society’s ills, I’ve felt more like ripping up newspapers in corner-shops with my teeth, throwing my hands in the air and swapping my tactical vote for a shit-stained ballot-paper. Perhaps that’s why I’ve waited so long before going to see Marlene Dumas’ major exhibition at Tate Modern; I know I’ll need to drop my current personal force-field of anger to empathise with her sensitive portrayal of subjects vulnerable to socio-political agendas beyond their control. Art exists in that space between the object and the viewer; the subject defines their experience of the object – and I want to be moved, not have my fire stoked. With Dumas, it’s going to be a fine line.
Today is the day: I’m heartsick, philosophical, alert-brained and hungry for connection. Even the weather is perfect; thin grey sheets of rain have emptied the South Bank of tourists, but it’s warm enough to spend a moment gazing out over the Thames, feeling displaced yet at home before I ditch my empty coffee cup and wander up to Level 3 of the grand old power station.
Black ink stained paper confronts me in Room #1, a wall of unblinking heads titled ‘Rejects’, minimal yet precise. Rejected from one of Dumas’ projects, or from society? It doesn’t matter. Without context they are forgettable faces and I find myself more impressed by the blurb about ‘exclusion’ than by the drawings themselves. Again in Room # 2, it is the explanation of the artist’s South African beginnings during apartheid and the banning of Nelson Mandela’s image, the newspaper clippings of tragic events, more than painted out collages of women’s bodies, that grip me. Where is the visual feast I was expecting? I’m thinking, sure, the works look attractive and skilfully executed (in that trained artist throws out rulebook way) but what wouldn’t look believable on the walls of the Tate Modern? – Setting defines value in people’s minds. Why is this artist so phenomenally important?
Dumas never paints directly from observation of her subjects. Always she uses photographs as her inspiration, whether clipped from newspapers and magazines, found, or taken with her own Polaroid camera. Being removed from her subjects in this way allows Dumas to place her own projections into them, to treat them as martyrs to her cause of creating a social commentary. She seems none too fussed about capturing a likeness, but by distilling the emotion she feels when looking at the original photograph in context to its subject’s story.
As I wander around the almost visitor-less gallery space, staring into the eyes of crudely represented black models, angular featured ‘Great Men’, and random’s with juicy news articles attached to them, I can see that Dumas is creating a triple narrative. Firstly we are asked to question what painting techniques do to an image, how and why cropping, omissions of detail and unreal colours have been used. Secondly our attention is drawn to the role and status of ‘the image’ in society as a marketing or propaganda tool, or an object of desire. Thirdly, we are compelled to consider Dumas’ subjects as symbols representing the views of society.
The work is the rich painterly outpourings of a woman who dares to expose the human condition as a product of society’s malformed structure, but presents horror to us with such sympathy that it becomes delicately beautiful. Quickly I’m ‘getting it’: these are not portraits but illustrations of Post-Structural psychology, the artists interpretation of identities imposed on the individual by virtue of their place in the world.
By Room # 4 I’m falling into haunted eyes, admiring jaw-definition, gawping at the skill required to perfectly saturate heavy paper so that the blackest black stays in place against the wateriest grey to give life, form and power. I’m coveting these works, wanting to steal them off the wall and surround myself with them at home. Well, in my fantasy brick loft apartment home that is. Oh, but not the one of Princess Diana, I can’t condone the rancid green background formed of Prussian Blue and Cadmium yellow against the lurid pink satin of her dress. (Even that sentence on the page is disgusting.)
Diana is one of Dumas’ ‘Magdalena’s’; fallen women, positioned next to another; NaomiCampbell. Interestingly, they were painted between 1995 and 1997, well before Naomi told some rather big fibs about blood diamonds under oath. To what then does she owe the title ‘Magdalena’? Bra-less and wearing a thong-cum-loincloth, perhaps she has earned her reputation by being a model – a seller of flesh. Perhaps Diana is there as a divorcee. We’re not being told to judge them by Dumas, but to consider how the media has held them up for us to do so.
Two of the ugliest pictures in the exhibition hold my attention for the longest: Dead Girl 2002 (the bloodied corpse of a young woman who attempted to hijack a plane in the 1970’s) and Phil Spectre – To Know Him Is To love Him 2011 (a portrait of the evil genius in court that fully captures his look of fearful murdering madness). These represent sicknesses in society from which we want to look away, historical moments in time. We’re used to seeing this kind of thing on the printed news-page, but somehow, when blown-up and translated into oil, the images have more power to shock than the photographs from which they were appropriated.
The last room, #14, loosely themed around the politicised female, presents The Widow 2013. This large scale painting depicts Pauline Lumumba; wife of Patrice Lumumba the first democratically elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, walking bare-breasted through the streets of Leopoldville in an act of mourning after her husband was assassinated by Katangan authorities (with the support of the American government) in 1961. Finally, I am emotionally moved in the way I had hoped. I cry for a bit and my glasses get all steamed up and I get cross because I’m not sure if it was the painting or the newspaper photograph, or the story that did it. And then I find my sense of reason and stop trying to make the elements of Dumas work mutually exclusive when clearly they are not meant to be so.
It appears that the person and the artist cannot be separated, how could they be, for they occupy one body and mind. And that is why what at first appears to be the stylised copying of cut-outs, is in this case a practice with layers and layers of meaning behind it. Marlene Dumas strikes a rare balance between the importance of her concepts and the power of her images, which becomes quite an overwhelming experience in viewing them on this scale and in this quantity. At the end, I go back to room # 1 and begin again, and this time I allow myself to weep for the duration. It doesn’t matter exactly why I’m crying, Dumas facilitated it, and it feels good.
Words by Rachel James
Image appropriated by RJ from a photographic portrait by Erwin Olaf, 1999.