Last term second-year History of Art student Patricia Nistor spent a Semester Abroad in Leiden at one of the most reputable universities in The Netherlands. She describes her experience as follows: “I developed a wide range of skills but also had a lot of fun, making for what were probably the best four months of my life.” While in Amsterdam she took the opportunity to visit the exhibition Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden at the Stedelijk Museum, which is now on at Tate Modern, and wrote a review for The Golovine…
‘Painting?! Are you kidding me?’ was my first reaction when I found out we were going to see the Marlene Dumas exhibition at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. I consider myself a lover of all arts and all periods alike, but I was virtually convinced that painting has to be on its deathbed in the 21st century. There seemed to be no potency left for painting in a time where new media and new approaches are competing fiercely for our attention. Needless to say that Marlene Dumas is the exception that proved me wrong.
The Image as Burden is a retrospective of works created in the last 40 years by the South African-born artist Marlene Dumas. The Stedelijk is a particularly powerful place to hold such an exhibition, as it was the museum where she took part in her first group exhibition in 1978. The inclusion of the artist, then only 25, reinforces the museum’s position as a maker, rather than follower of canon.
The exhibition brochure opens with a quote that is key to what is on display: “images are always political. Something is always assigned to an image –this is a criminal, (…) that is erotic – and that’s what I am involved with: the psychology of perception’’. Dumas’ subject matter is incredibly wide and fluid: ranging from religion, war, race, love, death, guilt, and art itself – all converging in representing the theme we might call life itself. In the end, the power always lies in the hands of the viewer to decipher the meaning.
The varied subject matter in the exhibition is tied together by Dumas’ style and technique, and all her works somehow find a particular place within the pictorial universe she creates. Her art seems to be a construction of simplicity: all lines seem to be in the right place and the scarce amount of detail is perfectly controlled to achieve a vagueness but at the same time coherent figures.
Another major characteristic in her art is reworking. Dumas never paints life directly; the mediation of photography is always present. She uses personal Polaroids as well as newspaper photographs as a basis as she launches into a radical decontextualisation and processing of visual culture. She ends up creating her own space where people are not exactly real but they are not imaginary either. In one piece, Jesus Serene, she uses existing images of Jesus, such as the one on the Turin Shroud, side by side with images of her friends. The result is an exploration of humanity itself, with the figures all seeming equal, genderless and not of any particular race.
Echoes from Dumas’ childhood in South Africa still deeply permeate her work. She unapologetically tackles feminism, race, grief and the naked body all at once in haunting pictures such as The Widow. She also works to include African figures ignored in the narrow Western standard of beauty. It is interesting to note how the Stedelijk chose to tiptoe around this issue, claiming the title of the exhibition refers to ‘the conflict between the painterly gesture and the illusion of the painted image’. Rachel Spence writing for The Financial Times offered an alternative reading of this. She reminds that South Africa was a country where representations of certain people were banned and that it ‘had become a country where images were regarded as bombs’.
All in all, Dumas’ work probably owes its success to a strong mixture of emotional intensity and current political relevance. In this review, I barely touch the surface of the two hundred artworks displayed in the exhibition. The multiplicity of aspects and depth in her work would require many more words to be properly explored. However, this serves as a reminder that The Image as Burden is currently on at Tate Modern until 10 May 2015, and it is definitely a great opportunity to visit a wonderfully-curated exhibition of one of the most intriguing painters of our time.
Patricia Nistor (2nd-year History of Art student)