MARLENE DUMAS: QUEEN OF THE CANVAS

Fashion

Artist Marlene Dumas’s emotive and haunting portraits command dizzying prices at auction – but beneath her provocative themes there lies a laconic wit. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” she told Susie Rushton for the February 2015 issue of Vogue.
Picture credit: © Marlene Dumas, Photograph: Peter Cox

In Marlene Dumas’s office, a huge space that takes up the ground floor of a Thirties block in a residential district of Amsterdam, are the beginnings of an exhibition. A miniature model of Tate Modern sits on a table, postage-stamp-sized pictures glued to each of its tiny walls. Press clippings and catalogues are arranged in stacks, and three different proposals for show posters are tacked to a low window. Dumas’s long-time studio manager – an elegant blonde named Jolie van Leeuwen, who acts as a protector and friend to the 61-year-old artist – is busy at a keyboard, taking enquiries from press and galleries.

Dumas had been speaking animatedly, flicking her apricot-blonde curls from one side to another, when she leapt to her feet and pulled out a silk scarf printed with Damien Hirst pills. The Hirst scarf is a sample of what could be made as a gift-shop item for her own show – a hundred-work retrospective, the scale of which reflects Dumas’s stature as one of the most significant painters in the world today. She is clearly amused – flattered? half-horrified? – by such merchandising decisions. “I did think, maybe I’ll make a scarf. I mean, I’ll never do it otherwise…” She wants to know Vogue’s opinion: wouldn’t the little droplets on the surface of her work For Whom the Bell Tolls, a super-close-up portrait based on an image of a tearful Ingrid Bergman, make a nice pattern for a scarf?
Picture credit: © Marlene Dumas, Photograph: Peter Cox
They would; but don’t miss seeing the original. I’d stood in front of that painting at the Stedelijk Museum the previous evening (the Tate Modern show is the second stop on a three-port tour that finishes at Fondation Beyeler in Basel). Bergman’s face is refracted by sorrow, blurring as if seen through one’s own tears. What you can’t see in a photograph of the painting – nor a silk-screen-printed scarf, I’d bet – are the astonishing, light-touch effects Dumas achieves with wet oil paint. A rosy sensual mouth is thick with coral-pink pigment, but her cheek melts into a watery, upsettingly palsied collapse. Dumas painted it in 2008, a year after the death of her mother.

“She wants to get beneath the surface, bring something of the human,” explains Helen Sainsbury, co-curator of the Tate show, of Dumas’s intimate portraiture. The artist paints without preparatory drawings, instead using photographs as a source. “Some people will recognise the cultural references, but others you may not recognise,” says Sainsbury.

Prisoners in Abu Ghraib, corpses, pornography, racism, movie stills and fallen celebrities from Amy Winehouse to Phil Spector all appear in her works, but Dumas does not like being characterised too simply as controversial. Of her painting of Osama bin Laden that has lately caused mud-slinging in the Dutch press – the artist was accused of portraying him too sympathetically – she says, “I don’t say you should support him, or not. I am just fascinated by that particular image, and all that it relates to.”

Besides politics, sex, death and celebrity, exhibition-goers should also expect a sombre depiction of young children, whom she tends to colour with blueish skin tones. The Painter, which is based on a photograph of her naked daughter as a toddler, face dark with rage and hands wet with something red (in reality, the result of a finger-painting session), was too explicit for Tate and Moma outdoor publicity material. “I thought it was a bit strange, when you’ve got all the old art with naked people,” says Dumas. “The nakedness made it impossible, but they also didn’t like that she looked so angry.”

There is humour, she says, behind her paintings of Bin Laden and the now-incarcerated Spector, and you only have to hear her speak about them – in a throaty half-Dutch, half-South African accent that frequently dissolves into laughter – to believe that is her intention. “I always quote Beckett,” she says, “‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.’ I often choose things that are quite tragic, and I know it’s not funny ha-ha, but there is definitely an element of humour.”
Picture credit: © Marlene Dumas
That provocative subject matter, combined with a formal brilliance, has made Dumas extremely sought-after by both major art museums and private collectors of contemporary painting, a medium currently enjoying a flush of fashionability. One private collector, Inge de Bruin-Heijn, describes Dumas as “a storyteller and a painter. Behind every painting or drawing is a story that she finds in photos or stories or films or books.” De Bruin-Heijn owns the painting Skull (of a Woman), which she is loaning to the Tate, but it usually hangs in her home in the Netherlands. Isn’t this difficult subject matter to be confronted with every day? “If it’s difficult, you also have to find out what’s interesting,” she says. “And if it’s not something for the average collector, they shouldn’t collect it. Marlene’s work deserves full attention, and full emotion. If it were easy, maybe it would become boring.”

In 2008, Dumas earned the title of most expensive female artist when her painting The Visitor, a scene showing a group of prostitutes being viewed by a man, sold at auction at Sotheby’s for £3.1 million. That all-time high has since been eclipsed, but Dumas’s larger works still command staggeringly high prices on the secondary market: in 2011 her painting My Mother Before She Became My Mother went on the block at a charity auction in aid of Haiti with a $600,000 (£383,000) estimate. It sold for $2 million.
“There is very strong demand for her work, but scarce availability,” says Cheyenne Westphal, co-head of contemporary art for Sotheby’s, who frequently tries to persuade collectors to part with their Dumas works. “There is a core group of very passionate collectors who loan to museums but who are not interested in selling,” continues Westphal. “Dumas is an incredibly emotional artist and very sincere in her work, and a lot of her subject matter is tough to deal with, but all that creates a very strong emotional connection for the collector. We have made offers to collectors in excess of £5 million but we haven’t yet succeeded. If one was going to come to market, especially in light of the shows at Tate and Stedelijk, it would make a major price.”

About her dizzying market value, Dumas herself has “double feelings”. “I was surprised at first, and I remember once I was higher than Schnabel in a charity auction,” she laughs, “but if you know the history of art, the people whose work fetched the highest prices have often, in the end, been terrible artists.”

None of this should suggest Dumas is any-thing like the morose, lonesome painter of popular imagination. Garrulous, charming and energetic, her conversation is punctuated with mimicry – frowning grumpily to imitate Lucian Freud or Louise Bourgeois – and she uses her elegant fingers to illustrate a point with gestures in the air. Petite and bosomy, one can imagine her cutting a swathe through the art-school crowd (“I always wanted to look like Simone de Beauvoir, but I didn’t, so I went to Mae West and then Dolly Parton”). Now, she says, she can’t do heels any longer and generally wears head-to-toe black, though it hardly seems to reflect her mood. “I always liked black, and now the whole art world wears black and I feel very sorry…”

“Sometimes you wear pink or blue, Marlene, and it looks good on you,” remarks Van Leeuwen. “Or pyjamas,” adds the artist, “but I definitely don’t paint with high-heeled shoes on!”

It might seem a bit rude to ask this recipient of the prestigious Johannes Vermeer Award, who has been honoured with solo shows at Moma and Moca in America, about her experience of motherhood. Or about being a “woman artist”. “I don’t always mind it. Though a man is never asked, how does it feel to be a male artist? But I remember a certain woman artist saying, ‘I’m so pleased you like to paint babies,'” she says, aghast. “I don’t want to be the baby painter!”

Yet the subject of being a mother, and raising her daughter Helena, slides in and out of our conversation quite naturally, not least because several of her most arresting works are based on childhood photographs of her. Helena is now 25 – not a painter, but studying social work, specialising in child protection – and the pair are close, but her daughter’s teenage years gave Dumas plenty of disturbing material to work with. Of painting her own child, she says, “When I’m painting I do have a distance, it’s not that I’m in this emotional state all the time… although I do use my paintings to work with my own fears and anxieties.” Think of Lucian Freud, she says, who asked his daughters to pose in the nude. “He was very good at what he did – but I’m totally opposite in that sense – he painted his daughters, lying there,” Dumas flings her body back into a splayed pose, “I mean, I wouldn’t paint my daughter like that! I’m still surprised that doesn’t upset people!”

As she and Van Leeuwen usher me out of the office for lunch at an Italian restaurant across the street, trams and bikes gliding past in the spray of rain, Dumas tells me about the years after her daughter was born, when she and her partner Jan Andriesse, also a painter, were living on a houseboat on the river Amstel. (She’s since moved to a bigger house, Jan having adopted the houseboat for his studio.)
Picture credit: © Marlene Dumas

“It was a very romantic time, when Helena was small. She would feed the ducks in front of the boat, and in winter, when the river froze, she and her father would walk on the ice.” Despite her fears otherwise, Dumas’s artistic output did not cease. “I was very scared I wouldn’t be able to work. And I do remember trying to write something on a bed with a child lying there – she’s crying – and I almost thought, how will I ever get rid of this child? But you have to try and organise yourself. You can force yourself. So actually in the end I think I was quite productive then.”

When she is working, Dumas crouches over her paintings, the canvas flat on the ground, often reusing dried-up paints, scratching at the surface and dabbing with tissue.
Dumas’s own childhood – spent on her parents’ vineyard outside Cape Town, with two older brothers – evokes sunny memories. “I played a lot alone, I drew in the sand,” she says. Realising at a young age her facility for drawing, with a visual imagination fed by films and comics, Dumas doodled bikini girls for male guests on the back of their cigarette packs. “But I never saw myself as a genius. I thought, maybe I’ll be a fashion designer or a window dresser, because I could sketch very quickly.” Her mother gave her an easel, which she ignored, preferring to draw on the floor, as she still does today. Although her father died when she was only 12, it was her mother’s death, at the age of 86, that appears to have caused the greater wrench. There followed a series of paintings exploring grief, to be shown in a group at the Tate. “She was very positive, a nice woman who dressed well,” Dumas recalls.

When mother and daughter made trips to Cape Town they’d buy Vogue, she tells me, and she adored the images; though in an early work on paper, Vogue Magazine Model (1973) – made while Dumas was studying fine art at university – she entirely scrubs out the model with paint thinner. By now immersed in the critical theory and conceptual art of the day, at the age of 23 she won a scholarship to study at Ateliers 93 in Amsterdam, but rarely drew. “I wasn’t confident about what I wanted to do. I decided to work with collages, but after a while I missed the challenge of painting. There were other guys who were in painting shows…”

In apartheid-era South Africa, where the press was censored and television only arrived in 1976, Dumas remembers seeing only glimpses of the burning townships. “I left South Africa just when the police were shooting a lot of people on the streets. So in the newspapers you would sometimes see a body lying down, from far away, but those newspapers were mostly pro-government so didn’t want to show that.” Discovering a world of images without censorship on her arrival in Europe, Dumas began to consume and collate clippings. It is tempting to suggest that her artistic practice of appropriating news images and then synthesising them with other fragments of faces – a Polaroid of a child, a dying martyr in a painting by Caravaggio – was somehow seeded by a childhood spent in a propaganda state. But however it evolved, the psychology of faces became a preoccupation for Marlene Dumas.

At some point in my career I thought, I must only make faces. In the face you can have all kinds of political landscapes
Marlene Dumas
“The whole thing of what you decide someone’s outward appearance is supposed to mean has been terrible in our whole history,” she says. “It came naturally that that interested me. And at some point in my career I thought, I must only make faces. In the face you can have all kinds of political landscapes.”
Picture credit: © Marlene Dumas
After lunch, Dumas leads me gently by the elbow – or supports herself, it’s not quite clear – back to her painting studio, which is in an identical building next to her office. Her home is a 10-minute walk away (she can’t drive or cycle) and when she’s painting, she doesn’t start work until late at night, alone and in silence. On the polished concrete floor of the main studio, paint-smeared tissues and discarded latex gloves form a large whitish mound, defiant as a teenager’s laundry pile. Unused or unfinished canvases lean inwards against the wall, most larger than a metre square, some taller than two metres (the scale of Dumas’s faces in close-up amps up their power).

When she is working, Dumas crouches over her paintings, the canvas flat on the ground, often reusing dried-up paints, scratching at the surface and dabbing with tissue. “It’s my old abstract expressionism,” she says, referring to her physical approach to painting. “The work is a performance on the surface of the canvas. I don’t know what I want until I’m actually on it – which is why I wipe off a lot of paint, too.”
Picture credit: © Marlene Dumas, Photograph: Peter Cox
One of the most haunting paintings achieved in this way is Helena’s Dream (2008), a mask-like face based on a childhood photo of her daughter, the features scratched out of a perfectly smooth fleshy surface. Dumas made it in one evening, throwing the residue of old oil paints on the surface, “and I made it quickly, which is why it’s got a very light feel to it. I was tipping it from side to side, a bit like a lullaby. I was worried about my daughter that night; although she looks much younger there, it was in a later stage when she was a teenager.”

Picture credit: © Marlene Dumas
In the next room is Dumas’s archive, dozens of postcards and clippings – Vermeer, even the Mona Lisa, a Polaroid of the photographer Rineke Dijkstra – are pinned to the walls; grey metal shelves are weighed down with folders, each organising the photographic paper-trail that brings Dumas to the image, or collection of images, that inspire a painting. She laughs when I ask if she has an assistant to help her. “Sometimes I feel so primitive because I do everything myself. I don’t research. Certain things… pop up. It’s not structured.”

She’s been talking for four hours now, and I almost feel relief on her behalf when my taxi honks in the street outside. As loquacious as she is, you can sense that the public role of the successful artist has a cost. “I really worry about it,” she says of the exposure that has encroached over recent years. “No one wants no attention. But if it gets too much, you get all the negative people saying horrible things about you… it puts you off and it fills your head.”

At the same time, Marlene Dumas doesn’t mind if we find her work dark or difficult, as we certainly will, since she deals in dark and difficult images. It confirms that painting, once thought outmoded, still matters. “Museums have a problem with my work as soon as they want to show it to the public. I think that is a good thing, because I am not a photographer, and I am not a fashion designer. I am a painter. I do think that painting has lost a bit of its power,” she says. “So I’d rather that I do disturb.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s