Marlene Dumas Plays with Our Animal Instincts

In her triumphant survey exhibition at Palazzo Grassi, Venice, the artist continues her long-running exploration of women as generative, creative forces

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BY Hettie Judah in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 05 MAY 22

Marlene Dumas relishes seepage. Pigment runs into oil and ink into water, bodies melt into one another, sex ebbs into death, people spill out of their assigned categories and bodies flow beyond a picture’s edge. ‘open-end’, the artist’s current solo exhibition at Palazzo Grassi, starts with a jagged slash of raw-looking, blood-red paint against bluish white. This small canvas yields an image with its title: Kissed (2018). Around these hungering mouths, paint leaks from the skin of one face to the other, trickling like bodily fluids.

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Marlene Dumas, Teeth, 2018, oil on canvas, 40 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist

In the joyous Spring (2017), a towering woman stands with knees bent and pelvis tilted forward, her black dress hitched up and knickers lowered to mid-thigh, dousing her privates in water from a bottle. ‘Spring’ refers to the water source, but also to the fertile, life-giving wetness of the female body. With her cloud of pale brown hair, the figure might be Dumas herself, making a sharp riposte to art historical images of chaste allegorical maidens bearing ewers or strewing blossoms.

Spring is part of Dumas’s long-running exploration of women as generative, creative forces. In The Origin of Painting (The Double Room) (2018), a monumental, loosely painted female figure pulls liquid matter into a human shape. Two associated works in the same tall, narrow format carry silhouetted forms arrested in motion like characters on Greek pots: neo-mythic figures describing the birth of painting as women’s work. In The Painter (1994), the artist’s infant daughter Helena towers naked and quizzical, two metres high, with her arms covered in paint to the wrist: far from the enemy of good art, Dumas presents this female child as a formidable creative force. A series of Dumas’s inked heads enhanced by Helena with glitter and coloured paints (Underground, 1994–95) is exhibited here as a collaboration.

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Marlene Dumas, The Painter, 1994, oil on canvas, 2 × 1 m. Courtesy: the artist

This triumphant show is the first (long overdue) monographic exhibition given to any woman artist in either of Francois Pinault’s Venice spaces. It feels significant that Dumas has chosen to honour the influence of others: Helena, who later inspired paintings of pregnant power figures; Dumas’s partner Jan Andriesse, who smiles at us from the languorously sexy The Particularity of Nakedness (1987); the writer Hafid Bouazza, who commissioned Dumas to illustrate his translation of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (c.1592) and Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris (1869). Both Andreisse and Bouazza died in 2021, losses which bring an elegiac quality to this show. Toward its conclusion, we encounter paintings of the flowers on Dumas’s mother’s coffin – Einder (Horizon) (2007–08) – and, in Tombstone Lovers (2021), an eternal pairing in stone.

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Marlene Dumas, Einder (Horizon), 2007–08, oil on canvas, 1.4 × 3 m. Courtesy: the artist

Dumas has long been drawn to paint grief, death and the dark side of human endeavour, searching for the banality of evil in photographs of the human face, much as her contemporary Luc Tuymans looks for it in the documentation of landscape and architecture. Counted among Dumas’s dead here are Marilyn Monroe and a nameless drowned woman, face down in a night-black river. There are chilling echoes, in composition and claustrophobia, between Figure in a Landscape (2010), depicting a Palestinian woman walking with her child down the West Bank separation wall, and The Visitor (1995), in which sex workers clustered in a darkened room stare facing the light flooding through a doorway.

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Marlene Dumas, Fingers, 1999, oil on canvas, 40 × 50 cm. Courtesy: the artist

When painting from porn, Dumas licks hot colours across sensitive body parts, building ocular targets. An erect penis glows violet, vaginal lips coral pink. In Drunk (1997), a middle-aged woman with sunburned cheeks and chest stands naked before us, her nipples raspberry pink. Here, as with her images of the dead or murderous, Dumas plays with our animal instincts. Like Leontius in Plato’s Republic (c. 375 BC), she positions us at an oozing line between our desire to look, and our disgust in succumbing to it.

Marlene Dumas's ‘open-end’, is on view at Palazzo Grassi, Venice, until 8 January 2023. 

Main image: Marlene Dumas, ‘open-end’, 2022, exhibition view, Palazzo Grassi, Venice. Courtesy: the artist and Palazzo Grassi, Venice; photograph: Peter Cox

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Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.

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