Since its long anticipated reopening in September 2012 the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam has served up some fine shows: The Mike Kelley retrospective was, if somewhat airtight, quite comprehensive, and Jeff Wall’s Tableaux Pictures Photographs 1996-2013 could easily compete with the grand overview nine years ago at Tate Modern. But with Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden the museum has hit a new high point. The retrospective of the nation’s best-known painter is by far the best exhibition the new Stedelijk has mounted to date.
The last Dumas retrospective in The Netherlands dates back to 1992. Following that year’s Miss Interpreted at the Van Abbemuseum, the South African born artist shot to art stardom on a global scale. Her works command six figure prices at auctions and she is celebrated as one of the most influential painters of our time, heralded as a role model by art academy students the world over. Top institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (2007), the MoMA (2008) and Haus der Kunst (2010) have organized solo shows. But the current exhibition in Amsterdam, the city she moved to in 1976 and in which she has been living and working ever since, is the first she is really pleased with—she said so during the press preview.
Marlene Dumas, The Image as Burden, Installation view including Models, 1994, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Photo: Gert-Jan van Rooij
The Image as Burden brings together a staggering number of works: nearly two hundred paintings, drawings, and collages. Acquiring them from museums and collectors worldwide—the Stedelijk, which has been collecting Dumas since her first participation in a group show in 1978, owns thirty-nine works—is a feat in itself. Teaming up with Tate Modern and Fondation Beyeler, where the exhibition will be travelling to next, must have helped. For the spatial arrangement, the London and Basel curators should take their cue from the Stedelijk’s Leontine Coelewij. Spread out over no fewer than sixteen rooms, The Image as Burden elegantly avoids clutter or breathlessness. Keeping in mind Dumas’ own, oft repeated adagio, “a painting needs a wall to object to and space to relate to,” the individual works have been granted ample room. The arrangement is thematic instead of chronological. Following a subdued rhythm large works alternate with smaller canvases, bright colors with murky earth tones. The 112 portraits that make up Black Drawings (1991-1992) at the beginning of the exhibition have a fitting counterpoint in Models (1994), the one hundred female faces at the end of the circuit.
The relatively small room halfway through the exhibition holds the oldest works in the show. This collection of collages and drawings from the seventies sheds light on Dumas’ early development as an artist. She had only just left South Africa, where under Apartheid art didn’t feel like an adequate vehicle for expression or action. In the Netherlands, however, she didn’t exactly find the open-mindedness she had hoped for. I won’t have a potplant (1977), an almost violent drawing of domestic flora, speaks volumes in this respect. Don’t talk to Strangers (1977), consisting of the opening and closing lines of friends’ letters, is evidence of the homesickness and the sense of alienation she must have felt at times. The number of early collages is limited and that’s a pity. But the curator has obviously chosen to concentrate on painting, the medium Dumas is best known for—a justifiable decision.
It’s amazing to see how much power Dumas is able to harness in thinly applied layers of paint. The four colossal babies portrayed in The First People (1990) are simultaneously endearing and monstrous. The 1999 re-workings of pornographic images—a boy with a purple penis, a girl with blue buttocks—are extremely direct and exciting in all ways but sexual. Dumas’ Osama bin Laden (2010) brings about a shock of recognition, but that emotion is immediately overruled by something more complex than hatred or contempt since the artist presents him not as a terrorist but as the father of Omar.
Marlene Dumas, The Image as Burden, 1993, Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 cm.; Private collection, Belgium / Copyright Marlene Dumas; Photo: Peter Cox
The exhibition’s title is taken from a small, almost unassuming work from 1993. It shows a dark male figure carrying a white female. Dumas based the image on a still from the 1936 romantic drama Camille, featuring Robert Taylor and Greta Garbo. But in the painter’s abstracted depiction one could just as easily recognize the soldier rescuing a child during the Beslan school hostage crisis of 2004, a similar news image from riots in Soweto, or—of course—a classical pietà. Dumas injects her images with meaning upon meaning, reference upon reference. It burdens the picture, loads responsibility on the artist’s shoulders. But at the same time the image also exists as “just a painting” and can be considered a burden in its own right.
Death, sex, guilt, shame, sexuality, and racism are the themes Dumas has been returning to over the past four decades. Never does she approach them in the abstract or absolute way of an activist. She literally attaches them to faces and bodies, thus humanizing them and at the same time welcoming in ambiguity and confusion. With Dumas the political is always personal, and personal emotions combined with universal themes hardly ever make for easy reading. That’s what lends Dumas’ work its stamina.
(Image on top: Marlene Dumas, The Image as Burden, Installation view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Photo: Gert-Jan van Rooij)
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