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Marlene Dumas

South African-Dutch Painter

Marlene Dumas Photo
Movement: Neo-Expressionism

Born: August 3, 1953 - Cape Town, South Africa

"I have always been interested in how you can depict suffering without being heavy-handed."

Summary of Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas is a masterful presenter of what lies beneath. Who are we really behind our strategically composed facades? What darker truths simmer beneath our everyday lives? Raised in white South Africa knee deep amongst apartheid, the artist learned young that life was a study in contradictions and duality. Today, she is considered one of the most influential and iconic artists of the 21st century for her intimate, and yet estranged figurative portraits that explore the complexities of identity, and also for her politically-charged social art.

Key Ideas

Dumas' oeuvre is marked by an aesthetic dreaminess derived through the masterful use of creamy oils and watercolor with a decidedly muted application. This along with her washed out color palette and vacillation between sharpness and blur contribute to her status as iconic painter with a singular signature visual voice.
Regardless of subject matter, Dumas is noted for a visceral brewing of a tension that wavers between surface appearance, perception, and reality. The artist's role becomes one of mass manipulator in which she willingly pulls the puppet strings of a viewer's emotion in order to provoke reflection on personal culpability. In Dumas' hands, the image becomes a burden, asking the viewer to consider what is seen versus what isn't seen.
Like many figurative painters who bloomed in the 60s and 70s after the pop cultural explosion, Dumas works primarily from photographs garnered from the pages of contemporary newspapers and magazines, or film stills, oftentimes co-opting portions of an image like an abstract painter, and presenting it absent of its original context.
The contrast between violence and innocence, and our own communal participation on that varied shades of gray scale, marks much of Dumas' work. She constantly probes reflection on our individual responsibility, as well as her own, through her explorations into society's darker themes such as death, war, racism, and sex. To her, "There is no beauty, if it doesn't show some of the terribleness of life."
Dumas is part of a contemporary lineage of female figurative painters that have elevated the portrait from its roots in vanity, using it to depict personal, psychological, social, and political concerns. These women include Jenny Saville, Lisa Yuskavage, Cecily Brown, and Elizabeth Peyton.
Detail of Marlene Dumas' <i>Urinating Woman</i> (1996)

Art critic Adrian Searle said of Dumas' paintings: "I am often struck by how little there seems to be on the canvas. The images coalesce out of almost nothing. Wiping paint off as often as painting positive emphatic marks, she gives us cheekbones or a forehead, a proffered anus and balls or a vulva using hardly anything."

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