A punch in the stomach
This exhibition is like a punch to the stomach. No taboos. No filters. Marlene Dumas (born in 1953) is like that.
She lays herself bare and in doing so plunges you into a certain state of stupefaction. At the Palazzo Grassi in Venice (see here and here the exhibitions at Fondation Pinault in Venise) she is exhibiting around one hundred paintings until 8 January 2023. Firstly we think that this truly captivating visual violence could perhaps come from her childhood in South Africa. She grew up in the country during Apartheid and has lived in Amsterdam since she was 23 years old. “I have always been interested in the question of the influence of biography on work. But it is others who have the answer,” reveals the artist.
“Here she is sharing everything we are all afraid of,” adds the curator of the exhibition Caroline Bourgeois. The tone is set from the first room at the 18th-century palace: in varying formats we see, from one canvas to another, painted in an expressionist style which skilfully plays with colours, women who make no attempt to hide their crotch adopting acrobatic positions, placed not only alongside the painting of a young man with a purple erection, but also a frog in a similarly indiscreet position, albeit involuntarily. We imagine it is about to be dissected.
Awaiting their client
In the following room, visibly scantily-clad young women, seen from behind, await their client. This canvas from 1995 has been called “The Visitor”. It is three metres long and bathed in a black which borders on dark burgundy. The bluish thighs, hair in artificial hues, and garish clothes all emerge from the shadows along with a yellow doorway through which the man is due to arrive.
Abstraction and figuration
Marlene Dumas is a great colourist. She also knows how to the work the framing of her compositions. She knows, too, how to create works which, depending on the distance from which they are looked at, play with abstraction and figuration. In this exercise she excels.
Take one of her “Kisses” from 2018 – there are various images of mouths in close-up in the exhibition – inspired by a scene from the film “Partie de Campagne” by Jean Renoir. Firstly we see a brown face, lips to the fore, then a second face emerges in profile, lighter, which detaches from the background and, in fact, interlocks with the other. Marlene Dumas has been understood to be a major painter of our times.
But curiously, and this is what we can truly learn from this exhibition, she deliberately produces and makes cohabit what we might call masterworks and simple works, which seem to be the memory of performances. She speaks of the “physicality” and spontaneous character of certain paintings. “There are many variations within my approach. It also depends on the period in which they are made.” In the “simple” category there is “Intoxication” from 2018, for example, which just depicts a distorted oval head in greenish and grey hues, struck through with two slashes for the eyes and nose. Dumas comments by alluding to alcohol abuse: “without some kind of intoxication many love stories would never have begun”. A simple and disturbing vision.
On the other hand we find the virtuosic Marlene Dumas who produces masterpieces that have been concocted over a long period. This is certainly the case for her portrait of Dora Maar in 2008 which she has entitled: “Dora Maar (the Woman who saw Picasso cry)”. The face painted in very light pink occupies almost the whole of the canvas in a very narrow framing. The eyes are spritely in a powerful way and the mouth, which is narrow and sombre, reveals a slight red hue which drips. Picasso’s partner, known as “The Crying Woman”, is hypnotically beautiful.
Snow White and the Next Generation
The most striking painting in the exhibition is “Snow White and the Next Generation”, in which we first see an ensemble of splashes of diluted colour: black, pink, white. The eye takes hold of the composition and out from among these contrasting hues finally emerges a reclining female nude form. At her feet there are kids, also naked, who amuse themselves while further away another one plays with a black curtain. Snow White is exhausted by her household tasks. Unless she is in a state of inebriation. The scene is open to multiple interpretations. “That’s exactly what I wanted,” concludes Marlene Dumas, smiling.
Martyred slave of time
A line from Charles Baudelaire cited in the exhibition catalogue could, however, give an indication: “To escape being the martyred slaves of time, be ceaselessly drunk! On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you wish.” So you too can get drunk on the paintings of Marlene Dumas if you have the chance to visit Venice.
Until 8 January 2023. https://www.palazzograssi.it/fr/expositions/prochaines/open-end-marlene-dumas/
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