Marlene Dumas (born 3 August 1953) is a South African born artist and painter who lives and works in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. In the past Dumas produced paintings, collages, drawings, prints and installations. She now works mainly with oil on canvas and ink on paper. Stressing both the physical reality of the human body and its psychological value, Dumas tends to paint her subjects at the extreme fringes of life’s cycle, from birth to death, with a continual emphasis on classical modes of representation in Western art, such as the nude or the funerary portrait. By working within and also transgressing these traditional historical antecedents, Dumas uses the human figure as a means to critique contemporary ideas of racial, sexual, and social identity.
Early life and education
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1953, Marlene Dumas was raised on her family’s vineyard just beyond the city limits in the semi-rural Kuils River region. Her native language was Afrikaans. As a student of painting at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art during the early 1970s, Dumas gained exposure to the decade’s preoccupation with conceptualism and art theory. Television was not introduced there until 1976, and most of the art she saw was in reproduction. It was photography, however – the work of Diane Arbus, in particular – that would have the greatest impact on the young artist during this period, introducing her to the "burden of the image" and the complexities of representing the human form. Accepting a scholarship to study at the Dutch artist-run institute de Ateliers, Dumas moved in 1976 to Amsterdam, where she continues to live and work. During these formative years, Dumas explored the relation between image and text in collages, combining clipped photographs, text, and gestural drawing movements.
In 1984, Dumas started painting heads and figures. Working almost exclusively from photographic sources, she draws her subject material from an ever-developing archive of personal snapshots, Polaroid photographs, and thousands of images torn from magazines and newspapers. A painting is never a literal rendition of a photographic source. For one painting, she may crop an original image, focusing on the figures in the far background of a photograph. For another she may adjust the color, using her characteristic palette of grays, blues, and reds. Dumas’s portraits remove subjects from their original context and strip them of any identifiable information. This source material allows the artist to capture her human subjects in their own moment in history, yet provides enough distance for the subject to be quietly and respectfully observed: the awkward babies (The First People I-IV), a captured man (The Blindfolded Man, 2007), a posing pregnant woman (Pregnant Image, 1988–90), the face of a notable writer (Death of the Author, 2003), or the artist herself (Self Portrait at Noon, 2008). Executed in the mid-1980s, a series of paintings entitled "The Eyes of the Night Creatures" explores recurring themes in the artist's oeuvre, including racial and ethical intolerance (e.g. The White Disease, 1985). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dumas produced a series of works based around the subject of pregnancy and babies. Between 1998 through 2000, in collaboration with the photographer Anton Corbijn, she worked on a project called "Stripping Girls", which took the strip clubs and peep shows of Amsterdam as their subject; while Corbijn exhibited photographs in the show, Dumas took Polaroids which she then used as sources for her pictures.
The personal and the historical collide in Dumas’s portraits. In Dead Marilyn (2008), a female corpse fills the expanse of a small canvas. This work marked the beginning of a group of paintings of mourning and weeping women, made in the year after the artist’s mother died. Dumas’s treatment of this infamous image of Marilyn Monroe reveals layers of meaning beyond its original source, which was an autopsy photograph. Smeared brushstrokes of white, blue-green, and gray highlight the subject’s blotchy face. The small size of the work and the delicate rendering makes it a portrait of intimacy. Notions of celebrity, sensationalism, and the mystery of the actress’s own personal narrative come into question. In The Pilgrim (2006), Dumas shifts her critical interests in the public notoriety to an image of Osama bin Laden, whose relatively peaceful eyes and mild smile greatly contrast with the media’s typical portrayals. Seemingly cropped from its original photo, we have little sense of context, let alone what lies beyond the borders of the canvas. Stripping her subject of his public persona and historical importance, Dumas leaves us with a critique of both politics and identity. She has said that her works are better appreciated as originals, to mirror the at times shocking, discomforting intimacy she captures with her works.
The artist is also an avid educator, finding that:
- teaching [is] a very important thing, and not only because I teach [the students] things, but also because we have a dialogue, and you see what you really want. You find things out. I still believe in the Socratic dialogue. Art is really something that you learn from being around people.
Dumas's first all-painting show was held in 1985, at the Galerie Paul Andriesse in Amsterdam, and it brought together nine portraits. In 1995 she represented the Netherlands in the 46th Venice Biennale (together with Marijke van Warmerdam and Maria Roosen). Her first major American museum exhibition, a midcareer retrospective entitled "Measuring Your Own Grave", opened in June 2008 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and moved to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Menil Collection in Houston. Also in 2008, the South African National Gallery, Cape Town, and the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, presented two consecutive shows of the artist’s work, marking the first time Dumas had solo exhibitions in her homeland. The Haus der Kunst, Munich, showed "Marlene Dumas: Tronies" in 2011. The Stedelijk Museum, the Tate Modern, and the Beyeler Foundation are organizing a major retrospective of her work, from the 1970s to the present (including new work), set to debut in Amsterdam in September 2014.
Work by the artist is held in the public collections of various museums, including Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the ARKEN Museum for Moderne Kunst, Copenhagen; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; Bawag Foundation, Vienna; Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, The Netherlands; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Centraal Museum, Utrecht; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Centro de Artes Visuales Helga de Alvear, Caceres, Spain; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas; De Ateliers, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; The Flemish Ministry of Culture, Brussels, Belgium; Fonds Regional d’Art Contemporain Picardie, Amiens, France; Gemeentemuseum, Arnhem, The Netherlands; Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg; Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam; Kasteel Wijlre / Hedge House, Wijlre, The Netherlands; Krannert Art Museum and Kinhead Pavilion, Champaign, Illinois; Kunsthalle zu Kiel der Christian-Albrecths-Universität, Kiel, Denmark; Lieve Van Gorp Foundation for Women Artists, Antwerp, Belgium; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Museum De Pont, Tilburg, The Netherlands; Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; Museum het Domein, Sittard, The Netherlands; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, Antwerp, Belgium; Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnhem, The Netherlands; Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art; Nasher Museum of Art, Durham; Paleis Vught, Vught, The Netherlands; Saatchi Gallery, London; Scheringa Museum voor Realisme, Spanbroek, The Netherlands; Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich, Germany; Stadsgalerij Heerlen, Heerlen, The Netherlands; Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Stedelijk Museum, Gouda, The Netherlands; Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, The Netherlands; Stedelijk Museum Schiedam, Schiedam, The Netherlands; Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent, Belgium; Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Tate Modern, London, England; and ZKM Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe.
By 2002, the record for Dumas's paintings, only a few of which had come to auction, stood at about $50,000. Jule, die Vrou (Jule, the Woman), a 1985 close-up of a transvestite's face, was auctioned at Christie's for $1.24 million in 2004. In 2005 at Christie's in London, The Teacher (Sub a) (1987), a rendering of a posed class photograph, was sold for $3.34 million. In 2008, The Visitor (1995) sold for £3.1 million at Sotheby's in 2008, making Dumas the most expensive living female artist. However, most of Dumas’s works are sold to institutions. Her portrait of the late Amy Winehouse, Amy-Blue (2011), was acquired by London’s National Portrait Gallery for just £95,000 ($150,000) in November 2012.
- Selma Klein Essink, Marcel Vos and Jan Debbaut, Miss Interpreted, exhibition catalogue, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven 1992
- Jonathan Hutchinson, Chlorosis, exhibition catalogue, The Dougles Hyde Gallery, Dublin 1994
- Catherine Kinley, Marlene Dumas, exhibition broadsheet, Tate Gallery 1996
- Gianni Romano, Suspect, Skira, 2003
- Cornelia Butler, Marlene Dumas: painter as witness, Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008
- Ilaria Bonacossa, Dominic van den Boogerd, Barbara Bloom and Mariuccia Casadio, Marlene Dumas, Phaidon, 2009
List of References
- Marlene Dumas Tate.
- Christopher Bagley (June 2008), Dutch Master W.
- Deborah Solomon (15 June 2008), Figuring Marlene Dumas New York Times.
- Carol Kino (27 March 2005), Marlene Dumas's Number Comes Up New York Times.
- Marlene Dumas, The White Disease (1985) Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 11 May 2011, New York.
- Marlene Dumas, The Dance (1992) Christie's, 11 May 2004, New York.
- Marlene Dumas, Feathered Stola (2000) Christie's Post War and Contemporary Evening Sale, 9 May 2006, New York.
- Marlene Dumas: Against the Wall, 18 March – 24 April 2010 David Zwirner, New York.
- Ariella Budick (27 December 2008), Reappraising Marlene Dumas’ career Financial Times.
- Randy Kennedy (21 May 2010), Collector’s Motion for Court Order Against Gallery Is Denied New York Times.
- Marlene Dumas' website
- Marlene Dumas at David Zwirner
- "Figuring Marlene Dumas," profile by Deborah Solomon in The New York Times Magazine,15 July 2008 
- 'Miss Interpreted' documentary film on DocsOnline follows Dumas' activities for six months while she prepares for an exhibition.
- Marlene Dumas: Images and Words
- Dutch Master interview in W magazine
- Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave Brief description of the artist's exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles
- Zeno X Gallery - Marlene Dumas images, biography and CV
- The Saatchi Gallery - Marlene Dumas