History and Passion in a Retrospective of Marlene Dumas’s Provocative Portraits

Janet Yoon
Nov 18, 2014 7:09PM

In the galleries of the Stedelijk Museum, Mohammed Bouyeri’s portrait hangs prominently among the selection of works in Marlene Dumas’s exhibition, “The Image as Burden.” In a peculiar coincidence, the South Africa-born and Amsterdam-based painter’s first major show in the Netherlands in 20 years overlaps with the 10th anniversary of the controversial death of Dutch filmmaker and television host Theo van Gogh. Bouyeri, whose piercing eyes confront each viewer that passes, is the Moroccan-Dutchman who shot van Gogh dead, allegedly in the name of Allah. The violent act prompted an uncomfortable and contentious debate on racism in the small country that prides itself on progressive ideals. Nevertheless, such events based on current state of politics and culture are often the source of many of Dumas’s evocative figurative paintings.

Numerous works in Dumas’s retrospective exhibition are born from the artist’s vast archive of found images mined from magazines and newspapers. Throughout her career, Dumas has looked to popular culture, politics, and figures from the present and past for inspiration, often provocative and divisive individuals, including everyone from Naomi Campbell and Amy Winehouse to Vladimir Putin and Osama Bin Laden. In spite of the familiarity of some of Dumas’s subjects, what resonates most strongly in her portraits of criminals, politicians, and pop stars are the undeniably expressive gestures in which she renders them. The viewer’s eye is drawn less to the subject and more to the painter’s deft brushstrokes and distinct palette of black, green, blue, and pink.

The title of Dumas’s retrospective is derived from her 1993 painting The Image as Burden and points to the artist’s approach to figurative painting, which is informed as much by her imagination as it is by the appearance of her subjects. By looking to the media as major source, especially in this age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, Dumas explores current affairs to call upon larger questions of how we view and absorb the world around us.

Dumas is also known for her works that address themes of sexuality, love, and death. Unafraid of such charged subject matter, the artist expresses these topics beautifully and ambiguously—not very differently from how they occur in real life. In the spare white galleries at the Stedelijk Museum, Dumas’s paintings and drawings pull us away from the distraction of media and commentary and into a world of pure flesh and emotion.

Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden” is on view at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Sep. 6, 2014–Jan. 4, 2015.

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Installation images courtesy Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Janet Yoon