Fundamental to Dumas' practice is her engagement with contemporary imagery and the possibilities of semantic transformations between media. Eschewing the stronghold of academic training that is drawing from life, Dumas' sources are consciously secondary, painting from varied images often sourced from mass-media. Dumas thus reinserts painting into the flippant and constantly evolving language of contemporary visual communication. Crucially, she interrogates the ability of the medium to bear the emotive weight of culturally loaded images on multiple coexisting registers. Via the hazy swathes of Dumas’ unique painterly surface, her images progress through varied interpretative states. As the artist elucidates, her work “is suggestive; it suggests all sorts of narratives, but it doesn't really tell you what's going on at all.” (Ibid, p. 12)
In the present work Dumas knowingly recalls the great female nudes of art history. The coy contrapposto lean of the subject’s right leg, her monumental presence and sumptuous contours all echo classic goddesses such as Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Yet rather than advancing in mythic fashion with grandiose allegorical supports, Dumas’ contemporary Venus is cropped tightly in her frame with cascading gradations of skin overwhelming the visual field. We are forced to survey this figure to an extreme degree of scrutiny yet the indiscriminate nature of Dumas' brush abets the level of discovery that such a detailed examination promises. Evoking the female caryatid columns of ancient Greek construction, Dumas embraces a certain architectural solidity and exaggerated verticality; her elongated limbs, bolstered shoulders, and dense frame of hair all act as a foundational blueprint for the structural schema of the picture plane. Unlike Amedeo Modigliani’s later interpretation of the caryatid, which exaggerated bodily curvature to its most abstract end, Dumas occupies a position between idealization and a gritty realism. Despite the sumptuous pinks and peaches of the background pushing the figure forth with an undeniable sensuality, her sexual appeal is almost undermined by the cold rationality of Dumas’ deliberately non-indulgent brush and peculiar cropping. With facial features mystified to the point of effacement, seemingly drained of identity, Dumas’ Red Head falls short of the charismatic persona of Venus and drifts between the realms of subject and object.
That the public perception of a woman is so disproportionally linked to her image (both physical and moral) has thoroughly influenced Dumas’ practice. Her masterpiece diptych Great Britain 1995-1997 contrasts an eerily sweet royal portrait of the late Diana Princess of Wales with a striking depiction of a nude Naomi Campbell; two very different women both held to extreme public scrutiny over the course of their lives. As a figure famed for her physical grace, long hailed by the fashion industry as the perfect female body, Campbell formed the partial inspiration for Dumas’ most important series of work, the Magdalena portraits which were first exhibited in Venice in 1995. Their strange presentation of Campbell as a towering Amazonian woman is summoned again in Red Head, her formidability privileged above her elegance. The Magdalena also eponymously refer to the duplicitous biblical figure Mary Magdalen – former prostitute and hallowed saint – who encapsulates the artist’s interest in polarities: “All things are in themselves contradictory. And its [sic] this principle more than any other which expresses the truth, the very essence of things” (the artist cited in Matthias Winzen, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman” in Exh. Cat., Baden Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden Baden (and travelling), Marlene Dumas: Female, 2005, p. 36) Typified in Red Head, the artist leaves room for both indulgence and suspicion in the purported gaze; notably a gaze that she does not fully claim as her own, but rather one that carries the historic dogma of female representation. Indeed the work is as much about the model as those producing and construing her image. Citing German theologian and anti-Nazi Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an influence, crucially Dumas’ objective yet emotionally stirring vision expounds a diplomatically impartial engagement with the morality her subjects and their viewers: “My problem … not to decide simply between right and wrong and between good and evil, but between right + right and between wrong + wrong” (Ibid., p. 36) Pertaining to neither the rhetoric of female nude as erotic object or the fully formed portrait of an empowered subject, Dumas’ Red Head is not simply a trope image to be consumed or an illustration of a wider point on identity. Rather, through almost spiritualistic presence, she is a provocative disturbance to the meta-narrative of female-representation.
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