Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2002
Venice, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Palazetto Tito, Suspect: Marlene Dumas, June - September 2003, p. 47, illustrated in colour
Tokyo, Museum of Contemporary Art; and Kagawa, Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art, Broken White, April 2007 - January 2008, p. 99, illustrated
Marlene Dumas in conversation with Theodora Vischer, ‘On Painting’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern (and travelling), Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, 2014-15, p. 167.
Almost monochromatic in execution, Marlene Dumas’ Imaginary 1 belongs to a series of works that explore what it is to depict death in paint. Created in 2002, the present work is stark and dispassionate, and shows a young girl’s body dangling lifeless and limp, hanging from a rope tightly looped around her neck. As often occurs in Dumas’ oeuvre, a single image provides the source for more than one painting. Imaginary 1 is the first of four works that depict anonymous and child-like victims of hanging, the second of which belongs to the Rubell Family Collection, Miami. Wearing simple black dresses, they appear doll-like, with faces unintelligible through the veils of hair that disguise their features. Since the beginning of her career Dumas has been compelled to confront death in a direct and unadorned manner, creating works such as A Dead Man (1988) or Drowned (1992). However, with the beginning of the 2000s images of the dead seemed to become Dumas’ primary concern. Works after canonical paintings such as David’s heroic The Death of Marat (1793) and Holbein’s all too human The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521) sit side-by-side with others based on shocking contemporary photographs. By melding art historical tropes and canonical precedents with media images and news clippings, Dumas has plundered the spectrum of death as image to explore the space between macabre beauty and eerie bathos.
The title of this series of paintings, Imaginary, seems at odds with its subject matter; indeed, there is perhaps nothing more distressing and less fanciful or fantastical than an image of a hanged child. In this regard we are immediately reminded of the blend of brutal fact and devious caprice that comprise Francisco de Goya’s notorious suite of etchings, The Disasters of War (1810-20). Initiated during the Peninsula War (1808-14), these etchings cover a visual catalogue of war’s horror. Imaginary 1 seems to quote directly from plate 36, Tampoco (Not [in this case] either) from 1810; intriguingly it is the only work from this series that ostensibly borrows from a specific preexisting source. In this print, a male victim of Spain’s war with France is depicted hanged from a tree stump; a horrific sight from which a relaxed and leering French officer appears to take great pleasure. In Dumas’ painting the angle of the hangman’s scaffold, the stiff pose of the body, and limp downwards cast of the victim’s head are characteristics entirely borrowed from Goya. Deviating from the original however, Dumas has transformed Goya’s male corpse into that of a female child. This disturbing transgression takes place within an undetermined white void that, like the encroaching empty background of David’s Marat, underscores the unknowable silence of death itself.
The brutal compositional crop further removes Dumas’ painting from Goya’s etching, and imbues it with the candid photographic quality of a news clipping. In this sense Dumas taps into contemporary culture’s morbid fascination with, and proliferation of, images of death and dead bodies; an abject craving as strong as the media’s obsession with naked flesh. Here we are reminded of Gerhard Richter’s haunting opus of black and white photo-paintings, October 18, 1977 (1988). From this cycle of 15 works – a series borne of Richter’s fascination with the terrorist Baader-Meinhoff Group who operated in Germany throughout the 1970s – the most challenging are those based on the police images published after three members of the group committed suicide in their cells in Stuttgart-Stammheim prison. Possessing a cool filmic blur, Richter’s paintings create a buffer between the shocking objectivity of reportage and the viewer – a distancing device that Dumas actively dispels in her own painting of Ulrike Meinhoff’s expired and open-mouthed corpse. Thus Stern from 2004 is as much a quotation of Gerhard Richter as it is a borrowing from the media publications surrounding the Baader-Meinhoff controversy. By pulling the specific pictorial details of Ulrike Meinhoff back into focus however, Dumas intervenes and creates a further layer of painterly complexity – a dynamic also at stake within Imaginary I.
There is an unrelenting ambiguity that complicates the shock and morbidity of Imaginary I. The physicality of the painting itself – its delicate brushwork, the method behind its individual strokes and liquid gestures – undercuts the represented subject to engender a powerful tension; namely the painterly act’s capacity to animate death with life. The imaginary faculties of the painter – her interventions, her transformation of a pre-existing source image, the emotional baggage she has applied to the canvas’ surface – make the subject of death unequivocally less dead. Indeed, the maternal gaze emphatically registers here as it does across the entirety of Dumas’ practice. The imagined fear all parents have of losing their children is painfully redolent, as is the psychoanalytic principle of separation anxiety – a mother/infant dynamic that is experienced by the mother as a sense of guilt, loss or longing for the no longer dependent child. Furthermore, by replacing Goya’s male casualty of war with a young girl, Dumas actively inserts a female voice into the male dominated domain of art history and, in doing so, makes a claim for the power of painting in the contemporary moment. By asserting the life giving portent of paint through an image of death, Dumas confronts the limits, and arguably the end point, of creation itself. In Dumas’ own words: “Art is, and always has been, a preparation for death” (Marlene Dumas cited in: Dominic van den Boogerd, ‘A Good Looking Corpse’, in: Exh. Cat., Venice, Fondazione Bevilacqua la Masa, Palazetto Tito, Marlene Dumas: Suspect, 2003, p. 21).
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