- Marlene Dumas
- Magdalena (Underwear and Bedtime Stories)
- signed, titled and dated 1995 twice on the reverse
- oil on canvas
- 78 7/8 by 39 1/2 in. 200.3 by 100.3 cm.
Acquired by the present owner from the above in February 1996
Paris, Galerie Samia Saouma, Marlene Dumas, November 1995 - January 1996
Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; New York, The Museum of Modern Art; and Houston, The Menil Collection, Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave, June 2008 - June 2009, p. 95, illustrated in color (in progress in the artist's studio) and pp. 137-138, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., Rivoli, Castello di Rivoli, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Marlene Dumas / Francis Bacon, 1995, p. 181, illustrated (in progress in the artist's studio)
Rutger Pontzen, "Maria, Marlene en Marijke: Nederland in Venetië," Vrij Nederland, August 1995, p. 47, illustrated in color
Dominic van den Boogerd, Barbara Bloom and Mariuccia Casadio, Marlene Dumas, London and New York, 1999 (reprinted 2001), p. 131, illustrated in color (in progress in the artist's studio)
Ernst van Alphen, Art in Mind: How Contemporary Images Shape Thought, Chicago and London, 2005, p. 159, no. 62, illustrated (in progress in the artist's studio)
nor the temptress I am after.
It’s not the babydolls I want
nor the Amazons. It’s everything
mixed together to form
a true bastard race.
Wall text in Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, Room 7, Tate Modern, London, 2015
In 1995 Marlene Dumas finished work on a major new series of paintings collectively known as the Magdalenas. Created for her landmark Venice Biennale show of the same year, these larger than life, vertiginous paintings take on the trope of the ‘fallen’ woman as epitomized by the biblical tale of Mary Magdalene. Unflinching in their bold portrayal of a femininity that neither identifies with the label of mother or daughter, the Magdalenas unashamedly confront the female body as a locus of pleasure and sin, and together they assert a catalogue of empowered female embodiment. Magdalena (Underwear and Bedtime Stories) is an exquisite example from this important series – a series that is considered the most decisive of Dumas’ career to date. Towering over 78 inches tall and executed with a fluid yet glowing application of pigment, Dumas’ subject is assertive and monumental; indeed, she is a far cry from the supplicatory and penitent art historical figure of the Mary Magdalene. More so than many others in the series, this painting closely portrays its source image – a black and white photograph of Naomi Campbell culled from a glossy Calvin Klein photoshoot. Featured in a litany of publications on Dumas’ work and possessing a storied exhibition history that includes the artist’s acclaimed travelling MoMA retrospective of 2008-09, Magdalena (Underwear and Bedtime Stories) epitomizes this critically important corpus of paintings.
Cut off at the knees in Dumas’ source image, Naomi Campbell’s body frontally faces the camera’s lens. Her long legs and slender figure present a high-fashion ideal of a type of seductive femininity that preserves a Lolita-esque girlishness. Dumas carries this over into her painting and works further to intensify its presence – although still wearing the same white underwear, Campbell’s white t-shirt has been removed, replaced by long flowing locks of hair that half conceal the figure’s bare chest. Here, the naked body of Dumas' figure is concealed beneath the translucent green veils of hair that flow across her chest. Receding out of the dark blue background against which she is framed, the body occupies a completely abstract realm of space - likening her vertical form to the manner in which a Barnett Newman 'zip' cuts through a flat field of color. Moreover, Dumas has substituted Campbell’s averted gaze to one of open yet placid confrontation. Within the taxonomy of the Magdalenas, the present work broaches the controversial arena of eroticized youth – a mixture of innocence and knowing that, in the 1990s, Calvin Klein channeled to sell underwear and jeans in his controversial ad campaigns. Given the subtitle Underwear and Bedtime Stories the present work undoubtedly gives expression to this brand of teasing juvenile eroticism – a taboo that ranks among the many confronted by Dumas in this challenging and important series. Alongside the present work, in which youth is presented in full bloom, Dumas presents society’s aversion to ageing women in Magdalena (Out of Eggs, Out of Business) (1995), while Magdalena (Manet’s Queen) (1995) presents an affirmation of exquisite beauty whilst confronting racist terminology and media stereotyping.
The selection and use of widely disseminated media images of Naomi Campbell touches upon a number of useful contradictions for Dumas – indeed, aside from the present series, Campbell appears in a number of other iconic works that confront society’s ideals of beauty. As outlined by curator Emma Bedford: “Read together, they challenge Western ideals of beauty and remind us that notions of beauty are not necessarily derived from personal taste. Nor are they universal and fixed, but rather culture-specific and open to change. What Supermodel and Naomi validate is a beauty originating in Africa – a beauty inextricably entwined with the body which asserts itself through, and despite, attitudes to blackness.” (Emma Bedford, ‘Questions of Intimacy and Relations’ in Exh. Cat., Cape Town, Iziko South African National Gallery, Marlene Dumas: Intimate Relations (and travelling), 2008, p. 42)
Throughout her career as an artist, Dumas has looked to explore the cultural difficulties of her ethnic origin as a white and South-African subject. Fleeing the dominance of apartheid in 1976, she continued her art education in Amsterdam – a position of self-imposed exile that has fuelled the sense of alienation so powerfully redolent in her art. Politically charged, her work confronts difficult taboos – that there is absolutely no cultural history of the nude in South Africa forms a telling narrative thread in her presentation of racially ambiguous subjects, particularly after 1994 when apartheid was finally abolished. Indeed, resistance to apartheid ideology has in many ways been the catalyst for Dumas’s incessant questioning of discriminatory binaries in her work. Black/white, beauty/ugliness, good/bad: these dichotomies represent the very core of Dumas’s practice and are nowhere better confronted than in the series of Magdalenas. Citing German theologian and anti-Nazi Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an influence, crucially Dumas’s objective yet emotionally stirring vision expounds a diplomatically impartial engagement with the morality of 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” (Marlene Dumas 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)
Exemplifying her sustained dialogue with one of art’s most prolific subjects – the female nude – Dumas personifies the sentimental ambiguity that underpins her ability to reconfigure present practices of image consumption. As the artist has explained, her work tactfully offers the viewer “a false sense of intimacy” through these entrancing figures: “I think the work invites you to have a conversation with it." (Marlene Dumas in conversation with Barbara Bloom in Dominic van den Boogerd, Barbara Bloom and Mariuccia Casadio, Eds., Marlene Dumas, New York, 1999, p. 12) By relishing in the uncertainty of the painted image, Dumas demonstrates the contemporary relevance of the medium and positions herself as the preeminent figurative painter of her generation.