The coy contrapposto lean of the subject’s right leg and sumptuous contours of limbs and womanly curves echo the classical goddesses and icons of an art historical ideal. In pose and sensual countenance, she belongs to a lineage that can be traced back to the ancient sculptor Praxiteles and his Aphrodite of Knidos; it was this sculpture that set the standard for hundreds of years to come, inspiring canonical works of the Renaissance, such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, through to Neoclassical France with Ingres’s La Source. Yet, while the pose of Dumas’s figure may conjure a paragon of chaste and voluptuous femininity, this contemporary Venus is cropped tightly in her frame and pressed up against a cage-like grid; a compositional device that serves to underline the contemporaneity of her subject. Indeed, the viewer is left to ponder whether these are prison bars or window panes. First exhibited in ‘All is Fair in Love and War’ at Jack Tilton Gallery in 2001, the present work was shown alongside other works focussed on the same theme: the sex industry. Tall, slender canvases containing top-to-toe images of nude women standing fully frontal, on display for our consideration and scrutiny, were here exhibited en masse in a tour de force of Dumas’s engagement with the painted female form. Some, such as the present work, Electra, and Stella, portray women painted behind bars, while others, such as the luminous pink Red Head, are uninterrupted and unceremonious in their stark presentation of the female form on view and for sale.
Dumas first moved to the Netherlands from South Africa in 1976, and it was here that she was struck by the overt and normalised presence of the sex industry. Speaking on the dynamics of the commercial exchange at hand in strip clubs Dumas explicates: “You enter the theatre of seduction. You pay for the pleasure to quiver with anticipation. You stick to the rules. Strippers might stretch the rules. You don't. You have to know your place. You have come, so that she can make you wait" (Marlene Dumas, Strippinggirls, February 2000, online). In her paintings, gawped-at window-front prostitutes, Polaroids of pole dancers, and images borrowed from porn magazines are melded with a commercially sanctioned female ideal culled from fashion glossies and ad campaigns – references to Naomi Campbell frequently abound in Dumas’s work of this period. Sexual appeal, though seemingly explicit, is nonetheless complicated by Dumas’s deliberately veil-like application of paint and peculiar cropping. With facial features mystified to the point of effacement and seemingly drained of identity, Dumas’s Cathedral does not possess the same allure of the mythical Venus, nor the slick sexuality of commercially sanctioned femininity, nor even the graphic window displays of De Wallen. Instead this painting, with its claustrophobically narrow depth of field and compressed composition, is at once dream-like, fantastical and starkly objective, even harrowing.
By titling this work Cathedral, Dumas invests her painting with a religiosity – a sacred quality that buts up against its profane subject matter; a linguistic tactic that serves to both elevate and ennoble. Indeed, working in tandem with the architectonic and columnar composition, the almost glassy quality of darkly incandescent paint focused within individual rectangular frames suggests the luminosity of a stained-glass window. However, with breasts pressed up against the screen-like picture plane and a palette that conjures the dingey electric light of a strip club, this sacrosanct reading is frustrated by the hard reality of sex work. Dumas’s treatment of the figure thus comes via an expressionism begun by Edvard Munch and furthered by Francis Bacon. An array of strange, unearthly colours makes up the artist’s palette here, engendering a frightening aura evocative of Munch’s deathly figures and Bacon’s unadorned recapitulation of the human body. This also lends her work an innate violence; as writer Marina Warner notes, “… the daubs and streaks of the paint, the irresolution of colour in the skin tones seem to struggle to put some distance of abhorrence between herself and the livid flesh” (Marina Warner, ‘Marlene Dumas: In The Charnel House of Love’, Parkett, Vol. 38, 1993, p. 76).
As an artist Dumas has frequently courted controversy for her confrontation of difficult taboos. Having left South Africa for the Netherlands in 1976, a 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 strippers and prostitutes to which the present work belongs. Walking a tightrope line between the taboo of sex work and a mythologized ideal of femininity, Dumas’s Cathedral bypasses strict binaries to revisualise the female form in paint for our contemporary moment. Indeed, this painting utterly personifies the emotional ambiguity that underpins Dumas’s virtuoso ability to reconfigure and complicate the consumption of women in representation.
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