Marlene Dumas, Wall text in Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, Room 7, Tate Modern, London, 2015
By the summer of 1995 Marlene Dumas had finished working 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 epitomised by the biblical tale of Mary Magdalene. Unflinching in their bold portrayal of a femininity that neither identifies with the label of mother, daughter, or coquettish ingénue, the Magdalenas unashamedly confront the female body as a locus of pleasure and sin, and together they assert a catalogue of empowered corporeality. Magdalena (Dark Polychrome) is an exquisite example from this important series – a series that is considered the most decisive of Dumas’s career to date. Towering over 2 meters tall and executed with a fluid yet glowing and textural application of pigment, Dumas’s subject is assertive and monumental; indeed, she is a far cry from the supplicatory figure of Mary Magdalene familiar to art history. As its point of departure, these paintings meld this canonised trope of chaste penitence with images of supermodel Naomi Campbell lifted from Calvin Klein ad campaigns and fashion photoshoots. Of the resultant twelve works in this cycle, examples reside in the prestigious collections of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Stedelijk Museum voot Aktuele Kunst in Ghent; Van Abbemuseum, Einhoven; and Sammlung Garnatz, Stadtische Galerie Karlsruhe. Featured in a litany of publications on Dumas’s work, Magdalena (Dark Polychrome) epitomises this critically important corpus of paintings.
Playing on the biblical myth of Mary Magdalene, who, according to legend, lived a secluded life clothed only by her hair, the present work draws upon iconic iterations of the Penitent Magdalene as made famous by carved wooden sculptures of the Early Modern period, such as Donatello’s work of 1453-55 and the Northern European master Gregor Erhart’s version, circa 1515-20. In both of these works, Magdalene’s hair is her defining feature; she is pale skinned with a blonde Botticelli-esque mane in Erhart’s sculpture, while Donatello’s Magdalene is time-worn and hirsute, her calf-long hair is tangled, matted and robe-like. In Dumas’s interpretation, these historical paradigms are fused with images of the supermodel Naomi Campbell. As evident in photographs of the artist’s studio taken around the time these works were created, a tumult of images culled from magazines form the basis of Dumas’s Magdalenas. Campbell’s long legs, slender figure, and epitome of modern-day beauty present a high-fashion ideal of seductive femininity for the contemporary moment. Of all the Magdalena’s, the present work captures the closest likeness to Campbell’s physiognomy.
In Magdalena (Dark Polychrome), the figure's full-lipped pout is framed by curtains of flowing black hair, a trait that marks this painting out from the full cycle of twelve paintings. Indeed, Dumas’s treatment of Mary Magdalene’s trademark flowing hair is nowhere better portrayed in this series than in the present work. Falling past her knees, her ample and glossy locks are thickly painted; each wavy tress cascades down the canvas in contrast against the diaphanous and glowing translucency of the figure’s skin and the subtle matt chromatic variation of the background. Advancing out of the dark blue ground against which she is framed, the body occupies a completely abstract realm of space. Dumas has described these works as a homage to Barnett Newman’s Zip – “Not so much his straight edge zip, but his frayed edge zip” – likening her vertical form to the manner in which the American painter’s 'zip' cuts through a flat field of colour (Marlene Dumas, ‘A fair(ly) synthesized maid’ in: Exh. Cat., Salzburg, Salzburger Kunstverein (and travelling), Marlene Dumas: Models, 1996, p. 26). The present work in particular also conjures the example of Mark Rothko – specifically his late body of black paintings such as those housed in the De Menil Rothko Chapel in Houston, in which varying shades of black are modified by pigments to incite subtle chromatic reverberations.
In transforming Campbell’s likeness as a means of updating the Magdalene trope, Dumas has substituted the supermodel’s averted gaze to one of open yet placid confrontation. Within the taxonomy of the Magdalenas, the present work broaches the arena of eroticized and empowered femininity. Alongside the present work, in which womanhood is presented in its fierce prime, Dumas also challenges the taboo of youthful seduction in Magdalena (Underwear and Bedtime Stories), presents society’s aversion to ageing women in Magdalena (Out of Eggs, Out of Business) (1995), and affirms exquisite beauty whilst confronting racist terminology and media stereotyping in Magdalena (Manet’s Queen) (1995). Moreover, the selection and use of widely disseminated media images of Campbell further 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 Western paradigms 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, Dumas has looked to explore the cultural difficulties of her own 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 Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an influence on her crucially objective yet emotionally stirring vision, Dumas expounds a diplomatically impartial engagement with the morality of her subjects and their viewers: “My problem… is 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 history’s most prolific genres – the female nude – Magdalena personifies the emotional ambiguity that underpins Dumas's 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 among the preeminent figurative painters of her generation.
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