Carnal and commanding, Both Sides is a testament to Marlene Dumas’ reclamation of the female form. Akin to other provocative paintings by the artist, Dumas breaks down the image of her subjects, they diffuse into fluid forms with her gestural use of paint. Her models command the canvas, their bodies almost bursting through the frame.
Growing up in the remote farming village of Kuils River, on the perimeters of Cape Town, Marlene Dumas had little contact with the outside world. Policed by the apartheid regime, the precocious young artist had minimum exposure to the media. Yet out of the lack of experience, Dumas manifested a fascination with the absolute extremities of life: from sex and death to aliens and the unknown. Upon graduation, Dumas relocated to Amsterdam, which proved to be a thriving hub of influence for her artistry. She delved into the ideology of the Amsterdam nightlife, immersing herself in the strip club culture of the pulsating red light district. Both Sides emerged out of this new fascination.
As the title of the present work implies, Dumas’ painting beholds a striking duality: the artist notes that her art is “situated between the pornographic tendency to reveal everything and the erotic inclination to hide what it’s all about” (Marlene Dumas cited in: Ilaria Bonacossa, Marlene Dumas, London 2009, p. 167). Similarly, us as the viewer have a dual role. We are at once subject to Dumas; her paintings confront and dominate us. Yet, we are also positioned as the voyeur, gazing at the intimate scenes with shock and fascination. Both Sides calls back to Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (1866), but instead of Courbet’s objective view of the female body, Dumas incorporates the enigmatic gaze of her subject. She glares back at the viewer, daring them to looks at her body, projecting her agency. Dumas’ identity as a female artist painting naked women challenges the long-standing tradition of male artists depicting idealised notions of the feminine form. Not only does Dumas confront the viewer, but art history itself.
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