The present work came to fruition during a period of experimental collaboration with photographer and film director Anton Corbijn. While working towards their joint exhibition Strippinggirls to be held at the Theatermuseum in Amsterdam in 2000, the pair immersed themselves in Amsterdam's strip club culture, where they photographed the unfolding allure of the world of nighttime seduction. While Corbijn displayed the original photographs as his contribution to the exhibition, Dumas used the Polaroids she had taken as source material for a series of paintings she entitled the MD-Light Series. Dumas went on to exhibit the MD-Light Series in 1999, at London's Frith Street Gallery one year prior to her and Corbijn's Theatermuseum show.
Exemplary of the MD-Light Series, Dancer adopts a mystical color palette. Between wide brush strokes of warm black and bruised pink, the woman’s figure is carved out in the glow of a blue neon hue. Stripped of any flesh tones or bodily features, the color palette immediately throws the figure into perspective, placing her under the harsh LED lights of the night. While the subject could be perceived as scandalous, there is a softness to Dumas' brushwork that lends a more nuanced interpretation of the woman’s profession. In adopting the painterly gestures of expressionism, the dancer, in this case, is implied yet intangible. These soft sensual brushstrokes are not designed for appeal, but for impact. They create a sense of arousal and an elusive promise, while still keeping the viewer at a distance from the subject. In a considered gesture to leave the female figure devoid of any features, Dancer implies a deliberate withholding of information and this veil between subject and viewer alludes to Dumas' exploration into the topics of ‘self’ and ‘other’ that appear consistently throughout her practice. She has said, “My art is situated between the pornographic tendency to reveal everything and the erotic inclination to hide what it's all about” (the artist quotes in Ilaria Bonacossa, Marlene Dumas, London 2009, p. 167).
In hiding all personal aspects of the individual in Dancer, Dumas strips the subject of her identity. Because of the ambiguous nature of the woman’s depiction, as an audience we are no longer able to attribute any identifiable qualities or particularities to her as a singular individual. The idea of identity is synonymous with the body and thus without these features, the woman in Dancer becomes a construct, a symbolic representation of the power dynamic at play between audience and erotic performer, the viewer and the viewed. Unlike Dumas' earlier depictions of naked figures, the women celebrated in her MD-Light Series are taking control, they are active and using their bodies to confront the viewer. Exhibitionism is a means of ownership, and while these elusive figures are vulnerable to superficial judgement, they are equally challenging the nature of their right to display. It is clear through Dumas' practice that she depicts a sense of liberation through eroticism. In painting such liberal figures, she captures the inherent qualities of vitality and autonomy that are scarcely professed in the bureaucracy of the modern world. For Dumas, her distinguished inquiries into these sexual themes touch upon the most fundamental driving elements of her practice: the role of women, the role of looking, the role of the nude and the male gaze.
Themes of female identity and relationship to the body permeate Dumas' long standing practice. Her identity as a female artist painting naked women challenges the long-standing tradition of male artists depicting idealized notions of feminine form and societal roles. Dancer stands as a testament to the significance of this practice—always ambiguous yet dedicated to dismantling the traditional conventions of painting. Although separated by decades, Dumas' practice is in this way comparable to the work of Francis Bacon or Ego Schiele. Through the transfiguration of traditional bodily forms, Dumas’ work challenges conventional representations of the body throughout art history in order to avoid association with ‘genre painting’ and, instead, stands as an authoritative metaphor for the human condition. By refuting the traditional notions of portraiture, where a sitter is typically painted in real time, Dumas works to modernize this process by capturing a moment and subsequently adding additional meaning, through the medium of paint.
The delicately painted Dancer stands as a commentary on the state of painting today. It demonstrates how the medium of paint continues to be relevant in the contemporary arena, particularly when tackling provocative topics such as extreme eroticism, the sex economy, and the role of women within both. While Dumas' painting never fails to be enigmatic, Dancer is a refined example of artistic control—the perfect balance of suggestion and discretion, a work of faultless seduction.
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