As Dumas notes, “I’m interested in artists who take death as a model. So often Andy Warhol is only seen in relation to money. But for me, he’s one of the few artists whose art addresses death and the sentiments of our time without succumbing to sugary or over-dramatic imagery; a good synthesis between realism and artificiality” (Marlene Dumas, ‘Death as a Model’, Marlene Dumas: Resources and References, no date, online). While the work of Warhol, with its air of cool irony, may seem worlds away from Dumas’s artistic landscape, both artists’ approaches to death find commonality in their use of appropriation and their interest in the popular media’s almost fetishist presentation of the subject matter. Yet Dumas’s interest in death is equally historic as is it contemporary. Work directly related to canonical paintings such as David’s heroic The Death of Marat (1793) and Holbein’s eerily composed The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521) show Dumas’s engagement with the history of death in European painting. They sit side-by-side with others based on shocking contemporary photographs. By melding art historical tropes and canonical precedents with media images and news clippings, Dumas has plundered the spectrum of death as image to present us with a conception of it as both eternal and in the raw present.
Yet in all this, without Dumas’s frank title, there is little in the image that visually suggests hanging. There seems to be no rope, no real sense of weight to the body, the head is bowed forward but not gruesomely so. As we look closer, this ambiguity extends to the body’s sexuality. Dumas plays again with our referential system, a penis is paired with feminine hips, breast morph into a chest as his top is suggestively rolled up. Long hair only obscures the matter further. In all of this, Dumas hints at a narrative that extends further than the portrayal of death, incorporating ideas surround sexuality and gender politics.
In creating a work that hovers between male and female bodies, between life and death, Dumas forces the viewer to participate, coercing out their assumptions and opinions regarding death and sexuality. To able to imbue an image of such frankness with an equal sense of ambiguity attests to Dumas’s supreme skill as a figurative painter. It is a skill that tests the limits of figuration both in its loose painterly handling and its ability to create an ambiguity of narrative that one only usually finds in abstraction. In doing this, it speaks to a core pillar of Dumas’s artistic quest, best summed up in her own words: “I wondered if one could paint death, death as an abstract thing, like the way you paint love or loss”, she wrote, “I was thinking about such questions even before I started making paintings on the subject” (Marlene Dumas conversation with Theodora Vischer, in; Exh. Cat.,London, Tate Modern (and travelling), Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, 2014-15, p. 167).
‘Art is, and always has been, a preparation for death.’ (Marlene Dumas cited in: Dominic van den Boogerd, ‘A Good Looking Corpse’, in: Exh. Cat., Venice, Fondazione Bevilacqua la Masa, Palazetto Tito, Marlene Dumas: Suspect, 2003, p. 21).
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