Marlene Dumas

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Marlene Dumas (born 3 August 1953) is a South African born artist and painter who lives and works in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In the past Dumas produced paintings, collages, drawings, prints and installations. She now works mainly with oil on canvas and ink on paper.[1]


The White Disease, 1985

Dumas attended the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa from 1972-1975 and relocated to Amsterdam in 1976, where she attended the University of Amsterdam as a student of painting and psychology from 1979-1980. In 1984, Dumas started painting heads and figures.[2] A series of paintings she executed in the mid-1980s, titled "The Eyes of the Night Creatures", explores recurring themes in the artist's oeuvre, including racial and ethical intolerance. The White Disease (1985) is a painting of an ageing South African woman with pale blue eyes taken from a medical photograph. The painting projects the disease of apartheid and Dumas acknowledges it as one of her favourites. Christie's auction lot notes observes that the painting recalls the influence of predecessors such as Egon Schiele and Leon Golub. Translucent white paint creates a ghostly shade, alluding to the subject's illness, while water-saturated colors gives the portrait an unreal transparency, suggesting the fugitive nature of life. The shape of the nose is replaced by a simple blob of pink color, symbolising a loss of humanity and the subject's indifference to her state.[3][4][5]

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dumas produced a series of works based around the subject of pregnancy and babies.[6] In 1987, she gave birth to her daughter, Helena, and a great body of work followed. The most compelling is The First People, which is a series of four canvases devoted to newborn infants. Each painting is large (many times greater than life-size) and each is composed vertically. She does not idealize her images; instead the babies are unattractive, squirming little beings with gnarled fingers and toes, bloated bellies, and wrinkled skin. In the 1990s, Dumas indirectly returned to the subject of apartheid.[7] Between 1998 through 2000, in collaboration with the photographer Anton Corbijn, she worked on a project called "Stripping Girls", which took the strip clubs and peep shows of Amsterdam as their subject;[8] while Corbijn exhibited photographs in the show, Dumas took Polaroids which she then used as sources for her pictures.

Since she first began painting portraits in the 1980s, famous figures ranging from Osama Bin Laden to Naomi Campbell, various family members, friends and even unknown persons have been the subjects of her work. The haunting and distorted faces and bodies of her figures are a product of her use of thinned down paint, wiping the pigment away from the canvas to create the washed out, smudged figures that are characteristic of her work. At times dark and disturbing, always weighted in poignancy, and drawn on topical and contentious material, she repeatedly mixes the personal with the political.[9] She has said that her works are better appreciated as originals, to mirror the at times shocking, discomforting intimacy she captures with her works.

For Manifesta 10 in St Petersburg, Dumas created Great Men, a series of 16 ink and pencil portraits that depict famous gay men, including James Baldwin, Leonard Matlovich, Rudolf Nureyev, Vaslav Nijinsky, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Alan Turing, Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams.[10] Each of the men depicted was persecuted, in one way or another, because they were suspected of being gay. According to Dumas, the series is to "contribute to a mentality change" in Russia at a time of increasingly anti-gay legislation in the country.[11]


In addition to being a visual artist, Dumas is also an active writer. Her exhibitions and their accompanying catalogues are populated by a number of Dumas' essays, poems, and passages about her work. A collection of these writings entitled Sweet Nothings: Notes and Texts was published by Tate in 2015. When used in conjunction with her work, Dumas' writing can be both helpful and confusing, contributing additional layers to the work's content and interpretation. Dumas is certainly not the first to use text in her work, but the way she directly addresses the reader by using the pronoun 'you' is a significant departure from Barbara Kruger's plural statements ('We won't play nature to your culture') and Jenny Holzer's objective truisms ('Abuse of power comes as no surprise').[12]


Dumas is committed to teaching. In a 2007 interview she said, "I see teaching as a very important thing, and not only because I teach [the students] things, but also because we have a dialogue, and you see what you really want. You find things out. I still believe in the Socratic dialogue. Art is really something that you learn from being around people".[13]


Marlene Dumas, Narutowicz. the President 1922, 2012, Zachęta National Gallery, Warsaw

Dumas's first all-painting show was held in 1985, at the Galerie Paul Andriesse in Amsterdam, and it brought together nine portraits.[2] In 1995 she represented the Netherlands in the 46th Venice Biennale (together with Marijke van Warmerdam and Maria Roosen).[1] Dumas's first solo museum exhibition, "Marlene Dumas: Name No Names," opened at the New Museum in 2002.[14] A major American museum exhibition and midcareer retrospective entitled "Measuring Your Own Grave", opened in June 2008 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and moved to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Menil Collection in Houston.[2] Also in 2008, the South African National Gallery, Cape Town, and the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, presented two consecutive shows of the artist’s work, marking the first time Dumas had solo exhibitions in her homeland. The Haus der Kunst, Munich, showed "Marlene Dumas: Tronies" in 2011.[15] The Stedelijk Museum, the Tate Modern, and the Beyeler Foundation are organizing a major retrospective of her work, from the 1970s to the present (including new work), set to debut in Amsterdam in September 2014 and due at the Tate 5 February - 10 May 2015.[16]


Work by the artist is held in the public collections of various museums, including Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,[17] the ARKEN Museum for Moderne Kunst, Copenhagen; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; Bawag Foundation, Vienna; Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Centraal Museum, Utrecht; De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Centro de Artes Visuales Helga de Alvear, Caceres; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas; De Ateliers, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; The Flemish Ministry of Culture, Brussels; Fonds Regional d’Art Contemporain Picardie, Amiens; Gemeentemuseum, Arnhem, The Netherlands; Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg; Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam; Kasteel Wijlre / Hedge House, Wijlre, The Netherlands; Krannert Art Museum and Kinhead Pavilion, Champaign, Illinois; Kunsthalle zu Kiel der Christian-Albrechts-Universität, Kiel, Denmark; Lieve Van Gorp Foundation for Women Artists, Antwerp, Belgium; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Museum De Pont, Tilburg, The Netherlands; Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; Museum het Domein, Sittard, The Netherlands; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, Antwerp, Belgium; Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnhem, The Netherlands; Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art; Nasher Museum of Art, Durham; Paleis Vught, Vught, The Netherlands; Saatchi Gallery, London; Scheringa Museum voor Realisme, Spanbroek, The Netherlands; Stadsgalerij Heerlen, Heerlen, The Netherlands; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Stedelijk Museum, Gouda, The Netherlands; Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, The Netherlands; Stedelijk Museum Schiedam, Schiedam, The Netherlands; Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent, Belgium; Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam; Tate Modern, London, England; and ZKM Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe.


Dumas has been awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Stellenbosch University (2011) and Rhodes University (2010). She was the winner of the 2011 edition of the Rolf Schock award in Stockholm.

Art market

By 2002, the record for Dumas's paintings, only a few of which had come to auction, stood at about $50,000. Jule, die Vrou (Jule, the Woman), a 1985 close-up of a transvestite's face, was auctioned at Christie's for $1.24 million in 2004. In 2005 at Christie's in London, The Teacher (Sub a) (1987), a rendering of a posed class photograph, was sold for $3.34 million.[18] In 2008, The Visitor (1995) sold for £3.1 million at Sotheby's in 2008, making Dumas the most expensive living female artist at the time.[19] However, most of Dumas’s works are sold to institutions. Her portrait of the late Amy Winehouse, Amy-Blue (2011), was acquired by London’s National Portrait Gallery for just £95,000 ($150,000) in November 2012.[20]