Marlene Dumas

South African-Dutch Painter

Born: August 3, 1953
Cape Town, South Africa
I have always been interested in how you can depict suffering without being heavy-handed.

Summary of Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas is a masterful presenter of what lies beneath. Who are we really behind our strategically composed facades? What darker truths simmer beneath our everyday lives? Raised in white South Africa knee deep amongst apartheid, the artist learned young that life was a study in contradictions and duality. Today, she is considered one of the most influential and iconic artists of the 21st century for her intimate, and yet estranged figurative portraits that explore the complexities of identity, and also for her politically-charged social art.


The Life of Marlene Dumas

Art critic Adrian Searle said of Dumas' paintings: "I am often struck by how little there seems to be on the canvas. The images coalesce out of almost nothing. Wiping paint off as often as painting positive emphatic marks, she gives us cheekbones or a forehead, a proffered anus and balls or a vulva using hardly anything."

Progression of Art


Evil is Banal

This painting is based on a photograph of the artist looking over her shoulder. She is in her forties, smiling, with long, flamboyant orange hair. Her light blue eyes are fixed on something outside the work, and her chin rests on her hand.

The bright self-portrait contrasts dramatically with its title, which refers to Hanna Arendt's controversial report on Nazi bureaucracy and the chilling normality of evil. This gap between the image and the word takes the painting to another dimension. Dumas clearly draws a parallel between the Nazi regime and the policies and practices of the apartheid. In the mid 1980s, when she finished this painting, apartheid was at its height. Dumas joined other South African artists engaged actively in diverse forms of political, social and cultural critique and resistance. Under this new light, the portrait here tends to be interpreted differently. Dumas in the painting does not seem as light but much more thoughtful. She looks behind her, to where she comes from, with an ironic smile. As a white person in South Africa, using self-portrait is a strong political statement, which makes the painting even more powerful. Questioning her own identity, Dumas places herself with humility as a potential perpetrator of evil acts and glances at the viewer as if saying: It could have been me, it could have been you.

She has commented about this portrait:

I have not come
to propagate freedom.
I have come to show the disease symptoms
of my time.
I am a good example of everything
that is wrong with my time.

Oil on canvas - Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands


The Painter

This jarring portrait presents a little girl, larger than life at over six feet tall. She is naked and eerily luminous with translucent flesh. Her hands are blue and red, covered with something that could easily be identified as blood. The upper part of the body is bluish while the rest is yellow to white; the face is even paler. The feet are not finished but broadly sketched. The girl seems angry as she stares petulantly toward the viewer. Her nudity gives her a barbarous air and she has been sometimes described as "an evil force of destruction."

The striking portrait is based on a snapshot of Dumas' own daughter, Helena, who was simply finger painting on a hot summer day. By taking her entirely out of her original context, Dumas deceives the viewer and makes him/her look at her child in a very distinctive way. The artist herself, talking about this work, commented on the ambiguity of childhood with its cruelty and naiveté. A parallel can be drawn with Diane Arbus' famous photograph Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, NYC (1962). In it, the little boy also seems angry and threatening as he holds a grenade in his hand, yet he was merely growing impatient with the photographer and only wanted to return to his toys. This contrast between violence and innocence would mark much of Dumas' work.

The generalizing title of "The Painter" adds another layer to consider. The menacing little girl suddenly becomes a powerful force of creation. She becomes the artist, the source, and the genius. Dumas plays with the iconic, romantic representation of a painter with a bit of humor. At the same time, she pays homage to her daughter - a mother's source of everything from life and death, fear and glory, happiness and sadness. Through the image of an angry and fearful monster-like little girl, Dumas powerfully and emotionally paints about love and motherhood. Helena has commented about this work that it is one of the best paintings her mother has ever done.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


The Neighbor

The picture depicts an ordinary young bearded man, likely of North-African descent, who could be anyone's neighbor as the title suggests. He looks rather calm and peaceful.

However, this portrait is based on a well-known newspaper photograph of Mohammed Bouyeri, convicted in 2004 for the murder of Dutch filmmaker and journalist Theo van Gogh. On the day of the crime, motivated by fundamentalist religious beliefs, Bouyeri who was then 26, shot van Gogh several times, and then tried to cut his throat and decapitate him with a large knife before stabbing him in his chest. The brutal assassination caused great social turmoil in the Netherlands, increasing feelings of fear, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. This very controversial image was taken down in the Netherlands and is part of the Man Kind series, one of Dumas' most political series.

This courageous work raises questions surrounding fear and manipulation on all levels. In it lies the unconscious suspicion relayed by media and populist groups that all Arab bearded men in Europe are potential terrorists. Yet, with nothing to clearly identify the portrait as a real criminal, we realize he could simply be another of our "neighbors." The tension between our fears of appearing racist and our fears of potential danger has become a modern-day reality and Dumas' ability to emphasize this marks a key component of her artistic genius.

In the same series, Dumas also painted a portrait that resembles Osama Bin Laden entitled The Pilgrim. When it was exhibited together with The Neighbor at the Galerie Paul Andriesse in Amsterdam for the first time, the two works were notably shown in the gallery office and not in the exhibition space. Today, The Neighbor is said to be the most famous work by Dumas in the Netherlands.

Oil on canvas - Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam


Dorothy D-Lite

A nude woman stands, bent over double, her rear and genitals exposed as if in offering. She appears inviting to, and deriding of, the viewer simultaneously. It is nearly impossible to look away from this languid lady who invites us to confront our own social norms and sexual taboos, so prevalent in society.

The work is part of the MD-light series based on personal snapshots of prostitutes from the famous Red-Light district in Amsterdam. Dumas invited some of the ladies into her studio and took Polaroids for source material. In the series, we can find several other works of women in the same unexpected and insolent position but the work Dorothy D-Lite is one of the most appreciated. It is probably the artist's attention to the medium of watercolor that makes it so special. Indeed, the informal qualities of the body rendering make the work even more sensual and seductive. Art historian Emma Bedford notes, "luscious paint alternates with minimalist application and empty ground" and adds about the openly displayed anus, "the focus of so much desire and taboo, [is] deliciously - and humorously - accentuated with a stroke of gold." Through this touch of humor, Dumas seems to restore a kind of humanity and vulnerability to her subject.

The piece brings to mind the great painter Egon Schiele's erotic works, as like his women, the one here deliberately provokes her audience by unabashedly owning her profession within the artist's poignant gaze.

Ink wash, watercolor, and metallic acrylic on paper - De Pont Stichting, Tilburg, The Netherlands


Wall Weeping

This large painting was first exhibited in 2010 in the exhibition Against the Wall at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York. The show presented a new series of works by Dumas on the theme of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In this painting, a group of men are seen from behind, in front of a wall, raising their arms.

The work is derived from a photograph of Israeli soldiers searching Palestinian men in front of a wall. Dumas cropped the image to depict a section absent of soldiers. Through this sly process of elimination, Dumas gives her subjects anonymity and changes the picture's meaning. The wall transfers from a place of potential execution or arrest, becoming reminiscent of the most sacred holy site in the old city of Jerusalem. These men could very well be Israelis raising their arms in prayer in front of the iconic Wailing Wall, as the viewer is led on by the work's title in direct juxtaposition to its original source material. This shifting and mirroring effect suggests that the two nations' religious fanaticism, suffering, anger, and plight are connected and the same. These unidentified man, whichever side they are on, are sharing the same human experience.

The piece becomes a symbol of universal suffering instead of a symbol of an individual conflict or war. Dumas' gesture also shows the power of images used to manipulate us by the press and media, especially during armed conflicts. By removing the comfort of context, she shows how easy it is for us to be influenced by imagery. Again, she humbles herself by positioning herself in the role of the manipulator.

Oil on linen - The Broad, Los Angeles



Like most of Dumas' works, Jen is based on a third source, this time a still from the 1970 film Fly by fellow female artist Yoko Ono. The experimental video, shot in extreme close-up, follows a fly as it explores the naked body of a sleeping actress named Virginia Lust. Here, out of its original context, the image is highly provocative and ambiguous. The title tells the viewer that the subject is a woman. Her eyes are closed and she seems to be asleep. The nipple accentuated by a touch of red on white skin offers a sexual overlay to the intended meaning of the film, which is meant to celebrate the human body. Dumas' Jen, with her eyes closed, might indeed be celebrating her own sexual pleasure as well.

However, this erotic painting is part of a series related to the theme of death where Dumas paints close-ups of dead bodies. With Jen, Dumas crosses the thin line between sex and death. The body here may indeed be a corpse. By using such an enlarged image of the face, the artist deviates from the traditional representation of death and focuses on the obscenity of the flesh. At the same time, this death portrait also relates to the common motif of the memento mori with its still life images that loom as reminders of our common mortality.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Biography of Marlene Dumas


Marlene Dumas was born in Cape Town, South Africa on August 3rd, 1953. She spent her childhood on the outskirts in the semi-rural region of Kuils River. Her mother Helena was a homemaker and her father Johannes ran a modest vineyard called Jacobsdal, family-owned since 1916. Dumas was brought up with two older brothers, Cornelis and Pieter, in a Protestant Afrikaan household. Protestantism had been a predominant religion of the Dutch settlers who had landed at the initial European settlement on the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, and remains so today. Although apartheid was never explicitly discussed when she was a child, Dumas was well aware of its sorrows. "We had a lady working in the house, and I would sit with her and read to her," she recalled. "We were very warm with one another, but we could not sit at the same table."

The city where Dumas grew up was isolated and uneventful. The diversions of popular culture were largely non-existent. Movies were shown in theaters but were heavily regulated for content.

As a little girl, Dumas started to collect pictures and loved drawing cartoon girls. "It was always the face or the figure, even when I was small," she said. "I never did a tree."

In 1966, when she was twelve, her father died of liver disease. Her oldest brother took over the farm that he still manages today. With the passing of her father, Dumas noticed how members of her family began to talk about politics. She states, "In my late teens, apartheid was defended as a separate-but-equal development, where eventually everyone would have the same rights. People really did think that the white European settler and black indigenous cultures were too different to mix and that only trouble-seekers were dissatisfied and violent. The ones who protested were called terrorists and communists."

Early Training and Work

Dumas showed a true interest in art very early. From 1972 to 1975, she attended the English-speaking Michaelis School of Fine Art, a part of the University of Cape Town. She described these years as formative, exposing her to a range of influential thinkers, artists, ideas, and practices that included Conceptual Art, Body Art, and Performance. She enjoyed her studies, which also included ethics, philosophy, and theory. Dumas also credits her photography lecturer Dimitri Nicolas-Fanourakis with encouraging her to look at the works of photographers like Diane Arbus, a discovery that was to have a profound impact on her as she became aware of the power of images to connect us to the present.

Dumas started to paint as early as 1973 with work that showed her political concerns and reflections on her identity as a white woman in South Africa. She worked in a variety of media and formats including text, collage, and watercolor.

Growing unsatisfied with art and politics in her country and unable to resolve a love situation, Dumas decided to leave South Africa. In 1976, after winning a two-year scholarship, she moved to the Netherlands where she studied at the Ateliers 63, a small, progressive, unaccredited art school in Haarlem, now known as de Ateliers and located in Amsterdam. Her first years there were difficult. She was alone and often judged for being a white South African. She had also expected to find "an exuberant counterculture" but she only found a bourgeois society ill-suited for her. She comments, "The '60s were over. The Dutch were not at all flamboyant, and I was very disappointed." Soon after her arrival, she started to join art circles and befriended artists like Dick Jewell and Paul Andriesse. She discovered a world of images without censorship and began to consume and collect clippings. Besides her art classes at Ateliers 63, she also studied Psychology in 1979-1980 at the University of Amsterdam. It took some time but eventually the Netherlands seduced her so much that she still resides there today.

Dumas' early work, rather conceptual and experimental, achieved some success in Europe. In 1979, she had her first solo show at a gallery in Paris. In 1982, she was chosen to participate in Documenta VII and in 1983, the gallery Helen van der Meij presented her first solo show in Amsterdam. The following year, her friend and fellow artist Paul Andriesse, would kick start their long professional relationship in which he represented her for many years.

That same year in 1984, Dumas was invited to participate in the Biennale of Sydney. Her work was displayed next to Mike Kelley's and Anselm Kiefer's. "I had a very small room to myself," she says, "and I showed a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It wasn't very coherent, and I was unknown at that time. And nearby there were these vast pieces by those guys, and they looked so heroic. It made me realize that I wanted to compete a bit with the boys."

This was a life changing career movement for Dumas. She decided to go back to painting, prior through which she had mostly executed small works on paper or collages. A year later in 1985, she had her first solo show with Paul Andriesse that included 11 large-scale portraits. Dumas' new decision to work primarily in oil for this exhibition would shift her path forever.

Mature Period

Like Gerhard Richter in the 60s and 70s, Dumas is part of a generation of figurative painters who find their subjects, as if by default, in photographs culled from newspapers and magazines, but also from film stills. It is hard to organize Dumas' works chronologically because she works in themes and ongoing series touching upon particular interests that include, but aren't limited to, prostitution, war, love, and death.

Dumas is most famously known for her portraits - a preferred motif placing her into the Dutch tradition of tronies, or portrait paintings characterized by intense expressiveness and individual physiognomy. She never uses live models. "I don't want people in my studio," she says. "I want to be alone when I paint." She almost never reproduces the image as is but crops it or blows up a detail. She has painted a wide range of people, living or dead, famous or not, from Amy Winehouse to Bin Laden and anonymous prostitutes. Her palette and style are rather consistent, lending a sense of erotic messiness or surreal creaminess just verging on the border between reality and illusion, which makes her works quite recognizable.

In 1987, Dumas gave birth to her only child Helena, whose father is Jan Andriesse, cousin of her dealer Paul. Her daughter has become the subject of many of her paintings, including a baby series about pregnancy and birth. It is not often that Dumas chooses autobiographical themes for her work, though, as she would rather pick subjects from the contemporary world.

For example, in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, in collaboration with photographer Anton Corbijn, Dumas worked on a project called "Stripping girls," focused on the strip clubs and peep shows of Amsterdam. The collaboration between the two artists produced a series of photographs, which Corbijn exhibited, while Dumas used them to create paintings.

Dumas has received several awards and honors. In 1995, she represented the Netherlands in the Venice Biennale. In 1998, she won the David Roell Prize. In 2012, her entire oeuvre was awarded the Dutch State Prize for the Arts, the Johannes Vermeer Award. In 2017, she received the Saxon Academy of the Arts's Hans Theo Richter Prize for Drawing and Graphic Arts, and donated her full $23,000 prize to a scholarship program at Dresden's Kupferstich-Kabinett to support young artists.

Along with her paintings, prints, and drawings, Dumas also teaches on a regular basis, stating that "teaching is 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."

Late Period

Between 2007 and 2009 a retrospective of her entire oeuvre, in varying combinations, toured three continents. Starting in Japan under the name Broken White, the overview travelled to South Africa with the title Intimate Relations. It was the first time that so much of Dumas' work could be seen on her native land. This mid-career retrospective concluded its tour at the Museum for Contemporary Arts in Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and The Menil in Houston, where it was called Measuring Your Own Grave.

Dumas is represented by David Zwirner gallery in New York. She regularly renews her themes and has been recently presenting works about religion and mythology.

The Legacy of Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas is considered one of the most influential and iconic artists of the 21st century. She is largely known for her intimate yet estranged figurative portraits that explore the complexities of identity, followed by her politically charged social art, based on personal photographs, snapshots, or images from the press and the mass media. Her work - provocative, engaging, and disturbing at the same time - provides an intriguing way to look at reality, in which one sees both the façade and what's behind it as she addresses contemporary subject matters without any reserve. She confronts all the taboos of our society including apartheid, terrorism, pornography, and perversity. Her gestural brushstrokes and thin washes of paint give her large-scale works a transparent and distinctive appearance, universally recognizable as her signature voice.

Dumas joins a long lineage of artists who have taken portraiture to a new level by infusing it with a discomforting and psychologically-ripe depth as a vehicle to evoke societal reflection. Others like her include contemporary artists Luc Tuymans, Lucian Freud, Elizabeth Peyton, and Jenny Saville.

In 2008, Dumas became one of the most expensive female artists by setting a new record at auction when her 1995 painting The Visitor sold for $6.3 million at Sotheby's.

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