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Marlene Dumas - Biography and Legacy

South African-Dutch Painter

Born: August 3, 1953 - Cape Town, South Africa
Movements and Styles:

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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Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Marlene Dumas Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 11 Feb 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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