You seldom see portrait paintings by contemporary artists these days and Dumas’ The Eyes of the Night Creatures are a rare treat. They are so close cropped you are physically forced to concentrate just on the face, no clothes, no stage setting, no background and sometimes no features, just a head-shaped space with the odd feature added or subtracted. “The isolating focus gives a certain grandeur to each image”.
Sometimes those features, like the eyes, have been smudged or the paint thinned to such an extent that you worry whether the sitter was quite all there; ‘The Jewish Girl’ has large round, questioning eyes surrounded by white sclera, and there is an expression that hints at something, hysteria, paranoia, what? There is a tiny worm of sky blue on the mouth teasingly taking the eye down to the shaded lower portion of her face and the set of her mouth. Is the artist conveying something here that can’t be spoken about?
Sometimes Dumas smuggles in a bruise or smudge of random colour, on the forehead and running down the nose, as in Martha – Sigmund’s Wife, evoking powerful abstract expressionist emotions. Occasionally there is a face that powerfully confronts you by withdrawing from you, like Martha – My Grandmother. This painting is all blue, the eponymous grandmother so enigmatic that you want more, but those eyes are blank beneath those half-closed lids. She is private and secret but the expression is benign and peaceful. And why was this one painting hung so much higher than its neighbour, Sigmund’s wife?
The Baby is an almost perfectly detailed which has nothing added or removed, but Emily seems to have smashed her mouth somehow and blood oozes from under her bottom lip. The painting, The White Disease is so bland, so bluey white that I am intrigued, drawn in by what is being conveyed here. It is haunting and dignified, one of my favourites. You could describe Marlene Dumas’ portraits as stark, but that would be to ignore the immense impact and ethereal beauty that confront you when you walk into the exhibition space at the Tate Modern.
Throughout this excellent exhibition I could feel the personality of the artist becoming more present as I followed her works through the rooms. I wanted to know more about her, she was an ephemeral presence that I needed to pin down.
Her way of painting can appear rhetorical: those vague attenuations around the neck that make you wonder what happened to the rest of this poor person; those coloured auras that seem to emanate from certain faces; those seeping blurs that allow for extraordinary ambiguities in a face – seeing or sightless, unconscious or dead? Shapely masks – chalk white, pale blue, tinged with fading pink or magenta – are superimposed on heads for an immediate sense of misfit or detachment.
As John Berger asserts “perhaps one needs to be a painter rather than a scholar to perceive it clearly” and in that same way these portraits spoke to me directly and I felt an empathy for the person who had executed these “magnificent and powerful” works (Waldemar Januszczak).
In Rejects, we are faced with botched and buckled faces in black and white paint, eyes skewed, noses bashed, heads broken and awkward. The features are out of register, out of whack, sometimes a replacement face has been added to the one below – the eyes and mouth cut out like a burn mask – to keep on trying for something better. “The images are delicate yet damaged, by life, it seems, as much art” (Laura Cumming). Time spent examining these faces reveals a many-layered complexity redolent of the implications implied by the title and provenance of these drawings.
Having made that contact with the artist through her art, I was happy to discover that she is modest, uncertain and humble. “Dumas doesn’t simply accept compliments as her due; it’s clear that they still have the power to thrill, and on receiving a genuine one she radiates graciousness, relief and a kind of simmering excitement” (Rachel Cooke), but I was not surprised to discover that she is also gregarious and full of energy, you can read that in her work.
This is an impressive show about human frailty and could not have been accomplished by a super-ego. Dumas can handle scale from the very big to the miniature (the Amy Winehouse picture is small but very powerful). She has her own instantly recognizable style which I envy and crave to copy. Technically she’s a virtuoso – she really can draw and paint. She takes risks, every painting seems to be a new beginning, she dares to fail (Becket’s lovely phrase) yet the overall quality of her work is incredibly high. Her ambition cannot be faulted.
Obviously there are things in this exhibition that don’t work for me like Great Britain and Against the Wall (with the exception of Mindblocks which I loved), but isn’t that what we demand of our artists, that they should, above all, always pushing themselves to try new and innovative ways forward? Unfortunately I am sorry to say that I cannot agree with Januszczak when he says that this exhibition should have been called ‘How to be Old-Fashioned in a Contemporary Way’ and is a clumsy attempt by deep and ancient human emotions to express themselves with fiddly and ill-fitting conceptual methods. This is where I humbly suggest that you need to be a practitioner yourself to appreciate exactly what she has achieved in her works and just how accomplished she is, and what a joy they impart. Marlene Dumas is a breath of fresh air and her work combines both conceptual acuity and visual pleasure which, I submit, is what the visual arts are all about.