Wild Young Minds: Marlene Dumas at Stedelijk Museum: a boost of art in my own city

Monday, October 6, 2014

Marlene Dumas at Stedelijk Museum: a boost of art in my own city

Once in a while, you are forced to do what you have long thought you should have done before. Whether it is reading a certain book, watching a certain documentary or going to a certain exhibition, you can no longer think of an excuse and push yourself to it. My motivation for finally going to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, was a pathetic one. It involved money. Or better said: it didn't involve money. The entire month of September students in Amsterdam could go to the Stedelijk Museum for free. So, greedy as I can be, this finally led me and my friend to the renewed city museum.
The above probably sounds as if I didn't want to go at all. I did, definitely. But as a busy - and at the same time sometimes lazy - student, I find myself always thinking: I should go here, I should visit this, I live in the capital of my country, but I almost never really DO it. This time, I had another reason to go, besides the money: I really wanted to see the current exhibition on the work by Marlene Dumas: 'The image as burden'. I'd read a lot about her in the newspaper and her work seemed so... typical. Intriguing, in a way.
Marlene Dumas, aged 61, was born in South-Africa and moved to Amsterdam in the seventies. Her art work consists mainly of sketches, collages and paintings inspired on photography. During her youth, she was confronted with the Apartheid. The theme 'contrasts' still plays a very important role in her work: differences in cultures, differences in gender, etc.
I'm not an art student or practicer, but I could still see a certain way of working in her paintings. What struck me most, is the expressionistic way of making art. The paintings only show people and almost all of them are portraited in a vague manner, yet they seem 'finished' anyway. I really wonder at which moment Dumas thinks: this painting is finished, it's good the way it is, I'm not going to change anything about it. As a realistic painter, you must have a point where the painting is just ready, if you change anything, you'll ruin it. But for Dumas, it seems like another process, since the paintings are more blurred in a way.
Looking at some paintings, I thought: if I would paint this, people would never consider it art. Yet, Dumas has such a status and prestige, that we regard it as art. On the other hand, the paintings have a background. Dumas is politically and socially engaged and you can tell if you look at the paintings. One showed an African woman whose husband - a leader - was just being shot, so she walked around the streets completely naked.
Nudism and sexuality are important concepts in Dumas' work. Many paintings showed naked women, naked babies, cocks and vaginas. One entire hall was filled with Jesus figures. As she says herself: 'I get asked about the fact that I once said Jesus is the most erotic figure in art. I have to say, 'No, I don't mean I get excited when I see a dead person, I'm saying that in the history of painting, he has been the main figure, and he's this naked man who struggles between spirituatlity and physicality. I didn't invent that. That is what he is supposed to stand for, and in other cultures you do not have that'.
The woman as an erotic figure is a great theme in her work as well. She visited the Red Light District to find inspiration for a series on women based on Magdalena. Next to it, was a painting of topmodel Naomi Campbell, who is seen as the modern Magdalena by the western society. She also painted lots of weaping women, and Marilyn Monroe on her death bed. The interesting thing when it comes to her paintings of icons - something I always love! - is that she uses them in a controversial way. Osama Bin Laden and his son are included in the exhibition for example, just like Amy Winehouse. People who led a tragic life.
Her characteristic color palette is grey, blue and red. The magnificent use of colours is brought forward best in her painting of men in front of a wall. A beautiful painting, which also shows the 'vagueness yet perfection' I talked about before. 

Dumas' work is worth the visit. It's extremely direct and expressive, something you have to be able to handle. You might not like it, sure. You might think it's too harsh, possible as well. There's one giant wall filled with faces of psychiatric patients. Confronting, yes. Courageous too. But if you like art that's more than aesthetics, you should see Dumas. Even if it's just to see her fabulous self-portrait. The red-head looked a bit like Vivienne Westwood. The same type too: powerful, intelligent and not afraid of controversy. Women with guts. Ah, a bit ambiguous in this context. Well, fearless as she is, Dumas probably wouldn't mind.

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