Sex, Fear, Hate and Other Colors: The Heartwarming Paintings of Marlene Dumas

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in the series titled chlorz (1994), Marlene Dumas sketched the faces of 24 characters affected by this alleged anemic disease, which was diagnosed by the end of the 19th century, which tinted the complexion of those who suffered from it. It was considered an effect of the suffering caused by unrequited love, a poetic image that Shakespeare collected in some of his works and which can be adopted as a matrix for reading the South African painter’s production. The heroes of his canvases and portraits, now gathered in an impressive exhibition Palazzo Grassi in VeniceSuffer from similar skin changes, as if emotional and existential distress had changed the color of their skin, such as cyanosis, jaundice or hypothetical forms of rubella.

Examples abound. At the beginning of the exhibition, perhaps the most powerful monograph dedicated to an artist, exhibited by this center, owned by collector François Pinault, since its founding in 2006, appears. kissed (2018), which shows a kiss between a pale blue face and a red face. In a small painting of the same year, Kiss, their faces have turned turquoise. Feather Ambition They appear stained yellow again. and in Tongue, a pair of more fanciful colors: white and black, fused in an intense punch kiss. This interracial exchange of saliva gives the painting an additional layer of meaning that is essential in the work of Dumas, who grew up in South Africa. apartheid before moving to Amsterdam in the 1970s to train as a painter. a few rooms beyond, seemingly BetrayalAnother series from 1994 that follows the same formal model as chlorz: A group picture arranged in a regular grid. Only this time its protagonists are not victims of lack of love, but of the devastation caused by the regime of racial segregation, which was established by the white minority. The coffered ceilings, moldings and marble underside of this early neoclassical-style building, which was owned by wealthy Italian families such as the Cini, Grassi and Agnelli, can only win in contrast in historical drama.

'Canary Death' (2006) by Marlene Dumas.
‘Canary Death’ (2006) by Marlene Dumas.

The hundred works displayed here reflect all the themes and moods that run through the work of Dumas, who have always undergone physical, moral and political suffering due to love, death, violence or the symbolic burden of the past, though humor and lightness. are not devoid of. This gimmicky retrospective has the wisdom to assemble all the facets of it without seeming like a bland collection of greatest hits. In the difficult topography, which is made up of 40 rooms of different sizes and spans two floors, curator Caroline Bourgeois goes about erecting small altars, never saturated with work, that create an unexpected feeling of intimacy. give. The passage is not chronological or thematic, but diffuse and poetic, full of common threads that do not explain where they begin and where they end, in almost perfect harmony with the polymorph of the paintings themselves.

The most powerful can be found in the opening corridor, which concentrates several dozen lewd and obscene canvases. They take up a fundamental idea in Dumas’ work: sex as a liberating force, but also as pain and self-punishment, in an enduring dialogue between Eros and Thanatos, in which the latter acts as Goliath. There is more cruelty than tenderness in these sentimental words. Even the delicate indigo has the double bottom of a double nude: it’s titled awkward (2018) and shows the uncomfortable contact between two bodies in the narrowness of the vertical canvas. When conceiving it, Dumas was inspired by an image from the press, a method common to a painter who accumulates hundreds of thousands of photographs in her personal collection, which she mixes to her liking in paintings where sculpture and abstraction are hers. Measures strength. Dumas’s drawings aspire not to represent his model faithfully, but to reflect the memory, ambiguous and symmetry that one person usually relives in others.

Dumas does not represent his models faithfully. It captures memory, impurity and synthesis, which one person usually leaves to others.

His paintings, which also echo the fiery expressionism of Bacon, the neo-figurative tears of Alice Neill, and the echoes of old masters, breathe in different ways. They breathe in and out in their most meditative moments, until they reach orgasm, when they are badly given. And, finally, they exhale their last, a moment that Dumas knows to capture like few other living painters. This is demonstrated, for example, by his funeral portraits of Marilyn Monroe, which he portrayed as an old woman suffering from a degenerative disease called love, again in an impossibly blue.

'Teeth' (2018) by Marlene Dumas.
‘Teeth’ (2018) by Marlene Dumas.

It is imperative to observe her production through the prism of feminism, although the artist is not always in favor of doing so. Dumas reinterprets female characters in the pictorial tradition, who are no longer virgins or prostitutes, but both at the same time. Or, rather, none. prostitutes of visitors (1995), the painting that temporarily made her the most sought-after female artist in less than a decade, patted her back for depriving the visitor of the spectacle of her body. red Moon (2007) updates the myth of Ophelia and makes her float in the water instead of drowning. and formed by the diptych Lips And Teeth (2018) indicates that the same lips that kiss are also capable of biting. Similarly two of the most disturbing paintings in the set are: die mud (1985), Portrait of her brother as a child, and eden (2020), where he takes his first grandson as a model. In both cases, Dumas distances himself from the maternal subjects in the sentimental painting by presenting the children with harsh and even distorted gestures, as if indicating that an innate evil will befall them and all. Runs on blood.

‘open end’. Marlene Dumas. Palazzo Grassi. Venice. Till 8 January 2023.

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