Venice Biennale: ‘Marlene Dumas: open-end’ at Palazzo Grassi

Above image: Marlene Dumas, Losing (Her Meaning), 1988, Pinault Collection
Ph: Peter Cox, Eindhoven, © Marlene Dumas

With her 1984 self-portrait Evil is Banal, Marlene Dumas unabashedly took ownership of her own privilege growing up white in a still Apartheid-ruled South Africa. The young painter had moved to a very bohemian Amsterdam eight years earlier, quickly gaining international attention for her piercingly singular portraits. But as pop culture began to intently rally against the racial injustices in her home country – The Special AKA’s hit single ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ was also released in 1984 – she joined the rallying cry by philosophically tying the ideology of the Apartheid regime to that of Nazi Germany (her painting’s title paraphrased Hannah Arendt’s …The Banality of Evil).

Some thirty-eight years later, a survey of her work just opened at Venice’s exalted Palazzo Grassi (it will overlap with the 2022 Venice Biennale), and organized by the Pinault Collection, reminds of her striking ability to dive just as deep into the portraiture that would become her signature, ever drawing to the surface the most visceral essence of her subjects – not unlike Alice Neel, Lucien Freud and later Jenny Saville. One could argue that she also took a bit if inspiration from Andy Warhol, as she borrowed existing images and instilled in them a visual language that was all her own.

“I am an artist who uses second-hand images and first-hand emotions,” she explains.

The title of the exhibition is simply Marlene Dumas: open-end, something which was dreamed up during the lockdowns, and is meant to pithily convey something about how she perceives the world around her through her art. It is also meant to encourage disparate comprehensions or her work.

She recounts, “I thought about the word ‘open’ and about how my paintings are open to different interpretations. In my works the viewer immediately sees what I painted, but does not yet know the meaning of it. Where the work starts is not where it ends. The word ‘end’, which in the context of the pandemic has its own implications, is both fluid and melancholic”.

Notably included are her portraits of historical figures, for which she seems have created emotional portals through the eyes of each subject. Indeed, her Dora Maar (The Woman Who saw Picasso cry), 2008, as well as Pasolini, 2012 + Pasolini’s Mother, 2012 (the tragic Italian film director and his madre shared a famously special relationship) are nothing less than riveting. And certainly her ambition could hardly be questioned, as her 2012 Homage to Michelangelo could almost be taken as a reimagining of The Pieta – a brave undertaking that ends up iconic in its own right.

Elsewhere, enigmatic works like Red Moon and Losing Her Meaning invite intensive contemplation, while the raw sexuality of Fingers seems intentionally designed to provoke. But her themes of violence are most unavoidable, with Death by Association, Dead Marilyn, Canary Death and the nightmarishThe Martyr all evincing a palpable sense of dread.

“Marlene Dumas dares to speak of time, of the times, without ‘flattening’ the traces they leave,” observes curator Caroline Bourgeois. “Political time, the time of war, the time of love, the
time of sadness… Her work invites us to be more ‘real.’ Her ‘liquid’ and physical way of painting, that reveals the subject without its having been drawn prior, by the sole touches of the paintbrush, makes her works mesmerizing and mysterious.”

Marlene Dumas: open-end is on view at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi through January 8, 2023.

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