Marlene Dumas

Galerie Paul Andriesse

Marlene Dumas presents nude bodies in a very disturbing way. The intimacy of the contact with these vulnerable looking figures holds a strong attraction, but at the same time the vagueness of their delineation is so distracting one almost begins to squirm. Dumas paints bodies in the intimacy of their most mundane nakedness, yet she seems to want to distract us with all kinds of peripheral gestures. She makes us feel as if a voyeuristic look at these defenseless bodies could be as dangerous as any other aggressive act. Dumas protects her figures from an obvious visual assault with the help of various indirect structures that make our gaze more alert. Paradoxically, this approach exposes them to another, subtler kind of danger.

The insecurity that Dumas is able to introduce into our way of looking gives her work an artistic ambiguity. Snowwhite in the wrong story (all works 1988) reads like an absurd fantasy, while Snowwhite and the broken arm, in which the seven dwarves gaze at a woman’s body, leads our fantasy in a specific direction. It is unclear whether Dumas uses this context to protect the mostly horizontally-reclined nudes or if the fairy-tale atmosphere is meant to encourage our curiosity and voyeurism. In fairy tales, the dangers and mysteries of the outside world are usually wrapped in a beautiful, seemingly innocent story in order to teach children how to handle their emotions. Here, the fairy-tale world seems to taint our still innocent glance and show us to be nothing but everyday aggressors lusting for satisfaction.

I am not sure if Dumas uses these tactics consciously or if they are an uncalculated effect of her artistic strategy. Either way, this exhibition clarifies the enormous energy still contained in the classical theme of the nude. Just look at Waiting (for meaning), in which a woman’s body is shown lying on a cloth-covered table, her arms crossed under her head, her legs half dangling off the edge. The work and its title provoke the viewer, who waits in vain for an answer to the image’s unarticulated question.

In Dumas’ world, nothing exists without dialectic meaning. Her work forces a revisionist view of academic nude painting. But even this achievement is eclipsed by Art is stories told by toads, which depicts a human-sized frog lying on its back, its voluminous belly full extended. The intimacy of this image exceeded that which I found in all the other nudes.

Paul Groot

Translated from the Dutch by Ruth Füglistaller.