Marlene Dumas

On the surface Marlene Dumas’ art is quite seductive. The subjects portrayed, no matter how macabre, seem to invite the outsider to share their feelings. But irresistible as they may seem, Dumas’ latest paintings all deal with anger and disgust for the intellectual’s so-called respectability and tolerance. Aiming for love/loving to be hated is the age-old desire of the peintre maudit: to be accepted in being rejected by society, to be respected just for being marginal. With a disturbing pseudo-opportunism Dumas presented “Give the People What They Want,” a show constructed as a riddle.

Her recent fragile-looking paintings pointedly oppose the falsehood that loving art is an innocent activity. They deliberately placed the viewer in the position of voyeur. In one small painting, Give the People What They Want, 1993, a woman or it could easily be a child reveals her body while staring directly at us. Should we be horrified or can we be tempted? The work may be about child abuse or it may simply hold out the promise of sexual satisfaction. Morally, the first reaction might be more acceptable than the second, but as Dumas herself has stated, creativity and morality are often uneasy bedfellows.

Straitjacket, in a way the opposite of Give the People What They Want, is nonetheless charged with a similar ambiguity. Do we have to feel pity for this girl or does the painting merely represent the only possible solution to the problem of protecting society against individual madness? Dumas’ own view of the work is that it is a statement about the position of the artist in society: we cannot handle creativity in overdrive and so we use the (il)legitimate argument of protecting the artist from herself to put her in a straitjacket.

Jos Van den Bergh