LONDON — Walking through The Image as Burden, Marlene Dumas’s retrospective at Tate Modern, is like venturing into a forest of images. A painting of Jesus hangs close by others with women showing their genitals; a portrait of Osama bin Laden is positioned near a picture of praying Jewish men. Ingrid Bergman, a class photo, Naomi Campbell, the writer Céline on his deathbed …
Organized by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Tate Modern in London, and Fondation Bayeler in Riehen/Basel, The Image as Burden has been cleverly conceived as an exhibition in progress, with variations in the works chosen for each venue. Significantly, the drawing series Rejects (1994–ongoing) opens the show at Tate. These portraits on paper form an ongoing group of pieces that Dumas has rejected from her other bodies of work. The project began with the Models series (1994), and the idea of rejection came from the “reject stores” selling clothing with imperfections in South Africa, Dumas’s home country. But the series also exemplifies her own artistic approach: over the past year she has changed, rearranged, destroyed, and rebuilt these images in an endless creative process.
The show is titled after the namesake “The Image as Burden” (1993), a small oil on canvas painted in gloomy tones that depicts a man holding what looks like a dead woman. While it’s easy to pass by the painting almost without noticing it, this modest work evokes the whole relationship between the artist and the heterogeneous collection of images she employs as source material for her paintings.
“The Image as Burden” is inspired by a film still from George Cukor’s Camille (1936), featuring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. But looking at the painting, the iconic position of the two actors begins to remind us of a whole series of similar postures; as in a Warburgian table, the piece starts to connect with other images sharing formal affinities, from the numerous variations on the Christian iconography of the Pietà, in which the body of Jesus is carried by a grieving Mary, to photographs illustrating news stories, like one by Hector Pieterson of the 1976 Soweto uprising.
“The Image as Burden” sends us back to this tangle of images, reminding us that artworks aren’t univocal. From a semantic point of view, the glamorous and fictional scene featuring Robert Taylor carrying the exhausted body of Greta Garbo couldn’t be more different from a photograph of a man rescuing a young girl from her besieged school in Beslan in 2004; yet the two scenes are too visually close not to be associated. These ghost images are like metaphorical burdens hooked into the body of the artwork. In turn, the painting confuses them and muddies its source material, demanding autonomy.
Dumas wants to draw our attention to this relationship between images and paintings. As she says in the exhibition catalogue:
There is the image (source photography) you start with and the image (the painted image) you end up with, and they are not the same. I wanted to give more attention to what the painting does to the image, not only to what the image does to the painting.
Dumas never paints from life. She would rather work from photographs, images cut from magazines or newspapers, postcards, reproductions of artworks from every period and style. She pins these images on the walls of her studio and organizes the material in drawers and binders. (A shelf in one of her bookcases starts with a file labelled “Heaven, Paradise,” continues with images of God and Jesus, and ends with a “Porn” folder.)
One reason for this might be found in Dumas’s personal history. Growing up in South Africa, she saw few examples of original artworks, relying instead on reproductions in books. Moreover, newspaper and magazines were the most available and common news media throughout her youth in a country where television was only introduced nationwide in 1976. That very year the artist left for the Netherlands.
It’s no surprise that her first works were mainly collages employing film stills, photographs, and pictures cut from magazines. During her early years in Amsterdam the artist started to work on challenging the boundaries of representation, experimenting with thinners applied directly to fashion magazine pages and consciously modifying the images beneath. The most significant piece from this period, “Love versus Death” (1980), is monumental: it combines four wide sheets of blueprint drawings with two paper strips featuring clippings, photographs, and texts from the mass media. The compound material focuses on the title subjects, ranging from a portrait of Italian politician Aldo Moro, killed by the Red Brigades in 1978, to the still from Camille that Dumas would use again for “The Image as Burden” 13 years later. The ambitious work demonstrates Dumas’s mastery of images, here organized in a highly articulated visual structure.
Purely by chance, the Tate retrospective opened few weeks after Luc Tuymans was found guilty of plagiarism for a painting made after a copyrighted photograph. The work of the two artists is frequently compared, and like Dumas, Tuymans often uses preexisting images for his source material. (A connection between the two artists can be traced in their choice of subjects as well; it’s quite interesting to compare Tuymans’s “Issei Sagawa” , a portrait of the Sorbonne University student who killed and ate a classmate in the early 1980s, with Dumas’s “The Neighbour” , which depicts Mohammed Bouyeri, murderer of Dutch film director Theo van Gogh.)
As often happens when artists are involved in legal disputes over their work, the news prompted a series of interesting questions about the perception of art. In particular, the case draws attention, once again, to the relationship between figurative painting and its source. Is a painting based on a preexisting image different from that image? The legal issue shifts towards ontology.
Dumas seems to answer the question by shifting the emphasis to how we perceive painted images. She feeds her empty canvases with the visual material she carefully collects, turning them into images that are more ambiguous and therefore more powerful. Her works are based on the complex structures that rule our visual culture. She uses images that represent “difficult” themes such as violence, sex, and religion, not to provoke viewers but to force them to process the distance between the originals and her paintings.
An instructive example is “Fingers” (1990), here exhibited within a small group of works dealing with the nude/eroticized body. The canvas depicts a woman leaning over, away from us, using one hand to splay her sex. While the source material is evidently pornographic, the painting is far more suggestive. The unequivocal subject of the original photograph gives way to another kind of image, one filled with unrealistic colors and blurred brushstrokes. In a recent conversation with Jennifer Higgie and Andrea Büttner for Tate Etc., the artist further explains:
Fingers is always described by writers as if everything is depicted, but if you look at it closely, there are no genitals there. That little painting exposes nothing really. It is quite abstract. Very gestural.
Paint is a strategy the artist uses against the burden of images: Dumas’s pictures fully avail themselves of the right of painterliness. Every centimeter of their surfaces seeks recognition. Whether in ink or oil paint, her works are tied acutely to the properties of their medium. The small holes at the corners of her works on paper, left by pins from previous exhibitions, aren’t just a poetic visualization of the marks of time; they remind us of the material nature of the sheet carrying the image. The artist’s gestural painting is unmistakable. Vibrantly worked details and purposefully unworked parts coexist. Some areas are sketched quite quickly, others rubbed out. Here there are stains, there you find the texture of a washed color. The layers of paint, where they’re left thick, shine under the spotlights.
In Dumas’s words: “Painting is about the trace of the human touch. It is about the skin of a surface. A painting is not a postcard.”
The power of this painterly effect is that it can alter the image that lies behind it in unexpected ways. Looking at “Osama” (2010), we are puzzled by the contrast between the formal qualities of the portrait, suggesting a man with gentle features, and how we usually think about the founder of Al-Qaeda.
Dumas compels us to visit and revisit her painted crowd. Every time we do so, more connections come to mind. Gradually, the forest of images thins out. Painting emerges from it.
Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London) through May 10.