|Posted by Egonne Roth on July 29, 2016 at 7:50 AM|
There is always something surreal when one reads about an old school acquaintance: “she is today one of the most outstanding and influential painters of our time.” But this is one of many descriptions of Marlene Dumas,
whose exhibition, “The Image as Burden” we had the privilege of seeing at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen outside Basel, Switzerland in 2015. Marlene matriculated at Bloemhof Girls High school in Stellenbosch in 1971 as did I. We were all just kids together – some more talented at art, some better academically, others excelling at sport; some richer, some poorer but it did not seem very important at the time. So there was a small thrill to walk into the exhibition in Switzerland and know we were once at school together.
It is a major retrospective exhibition covering Dumas’ oeuvre from the mid-1970’s to the present which had already been shown at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Tate Modern in London. In responding to the collection of over a hundred paintings and drawings a number of themes presented themselves – love, sexuality, violence, death etc. Yet, Dumas chose as dominant theme and title of the exhibition “The Image as Burden”.
The title is taken from the name of a small painting of a man carrying a woman in his arms. According to the Room Guide notes, Dumas’s inspiration for this painting was a film still from George Cukor’s movie “Camille” (1936). Yet, among the pictures, cut-outs and Polaroids shown as examples from Dumas’ archives, is the iconic photo of Hector Petersen in the arms of Mbuyisa Makhubo after having been shot by the police in the 1976 Soweto riots. For a South African the painting certainly connects more closely to this newspaper image than to the movie still.
The Guide notes have the following to say about this painting: “Dumas draws our attention to the complexity of the relationship between the images streaming towards us from the media and…. the sense of the responsibility faced by the artist in choosing to paint a picture.” In viewing this small painting shown at Beyeler in the context of the large collage, “Love versus Death”,
the viewer is aware not only of the responsibility of the artist but also of his own: what should our response be to these often disturbing images? Dare we walk away unchanged? Can we face the change and responsibility of having viewed the image and heard its message sometimes at a deeply troubling level? There were several paintings and sketches in this exhibition that I found demanded a response: the series of portraits of well-known men such as Alan Turing
with notes written by the artist at the bottom of the drawing highlighting lesser known facts about their lives;
the large portrait of a Jewish girl her eyes filled with terror;
“The Painter”, a beautiful yet strange painting inspired by the artist’s daughter as a little girl with one dark red hand and the other hand purple violet. The child’s expression is defiant, looking straight into the eyes of the viewer: this could have been a painting of my own granddaughter – I know that expression so well. Dare I simply walk away?
Yet, I was repeatedly drawn back to the title image and to the painting called “Stern”, inspired by a photograph of the dead Ulrike Meinhof, co-founder of the Red Army Faction, which appeared in the German news magazine Stern in 1976. Why was a portrait of the dead Ulrike named after the magazine in which the picture appeared? Why not just the name of the dead woman? By transforming a newspaper photograph with its grainy texture into this stark portrait of death, far larger than life-size the viewer is challenged to look and look again; to ask questions about who this beautiful woman was and what led to her death. It is as though the role of the artist has taken the role of the photo-journalist to another level. Even if the original photograph had filled a full page of the Stern – and I cannot imagine that it did – it would have been small and smudged compared to the image Dumas has given us. Now as I write, the woman’s strong profile formed by dark green paint that highlights the gleam of her white skin nearly marble-like in death haunts me when I close my eyes, in much the way that the blue of the eyes of “The Jewish Girl” contrasting with her white forehead and black untamed hair does.
I could not help but wonder how the artist’s response to what she paints differs from that of the photo-journalist’s response to the reality he has through his photographing also turned into an image. It brings to mind the disturbing photograph by Nick Ut of
Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese girl running naked towards the photographer, which became for many the iconic image of the Vietnam War.
Similarly, I think of the photograph of the small child being stalked by the vulture in Ethiopia by South African photographer, Kevin Carter. Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for that photograph but so many questions were asked about its morality and the photographer’s responsibility towards the subject – in this case a small dying child – that Carter created various stories to protect himself. Three months after winning the Pulitzer he committed suicide - “the burden of the image” had become unbearable. I am not arguing that it was simply the burden of this one image that led to his untimely death but the many images of war and violence that he had covered during his time as photojournalist.
In their book, The Bang-Bang Club, the authors, Greg Marinovich and João Silva, question what drives a photographer to pursue a career in recording images of untold horror: is it the moral belief that the truth should be shown no matter the cost? Is it the need for the adrenalin that working in dangerous terrains, sends rushing through their veins creating highs which they often counter-balance by the use of various drugs? Is it the fame that comes from taking that one image that no-one else has seen or taken? Is it the power that an image that can change perceptions and influence politics in a way that few other media can that is so attractive?
A question that crossed my mind as I stood before these paintings was: what is the agenda of a painter like Dumas when she chooses to paint these images? Does she know the answer any more than Marinovich did when he raised these questions in his book? The photograph of her that accompanies the exhibition has such a sweet smiling seductiveness – does it really reflect the artist’s response to her own work or is it just another image created by her?
The image of Dumas that we saw a few weeks later at the opening of an exhibition of portraits at “The Museum for Photography” in Thessaloniki in Greece is so different that at first I did not recognise it: a photograph of a woman in a halo of blonde hair smoke trailing from the cigarette between her pursed lips. It was taken by the Dutch photographer, Anton Corbijn.
What a contrast to the sweet smiling Marlene on the posters in Basel!
Who is the real Marlene Dumas? Who is the real me?