Artist Talk: Marlene Dumas

Sold out many weeks before the talk, it was no surprise to find a long queue from the entry of the Starrs Auditorium in Tate Modern on Thursday night (16/4/15). Marlene Dumas was giving a talk on her solo show: ‘The Image as Burden’ and I was thrilled to get the chance to hear her talk. Having just finished Pascale Petit’s excellent 6-week course at the Tate http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/courses-and-workshops/spirit-things-poetry-body, this was the cherry on top!

 
Marlene Dumas is a spontaneous and lively speaker and engages with her audience in that generous immediate way, where each of us probably felt as if, given the opportunity, we might be friends. She was extremely charming and had us eating out of her hand; for a woman painter who for a while was the highest earning female painter alive, she is very unimpressed by herself. She speaks of her process in such straight forward manner and only rarely alluding to her vast knowledge, which nevertheless imbues her presentation.

 
The exhibition at Tate Modern is a retrospective and this very fact was her starting point. MD said that putting together the show had made her look at herself in the 3rd person in an attempt to see what she had done (“which interfered with actual doing here and now, as well as thinking about the future”, she laughed).

 

Deciding titles, she said, is always troublesome as they take the work in this or that direction and people make so much of your title. She chose ‘The Image as Burden’ as the title for the exhibition because of this concern about titles… to mark the importance (burden) of all the infinite associations that invariably come with titles, including cultural baggage. She showed us the still from the 1936 romantic drama ‘Camille’, (Robert Taylor carrying the unconscious Greta Garbo in his arms, both fully dressed). MD mused that much has been said about this original inspiration for her painting, The Image as Burden’ (a naked man holding unconscious woman ‘draped across’ his arms) but really, in this case, the original inspiration was not that important to the actual painting. Sometimes figures in her painting are allegorical.

 

In contrast, much later in her talk, MD spoke of her painting in response to the photo of Pauline Lumumba, ‘The Widow’. Here the source material is a vital communication in the artistic expression. Although MD presented with such openness during her talk and one felt her passion for her art and for Art, she came across as very contained emotionally – but not reserved.

 
It was a very full and absorbing 1 ½ hour with plenty of time for QA at the end. She talked about many of her paintings in this exhibition, particularly the thinking behind their titles and showing us slides of how the paintings had been exhibited in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, until January this year – pondering the different impact in different settings, (giggled at how the erotic works have been discreetly put into a side room here, whereas in Holland “people are not so concerned”, she smiled – there the erotic was presented opposite other paintings).

 
Personally, I was particularly fascinated when she spoke about the two paintings, ‘The Widow’ and ‘The Painter’, as I had written a few poems inspired by these artworks.
Reading Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Force of Circumstance’ was one of the starting points for MD’s painting, ‘The Widow’, the other crucial one, being a photograph of Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba’s widow, Pauline, walking bare-breasted through the streets of Leopoldville in mourning and protest.

 
In terms of her actual technique, MD revealed that she usually mixes her paints directly on the canvas, not on a palette, and that sometimes she will finish a whole painting in one night, as in the case of ‘The Painter’. She showed us the photograph (which had inspired ‘The Painter’) of her young daughter, in front of a circular, inflatable paddling pool in the garden. Suddenly, she laughed and said that the cold blue of the child’s belly on the painting was simply the result of her changing her mind and wiping something off, not a planned action… another time during the evening MD made another aside about how she simply couldn’t paint this particular person because he meant nothing to her personally and so had had to paint someone else on top, “when I’m dead, they’ll X-ray my painting and find that it was originally a completely different face”. Always this passionate emotional honesty!

 

Because of Marlene Dumas’ vivacious personality and humorous delivery, one such moment of emotional generosity and vulnerability was profoundly moving.  Discussing her painting, ‘Solo’ (2011) [a crucifixion scene], she quietly added :

 
“I guess, a solo show – you feel totally forsaken!”

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