Description: signed and dated 1995 on the overlap; signed on a label affixed to the reverse oil on canvas
Dimensions: measurements 180 by 300cm. alternate measurements 71 by 118in.
Provenance: Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Notes: A centrepiece of last year's sensational international exhibition The Painting of Modern Life, Marlene Dumas' poignant and unforgettable painting The Visitor of 1995 is one of the artist's most important large-scale works, which broadcasts both her iconic painterly style and complex subject matter in perfect resolution. Pregnant with innuendo The Visitor embodies the central themes of Dumas' extraordinary oeuvre. Clearly quoting from art historical precedent, including the repertoires of Dégas, Matisse, and Munch, Dumas has adapted established aesthetic devices to create a contemporary masterwork that is not only artistically significant, but also a loaded social commentary. She shows six young female figures hemmed in by the intoxicating claustrophobia of a confined room. Although the prostrate standing bodies are facing the bright light through the open doorway, their visceral characters nevertheless confront the viewer adamantly, despite their relative anonymity. The viewer has been inserted into a shadowy, licentious den, behind a scene that is infused with the implication of taboo, layered ambiguities and an unclear narrative that affords a strong sense of unease.
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By contrast to the well-developed tradition of paintings that situate the viewer as voyeur and explore conventional notions of the 'male gaze', most famously exemplified by Manet's Olympia and Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Dumas' The Visitor locates the spectator behind the 'spectacle', marking the viewer both as participant in the expectant line-up and as orchestrator of this female commodification. As with the other players in the scene, the viewer is drawn to the illuminated rectangle at the far end of the room, anticipating the imminent arrival of a client. In these ways the painting inverts the expectations of the 'male gaze' dynamic and explores themes that have preoccupied Dumas for over thirty years.
Dumas is often described as an 'intellectual expressionist', blurring the boundaries between painting and drawing. Bold lines and shapes mix seamlessly with ephemeral washes and thick gestural brushwork: even within Dumas' corpus, the yellow, purple and green hues are markedly heightened to create an electrifying mood that seeps through the dinginess of the clandestine chamber. By simplifying and distorting her subjects, Marlene Dumas creates intimacy through alienation. Akin to other provocative paintings of women by Dumas, The Visitor is as psychologically challenging as it is strikingly beautiful. Consistently choosing to work from photographs rather than live models, Dumas gathers source images from fashion magazines and film archives or photos that she takes herself. Her female characters are thus fundamentally rooted in the current, contemporary world, inhabiting a very different space from any nineteenth or early twentieth-century precedent. The artist revels in purloining images and quotes from wherever and whomever she wishes - her visual and linguistic vocabularies cobble together slightly skewed aphorisms from popular and art historical imagery ranging from Mae West to Josephine Baker to Naomi Campbell to Manet's Olympia. What makes Dumas' second-hand depictions so compelling is the way she twists images we've come to take for granted so they are structurally undone.
In The Visitor the celebrated corpus of ballerina pastels, paintings and sculptures by Edgar Dégas' looms large, and the near-identical poses of the five or six figures here is strongly reminiscent of the Impressionist's famous bronze Little Dancer aged Fourteen of 1871-81. Dégas' fascination with the young female balletic form ran to obsession and his depictions of nubile dancers in fin-de-siecle theatre halls revealed a world of dubious relations between nymph-like performers and their voyeuristic male admirers. The Visitor appropriates this compositional vocabulary but inverts its meaning: here Dégas objects of male gratification become performing sex-workers, insistently competing for their trade. For Dumas, no subject is sacred: contradicting the sentimental, her depictions of women are often ambivalent and depict the parasitic nature of humankind. If Dumas takes on subjects that are considered taboo, it is because the taboo itself is based on strict societal rules of division and prohibition that the artist simply won't acknowledge.
Raised in South Africa, Dumas' background as a white South African-born artist inevitably impacts any discussion of her work. Over the span of her career, she has produced paintings relating to subjects as diverse and ideologically complicated as apartheid, racial stereotypes, motherhood, polymorphous perversity, love, and religion. The thread that runs through what appears, at first, to be an unwieldy range of topics too large to tackle is the fact that each topic is a social construction. Undermining universally held belief systems, Dumas corrupts the very way images are negotiated. Stripped of the niceties of moral consolation, Dumas' work provokes unmitigated horror. She offers no comfort to the viewer, only an unnerving complicity and confusion between victims and oppressors. Beneath Marlene Dumas' hard-hitting social dialogue is a deep-rooted ideological equality. As one of the most profoundly feminist contemporary artists, Dumas uses painting as a means to personally renegotiate realms of conventional expectation. The Visitor reveals more than it displays and stands as a pithy summation of the most important traits of her celebrated output.