Childhood, ranging from the newborn to the toddler to the teenager, is one of the themes that stand out in the career of the extraordinary painter, Marlene Dumas. In its scale, subject matter and execution, In the Beginning, painted in 1991 can be considered one of Dumas' masterpieces; a painting of one of her signature toddlers, in this case the artist as a toddler painting her first painting.
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. By simplifying and distorting her subjects, Marlene Dumas creates intimacy through alienation. Her provocative paintings of women, children, celebrities and people of color are all as psychologically disturbing as they are violently beautiful. For Dumas, no subject is sacred. Contradicting the sentimental, her depictions of babies, even her own, are often ambivalent and highlight the monstrous, parasitic nature of human offspring. 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.
For Dumas the relative size of the average head in comparison to the body is unimportant, as she seems not particularly interested in accurate anatomy. Like a childÂ?s simplistic approach that ignores reality, she depicts what is most important to her on the largest scale. "In the movies everything is larger than life and yet you experience that as real(istic); all my faces are much bigger than human scale. From blowing up to zooming in, for me the 'close-up' was a way of getting rid of irrelevant background information and by making the facial elements so big, it increased the sense of abstraction concerning the picture frame. The elimination of the background also did away with the place of being and environmental context." (Saatchi Gallery website).
Dumas never works from a live model: for the artist the photograph is always the first step. She gathers image sources from fashion magazines and film archives or photos that she takes herself. Dumas 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' secondhand depictions so compelling is the way she twists images we've come to take for granted so they are structurally undone.
Born and raised in South Africa, as expected, Dumas' background as a white South African-born artist is hardly insignificant in any conversation about her work. Over the span of her career, she has produced work 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 navigate history. Her works reveal more than they display.