Description: Marlene Dumas (b. 1953) Young Boys signed, titled and dated 'M Dumas 1993 Young Boys' (on the reverse) oil on canvas 39½ x 118 in. (100.3 x 300 cm.) Painted in 1993.
Artist or Maker: Marlene Dumas (b. 1953)
Exhibited: Minneapolis, Walker Art Center,
Painting at the Edge of the World
, February-May 2001, pp. 255-256 (illustrated).
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'Keep out of reach of children.
Art is not meant for children.
Like poison and medicine
it should be kept out of reach' (Dumas, quoted in D. van den Boogerd, B. Bloom & M. Casadio, Marlene Dumas, London, 1999, p. 125).
As with all the greatest of Marlene Dumas' paintings, Young Boys stalks the territories of ambiguity and taboo. In this 1993 picture, a row of naked, shivering, painfully self-conscious boys is shown stretching far away, an effect heightened by the sheer length of the canvas itself. As the children trail into the distance at the right of the canvas, so too they appear increasingly ephemeral, rendered with an increasing economy of means, lending them the appearance of shimmering mirages, of spectral, insubstantial visions.
Dumas has deliberately selected a subject that places the viewer at a disadvantage. What is this scene? The viewer cannot help but read into this image something sinister-- there is more than a hint of the concentration camp about this line of uncomprehending youths. The very fact that this is an isolated, decontextualised image from an unknown background introduces a narrative ambiguity to Young Boys. This appears to be a frozen moment, but it is not clear where that moment occurred, or when. This is a fragment of a story, and is all the more haunting for it, the gazes of these trapped youths looking out accusingly from an impossible distance as we, unable even to fathom the slightest circumstance of the picture, look on helpless. This adds a poignantly human aspect to Dumas' deliberate deconstruction of the nature of painting, of the pictorial transfer of information.
Dumas' pictures are almost always based on photographic sources, be they from her own life, from magazines, from newspapers or from other sources. This adds both distance and an immediacy: on the one hand, Dumas is often depicting a scene that she herself did not see with her own eyes; yet on the other hand, this use of photographic sources adds a documentary dimension to her work, a sense that it represents a recorded reality. As she explained, 'I deal with second-hand images and first-hand experiences' (Dumas, quoted in D. van den Boogerd, 'Survey: Hang-ups and Hangovers in he Work of Marlene Dumas,' pp. 32-85, D. van den Boogerd et al., loc. cit., 1999, p. 45). In Young Boys, the disturbing huddle of children grouped together as though under the custody of some invisible authority is given a sheen of verisimilitude by its photographic origin, be it private or public. Dumas uses this both to introduce questions as to the nature of painting and representation, but also to heighten the tension of the image, to lend it some form of more direct political currency.
This has been all the more pertinent because of Dumas' painful awareness of her own South African origins and the problematic politics and history that this involves. Many of her works deliberately focussed on the black population-- formerly underrepresented in many senses-- and one wonders if the source image for Young Boys in some way relates to the brutalities of Apartheid. Regardless of its potential link to South African politics, Young Boys certainly recalls an image illustrated in the scrapbook-like 'Bank' section in Miss Interpreted, the catalogue for her 1992 exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. This picture, culled from an anonymous newspaper, shows a group under arrest in Sao Paolo; the prisoners have all been stripped, and, watched over by the heavily armed police, are naked, facing a wall, down on their knees. Regardless of the precise source, in Young Boys Dumas conveys the extent to which these youths are victims, with their rabbit-in-the-headlights looks of blank terror, by depicting them with a drained palette. The colours themselves appear to have deserted these kids-- their anonymity, their status as inconsequential victims, as nobodies, is reflected directly in the insubstantiality of the oils with which they have been rendered.
Dumas has deliberately avoided depicting anything that makes this image overly specific. It relies on its lack of details and its generality to gain a certain universality. This could have happened anywhere, be it in Africa, Sao Paolo or even Holland or the United States. In a sense, it is the fact that the artist has chosen this particular image, this particular scene, as a theme that is key, as is reflected in a conversation included in her own writings:
'What is the work about? Is it about eroticism?'
'No, it's not tender enough,' he said.
'Is it about cruelty? Is it that nasty?' I asked.
He said, 'It's sardonic.'
'Well,' I said, 'Isn't that the spirit of Africa?'
'No,' he said, 'That's not Africa, it's you' (Dumas, quoted in D. van den Boogerd et al., op. cit., 1999, p. 129).
The sardonic, even cruel, character of Young Boys is heightened by the fact that Dumas is challenging her viewer, confronting us with a highly disturbing image. Indeed, Young Boys enhances the disadvantage at which the artist places the viewer by presenting us with an image that, despite the complete absence of the erotic, is nonetheless disturbingly sexualised, touching on whole worlds of taboo. In many of her works, Dumas has experimented with the disconcerting presentation of babies and children in poses and situations that occasionally even veer towards the pornographic. In Young Boys, the prominence of the children's genitalia is both problematic and deeply subversive. However, the image is far from pornographic. Dumas has expressly conveyed an image of a scene that is drained of any sense of the erotic, and it is by exploring the degree to which this flesh-filled image of youth falls short of the erotic that Young Boys gains its disturbing potency.
One of the necessary results of the discomfort that Dumas so successfully instils in her viewer is that we are forced into an awareness of the act of seeing. The mechanics of viewing a work of art become all the more apparent, and therefore all the more questionable. Aspects of looking at a painting that are usually unspoken and understood are suddenly thrown into question. By looking upon this scene, we become bystanders, we become culpable. Dumas compromises her viewer by confronting us with an image that is an assault on traditional notions of taste and beauty. But this process, this exploration of the shortcomings of art as a means of transferring information, is dissected not in a cold and detached way, but instead as an act of vigorous and heated protest. This is the result of keenly-felt art historical subversion from the female painter. In many of her works, Dumas directly confronts the hegemony of the dead male artists whose influence still looms over so much of modern art. Dumas has reversed one of the most enjoyed and frequently explored themes of the artistic tradition, that of the nude. Where formerly, the paintings of nudes showed women, but almost always were executed both by and for men, in Young Boys this process has been subjected to a shocking reversal. Now, the female painter has depicted an endless row of humiliated male children as nudes. Titillation has been removed from the formula to a dramatic degree, the males have been placed in front of the unforgiving lens, in front of the unforgiving easel, in front of the unforgiving artist. Now, striking back for the long centuries of injustice, Dumas has attacked the phallocentric history of art and its depictions of women. The act of painting the nude has been equated to exploitation and torture, exposed as an ordeal and as such aimed back at the former oppressors.