Description: Die Baba (The Baby)
signed twice 'M. Dumas' (on the reverse and again on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
51 1/8 x 43 1/2 in. (130 x 110.3 cm.)
Painted in 1985.
Artist or Maker: Marlene Dumas (B. 1953)
Exhibited: Eindhoven, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Marlene Dumas: Miss Intrepreted, November-December 1987, p. 63 (illustrated in color).
London, Saatchi Gallery, The Triumph of Painting, Part I, January-July 2005, p. 58 (illustrated in color).
Provenance: Private Collection, Cape Town
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Notes: Marlene Dumas' paintings are a profound exploration of the human condition, of sexuality, birth and death, as well as psychological and philosophical themes. Critics and scholars alike have described the artist's painterly style as a type of 'intellectual expressionism' in the tradition of such European greats as Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, and Francis Bacon. Born in South Africa in 1953, Dumas currently lives and works in the Netherlands and her work enjoys an established status in major art museums and galleries internationally.
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Dumas often takes her subjects from pictures found in magazine and film archives. Speaking about her source material, the artist aptly explains: "My people were all shot by the camera, framed before I painted them" (Ibid). In an oft-quoted remark, the artist proclaims: "I deal with second-hand images and first hand experiences" (Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings, ed. Mariska van den Berg, Marlene Dumas/Galerie Paul Andriesse/Uitgeverij De Balie, Amsterdam, 1998, p. 24). The scholar, Ulrich Loock expands on this idea, arguing that Dumas' practice is "painting in order to implement and undermine the photographic flatness of the world" (Ulrich Loock, "Malerie und Bedeutung (am Beispiel einiger Bilder)," in cat. Marlene Dumas, The Question of Humas Pink, Kunsthalle Bern, 1989, pp. 50). And the artist herself explains: "I paint after the photo--the distorted afterglow of chemical reproduction, filtered through my clumsy attempts toward natural perception, and the preservation of a dubious habit" (Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings, ed. Mariska van den Berg, Marlene Dumas/Galerie Paul Andriesse/Uitgeverij De Balie, Amsterdam, 1998, p. 24). Dumas' paintings are therefore significant minefields of contemporary contradiction: They are classical and cutting-edge, photographic and painterly, conservative and obscene.
Die Baba (The Baby), 1985, is an arresting image. At first sickly-sweet, the child's subversive expression becomes an alarming exhibition of defiance and free will. Bathed in ailing blue-yellow light, the presence of Dumas' baby is unnerving. The baby's opaque, dark eyes, fixed in a frontal gaze seem to reflect back a sad, painful view of modern motherhood. The baby's hair is tidy and his clothes are clean and cared for. But this baby appears to already exist on the far and disappointing side of maturity. Die Baba's ghostly tonalities seem to speak to the primacy of a death before innocence. Stare long enough and a demon stares back on an adult-scale.
Dumas became a mother in 1989 and produced an extensive group of paintings and works on paper about babies and pregnancy. In this body of work, the artist explores the relationship between existence and its origins, both in terms of human life and of art. Dumas' portraits of babies highlight the monstrous, parasitic nature of human offspring. The artist has even been accused of visually 'misusing' images of babies. Dumas recounts a gallery talk in which someone interested in a series of small paintings of naked young girls asked her "'what is the age of the child'" to which the artist replied: "'it's not a child, it's a painting'" (Marlene Dumas in interview with Barbara Bloom, printed in Marlene Dumas, Dominic den Boogerd/Barbara Bloom/Mariuccia Caseeadio/Marlene Dumas, London, 1999, p. 21).
In Die Baba, the attention on the expression of features and the gaze of the eyes renders the portrait confrontational. The baby grows before our eyes, about to burst out of the picture frame. The subject's face is not only expanding beyond the confines of the canvas but is propelled into ours--a stranger holding us captive with his gaze. Critics have described Dumas depictions of babies as: 'children from Chernobyl' and the 'progeny of Nazi collaborators' (Dominic van Den Boogerd, "Hang-ups and Hangovers in the Work of Marlene Dumas," in Marlene Dumas, Dominic den Boogerd/Barbara Bloom/Mariuccia Caseeadio/Marlene Dumas, London, 1999, p. 57). Indeed, the features of Die Baba link it to those of a young Hitler, although the actual source is the artist's brother as a baby, as well as the artist's meanderings on history and memory. In fact, gazing at any baby picture can make one think of sweetness and innocence. Given the reference and similitude to one of history's most criminal players,Die Baba begs the question 'Are we born good and become evil, or can one be born evil?'
Die Baba featured prominently in Charles Saatchi's 2005 exhibition entitled "The Triumph of Painting." In its first installment, Saatchi chose six painters considered to be the most influential of their generation. Dumas' work was some of the most talked and written about in this exhibition "Triumph of Painting."
Saatchi's exhibition emerged in response to a period dominated by digital technology and photography, wherein video and installation art had been at the fore of both the museum and the critical public's attention. Indeed, Dumas' art is one of the best arguments for the continued relevance of the medium of painting and its ability to communicate social and political ideas.
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