Painting the Blues

Drunkenness is inseparable from the blues and the blues are painter Marlene Dumas’s singular theme

Marlene Dumas, edited by Ilaria Bonacossa, Barbara Bloom, Dominic van den Boogerd and Mariuccia Casadio (London: Phaidon, 2009), hardcover, 240 pages, ISBN-13: 9780714845845 IN THE SURVEY ESSAY of Marlene Dumas, a comprehensive,updated study of the celebrated artist published by Phaidon as part of theirauthoritative and handsome Contemporary Artists series in 1999, Dutch artcritic and former chief editor of MetropolisM, Dominic van den Boogerd observes: “Dumas must have come to therealisation that one should paint like Marvin Gaye sings.”The reference toGaye is perspicacious; as is the reference to getting drunk in the essay’sconclusion. Van den Boogerd – one of the four authors and editors of the book;the others are American artist Barbara Bloom, freelance writer on contemporaryart and former editor Mariuccia Casadio and curator Ilaria Bonacossa – citesCharles Baudelaire: “With wine, poetry or virtue – the choice is yours. Butintoxicate yourself.” Dumas’s paintings and drawings, plenteously illustratedin this beautiful hardcover book, are as intoxicating as Gaye’s singing; wine,poetry or virtue; sex, beauty or celebrity; movies, politics or religion; ordeath, which flattens and gives depth to drunkenness.But drunkenness is inseparable from theblues and the blues are Dumas’s singular theme (in rhythm and mood). For anartist devoted to representing the human form, how can this be any different?From birth to death, the human body is a thing of grace and weight, beauty andgrotesqueness, pleasure and pain, fullness and emptiness, love and hate,proximity and distance, boundlessness and limitation, joy and sorrow, ecstasyand atrocity. Although figuration in oil paint, ink, watercolour, pencil, penor charcoal is not the same as figuration in song – music is both less tangibleand more emotive – Dumas’s images are infused with the sound of the blues.Justlisten to the longing and loss in Bessie Smith’s voice when she pours her heartout about a mistreated woman in Down Hearted Blues (1923) andlook at Dumas’s small oil painting on canvas, Blue Marilyn (2008). Although Dumas cannot be said to pourher heart out – as she remarks, she has too much distance from her subject -the smallness of the painting and of the song are similar in their emotionalscope.Yet singing or painting the blues is notall about loss and longing. You have to have a sense of humour to appreciatethe rhythm and tone of John Lee Hooker’s One Bourbon, One Scotch, OneBeer (1967). Walter Benjamin said something similar with regards toFranz Kafka’s writings and Dumas frequently refers to her own work in terms ofhumour. In her conversation with Barbara Bloom, she observes: “There was a timewhen I wanted so much to sound intelligent that I wanted to look the way Ithought Simone de Beauvoir sounded. But then I thought, I like people who cansay something serious in a humorous way. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: ‘There’snothing as funny as unhappiness’.”Indeed, but only from a distance, if alittle cruelty is added. Dumas explains to Bloom: “You have to be a littlecruel also, towards yourself and others. Often there is too much emphasis onartists having to be themselves.” Dumas sounds like British painter FrancisBacon, who preferred working from photographs in case his subjects (oftenhimself) should be wounded by the cruelty he inflicted on their images.Although Dumas’s work, like Bacon’s, is expressive at times, as Van den Boogerdpoints out in his essay, it is more concerned with representation and doubtthan with self-expression. Something about the work and the way she speaks andwrites about it also brings to mind J.M. Coetzee writing in Youth (2002) about theirrelevance of the condition of the author’s heart and about falling in lovefrom a distance. Coetzee too considers Beckett funny.The famous erotic charge of the pictures derives from”melancholy sex appeal”, to quote Dumas writing about strippers and artistsstripping down and stripping people in “Live acts, silent studios” (one of 28artist’s writings included in the book, 14 more than in the first edition), andfrom distance and displacement. Dumas’s interest in sex, eroticism,pornography, looking and being looked at is shared by writers, filmmakers andpainters whose work also intertwines beauty and obscenity, nudity and nakedness- like Jean Genet, Oscar Wilde, Pier Paolo Pasolini or the painter R.B. Kitaj,who are not mentioned by the artist or the four authors of the book. In Dumas’sand Kitaj’s work eroticism inclines to what is left out; what is suggestedthrough texture, allegory, playful titles (“Titles are my little damnations,”says Kitaj.)*Black bodies and black paint, sex and sexappeal, race and gender, politics and violence – the texts and images in thisimpressive book open up the ambiguity of representation vis-à-vis essence. Atthe other spectrum of tedious chatter about black and white, male and female,right and wrong; the melancholy lure of the blues and self-awareness. Gerhard Schoeman is a senior lecturer in the Department of Art Historyand Visual Culture Studies, University of the Free State * Forthe record, apropos the unkind and misleading statement made by Malcolm Paynein Art South Africa(Vol. 8.3, p.52): Kitaj’s wife, painter Sandra Fischer, did not commit suicide,prompted by savage reviews of Kitaj’s retrospective at the Tate Gallery in1994; she died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, aged 47, 15 days after the showended. Kitaj committed suicide in his home in Los Angeles October 21, 2007,aged 74.
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