‘Whoever wishes to devote himself to painting,’ Henri Matisse once advised, ‘should begin by cutting out his own tongue.’ Marlene Dumas — whose work is the subject of a big new retrospective at Tate Modern — has not gone quite that far (and neither, of course, did Matisse). On the other hand, she does not hand out many clues as to what her work is all about.
On the contrary, when Dumas says anything about her painting, it is inclined to be a self-deprecating paradox. ‘I paint because I am a woman,’ she states on her website. ‘(It’s a logical necessity.) If painting is female and insanity is a female malady, then all women painters are mad and all male painters are women.’ Fair enough, we don’t expect artists to be linear thinkers; Dumas points out that she is not one of those at the start of the Tate catalogue. Nor should we expect pictures to be easily decoded.
Now in her early 60s, Dumas is one of the most highly regarded painters in contemporary art. She was born in South Africa, but has lived in the Netherlands since 1976. She now probably qualifies as the greatest living Dutch artist. But she has not, up to now, had a major exhibition in a public gallery in this country, so she is a bit of an unknown quantity as far as the British art public are concerned.
It is unlikely that Dumas will score such a resounding hit as Anselm Kiefer did last autumn at the RA. Her art is too elusive, and perhaps too narrow in range for that. But there is plenty of evidence that she is a remarkable and distinctive painter.
That does not become clear straight away at the Tate. The first few rooms, which are mainly devoted to early works, including drawings and collages, are distinctly low in visual energy. It is necessary to persevere; the exhibition gets better as it goes on. Indeed Dumas herself seems to be improving with age. Some of the strongest rooms come towards the end of the show.
Just why she is good is not so easy to pin down. One crucial factor is that Dumas has an individual touch. That is, she puts the pigment on to the canvas or paper in a way that is distinctive and visually compelling. Her starting point is a pre-existing image, usually a photograph but occasionally another painting (Holbein and Caravaggio are among the old masters she has recycled).
The original, however, is subject to metamorphosis. ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (2008) is based on a still of Ingrid Bergman from the 1943 film of the same name. Instead of being a simple reproduction of the still, however, the paint surface is blurred and mottled as if the whole picture were weeping. It is one of a series of works about grief, made after Dumas’s mother died.
Mortality is one of her subjects. Her themes are mostly traditional ones in northern European painting — sex, death, nudes, portraiture — but given a personal twist. A series from 2003–4 represents the heads of dead women; one is taken from Caravaggio’s late painting of the ‘Burial of St Lucy’, another from the last shot in the celebrated shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Here the oil paint looks like watercolour or ink, just staining the canvas.
At times, Dumas’s work slightly resembles — of all people’s — Walter Sickert’s. In his later years Sickert often used photographs and images from newspapers as a basis for pictures, and he, too, liked his paint thin — sometimes dry and almost scrubbed into the canvas, as Dumas also likes to do. Another unexpected affinity is with Auguste Rodin. Her naked figures, derived from pin-ups and pornography and done in ink and acrylic on paper, are loose and fluid in the same way his figure studies are.
There these resemblances end. Dumas’s subject matter is often political in a contemporary manner. Among her few pictures that could be described as landscape are views of the Israeli security wall on the West Bank. Africa and Africans are frequent subjects — evidently she is still preoccupied by her South African upbringing and the conflicts of that era.
A powerful recent picture, ‘The Widow’ (2013), shows the wife of Patrice Lumumba publically mourning her husband, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Republic of the Congo, deposed, tortured and executed in 1961 (when Dumas was eight). Her nudes, which are mainly (but not all) female, are far from being erotic. They are more the ‘poor, bare, forked animal’ of King Lear, but with a sort of sleazy poignancy.
There certainly are political, and feminist, aspects to Dumas’s painting. But maybe that’s not the real point. Like all good painters, she’s trying to make an image that stays in the head, that is memorable. It’s the capacity of this perennial medium to do that so well that explains its survival into the 21st century. ‘Painting is a very slow art,’ Dumas has said. ‘It doesn’t travel with the speed of light. That’s why dead painters shine so bright.’