Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden

MARLENE DUMAS’S PAINTING Stern, 2004, is named not for the woman it depicts, Ulrike Meinhof, the Red Army Faction member who was discovered dead from hanging in a Stammheim Prison cell in 1976. Rather, Dumas titled her portrait after the German newsmagazine that published the sensational photo of Meinhof’s corpse—a telling emphasis from the preeminent figurative painter, who often works from mass-media sources. Gerhard Richter famously used the image, too, in his series October 18, 1977, 1988 (the title is the date three other RAF prisoners were found dead). While his versions are part of a blurred meditation on the German “Autumn of Terror,” Dumas’s Meinhof joins historically disparate dead heads: There’s Janet Leigh in Psycho on the shower floor and Saint Lucy stabbed in the throat, her face cropped and copied from a Caravaggio. Dumas, who was born in 1953 in Cape Town and moved to Amsterdam in the ’70s, paints from porn, the news, and family photos, invoking Western art history with a signature attunement to its macabre undercurrents. As the critic Adrian Searle reverently notes, Stern is like a Manet with its “crisp pallor and lush blacks,” adding aptly that the bruise left by the noose is a “painted cancellation of life.” Such combinations of seductive figuration and brusque—even notational—mark-making are a hallmark of Dumas’s art that this volume’s chronological presentation underscores. The Image as Burden, published on the occasion of her current European retrospective, surveys her career from her student work of the early ’70s through the ongoing series Great Men. Commentary by scholars and friends accompanies Dumas’s own reflections and poems, and a detailed time line runs through the margins. Here, very personal developments are charted alongside world events—watershed moments in the art world and the apartheid state alike—lending the book an unexpected and great scrapbook intimacy.

Marlene Dumas, Stern, 2004, oil on canvas, 43 1/4 × 51 1/8".