A Radical Artist Takes a Startling Turn Toward Love

Posted May 10, 2018 11:23 p.m. EDT

AMSTERDAM — A painting by Marlene Dumas of her pregnant daughter Helena — her belly wide and full, her hands raised at the elbow, her feet splayed — stood nearly 10 feet tall in the South African artist’s studio here two weeks ago.

It was the night before a few dozen of Dumas’ new paintings would be shipped to New York for her first solo exhibition there in eight years, and the artist was drinking white wine and still contemplating which works would ultimately end up in the show.

Several other monumental nudes, both male and female, were propped against the walls in two light-filled studio spaces, representing what she calls “strange, mixed-up figures, not quite human.” Interspersed among them were smaller oil paintings of bodily fragments: a lipstick-smeared mouth, a single breast and several renditions of two faces entwined in a kiss.

Dumas, 64, walked through the space, its floor littered with half-squeezed paint tubes and its tables topped with art history books, museum postcards and photocopied images. “They are, in a sense, individual works,” she said of the paintings, but they all have something to do with “attraction, sensuality and desires.”

This is Dumas’ newest body of work, “Myths & Mortals,” which just opened at David Zwirner’s West 20th Street gallery in Manhattan and is on view through June 30. Half of the 61 works were painted in the last three months, she said, while others were from 2016 and 2017. They start with a series of ink wash illustrations Dumas made to accompany a narrative Shakespeare poem, “Venus and Adonis,” which inspired her to explore issues of eroticism, but also power and violence. They led her to examine similar themes in a series of paintings.

Dumas is known for politically charged social art, often based on Polaroid snapshots, disturbing images clipped out of newspapers, or film stills appropriated from pornography. She has taken a radically new direction in this body of work: painting on significantly larger canvasses; using a more vibrant, chromatic palette; and stepping into mythological terrain.

“These works are really about the human condition, about people in their most basic state: They’re naked, they’re pregnant, they’re getting married, they’re kissing, they’re loving, they are erotic,” Zwirner said a week later, as the works were being uncrated in New York. “Maybe for me the most shocking reality around this new body of work is that they’re extremely political by not being overtly political. To make it about us, about love, desire and eroticism — the themes that will maybe help us to get out of the political mess we got ourselves into — I find extremely powerful.”

The Zwirner show is Dumas’ first major solo presentation since her critically acclaimed 2014-15 retrospective, “The Image as Burden,” presented at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Tate Modern in London and the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. She said it took months to shake off the psychological and emotional reverberations of co-curating the retrospective, which opened just after she’d turned 60 and included artworks from the mid-1970s.

“Retrospectives are the worst; they are really killing,” she said. “You’re all the time busy with what you have done. You become a cliché of yourself because you have to say who you are all the time,” she added. “As an artist, you are always who you are until you go make new work — and then you are someone else.”

For the retrospective, she had hoped to produce new artworks but found it utterly impossible. But then Moroccan-Dutch writer Hafid Bouazza asked Dumas to contribute illustrations for a book of Dutch translations of “Venus and Adonis,” one of the Shakespeare’s earliest works. It tells the tragic, sometimes funny, often erotic story of Venus’ attempts to seduce Adonis, a handsome young mortal. He chooses instead to hunt and is killed. Dumas approached the project by reading Shakespeare in the English original and in Dutch translation (her native tongue is Afrikaans) as well as Ovid’s version from “The Metamorphoses.” She also explored historical depictions of Venus and Adonis from antiquity to the present.

“It was difficult to decide how to go about it, because you had to think, ‘What type of figure, what type of woman am I going to choose for this Venus?'” she said. “In the old paintings, she was mostly painted as these blond, voluptuous women, and Shakespeare was writing about a kind of Mediterranean type.”

The resulting images are black ink wash on various types of paper reduced to essential elements of form. In one image, Venus is voluptuous with long, possibly blond hair. In another, she might be an African woman with dark curly hair. In yet another, she appears like a vampire, with hollowed out eyes, inspired by an Edvard Munch drawing.

Dumas felt that the “Venus and Adonis” book illustrations could be an entry point into a new series of paintings, though she was at first uncertain. “Then my daughter said, ‘You always make your best paintings of me.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to paint you, I’m scared, and a pregnant lady doesn’t fit into this exhibition.’ ” Dumas has painted her daughter numerous times — a particularly famous image is her haunting “The Painter” (1994) in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, depicting Helena looking sinister at about 4 years old, with her small hands dipped in black and red paint.

Helena, now 29, is one of the few models Dumas has ever allowed in the studio. “I’m not really interested in real people,” she said. “It sounds strange, I know, but it’s because then I can’t do with my figure what I want. It’s more about states and emotions.”

Nevertheless, she did begin a portrait of Helena from behind, standing tall in a strong, self-assured stance, which she named “Amazon.”

Later, Dumas found an image of Inanna — the goddess of love, fertility and war from Sumerian mythology, who was associated with the planet Venus — depicted with wings and bird talons for feet. This was a starting point for another monumental nude, but because Helena was now pregnant and very much on the artist’s mind, Dumas began to work her daughter’s likeness into the image.

Taking a sip of wine, Dumas mused, “My time is up, and I still haven’t painted a Venus. Well, I have indeed, but she’s pregnant, and she looks like my daughter.”

The two quasi-portraits of Helena, “Amazon” and “Birth,” appear in the same room of the Zwirner exhibition.

It is all very fitting, since Dumas’ first grandchild, Eden, was born on April 28, the day the show opened. Luckily, Dumas had flown to New York to install the exhibition and returned to Amsterdam in time to be there with Helena for the birth.