Photos put on painterly weight in Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden at Tate Modern

By Mark Sheerin | 10 March 2015

Exhibition review: Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, Tate Modern, London, until May 10 2015

Marlene Dumas, The Widow (2013)© Private Collection © Marlene Dumas
It is said we take in the region of 380 billion photos a year. So painting, which was once threatened by the advent of the camera, now provides a weighty counterpoint to the all those fleeting snaps of food, selfies, sunsets, and so on.

The much-heralded resurrection of painting can be seen as a direct reaction to digital media. At least that’s what you might conclude from an encounter with Marlene Dumas.

Dumas draws her gravity not from life, but in the main from the images which circulate around us. She is a figurative painter whose cast of startling wraiths begin life as family portraits, magazine images, Google searches and even pornography. Their watery contours evoke a painterly darkroom in which pixels are smudged and eyes pierce the ever present screen.

Sometimes they pierce the ground on which they appear, puncturing the paper. Visitors to this, her largest ever show in Europe, are greeted by a wall of portraits she calls Rejects.

This series, which Dumas has worked on for more than 20 years, is a good introduction to her aesthetic. Distortions, accidents, loose gestures, and bleeding greyscale washes all render her subjects as startling as a first encounter in the flesh.

There are 48 of these Rejects and the artist has a way with crowds. Another room is dedicated to several dozen drawings of people of colour (Black Drawings) and an arresting class portrait called The Teacher. While each of these subjects has its own psychological charge, there is a ghostliness which all of them share. There is plenty of flesh in the work of Dumas but also plenty of spirit.

Marlene Dumas, Helena’s Dream (2008)© Marlene Dumas, Kunsthalle Bielefeld. Photo: Peter Cox
Pornography also haunts this exhibition, as it does perhaps any consideration of photography today. Tate corrals the most sexually explicit images in a room to themselves, where you can reflect on the literal facelessness of such imagery.

Dumas has a complex relation with the face; she will do violence to it, flooding it with colour, cutting into the paper she works on; and yet every face remains human.

Masks, after all, are only partial abstractions. The dark eyes of The Painter belong to a prepubescent girl whose nakedness is troubling. Naked children once occupied a cheerful place within art history - just think of all those fluttering putti. But naked children occupy a more troublesome position in the history of photography. This girl wears a grim expression and paint-stained hands which appears to encapsulate the situation.

There is more art historical engagement to come. It is three short years since Gerhard Richter had an exhibition here at Tate, and now Dumas brings us into dialogue with one of his most famous themes.

She too paints the corpse of Ulrike Meinhof in profile, working from the same image as the German painter. Dumas calls her painting Stern, after the magazine in which it appeared. But who might be the Stern here (or star, in translation): Meinhof or Richter?

In the constellation of painters who work over photographs, there is plenty of room. And as society becomes more image driven, we need analysts like Dumas to show us just what we are surrounded by and what opens in the gap between photographic image and empirical reality.

To a lesser degree we are all burdened with images, as the title of this exhibition suggests. But a 21st century artist, and a painter to boot, is surely the most burdened of all by this proliferation.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday and Saturday). Admission £12.70-£16 (free for under-12s, family tickets available). Book online.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More from Culture24's Art section:

Great Expectations: Adam Chodzko sends artworks to B&Q, a pumping station and the Guildhall in Kent

Artist's Statement: Alex Chinneck on hanging a car upside down outside the Southbank Centre

Artist's Statement: Dryden Goodwin on Unseen: The Lives of Looking at the National Maritime Museum

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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