OCA Study Visit: Marlene Dumas – The Image as Burden, Tate Modern


Marlene Dumas – The Image as Burden, Tate Modern

A day of firsts: my first study visit, first experience of Marlene Dumas, first exhibition in Tate Modern, first group critique/discussion.

I had previously missed out on a couple of study visits due to being away, so I was looking forward to finally experiencing one, albeit with some trepidation.  There was, however, no need to worry, our tutor Angela Rogers, was extremely approachable, very familiar with the artist’s work and eager to listen to our opinions, conclusions and summations. The group was of mixed painting students, from first or second coursers like me, to 2 or 3 studying for their Masters in Fine Art, we also came from all over the country and one from just outside Naples – that stopped me whining about my 6am start!!!

We had all been given some brief notes about Marlene Dumas and links to a couple of video clips so that we didn’t go in to the exhibition completely cold.  We split into smaller groups of 3-4 of similar levels, which helped our confidence and enabled us to relate to each other’s experiences and observations. This was a large exhibition 11 or 12 rooms in all, therefore we had intended to whip round quickly and note what caught our attention and then revisit those pieces in more depth.  In reality, I think many of us were quite overwhelmed immediately with some of the work, so were spending more time discussing, making notes and sketches as well as finding out about each other’s entire OCA learning experiences.

After the previous week’s visit to the John Singer Sargent exhibition, this was about as different as you could get.  These images were hard-hitting, emotional and deeply thought-provoking.  I found that I didn’t have to like the work for it to have an effect on me.  Dumas would take images from magazine, newspapers and news footage that made her feel “something” and work on her interpretation of that image. Every brush stroke seemed to be dripping with messages, emotion and meaning.  She often worked in series – examples:

  • Rejects 1994 – ongoing, these were displayed on one large wall in a rectangular, landscape, grid layout, spaced well enough apart to be viewed individually or as a whole. These were quite disturbing in their appearance. Features, especially the eyes were scratched out, redrawn and sometimes the paper was torn out and another set of eyes or mouth was underneath. Stood in front of the display – I had the impression of faces with latex masks in various states of decay or removal.  Was the real person trying to make themselves heard or did they not want the world to see the “real” them. This was only the beginning of the exhibition – no wonder it took us a while to get round the entire show!
  • Black Drawings 1991-2, the description alongside this exhibit explained that these drawings were Dumas’ reaction to the then, European perception of black Africans. As the artist was born in South Africa and considered South African Dutch, and moved to Holland in the 70s, it was an interesting concept. Maybe it also says something about the perception of her as a person too? These studies were grouped into a square, grid-like display, each was fairly close to the other which made it more of a singular work, Was this also a comment on European perception?
  • Great Men 2014 – present, in the video link we were given prior to the study visit, Dumas explained that one motivation for this series was the recent attitude in Russia to homosexuality – in that it has now been made illegal there – such a backward step. Dumas began portrait studies of homosexual men throughout history that have contributed greatly to civilisation, be it in the arts, science or politics. Alan Turing was one of her subjects, a man who saved a great many lives and directly helped the second world war come to an end – plus left the legacy of advances in computer science. Oscar Wilde is another, a brilliant author of our now classic novels and plays and an acerbic wit. Pjotr Tsjaikofski – probably more commonly known in the West as Peter Tchaikofsky the great Russian composer – the quote that Dumas cites beneath her study is that there is “Nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature”.

There are many images that make one question the world and its inadequacies, the human conditions of hate and love, peace and war.  There was an exhibit dedicated to the loss of her own mother which explored the grief she felt and this was palpable throughout the display. During our chat together as a group after the viewing, Angela asked us to consider not only the work itself but how it was displayed, I have touched on some of these observations above regarding the series of paintings, and throughout the exhibition, there was a flow of work that related to, or, opposed each other in their subject matter in subtle ways, eg prior to the room dedicated to her mother’s passing, there was a room concentrating on her young daughter, exploring the innocence and carefree nature of a child with her mother.  Some smaller works were given more space around them, which seemed to elevate their importance belying their physical size.

All in all, this was a fascinating exhibition, which although maybe a little too large to absorb all there was to see, took me into the realms of more contemporary artworks and made me keen to see more.


The above link is still current although may be discontinued as the exhibition finishes.



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