Up Against It

Fundação de Serralves is one of the most picturesque and prestigious of cultural institutions in the world. Only two weeks remain for visitors to take in an important solo exhibition by world-renowned painter Marlene Dumas, at the museum of the foundation located in the tranquil park setting in Porto.


Marlene Dumas ‘The Sleep of Reason’ 2009. Oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist & David Zwirner, NYC

Marlene Dumas was born in and grew up in South Africa, where she initially studied art in the 1970’s at Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Arts. She later travelled to Amsterdam to take up a residency programme at de Atliers. She has lived and worked in the Netherlands ever since.

Dumas first rose to prominence in the 1980’s with her work being identified with the so-called ‘wild painting’, a tendency of variants on the German Neo-expressionist or Neue Wilden school that evolved local strands throughout northern Europe. Like Baselitz or Kiefer, Dumas’ paintings had a free gestural immediacy and an intentionality in their identification with the primitive, perhaps a sign of refusal to comply with the dominant aesthetics of the international art circuit at the time. But, where Kiefer or Baselitz’s work addressed the political –or realpolitik- landscape of Europe in the second half the twentieth century through its painterly traditions, Dumas took the same kernel of concern and honed in on more specific politics; those of gender and identity.

Her poignant and intense paintings of the sex workers that co-inhabited her home city of Amsterdam, for example, were amongst the first to receive international attention. But, far from cheap provocation, Dumas’ oeuvre has always been concerned with representations based in staunchly historic traditions, particularly those depicting human beings at extremities of the life cycle; the funerary portrait tradition, for example. The horrifying and deeply moving images of clapped-out old hookers drawing on such traditions –and laterally evoking others such as the nineteenth century humanity of Naturalism- would become inseparable from key positions in painting at the end of the twentieth century.

Contra O Muro ( Against the Wall) at Serralves is effectively a reworking of her first solo exhibition at David Zwirner, her representing gallery in NYC, earlier this year. It is a body of work throughout her long career that most directly refers to her experiences of growing up in Apartheid era South Africa. As such, it is perhaps her most directly political and spiritual of exhibitions. The political ramifications of divisions, both literal and constructed, are a key motif. The ways in which Apartheid constructed a cultural and racial barrier between the inhabitants of the South Africa of her youth are echoed in the motif of a physical wall: the Wailing Wall in one painting becomes a loaded image, effortlessly mirroring the actual walls – such as the one in Gaza depicted in a painting hung opposite- built as architectures of political division.

Dumas’ work has often featured spiritual aspects, both in terms of the relationships with religious connections to European traditions of painting and in terms of the shocking intimacy of a more personal side of spirituality. But, in ‘Against the Wall’, these take on both a personal and more publicly political journey: echoes of Apratheid’s treatment of political prisoners are found in images that allude to the treatment of both Palestinians in Gaza and Arab detainees in Iraq; devote Jewish men praying at the Wailing Wall stand as both an actual image of spirituality without critique and a reminder of the religious seeds of major conflicts…


Marlene Dumas ‘The Wall’ 2009. Oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist & David Zwirner, NYC

Perhaps more than ever, in this particular show, one sees Dumas reconciling the intuitive approach to making images with the inescapability of the documentary and cinematic images that have fascinated her peers, that tiny select group of painters redefining the understanding of the representational painted image at the highest levels of the contemporary art world.

Marlene Dumas has exhibited in a range of prestigious international institutions and top commercial galleries. Her solo institutional exhibition credits alone include The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Los Angeles; The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Tokyo; Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Baden-Baden; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, New York; Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Barcelona and Tate Gallery, London, amongst many others.


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