Marlene Dumas

This is the second time my tutor suggests I study works by Marlene Dumas, in particular the subtlety of her application of fluid media. The superficial google searches I have managed until now have put me off and I have not yet gotten as far as to actually study her work in terms of technique. Her subject matter to me is very hard to take in. Widewalls’ page about female painters describes her work as “defining the anxieties of human existence” (…) and her subject matter “including newborn babies, young strippers, and models but also murdered people and bodies in morgues.” At first glance I perceived nothing subtle about her work, whether in subject or execution. I decided, however, to put aside this initial reaction and try to understand what my tutor wants me to see.

As a first step I chose pictures I find less violent and shocking so as to make it easier for me to actually look.

Jan Hoet in memoriam

This one I like very much:

Jan Hoet - M Dumas
Marlene Dumas: Jan Hoet in memoriam, 1992 (Source: Invaluable)

The tones in the face are expertly built up to give it volume and expression. As in the etchings by Zorn I have looked at recently there are small but important shifts in tone, small areas with a lighter or darker tone that model the face. This is especially worked through in the eyes and around the lips. Here she used the darkest tones very close to the lightest, both in small but significant areas. It gives the portrait a very intense look. Painting in inks as opposed to the etchings, Dumas has an other feature at her disposal: the border between tones can be sharp or gradual, straight or fringed. The portrait is kept almost monochrome with the exception of the nose where she used a subtle blue.

I think Dumas started with a wet in wet layer in a light tone on which to build more layers going gradually darker. These layers are put on in various states of wet/dry to achieve a range of soft and hard edges. The effect is an expressive yet very realistic portrait.

Dumas then added marks in white chalk or pastel, a line framing the face, a single line below the nose and stripes in the background and over the torso. They seem so out of place and superimposed that I think Dumas wanted something very specific with them. She does not do this usually in her portraits. The roughly drawn lines contrast very strongly with the realism of the portrait, enhancing the latter. At the same time they frame it and thus remove it masklike from the torso and the background. Maybe they are about a death mask. The white chalk is reminiscent of the plaster used for them. Death masks are accurate casts of a face yet all in white, removed from life.

I very much like the contrast of the fluid ink and the broken quality of the chalk line. It puts a strong accent on parts of the drawing. They play very well together.


In many of her other portraits Dumas uses less tonal variation. The thing that strikes me in them is the harsh contrast between a smooth light area for the face and strong very dark  tones used in eyes, nose and mouth. These portraits are less realistic. I feel they are more about inner qualities, a raw nakedness of the human being. An example is Supermodel from 1995.

In this Dumas very carefully models the lips and nose. The eyes, too, are built up with several tonal variations, but less realistically. They contain the only white marks in the picture, drawing the gaze of the viewer and making us look into the portrait’s eyes. The rest of the face is all in the same tone. It looks smooth and young, but also featureless and anonymous. The human quality is reduced to the eyes, nose and lips. This picture has nothing of the suave smoothness of the supermodel that usually lures us to not look more closely. She looks sad and vulnerable.

An other striking feature of this portrait is the total lack of background and hair. It is only a face and a neck, the latter not even connected to the face, only a pointer to the possibility of a body. Humans recognize each other mainly by the face, we are programmed to read subtle differences in faces and facial expressions. The most important landmarks we go by, science has shown, are eyes and mouth, to a certain degree, the nose. These are the features Dumas has carved out thoroughly. By doing that and leaving out the rest of the head and the background Dumas has stripped the portrait of all superficial elements. And such it looks, stripped, naked.


I think I have managed a careful approach to an artist I would have shied away from. It is interesting to see how my view changed. I am still no fan of the cruder and more shocking of her pictures but I feel I am more open to her work than I was before. It seems I have edged my way to an entrance. I can now understand some of the things she does and I see a purpose behind her work where before I felt like a question mark. This is a beginning on which to build I think.

I also noticed that my unwillingness to look at the pictures made me miss their finer points. I saw crude marks, stark contrasts and subjects I did not want to see. To find fine tonal variations like in the lips of Supermodel, or the blue in the nose of Jan Hoet was a surprise. Something to remember, I think. First impressions may deceive.



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