ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Marlene Dumas - 2008 - Glass Tears [EN, interview]
Conversation with Marlene Dumas
The ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ exhibition of work by Marlene Dumas (b. 1953) occupies both galleries at Zeno X in Antwerp. The title refers not to the book by Hemingway, but to the eponymous LP with the soundtrack of the film starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Dumas hasn’t seen the film, but she has long loved the picture of a crying Ingrid Bergman on the record sleeve. Exactly one year ago Dumas lost her mother. ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ consists of a thematically coherent but formally varied series of paintings which, following her recent loss, crystallize the main theme of Dumas’ work: that love, death and sex cannot be captured in images… Or can they?
The exhibition is structured around the painting Einder (Horizon), depicting a coffin. Dumas’ mother had asked Marlene several times to paint flowers; here at last she has done so. The flowers float on a sumptuously layered and gentle nocturnal blue. The coffin recedes into a blue, velvet night, which returns in other paintings in strong, dark surfaces that add a watery facture, and in the hard eyes of the self-portrait, and in the black globs of Waterproof Mascara, and in a painting based on the porn film Blue Movie in which Marilyn Monroe appeared. In several paintings there are very thinly painted sections which I had never seen in her work before.
- (Pointing to the painting ‘Crying in Public’ based on a photograph of a crying Marilyn Monroe.) I have never seen such a large, watery section in your paintings before. How did you do it? With dirty water mixed with white spirit?
Marlene Dumas: Yes. I don’t like cleaning my brushes and so I plunge them into water to stop the paint drying. And sometimes I use that water. Hence the two parts of the painting. On the left you have a strip with an illusionistic area in which I achieve photographic characteristics and a degree of volume, and on the right you have that large, indefinable area. Without that abstract area it wouldn’t be a painting. A painting is an object, not a representation.
I have never compared paintings to music or dance before, but if I was to describe the process of painting Crying in Public as a physical performance, irrespective of the theme, then the painting of the right-hand side went ‘woohoo’, and here it was something like ‘brrrrrr’ and here ‘tititititi’. (She performs these movements bending forward, because the canvas was lying on the floor when she painted it. You can watch this interview on Vimeo.)
When I was young I wanted to make abstract paintings, but I couldn’t find a specific form of my own. I didn’t want to be an umpteenth Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. Eventually I returned to the human figure because it still enables me to make abstract paintings. I adore the work of Clyfford Still: large surfaces in a single colour with a little line in a different colour at the side.
- In your case, that line or smudge is often black, purple, dark blue, light blue or pink.
Dumas: Yes, I used to see myself as an expressionist painter until I discovered that the impressionists were the first to work with bright pink and light blue. I am really an impressionist too! (Laughs.) But if I painted you, of course I would need light blue for your eyes. It would be a beautiful abstract painting! Just as I made a beautiful, solitary hillock of Margaux Hemingway’s genitalia! (Laughs.) In every one of my paintings there is tension between the materiality and the illusionistic. As soon as I sense that I may be taking the photographic or the illusionistic too far, I return to the gesture.
The large area made with dirty water, which you pointed to here, is not a new development for me, but it is the first time I have used it like that in a painting. I try to produce paintings that are as graceful, playful and airy as my drawings and my earlier watercolour paintings. I try to be guided by what happens when you perform certain actions… I painted this Marilyn for an exhibition in the United States of America. I thought it would be a good image for America. All eyes are on that country again: will they vote sensibly this time round or will they bungle it again? The painting was based on the only photograph of a crying Marilyn I could find: she is crying because of her separation from Joe DiMaggio. The exhibition contains other paintings which are based on images of crying actresses, like Romy Schneider and Ingrid Bergman, but that’s just a coincidence really. What interested me is the border between private and public emotions. That’s why the painting is called Crying in Public. It’s also why I made that little work based on Man Ray’s photograph of a woman crying glass tears. I didn’t want to create an emotional exhibition, but neither did I want to ignore my own recent experiences. It is an exhibition about women, mothers, daughters, dead women, crying women, flowing tears and flowing water. But it is also an exhibition about paintings, about the painting as an object, and about the impossibility of capturing certain things in images.
(We are now standing in front of the painting Infinity, depicting a large mouth.)
- How did you paint those thin stripes? With a very fine brush, with a very large brush, with a hardened brush?
Dumas: (Laughs.) No, I very rarely use fine brushes. However, I often paint with paper towels, what do you call it, kitchen roll. I wiggle it or I dab it a bit. This is clearly a kitchen-roll painting. (Laughs.) The painting you see there is called Einder. I wanted to do something with my mother’s funeral. This is a very different sort of painting from Crying in Public, which almost danced its way into being, unlike Einder which I had difficulty with. It is made up of lots of layers. I tried really hard… Sometimes when you try too hard… Under it are numerous paintings of graves and coffins. Eventually I decided to add flowers and I asked my daughter Helena if she would like to paint the first one. She took a piece of chalk and drew this flower… Then I still had to paint a coffin, but I am not good at perspective. So I asked my partner Jan Andriesse if he would paint a line. It is a rather wobbly line…
- I love the seemingly nocturnal aspect of the deep, tender blue…
Dumas: Did they let you in here earlier? Had you already seen this painting?
Dumas: This really is the first time you’ve seen it? (Silent.) I am also really pleased with the blue…
- One of the paintings is called ‘Hiroshima mon Amour’.
Dumas: That was one of my favourite films when I was young. I love the mix of politics, love and art. That’s also why I wanted to be a painter. (Walks over to another painting.) This is a portrait of the South-African poet Elisabeth Eybers, who died in December 2007, three months after my mother. In a letter of my mother’s I found a reference to Elisabeth Eybers’ anthology Einder. I had not understood what the word ‘einder’ meant before. I didn’t much like the poems either; I only came to appreciate them later in life…
How would I describe Elisabeth Eybers? In a wonderful poem she says that people talk about heaven, but she herself, she writes, wants ‘to decompose thoroughly’. When I painted this portrait, I thought of Richard Avedon’s portrait of his father who was terminally ill with cancer. I think it’s one of the finest portraits ever made, partly because of the way the camera captures the fear in the father’s eyes… Nobody can live for ever.
(Turns gracefully.) Opposite that almost caricaturally drawn portrait I have hung a work based on Man Ray’s photograph of a woman with glass tears. I would never have thought I could base a painting on such an aesthetic work, but then I thought of Picasso’s portrait of the crying Dora Maar (the most beautiful painting of a woman crying) and saw how I could make the photograph work as a painting. First you have the illusionistic, photographic elements. Then there is the Picasso-like nose. And then you have those strange scribbles in the bottom right-hand corner: that’s me. (Laughs.)
Montagne de Miel, 3 September 2008