“Desperation Befell Me”: elusive painter Marlene Dumas on the struggle to paint through a year marred by tragedy


At first glance, 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire and famous contemporary painter Marlene Dumas may not seem to have much in common. But an unprecedented exhibition of Dumas’s work in Paris shows the fascinating overlaps between the two minds.

Until January 30, 2022, the Musée d’Orsay is exhibiting 15 paintings by the famous artist inspired by Baudelaire’s famous collection of writings entitled The Parisian spleen, a compilation of 50 poems from 1869 that captures raw life in the French city of its time. Dumas’s recent paintings of elusive figures on the verge of ambiguous actions and thoughts suit Baudelaire’s meditations on modern society and its paradoxical joys which are often mixed with hidden cruelty.

For the first time, works by a contemporary artist are also hung alongside Impressionist masters on the top floor of the Musée d’Orsay in a second simultaneous exhibition entitled “Conversations”, where three major works by Dumas are presented.

But the spectacle was shrouded in sadness. His partner, artist Jan Andriesse, died of cancer earlier this year, and Dumas also lost his dear friend Hafid Bouazza, the famous Moroccan-Dutch writer who helped launch and shape the concept of the exhibition in Paris with Dumas. He died of the Covid in April. “Frustration, anger and sorrow over the suffering and eventual loss of two lives that are so dear to me have reigned,” Dumas said.

Portrait of Hafid Bouazza by Marlene Dumas in the “Spleen de Paris” presentation at the Musée d’Orsay. Credit: Sophie Crépy.

Baudelaire painting

Born in 1953 in Cape Town and based in Amsterdam, Afrikaans-speaking Dumas’ subjects are often depicted in large format, usually without a recognizable landscape or background. His paintings touch on all states and aspects of human nature, including social injustice and the sexually explicit. She renders them in a combination of fluid washes of bleeding pigments, capturing the unspoken tension and multiple narratives on one canvas.

In the works exhibited at the Musée de Paris, his art is particularly captivating, echoed by the words of Baudelaire (the current exhibition shares the same title as Baudelaire’s seminal work and coincides with the bicentenary of his birth this year).

“On time, [Baudelaire’s poems] Made me quite sad and anxious because there is a lot of disgust and a feeling of being tortured in life, ”she said. Baudelaire expresses “the fight against the evil of the soul and the injustice of political systems”, opposing it to “the stupidity and the vanity of the rich idle women and the so-called gentlemen”.

that of Marlène Dumas

Presentation “Conversations” by Marlene Dumas at the Musée d’Orsay. Credit: Sophie Crépy.

In the exhibition there are two portraits by Dumas of the now famous poet, where his ghostly image seems to gaze with piercing judgment on our collective souls. ” The stories [in his works] unexpectedly changed direction to make you boomerang in the face, ”she said.

“Desperation hit me. How to paint these conflicting emotions and these poetic leaps concentrated in unique works? I tried to portray a man who showed something of all of that on his face.

<I>Jeanne Duval</i> (2020).  Private collection, Madrid.  Courtesy of Marlène Dumas.  Photo: © Peter Cox, Eindhoven

Jeanne Duval (2020). Private collection, Madrid. Courtesy of Marlène Dumas. Photo: © Peter Cox, Eindhoven

The battle of painting

Dumas is open to certain struggles within his creative process, and in fact seems to be leaning into them. While a completed job may appear to have been done quickly, it is usually the result of trial and error, and careful exploration of the temperament of the painting. Some works are done in rapid impulses while others are done in a slow and tense process – both are extreme working methods. “Painting is exploring your fears, but I also feel that it can be beautiful in one way or another,” she said.

These fears took the form of a raw heartache during the realization of the exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, when tragedy befell her life. “Hafid, who inspired me so much by his own similarities with Baudelaire… contracted the Covid while my companion and father of my daughter was dying of cancer. I felt like the desperate old lady in The Parisian spleen“Dumas said, referring to the character she portrayed in the show. his painting The old woman’s despair (2020) shows a woman almost entirely erased of black pigment, curled up in a corner.

<a class=Charles Baudelaire (2020). Courtesy of Marlène Dumas. Photo: © Peter Cox, Eindhoven.” width=”811″ height=”1024″ data-srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2021/11/Marlene-Dumas_Charles-Baudelaire-811×1024.jpg 811w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2021/11/Marlene-Dumas_Charles-Baudelaire-238×300.jpg 238w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2021/11/Marlene-Dumas_Charles-Baudelaire-40×50.jpg 40w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2021/11/Marlene-Dumas_Charles-Baudelaire-1521×1920.jpg 1521w” sizes=”(max-width: 811px) 100vw, 811px”/>

Charles Baudelaire (2020). Courtesy of Marlène Dumas. Photo: © Peter Cox, Eindhoven.

The artist nevertheless managed to frequent the Musée d’Orsay before the opening of the exhibition and was fully involved in the creation and hanging of “Conversations”, which presents some of his older works in dialogue with 19e-masters of the century. The project was intimidating. “It makes you humble,” she said. “It breaks your heart to see these guys really good again!” ”

Dumas decided to hang a large 2006 portrait of his friend, Moshekwa, near Van Gogh Starry Night, which greets visitors as they enter the galleries. Van Gogh “talks about not painting the wall behind his friend’s head, but infinity,” she said.

Holding her own opposition to towering male artists is nothing new for Dumas, who was never part of any artistic movement or group when she studied at the prestigious 1963 Ateliers in Haarlem, The Netherlands. She did figurative paintings when concept art still dominated the art scene and consciously chose to “compete with the boys a bit” early in her career, as she told reporters.

that of Marlène Dumas

Presentation “Spleen de Paris” by Marlene Dumas at the Musée d’Orsay. Credit: Sophie Crépy.

Today Dumas is credited as one of the most influential painters alive. His work was the subject of a highly regarded retrospective in 2014 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, who traveled to Tate Modern in London and the Beyeler Foundation in Basel.

When asked about the much-vaunted popularity of painting today, she seems to have retained some of the competitive judgment that motivated her in her early years. “There are a lot of terrible paintings,” she said. “Maybe more than ever. Everyone also takes selfies. Maybe less people should think they like paintings. They don’t always even take the time to look at what they say they like.

It’s hard not to agree. And in his own exhibition at the d’Orsay, some works admittedly work best in the larger context of the exhibition, while others are stand-alone masterpieces and among his strongest creations. Either way, it’s a safe guess that Dumas isn’t trying to please everyone, especially not when she puts everything she has and everything she loves on the canvas so that we took it with us in any way.

“Le Spleen de Paris” and “Conversations” by Marlene Dumas are on view at the Musée d’Orsay until January 30, 2022.

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