Revue by Marlene Dumas at the Palazzo Grassi – exhausting and uplifting at the same time
The first photo that we see in Marlène Dumas’ exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi is tiny: 30cm by 40cm. From the bottom of the steps leading from the Palazzo’s atrium to the landing on which it hangs, it looks little more than a bloody stain on an otherwise largely blank canvas.
Approach, and the image merges: a kiss, stolen, like so many other Dumas motifs, from a cinematographic image (this time, that of Jean Renoir campaign party, made in 1936). What sets Dumas apart from so many others who use found imagery is the pictorial detail that elevates his works beyond the source material and into a pictorial realm entirely his own. There, with the brush, she can’t just reinterpret it, but seemingly do whatever she wants, pushing the boundaries of the absurd, whether through the extreme use of color, the abrupt abstraction of a part of the body or a face, or apparent bursts of pure pictorial reverie. . The power of Kissed (2018) is in its polarities: the deep red of the man’s face, the pale blue-lilac of the woman’s cheek – the sky, reflected in the woman’s face, tells us a guide to written and selected notes by Dumas with his studio manager Jolie van Leeuwen. In these same notes, Dumas reflects on the ambiguity of his image. After the first kiss, she writes, “there is always the fear of a fall.”
It is on this tightrope that the work of Dumas walks. I know of no other painter who seduces and repels so brutally, even in a single painting. And this is reflected beautifully in the Grassi show, which uses the building’s two-story layout to frame the show thematically. Indeed, these are two retrospective journeys, each triggered by recent works. The first floor, “Myths and mortals”, is inspired by the rooms inspired by Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonisexhibited at David Zwirner in New York in 2018, and the second level, “Double Takes”, is informed by a series of paintings based in part on Charles Baudelaire‘s prose poem, The Spleen in Paris, presented for the first time at the Zeno X gallery in Antwerp. The curator of the exhibition, Caroline Bourgeois, writes that the paintings and ink drawings organized around the two groups of works “echo” them. And these are deep reverbs. Although it’s lightly hooked, the works from different decades are in productive, often uplifting conversation.
The themes basically mean that more erotic and body paintings appear on the first floor, and more geopolitical and deadly images are upstairs. But these concerns are intimately linked in many performance halls. So much here is big on mystery. Red Moon is a latter-day Ophelia, a woman in the blackest water lit up in the sky, deep crimson bands on the water, her face glowing almost with white heat. Dumas tells us she may not be drowning, but “free-floating, comfortable with her independence.” Yet she has cold, gray lips.
Time and again, moments like this have stopped me in my tracks. Dumas is an endlessly daring painter, in the way she uses paint, in what she asks her medium to do, in the scale and formats she chooses for her work, and in the way she reflects on the art of the past. Immaculate (2003) is a tiny, fuzzy painting of a vulva, not even a foot tall, but it struggles with the theological idea of immaculate conception – where is bodily pleasure to be born without original sin, it seems. she ask.
The peculiarity of nudity (1987), a very early work, is a three meter wide painting of her then lover, and later life partner Jan Andriesse, eerily tapering towards her feet. The visual source for the painting was a number of joined Polaroids, but Dumas eliminates the joins. The distortions are added to an elegantly stretched figuration reminiscent of Egon Schiele. Yet there is an undeniable tenderness among the strangeness and the intensity.
There’s a lot of fun here too, even some downright funny moments, like the figure’s bright purple penis. D-rection (1999) or a caricatured rat, crudely drawn and filled with a grey-green mist, a rather pathetic creature. And yet in the notes of The rat (2020), Dumas tells us that it is “about these times, and about Time”. You could say that about almost everything here, in the best sense of the word. The paintings around the rodent, triggered by the prose poems of Baudelaire, have a mourning specific to their literary source but also to the time we live in. Among them, a portrait of Baudelaire that seems dripping with the melancholy and disgust he felt in the streets of Paris, as described in the book, but also a beautiful and tender portrait of Hafid Bouazza, the writer and translator with who Dumas was working on Rate of Paris works when he died.
His most political paintings – those that respond to the humanitarian catastrophe of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories – are by turns painful and touching. Death by association (2002) depicts a dead Palestinian boy with a Quran on his chest with lyrical sweetness. But figure in a landscape (2010) fills the canvas with one of the vast walls separating the communities of Israel and Palestine, under which a tiny figure walks. It is brutal, both in its sardonic and anti-romantic title, and in the rawness of its application of paint. Dumas is a great painter of anger.
Throughout, the show is like a body shot and intoxicating at the same time. It’s exhausting and uplifting. But the final tableau, alone in a room, offers a solemn coda. Personage (2020) is based on a plaster copy of Auguste Rodin’s Lugubrious Face, one of the studies for his unfinished work gates of hell. It’s almost runny, a beige-pink wash with the sorry face written on it, in quick strokes. Dumas painted it “during a period of anguish”, the notes tell us – this may refer to Andriesse’s cancer diagnosis; he passed away in 2021. But we hardly need the confirmation. Anguish is inscribed in the material of the painting. Looks like it was painful to do. Yet he does everything he has to, with a quiet insistence that resonates out of this extraordinary spectacle.
• Marlène Dumas: for an indefinite period, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, until January 8