(Con)text is Everything: Marlene Dumas’ ‘Image as Burden’ at Tate Modern

Marlene Dumas‘s current show at Tate Modern is an art historian’s dream. I say this because while her work is temporally bound to an unmistakably culturally specific set of references, these references also belong to a far-reaching web which seems to touch upon fragments of multiple histories at once. That’s histories, plural, because there is really no such thing as a singular narrative history of progression. Dumas’ work shows that everything humans do (in life or in art, which are really the same thing) has already failed over and over again. She treats this both as a secret to be decoded and as a blatant flaw that it’s futile to try and hide, impossible to get away from. In the book ‘Sweet Nothings: Notes and Texts 1982-2014’, Dumas makes simple this incredibly complex idea, subtly explaining it better than I ever could: ‘I keep repeating what he said and what he said and what she said and what I said. I cannot look at anything without thinking what he said and what she said and what I said.’ This is my favourite thing about art history: whatever I look at, it reminds me of something else, whether it’s deliberate or not. I could feel revelations about so many different meanings bouncing at me from the walls of the gallery.

'The Image as Burden,' Marlene Dumas, 1993
‘The Image as Burden,’ Marlene Dumas, 1993

‘The Image as Burden’ takes its title from her (surprisingly small) 1993 oil painting depicting a dark-skinned figure carrying the pale, limp body of a female figure. Her original reference point was a still from 1936 film ‘Camille‘, starring Greta Garbo, but it seems to function as an image of multiple references: the classical Pièta, attitudes towards black masculinity (it is hard to ignore that Dumas grew up in South Africa when it was under apartheid), depictions of the feminine as a form of elevated purity, Roland Barthes‘ 1957 essay ‘The Face of Garbo’ dealing with cinematic myth, or, if we are to take the title literally, the nature of representation itself. Painting (especially figurative painting) has been declared dead so many times that Dumas has to be aware of the ‘burden’ this places upon her. Her images collect and protect meanings, while at the same time failing to exist as anything other than paint on canvas.


An impressive feature of the show was the use of text throughout the gallery space: usually, I am not one to pay much attention to wall labels, other than to find out the title and date of a work, but here they exquisitely illustrated the conceptually sophisticated nature of Dumas’ paintings. It’s easy to tell she is incredibly well read, and, as already seen, a great writer too. In her hands, painting and text are not so very different. Figures in explicit poses were comments on the eroticism of hiding meaning vs ‘the pornographic tendency to reveal everything’. Naked women, particularly, were used to highlight the gendered concepts of ‘stripping’ a painting’s meaning (perhaps a reference to Susan Sontag‘s essay ‘Against Interpretation’?).  In this way, etymology (the changing meanings of words according to different context) becomes something that can in a way be applied to images too. The etymology of the word ‘image’ itself was originally related to ‘imitation’ (‘I keep repeating what he said and what he said and what she said and what I said’…). Dumas’ wordplays were simple and yet so clever, I left with my mind both clear and full, grappling with incredibly complex ideas but also feeling like everything in the world made perfect sense.

I took more pictures of the wall labels than of the paintings!
I took more pictures of the wall labels than of the paintings!

– Olivia Bladen

Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden‘ is on show at Tate Modern until 10 May 2015; Bankside
London SE1 9TG; Open Daily 10AM – 6PM (Fridays & Saturdays till 10PM); Admission: Adults  £16.00 (without donation £14.50) Concession £14.00 (without donation £12.70)

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