Marlene Dumas and Social Identity


Marlene Dumas is famed for her artistic works which focus on the contemporary issues in the society. She has a remarkable body of work dealing with several ardent and recent subjects. Her paintings have been known to leave the viewer with a hot or cold feeling i.e. Dumas works usually have a great impact on the viewer and most often leave the viewer with some food for thought. Marlene Dumas can be considered to be a visual accountant, expressing issues in our day to day lives in the form of paintings. The following thesis explores Marlene Dumas techniques her background and analyzes some of her paintings. 

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Marlene Duma is a white, South African born painter. Her works mainly reflect on her life as she was raised under the Apartheid system. Marlenes works focus on childrens paintings are very influential psychologically. They cover existentialist themes and often raise the question whether the child is doing what is considered normal in the painting. She expresses the formation of social identity through the children paintings. Marlene Dumas. Marlene Dumas Selected Works.


Dumas was born in 3rd August 1953 in Cape Town, South Africa. Marlene Dumas was brought during the Apartheid time a time of neo-expressionism and conceptualism. She was privileged since she was a white but at the same time disempowered for being a woman. Dumas spoke out against apartheid rule even if it gave her privileges as a white. She was brought up in her familys Vineyard slightly beyond the city limits in the Kulis river region a semi-rural place. She spoke Afrikaans, which was the native language at the place. Dumas joined the Michaelis School of Fine Art a branch of the University of Cape Town around the 1970s. At the time television was yet to be innovated and hence Dumas got a lot of inspiration of her art from the process of reproduction. However, most of her inspiration came from the works of Diane Arbus, a photographer. The works of Diane Arbus introduced her to the intricacies of expressing the human form and the burden of the image. Dumas later got a scholarship to study art at Dutch artist-run institute de Ateliers and moved to Amsterdam in 1976. She now works and lives in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Development of her style

Marlenes background during the apartheid system reveals a time of cultural division. The development of Dumas style has a large basis on the times she lived in. She gets her inspiration from; snapshots, notes, drawings, personal snapshots, Polaroid photographs, thousands of media images and torn sheets. Marlene states that in her work she uses second hand images, first hand emotions. The choice of Dumas to paint from photographs is political as she expresses the distressing manifestation of contemporary social life. Dumas main choice of expressing her art was through paint. She struggled to look for an appropriate way of representing her art to the people which would deliver the message.

When Dumas moved to Amsterdam, she took a break from painting and attempted to use collages for representing her art, but she later went back to her initial passion which is painting. Marlene used her space on the canvas to represent psychological tension and the human body and face as a vessel for her meaning. Her work is informed by anthropology, psychology and other sciences. Marlene Dumas various subjects which include; motherhood, pornography, gender and sexuality.

In the 1980s, there was a lot of violence in South Africa. The works of Dumas at these period of race and self-identity seemed to be a way of dealing with the guilt of observing the uprisings in South Africa from the safety of Netherlands. Several of her paintings such as; the albino and the white disease speak on racism. Her painting Het Kwaad is Banaal shows her unwanted association with apartheid simply because she is white. Soon, Marlene Dumas work begun to take a new posture. Her works began focusing on intimacy. It was in Netherlands that Dumas began using appealing traditions of portraiture that is bust and face view.

Dumas reveals the political and daily life events by representing the human body in painting. Dumas could be said to be a visual accountant. Through the daily life incidents, Marlene Dumas develops themes such as love, death and longing and expresses this in art of the human body. Dumas has produced collages, paintings, installations, prints and drawings in the past but now mainly does ink on paper and oil on canvas works. Her works focus on both the physical and psychological nature of the human body. Her works focus on the extremities of life from birth to death and also emphasis classical approaches of representation of Western art e.g. funerary portrait and the nude. Dumas critiques current ideas of social identity, race and sexuality.

The above painting was done by Marlene Dumas in 1994. It is an oil on canvas painting measuring 684x1280. The painting shows a naked child standing all alone. Dumas uses different colors on the painting to disregard any aspects of racism. The child is scared and ashamed of being naked. It gives the viewer a picture of an abandoned, homeless child who is in need of help.

The painting above titled, the cover up, was done by Dumas in 1994 using oil on canvas. The painting portrays a corruption of innocence. The painting shows a young child with his/her clothes lifted up above the head. It gives the viewer dark thoughts of exploitation and sexuality.

Technique and methods used

Marlene Dumas is interested in a painterly complexity that cannot be fully taken in at one viewing, but that discloses itself over time, at a second look, or as one gets to familiarize with a painting. The precise formal choices in her art (size, the illustrative technique, colors) attain an experimental characteristic, and, therefore, the painter changes her pictorial technique in accordance to the subjects represented. Unlike portraiture, which has had its confines and potential keenly tested and questioned over the previous century, and particularly through the last decades, figurative painting has been pushed aside as a conveyor of old meanings. In the post-war age figuration, tacitly figurative painting was seen as sturdily connected to the beliefs of the past, always weighed down by predetermined judgments. It was in this time that abstraction began to bloom, and in this precise era when modernity emerged.

Marlene uses pornographic image s as a source for her material yet always manages to transform the original message into one that is totally different or less disturbing than the original one. She uses sexual images to show the corruption of identity. For example in her painting bashfulness, the painting depicts a child in lingerie and the child feels ashamed in the scanty outfit. Marlene uses the aesthetic traditional forms of portraiture which we see often. The portraits look like they are real images of people. Marlene Dumas paintings force the audience to deal with the disturbing and heavy ideas depicted.

Dumas work is from newspaper clippings, magazine cut outs and photographs. Dumas works resemble portraiture. Dumas works sometimes show anatomically inaccurate drawings whereby the most important parts are the largest (bloom) just like a child draws. Dumas potraits of infants are upright so that they have the look of colossal pin-ups. Marlene dumas has worked with collages as well.

Appearance of Marlene Dumas paintings

Marlene Dumas style of painting is revolutionary since she comes up with her paintings from second hand images yet the emotion is first hand. Marlene Dumas is able to express contemporary issues in the society through painting. Her work is also revolutionary because she her work emphasizes traditional portraiture yet it cant be said to be portraiture. Dumas has a unique way of representing her feelings to the world. Marlenes paintings are highly ambiguous and different people will view the differently with some of her paintings being hard to interpret. Her paintings are results of the contemporary world, taken right from the happenings of our time, anticipated to resonate in form, content and medium.

Marlene Duma presents her subjects in different forms. Most of the subjects of Marlene Duma are depicted in compromising positions. The main subjects she uses are women and children. The women are presented sexually showing a lot of eroticism and pornography. In Marlene Dumas portrait of Measuring your own grave, Marlene attempts to portray the schizophrenic side of a woman whereby at one point the woman is being scorned at another she is needed and at an instance she is all alone. The children are presented in postures of exploitation and exposure to sexuality.

The image above shows one of Marlene Dumas paintings. The painting shows a woman with her hands on her head. The subject matter is gender discrimination. Dumas choses to use the woman as a subject matter since in the late 19th century women were still oppressed and werent given equal rights as men. When Dumas was in South Africa she was privileged since she is white but still disempowered due to her genders. The subject matter is different in that in this case Dumas uses a woman to depict the conceptual issues of the world.

The above painting was done by Marlene Dumas in 1995 titled, Give the people what they want. It is an oil on canvas painting. The painting shows a child who has exposed his genitals.

Audience perception

The image gives the viewer a sense of child exploitation and sexual harassment of the child. Marlene Dumas paintings are ambiguous and different people have different perceptions about them. Some audiences find the art to erotic while some are okay with it. The way in which the audience perceives the art is mostly influenced by their background.

How does it compare to artist from before who created something similar

Marlene dumas work despite being derived from other images is totally different from the images from which it is derived. A painting of Marlene as compared to something similar emits a different emotional response. Dumas paintings are in most cases much more emotionally involving than other similar art. The paintings of Dumas also have more content despite being simple. One can describe the painting of Dumas in more words than he/she can describe a similar painting.

Effect of her paintings

Her paintings are concurrently political, intimate and mental, and they grow by achieving a constant compromise between what is exposed and what is hidden, between the intensity of the emotions, theories of representation and physical value of the painting. Dumas paintings have an emotional and psychological effect on those who view them. They make the viewer think twice about the issues facing the society today. The paintings also provide an insight on history and the painters previous experiences. Her paintings leave the viewer with some sort of heaviness and may even be disturbing since some of them depict dead people, violence and pornography.

How did it change history?

Marlene Dumas? oeuvre has a remarkably complex nature. It is painting that does not come into being by any kind of chance; it is the outcome of long thought and commitment to the subject matter. The selected series portraits under discussion have an important role in the artists form of work. Furthermore, they are invested with a noteworthy power both in describing Marlene Dumas creative style and her influence to the address of contemporary art . Marlene Dumas has borrowed traditions from portrait making and used them to generate meaning in her oeuvre that the initial portrait artists couldnt have imagined.

The art of Marlene Duma has been of great influence to history. It shows us what happened in the early ages through the experience of Dumas. The paintings have given us insight to the intensity of the emotions felt earlier on. Conceptual art reached its extreme heights during the previous few decades, and it has not yet perished. Marlene Dumas works have a sturdy conceptual detail, but her paintings transcend the critical space of conceptualism. Her liking of painting and her commitment to her subjects alters her art into something more intimate. The fact that each part of her workings is carefully considered and portrayed seems to recall the continuance of painterly practice and the touch of the symbolic.

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Marlene dumas is one of the highly valued artists in the world. Her art has given way to new views of society. She also invented a new art which is yet to be explored by many artists, hence she is almost alone in her field. Art is a form of expression. It expresses what can be hardly said. Its an important part of the world not only for aesthetic beauty but also for expressing what is left unsaid. People who appreciate art tend to have a wider and much more interesting view of the world. Art should, hence, be encouraged.


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