“I make a distinction between drawings which I regard as autonomous works of art and drawings which are ‘just drawings.’”(1)
The works by Marlene Dumas in the Baloise collection, all from around 1990, are “just drawings.” While they should be viewed without imagining how they might be transposed into another medium or dimension, compared to Dumas’s extensive cycles of ink paintings and large-format washes from the 1990s, these are nevertheless clearly notes, intense and fleeting, channeling and interrupting a stream of ideas. The artistic medium in these drawings is impure, in the sense that watercolor, ink, chalk, pencil, and more are all used together. But above all it is impure because Dumas combines a figurative idea with a physical, scarcely targeted and not wholly controlled method of color and paint distribution—“hand and head in relaxed partnership.”(2) Dumas painted these pieces after the birth of her daughter Helena. They are part of a larger group of drawings and paintings in which she addresses the disconcerting transition between one’s own body and that of another person: “The Next Generation.”(3)
These works look as if they had been painted in a moment of absentmindedness. The paint application is raw, but not coarse, neither falsely nor naively clumsy, concise without being obvious. The drawings are the outcome of a striving for proximity to bodies and things. The latter are not primarily objects to be represented as pictorial likenesses; rather they kindle a desire for real physical contact. Expanding, merging pools of paint form a picture of a pregnant woman, whose thin arms and legs give her body the look of a newborn child. The title links the newborn, sketchily depicted in a few brushstrokes, with the notion of a headache. The oddly compressed figure of a child-adult, of a child’s body turning into a beetle, constitutes a riddle. For a long time nude male figures were absent from Dumas’s paintings until, in “Vader + Baby” the naked father—by dint of complicated associations—takes on the role of the omnipresent Mother of God.
Dumas has the ability to evoke far-reaching connections in simple compositions and to avoid allegorical generalizations in the process. She concentrates almost exclusively on painting people: isolated figures—figures in isolation—embody major themes, from love, eroticism, sexuality, gender identity, racism, and oppression, to grief, death, and art, all areas in which people negotiate relationships between one individual and another, and, more generally, the formation of the subject as such.
There is something especially disconcerting about the metaphorical comparability (or incomparability) of artistic production and the birth of a child, and these drawings—“just drawings”—that address the next generation, fundamentally challenge the notion of artistic creation.
(1) Marlene Dumas, “The Meaning of Drawing,” in Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, ed. Mariska van den Berg, Amsterdam 1998, pp. 34 f., here p. 34.
(3) Marlene Dumas, “The Next Generation,” in Dumas, Sweet Nothings, p. 93.