“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 contemporary star painter Marlene Dumas don’t 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 Paris Rate, a compilation of 50 poems from 1869 that captures raw life in the French city of its time. Dumas’s contemporary paintings of elusive figures on the verge of ambiguous actions and thoughts suit Baudelaire’s meditations on modern society and its paradoxical joys that are often mixed with latent 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 in 2020, and Dumas also lost his dear friend Hafid Bouazza, the famous Moroccan-Dutch writer who helped launch and shape the concept of the exhibition at Paris with Dumas. He died of Covid last year before the show opened. “Frustration, anger and grief 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, the Afrikaans-speaking subjects of Dumas 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 feeling of being tortured at the time of 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 idle rich 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 for a boomerang in your 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 showing 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 to paint

Dumas is open to certain struggles within his creative process and in fact seems to be leaning into them. Although a completed job may appear to have been done quickly, but it is usually the result of extensive trial error and exploration of the paint’s temperament. 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 “Paris Spleen,” Dumas said, referring to a character she portrayed on the show. The old woman’s despair, produced in 2020, shows a barely discernible woman curled up in a corner.

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

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-th century Masters. The project, which marks the first time that a contemporary artist has been placed around works from the collection, 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—The work, hung near that of Van Gogh Starry Night, welcomes visitors as they enter the galleries. Van Gogh, “talks about not painting the wall behind his friend’s head, but infinity,” the artist said.

Holding her own opposition to towering male artists is nothing new to Dumas, who was never part of any movement or artistic group where she studied at the prestigious 1963 Ateliers in Haarlem, the Netherlands. She did figurative paintings when conceptual art still dominated the art scene, she 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 she is considered one of the most influential painters in the world, a frequent participant in major museums around the world, including a 2014 retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, who traveled to Tate Modern in London and the Beyeler Foundation in Basel in 2015.

When asked about the much-vaunted popularity of painting today, she seems to have retained some of that competitive judgment. “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 her own exhibition at the Orsay, some works work best in the larger context of the exhibition, while others are stand-alone masterpieces and among her strongest creations ever made. 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 display at the Musée d’Orsay until January 30, 2022.

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