The Phaidon Folio

Miss Interpreted: Marlene Dumas on Why Artists Should Embrace Ambiguity If They Want Staying Power

Miss Interpreted: Marlene Dumas on Why Artists Should Embrace Ambiguity If They Want Staying Power
The painter Marlene Dumas

In this interview excerpted from her eponymous Phaidon’s monograph, the celebrated South African portraitist Marlene Dumas sits down with her friend and artistic contemporary Barbara Bloom for a wide-ranging conversation on the strange nuances of life as an artist and the need to keep your critics guessing. For more on Dumas, including critical essays and a selection of the artist’s own writings, purchase the book here .

BARBARA BLOOM: Let’s start with the most clichéd interview question—“If you were marooned on a desert island, what would you want to have with you?”

MARLENE DUMAS: As a teenager my answer was always mascara. I was vain, but maybe it was also about putting on a mask or war paint. There’s no point in bringing a sketchbook—I could draw in the sand—and to bring a man or a mobile phone would be cheating. I think you’d probably somehow get the yellow pages there—to organize the place better for my arrival.

Maybe we should start with the wrong questions, like, “What is the origin of your relationship to political art?” or, “Can you say something about how being a woman has affected your art?” These really are the wrong questions! Maybe I should mention another one you asked me many years ago—“Would you still love me if I stopped making art?” I said, “Of course,” but that was an odd question—I don’t think you could stop making art.

At art school, I remember, my professor told me, “You’re a born painter.” I replied that I considered painting old-fashioned. All the smart artists were doing other kinds of work, so I wanted to do something else, but he said, “My poor girl, what else could you do?” In Holland I will never be accepted as a proper Dutch person because I can’t ride a bicycle, or swim, and I don’t have any hobbies. In that sense I enjoy seeing art as a form of play—you can play, you can lie, you can do all kinds of things.

One of the things I love as much as making art is being with plants. I’ve often thought of having a nursery where I’d grow strange hybrid plants or flowers. I could imagine this taking as much of my time, energy, and concentration as art. You don’t have anything like this that you’d like to do? Maybe you could deal poker in Vegas?

Apart from drawing things? I like to read—although I haven’t read a book from beginning to end for a very long time, so it’s all fragmentary reading. I also like to do nothing. You and I have a whole friendship predicated on loving to lie in bed and talk or watch TV. Some people can make it sound so serious—“Why do we make art?” They say it can enrich you, but I don’t know. Lately I’ve wondered if, instead of bringing you closer, it makes you withdraw.

Art Is Stories Told by Toads, 1988 Art is Stories Told by Toads, 1988

When I was interviewed by the artist Kiki Smith once, she surprised me by asking, “What do you do when you watch TV?” I said, “I don’t know, watch TV.” She said she always has something in her hands, she’s always making something, and when she looked at my art, she couldn’t visualize what I did when I was watching TV. She said, “Where’s the pleasure in making art if it’s not in this physical, haptic act of making something?” I’ve thought about this a lot since then, and I think the pleasure for me is the sense that visually, spiritually, intellectually, things are so interconnected. That for me is the absolutely pleasurable moment, when someone says something, or I’ll read something in the paper, or I’ll be walking down the street, and suddenly I realize this is the connection.

That’s also why I think we understand one another, that aspect of the connectedness of things. What you describe I always think of as a normal state
 of being, and assume that everyone has, and takes pleasure in, this way of seeing things, but this doesn’t seem to be the case at all. I am often surprised at how people point out the way I jump around so much, not finishing my sentences. They see it as a chaotic trait, while as you say, there’s something wonderful in the way you can see or do something at random, and then something new emerges by chance.

It’s almost like a literary structure—Mr. A and Miss B have an unresolved conflict in chapter one, but in chapter seven something unrelated happens which indirectly resolves that first conflict. In your work, when you make those connections between things, I see that process as keeping the work open, so that it doesn’t become didactic or zealous. If your painting connects the color red with a shape, and that shape with some words, it doesn’t seem that you believe this is the only possibility of connectedness. That just happens to be what you noticed at that moment. That’s what I like so much—the sense that you don’t own it.

The San people in South Africa were killed by both white and black people because both wanted to own pieces of their land. Never mind whose it was, all parties wanted ownership of it, except for the San nomadic bushmen themselves who said they didn’t want possession, they just wanted access to the land. I like the idea of access rather than possession, but if you work in this way, without a fixed viewpoint, some people feel that therefore you don’t believe in anything. However, I think that one can still believe in many things, and since I talk so much.

Maybe because you have something to say! Do you have an idea what it is that people are relating to when they see your work? One of its aspects is color, the way the paint is applied, the lusciousness of it, and the richness of the content. People relate to that, but can you guess what’s attractive about the work? Is it the fact that they somehow connect with it?

I think there’s a whole set of different perceptions. There’s a certain popular aspect of the work based on people feeling that, unlike many other contemporary art forms, they can immediately see or recognize what it is, and from this they feel that they know what is going on in the work.

You mean that the work is narrative?

No, it’s suggestive, it suggests all sorts of narratives, but it doesn’t really tell you what’s going on at all. Someone said that it feels as if something has happened, in the sense of an after-event, or alternatively that something’s going to happen but you don’t yet know what it is. It’s as if I can make people think they are so close to me that they believe I’ve addressed the painting directly to them. I give them a false sense of intimacy. I think the work invites you to have a conversation with it.

Do you think that this sense of privacy or accessibility can make the work seem direct and unmediated?

Yes, I think certain people experience it that way.

They think it’s direct and naïve. That if Marlene Dumas fell down, she’d make a painting about falling down?

Yes, that it’s primarily autobiographical. Then there are those who like the titles or the play on words and think it’s more complex.

What about the autobiographical content?

People like portraits. Certain works are like portraiture in the sense that you can recognize people, so some viewers see these big groups of faces and think they recognize ex-lovers, or famous people, or ...

Like people finding concealed messages in pop songs?

It’s almost like that. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded, but I’ve always wanted my paintings to be more like movies or other art forms, where the work stimulates discussion in all kinds of directions.

In The Beginning, 1991 In the Beginning, 1991

Many artists speak a sophisticated jargon peppered with critical theory. Maybe the reason why we take to each other so much is that we don’t differentiate in importance between a conversation we have with our lover and what we’re doing in our work or our teaching. So there is no private versus public language, no hierarchy denoting how one should use one’s energies or abilities.

I like the word hierarchy, or rather, I don’t like the word hierarchy!

You’ve said in the past that you’d like to paint love songs, or write lines to rap songs. I began thinking of the titles of your paintings in terms of country and western songs, and the line came to me—“Paintings don’t die, they just go to sleep,” which of course is about history. Then the next line could be, "Paintings don’t lie, they just ..."

Cry wolf!

“Paintings don’t lie, they just cry wolf!” It reminds me of listening to Bob Dylan songs as a teenager, those non-sequiturs brimming with meaning.

What’s also interesting to me is the mistakes. I would get some of the lines wrong and always sing it that way, and then much later I’d listen to the original again and realize that my version had always been wrong. Some of my better works have been based on mistakes.

There’s a short story by Raymond Carver that Robert Altman adapted 
for the movie Short Cuts . It’s about a young boy who gets hit on his bicycle, the day before his birthday. His mother’s ordered a birthday cake. The boy’s in the hospital 
in a coma, and the baker keeps calling the house to get the cake picked up. It’s very dark. I read another version Carver wrote of essentially the same story, but with another title, and told quite differently, with much less of a dark ending. It struck me as liberating that he could rewrite the same story, revisit the same material, that there would not be a singular, “perfect” version.

There was a time when I made a point of only doing something once, and never repeating it, but now I recognize how many things keep on coming back. This reminds me of some cultures in Africa. Here in Europe the uniqueness of a work is so prized. In Africa, if I painted a beautiful painting of you, and someone else liked it and wanted one too, they would pay me to make another one just like the first, and the closer the copy, the more they’d pay for it.

A lousy original and a great copy! If you look at some of the journalism on your work you tend to get these simplistic made-for-TV versions of the Marlene Dumas story—caught between two cultures, South African and European, caught between two languages, the refugee, the woman in exile, the only way she could express herself was through paintings...

I must admit that sometimes it’s partially my own fault, for feeding people clichés. My mother always used to say to me, “Don’t talk so much!” because I would talk far too much with people I didn’t know, becoming incoherent. When I was at home I would be quiet and just say what was on my mind. She said that 
if she didn’t know me she would think I was extremely superficial. I’m probably more honest in my work.

But you’re reacting to what’s expected of you as an artist, what’s expected of you as a performer. You’re giving people what they want. Which brings me to the first question I thought of—about blondes. Not, “How does it feel to be a blonde?” but, “What is it about being a blonde?”

Blondes are stereotyped as being so dumb that they don’t even know they’re having a good time! Fun is wasted on blondes. Youth is wasted on blondes.

Womanhood is wasted on blondes. There was a time when I wanted so much to sound intelligent that I wanted to look the way that I thought Simone de Beauvoir sounded. But then I thought, I like people who can say something serious in
 a humorous way. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett—“There’s nothing as funny as unhappiness.” I’ve also realized that this is why I stopped talking about South Africa to most people, because they don’t care at all—they just want you to confess and spill your guts out, to entertain them. They don’t care about the other things they ask you either, because if the topic is "in," they ask, and if it’s out, they don’t ask any more.

I used to be asked about the unconscious. I haven’t heard that word for a long time. When I first mentioned being an artificial blonde, it was because I had been asked to write about why I paint, as a woman. The idea was that, apart from the fact that painting is dead, it’s also for dead males. I thought, why always be on the defensive, why not turn it around? So I decided that instead of saying that in spite of the fact I’m a woman, I also like to paint, I’d say I paint because I’m a woman, I paint because I’m a blonde.

Of course blondes have all these different meanings, supposedly—they are dumb, superficial, fake, naughty. Part of the mistake that people can make with you is that, because you’re a blonde and moreover a foreigner, they think you’re stupid. This makes it easier for them to like your work, like they discovered you have no idea what you’re doing and they can tell you what you are doing. So they can be arrogant, as if you’re some kind of idiot savant?

Sometimes I think I totally dislike people, while on the other hand, I’m supposed to be the kindly humanist. Is it André Breton who said, “I paint to be loved”?

The Human Tripod, 1988 The Human Tripod,1988

Isn’t there an expression—Once stupid, always stupid?

There is “As stupid as a painter.” Marcel Duchamp said that.

Duchamp—the other MD! Show your real colors! Or rather, show your dark roots. Maybe we should edit out all of the smart stuff, and only leave the unfinished sentences? The titles you give your works are interesting—they inform me of the knowledge you would like me to have about what is being shown.

But some people criticize me, saying that quite a few paintings have survived just because they have good titles, although they’re actually rather bad paintings.

When I hear something referred to as a bad painting, that always makes me want to come to its defense. It’s bad on whose terms?

A good artwork needs humor, distance, and a good title. If a work had a different title, it would be seen differently. Certain things, the mixture of the title and the image, sometimes save the work from being pathetic. Some people say I don’t discriminate enough, that I should bring in much more hierarchy in my works, that I should not show everything that I’ve done. I read an interview with Barbara Kruger describing very well how in the Jackson Pollock era, the major arguments were about who was the best painter, whereas the subsequent generation of women artists were interested in different ...

Different voices, different ways of working.

Despite this, people still think I should have stricter selection criteria.

What if your principle is to show everything? You don’t want to show junk, but the way you think about the world, so you don’t make a hierarchical statement about what might be a better thought or a better image.

I’m interested in seeing what people reject, what they accept, and why. I’ve made one group of images called Rejects (1994-present), the ones with their eyes torn or scratched out, and a series of more controlled, smooth works that I call Models (1994). The Germans prefer the Rejects and the Dutch the Models . I always wanted to be a therapist but now I’m pleased that I don’t have to sit and listen to people’s problems all the time—I get this anyway through the reactions to my work!

Could you talk about the portraits, or group portraits, of friends or people who mentally crossed your path? You’ve said that you wanted everyone you ever met or saw to be touched by your hand.

I would like that, almost.

Genetiese Heimwee (Genetic Longing), 1984 Genetiese Heimwee (Genetic Longing), 1984

I once had this conversation with the artist Allan McCollum about computers. He was talking about being capable of producing as many permutations as there are people in the world. I was just awestruck—I realized that what he really wants to make is a series of objects so extensive that everyone on earth could have one. I was wondering if what motivates you is to touch everyone, for everyone to be touched by you?

Yes, and sometimes it’s almost like giving homage to everyone that you’ve been, or felt, related to. Oscar Wilde said that if you are only capable of loving one person then you are quite limited. Mae West , who had so many different lovers, was once asked if she had ever found a man who could make her happy. She replied, “Yes, many times.” My work is a record of all these people in my life.

Of course, that’s what one wants most to do—to have access somehow to someone else’s way of seeing the world. All of a sudden you see the world in this other way. You could have an Ed Ruscha moment, or a Marlene Dumas thought.

Whenever I think of Ed Ruscha, seeing as you’ve mentioned him, I think of his work Sand in the Vaseline . I like it so much. Actually, I don’t think I ever totally worshipped one type of art, or artist. I suppose the painter I most admire is probably Goya, even though I’m living in Vermeer country.

Marlene, do you prefer pink and fluffy, or dark and gloomy?

The English painter Howard Hodgkin noted that red or black are perceived as dramatic and strong, whereas pink stands for bourgeois babies, softness, and weakness. He said this is why people always think that Renoir was such a mediocre painter. Maybe Hodgkin exaggerates the point but I do find it interesting. In daily life, wearing black and brown together, or green and blue, used to be considered bad taste, because of Goethe’s theories on color.

One of my biggest obstacles is my impeccable taste.

Yes, I wanted to ask you about good taste, because my work is said not to be in very good taste!

Of course, it becomes really liberating to embrace things that you don’t like. I’ve always thought orange was such a horrible color ...

I just thought of orange too!

Orange now seems to be the color, as black was in the 1980s.

And in painting, black was traditionally not supposed to be a real color. Renoir is said to have told Matisse , “I don’t really like your work, but you can use black as if it’s a color, so you must be a good painter.” When I was making art in high school there were these rules against using black, for example, and too many bright colors together were considered vulgar.

That illuminates certain things about the way you go through the world. For instance, some people, by nature, defy the rules. And that’s important, in terms of their expression of themselves. There are other people who acquiesce to rules. 
It seems to me that what you do is just restate the rules with a question mark—Why this rule? Why not paint in black? Or then you anthropomorphize black and say, “Poor black!” But you would make a connection between the black of the painting and the black of the people and the black of the night and the black of the eyes, so that black becomes very potent. It’s different from defying the rules. You twist and tweak the subject and images so that we can make all kinds of connections. If you’re supposedly blonde and ditsy, and you’re just being brainless, you get away with murder in a way. What is the correlation between being a blonde and the lusciousness of the way you paint? What would you look like if you looked like your work? You wouldn’t be a blonde.

If you saw a certain humor in the work, then you would probably think it fitting, but if you saw the work as very heavy, I would definitely be seen differently. There was a comment-book for one of my exhibitions once—one guy wrote that he didn’t find my work at all illuminating—it was drawn badly and the porno wasn’t even pornographic. It wasn’t hard like the pornography he was used to seeing. All these watery little watercolors, porno in watercolors—that was really weak!

In America, when I did these gallery talks to discuss my work, I had two works, Porno Blues (1993) and Porno as Collage (1993), which were the only ones with “porno” in the title. I didn’t quite know what I wanted to say about them, so I talked about my other work, and they all waited for me to come to these. When 
I got to them I said, “I’ve talked so much, I don’t think I have anything more to say now.” They were so disappointed, and they came to me afterwards to ask all these questions, off the record. Once, in North America, someone was interested in these smaller paintings of a naked young girl and asked, “What is the age of the child?” I said, “It’s not a child, it’s a painting.”

The Painter, 1994 The Painter,1994

Has any comment or question made you really rethink what you do?

A long time ago a Dutch painter, Lucassen, was asked about younger Dutch artists. He said he disliked my work because I seemed to have one foot in the tradition of painting and another in the Conceptual court. At the time, although I was struggling with it, I hadn’t actually thought of the work in those terms. Then I thought I should make more of a point of this, because he was actually right. I want both worlds. It’s like what someone said to me the other
day about my Pin-ups series (1996), which I’m adapting for an edition of playing cards. They said that as a woman, in works like this or the Wolkenkieker series (1996-97) I could be seen as perpetuating sexism. I said that I knew all about 
that, but that these are all the things that I used to worry about years ago.

I don’t want to make anti-images—I want to make more desires possible. It’s not that
 the problems have gone away. In South Africa there was a time when I definitely would not have been able to make work about blackness. If you wanted to express things about apartheid, and belonged to the privileged class, how would you deal with someone else’s sorrow and your own shame and guilt? Eventually, when I did address it, I felt that even though I was not showing abuse, not saying, “Look how bad discrimination is,” nevertheless somehow I felt OK about making this work.

OK, so you’ve been told not to paint black, with all its implications, and then you paint a series of black faces in the " Black Drawings" (1991-92).

I think that of my groups of drawings they are definitely the most intense, because they’re so very concentrated. They had a moral urgency—it was the first time that I had made a group consciously excluding all so-called white people.

I’m wondering if it would be a mistake to think of your studio as some kind of laboratory where you give yourself permission to look at complicated subjects. You’re not frightened that you might be both attracted and repelled. You give yourself permission to work though the complexities, which allows your audience to realize that they too have all these reactions to beauty and ugliness. I find this work in the studio courageous, in a way comparable to the filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, because he too showed his complicity. His films don’t point a finger at someone else. He shows the fascist, amoral, brutal, dark tendencies we all have, by revealing these in himself. For example, I always wondered if it would be possible to make visual pornography that was exciting—there’s so little erotic artwork, there are a few erotic works in literature. I somehow expected that you might be the person to do it?

It’s difficult to know if you achieve what you intended, because often 
if you take eroticism as your subject matter, then it doesn’t have to be an overtly erotic image at all. You could make very boring, dead work using pornographic subject matter. In Porno Blues , the subject is looking at herself, she’s sitting there all alone, self-absorbed rather than excited. As for the difference between drawing and painting, I remember what Gerhard Richter said about his Baader-Meinhof series ( 18. Oktober 1977 , 1988)—how something on a smaller scale is more low key. Intimacy can’t be blown up. I have sexual explicitness in my drawings, but I have never made a painting of a copulating couple.

The Image As A Burden, 1993 The Images as a Burden, 1993

What we can and can’t talk about, what we can and can’t draw, what we can and can’t paint, are all different. Similarly there are things that you can and can’t photograph. Or there is the question of painting images which were shot first by a camera (what you refer to as second-hand images and first-hand experience). 
I imagine you think about what these different media mean in terms of what they do and don’t allow?

Think about the woodcut Diving Girl Ravaged by Octupuses by Hokusai. The woman has her legs spread and is being kissed or sucked by an octopus. It’s one of the most erotic images I know, where the female’s feelings in these matters are being expressed. However, I would not know how to paint it myself. I think I would make a disgusting painting if I tried to paint this woman and the octopus, because it would be too much—too much paint, too much weight, too thick, too clumsy. Japanese woodcuts are incredibly explicit sexually, with those enormous sexual organs, but at the same time, because of their technique, they are so delicate and sophisticated. This sets up a wonderful tension.

Or the prints that have the peeping artist, this tiny little image of the artist, who is much smaller than any of the couples with enormous genitals. This tiny artist, who is always lurking around the corner, underneath the table or behind a screen
—he’s very funny.

Or the couples are drinking tea—they’re in all these sexual positions while drinking a cup of tea, which I admire. And also the combination of violence with elegance. It’s quite difficult, as you know, to keep things erotic.

Could you say that you make your area of work a place where you can explore your own interests and confusions?

Yes, in a sense. You come to terms with your fears or you exorcise them by making the work.

But do you think that part of what you’re doing is giving people opportunities to think about just those questions?

I treat all my models equally. I find them all equally strange, and I find all human beings equally scary. To go back to the "Black Drawings," for example, 
I don’t make work about nostalgia, because even though I did at first use old postcard photographs as the inspirational source for some of the heads, I certainly didn’t intend to turn these people’s faces back into some kind of ethnic African warrior persona. What interested me was how the subjects looked at the camera, how the sunlight hit their faces, how the scale of the faces was quite small, and what different people could and would read into them.

You’ve talked about pornography but there are also other subjects, like belief, and trust. Without getting too biographical, there are many theological questions, because of your family background and your rather religious upbringing.

I like the word theology—it’s the origin of philosophy, just as photography is the origin of obscene pornography.

Your work so often asks, but not didactically, these questions about how one thinks—What is beautiful? What is ugly? What is moral? How does one act morally? Do you deal with what is and is not ethical?

All choices lead to ethics. Too many alternatives, combined with a lively imagination, lead you into an existential anxiety, where you are in continuous confusion, and darkness. Like in the story of Abraham—how did he know that this was God speaking to him?

Because God was looking directly into the camera! Whose voice do you listen to?

No one’s? I can’t answer this.

Are you often asked to comment on ethical issues?

What always irritates me is that those questions are so unanswerable, because they put the emphasis in the wrong place.

You’ve called yourself “Miss Interpreted,” so which question shall we tackle now? How about the future of art? Is painting dead?

The person asking usually has some other reason for asking. He or she is often asking something else which is unspoken. It reminds me of one of my one-liners, “the only good painter is a dead painter,” because everyone always wants
 to talk—and it’s so boring—about “the death of painting.” And the questions are too broad, vague, and unspecific. It’s impossible to give nuanced answers to unclear questions. And, as they say, God is in the details.

Misinterpreted, 1988 Misinterpreted,1988

If you make a painting of a girl, and she has one red hand and one 
blue hand, then the wrong questions would be—What does it mean? What does it symbolize? You would have to explain that, actually, the red hand and the blue hand don’t have a single meaning. They don’t symbolize anything. The red doesn’t stand for freedom, or blood, or for menstruation, and the blue doesn’t stand for sorrow
, or loyalty, or whatever. There’s a lot of ambiguity, of possible readings, and you’re hoping—I’m now speaking for you—that in all of what you do there are not specific, fixed meanings.

I don’t hope, I know it to be so—that is the ethical burden. Sometimes people ask me, "Why does it all have to be so ambiguous?" But it’s not that I deliberately want to confuse anyone—that is how I experience things. There are artists who want to possess their images. Often those who make portrait paintings say they want to catch the spirit, or to possess the being, capture the essence. These are ways of talking about images that I find quite scary—they sound so authoritative. It’s not about possession. On the contrary, you have to take distance from the work.

I was thinking of this work of mine called Tenderness and the Third Person (1981). It has a texture in the middle, like that of mottled skin, because it was made by frottage, literally rubbing on the surface. At the top of the work are three very small stills from movies, where you have Serge Gainsbourg directing his wife, Jane Birkin, who’s with someone else in a love scene in bed, and a scene from Hiroshima mon amour , and one from Sunday Bloody Sunday . The third element is the title, Tenderness and the Third Person . I also feel like a third person towards my own work. People always ask me why I write about my work. They think I want to write to protect its territory, or that I want to be the ultimate authority, but it’s in writing that I take this distance. I look at my own work in the third person, as somebody else. It’s a peculiar human quality to ...

To stand outside yourself?

Yes, Simone de Beauvoir said that too. This quality to look at terrible things and to write or think about them—you can’t do that if you don’t take some distance. Making art is a privilege. People who are in extreme suffering cannot do it, because that’s not a situation in which you sit and make art.

You have to be a little bit cruel also, towards yourself and others. Often there is too much emphasis on artists having to be themselves, whereas in fact you have to work against yourself. And also there is too much emphasis on the body these days—not our bodies, but the body.

All this talk of the body and none of absence.

Because I make figurative art, people always ask about the figures. 
I mentioned earlier this one work in which you see a child from the back—you can’t see what he’s doing, you can’t see anything. And so when someone asked me what the sex of the child was, I said I didn’t know. This was of course not only a wrong but an inappropriate question, because it’s a painting where you do not have that information. If I were interested in that type of information I would have included it.

As if the subject were on freeze-frame, and I could press fast-forward to find out?

The figure would need to jump out of the painting! Just because you have a figure, that doesn’t mean you don’t realize it’s also an abstraction. It’s also a painting, it’s also a thing on a wall.

As you’ve put it quite beautifully—“A painting needs a wall to object to.”



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