South Africa-born, Amsterdam-based Marlene Dumas’ latest monograph, spectacularly produced by Phaidon Press, collects her art, interviews, writing by and about her, and original poetry. Her paintings, sourced from a variety of found and stock images rather than life itself, boldly explore our fear of the body in a way that reminds me of B.H. Fairchild’s poetry. Often called a painter’s painter, in her interviews she discusses her initial discomfort with being most a painter, thinking that the intelligent artists of the time were engaged with other mediums. Fortunately she matured beyond that sentiment, and this collection proves her intelligence as an artist and as an active participant in contemporary literary dialogue.
Her aphoristic poem-statements, written to accompany her work for various shows, discuss the topics that dominate her art: nudity, fame, the female form, and the social role of the artist. In one of her more philosophical poems, she likens the artist to prostitute:
If a Prostitute is a person
who makes it a profession
to gratify the lust of various persons
for economical reasons of gain,
where emotional involvement may
or may not be present —
Then it seems not so far removed
from my definition of an artist.
Artists usually love to pretend.
Artists usually pretend to love
much more than they can handle.
They want everyone to want them
while they don’t want anybody.
In a more intimate moment, from “Peep Show,” she addresses a stripper in conversation. The similarity of their occupations is made evident: both began watching, both perform; they are not that unalike.
She’s also funny, especially when she incorporates pop culture. From “Name No Names”:
The Return of John Travolta If you don’t die young, you have more chances to fail. I hope I also get more comeback time.
Her poem-statements don’t masquerade as anything more than they are, nor do they apologize for themselves. They simply exist as textual counterparts to her paintings, suggesting the possibilities of a genre of literature that has been too little explored.
The book also includes a chapter entitled “Artist’s Choice,” in which Dumas excerpts Oscar Wilde (whom she also quotes with some frequency), Jean Genet, and others. In addition to offering a perspective on how literature interacts with the visual arts, it’s also an enjoyable selection of texts—the literary icing on the cake.