Marlene Dumas: Forsaken Frith Street Gallery London

by Sue Hubbard

1The Eurhythmics may not be considered the philosophical fount of all wisdom but the insistently recurring line that: “Everybody’s looking for something”, from their 1983 hit, Sweet Dreams, kept swirling round my head as I walked round the exhibition Forsaken, the first in the UK since 2004, by the controversial South African artist Marlene Dumas.

Better known for her provocative, eroticised images of woman painted in runny reds and watery blues that highlight the dichotomy between art and desire, pornography and more socially acceptable depictions of female beauty, Dumas’s work can be found in the Tate, the Pompidou Centre and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Normally derived from Polaroids of friends and lovers, or borrowed from glossy magazines and porno pictures she has, here, used the words of Christ dying on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtain?“ My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” to explore the feelings of existential despair so prevalent in this solipsistic, secular age. Although in Judaism and Islam God is considered both unknowable and too holy to be depicted in figurative form, within the Christian tradition the image of the crucified Christ soon became the icon onto which all human suffering, rejection and longing were projected. Marlene Dumas’ crucifixions are of a sober northerly bent; more Mattias Grunewäld than Rubens. Her emaciated Christ is depicted as utterly alone – there are no jeering crowds, no weeping women, no thieves or Roman soldiers – painted against very dark or bleached backgrounds. Ecco Homo, 2011 is a moving portrayal of total abjection, whilst the monochromatic Forsaken, 2011 has some of the ghostly luminescence of the Turin Shroud.

4Interspersed among these religious paintings are portraits of infamous celebrities. The musical impresario Phil Spector, known for his Wall of Sound and some of the most successful pop music of the 20thcentury, peers furtively from beneath a shaggy wig. Now serving 19 years for murder, another small portrait in the down stairs gallery shows him stripped and unadorned of his pop world accoutrements. It is, in its way, a shocking painting, his small bald pink skull and his pinched, rat-like features are revealed as if a curtain has been pulled back on reality.

Amy Winehouse is, no doubt, being fast tracked at this very moment to that pantheon in the sky inhabited by torch song singers and ‘troubled’stars such as Monroe, and Michael Jackson, who – forever young and forever suffering- are ensured the status of eternal martyrs. In two small, iconic portraits Winehouse is depicted with her trademark wings of eyeliner as a suffering saint, a frail victim to the voracious appetites of western culture. In the downstairs gallery is a paintings of Osama Bin Laden hung next to one of his son, who distanced himself from the deeds of his father in his book Growing Up Bin Laden, and two portraits of Lawrence of Arabia – one of the British army officer who convinced the sheikh of Mecca to fight on the British side against the German/Ottoman alliance in the Second World War and wrote the classic, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and another of his celluloid, ironically more famous surrogate, Peter O’Toole.

3These juxtapositions pose questions about belief, cults and charismatic leaders and what, in this post-Nietzscheian world, we do with what Lady Macbeth referred to as ‘immortal longings,’ when the pragmatism of western intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins leaves little room for any misty eyed ‘return to the sacred’. According to Henry Veatch [1] Nietzsche, rather surprisingly, believed that the conceptual death of God was actually a causal factor in the decline of European morality. He, and later Sartre, felt that “the loss of faith in a moral order is in fact consequent upon the loss of faith in God”. Modern thinkers undercut what they consider to be ‘irrational’phenomena by suggesting that they are all traceable to a failure of reason. This exhibition shows that it is not only nature but also the human psyche that abhors a vacuum. God may have been declared dead but the need to fill the space he has left still persists, proving Voltaire right. Though, I rather doubt that the God Voltaire imaged humanity inventing for itself would take on the carnal form of Amy Winehouse. But her chaotic life and lack of moral compass seem to have proved both Nietzsche and Sartre right. There are consequences to getting rid of God. In one small oil and ink drawing of Winehouse tacked to the wall in the lower gallery, Dumas has hand written across it in pencil: “The main said ‘why do you think you are here?’ I said ‘I got no idea.’”

2The notion that the modernist self as ‘subject’ is, in fact, largely derived from ideas a transcendent God is not new. For like Pirendello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author we are constantly on the lookout for of another grand narrative to replace what we have discarded. With the disintegration of western religion and the collapse of that other great belief system, Marxism, there has been a fervent desire to construct other mythologies to stand in their stead. In the west the ‘God-shaped hole’ has been filled by the cult of celebrity and consumerism, while the east has seen the rise of fundamentalist Islam. The conundrum of poststructuralist pragmatism is that having deconstructed one ‘Truth’, it seems incapable of offering reasons as to why any other should be preferable. All we are left with by the pragmatists are reason and the mind – and they do not seem to explain human emotions such as love or a feeling for beauty.

Marlene Dumas does not claim to have any answers to these questions. Her pick and mix philosophy explains a certain lack of coherence to what, in many ways, is an interesting exhibition. Doubt is what drives her, which is, perhaps, understandable having grown up under the despotic certainties of Apartheid. Yet there is a sense that this show has been a bit thrown together so that the juxtapositions, though potentially moving, feel rather arbitrary, a little like a primary school class in humanism. Perhaps the answer is that painters stray into the quagmire of philosophy at their peril and should, largely, stick to making images.

On a practical level, these individually rather beautiful and delicate works are not shown to their best advantage in the cavernous space of the new(ish) Frith Street Gallery. These are fragile paintings that would be better seen in a more intimate setting, perhaps, ironically, something similar to the beautiful 18th house in Soho that the gallery previously inhabited. Bigger is not always better.

1. Veatch, Henry B. Rational Man. Indiana University Press, 1962.

Image credits: Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

Ecco Homo 2011, Oil on canvas

Forsaken 2011, Oil and crayon on canvas

Amy – Pink 2011, Oil on canvas

Phil Spector – To Know Him Is to Love Him, 2011