marlene dumas explores human emotions and concepts of ‘open’ and ‘end’ in palazzo grassi

Beginnings and endings

South African artist Marlene Dumas thinks a lot about beginnings, endings, and the cyclicity in-between. As she ponders about what binds her body of works – a one-off description, the singular entity of emotion, or even just a hook to lull her audience into what to expect when they see her artistic repertoire – she ushers her state of mind and Perception into her surrounding environment and the world she lives in. She thinks about the waves of lockdowns, the idea of ​​being imprisoned inside her own home, the museums that shut down due to restrictions, and the Palazzo Grassi museum in Florence where her present show runs. ‘Then, I thought about the word ‘open’ and about how my paintings are open to different interpretations. In my works, the viewer immediately sees what I painted but does not yet know the meaning of it. Where the work starts is not where it ends. The word ‘end’, which in the context of the pandemic has its own implications, is both fluid and melancholic,’ she saysso she named her exhibition at Palazzo Grassi just that: ‘open-end’, a major monographic exhibition dedicated to the artist and on display until January 8th, 2023 (check our full list of Venice Art Biennale 2022 shows to see here).


all images by Designboom, courtesy of Marlene Dumas and Palazzo Grassi / Heirarchy, 1992, Oil on Canvas / Banner image: Betrayal, 1994

Poetic rhythm

The poetic rhythm flows within and forms part of Dumas’ artistic research and creations, a push-and-pull tug between erratic pace and consistent feel. Regardless of the dimensions of her paintings, the essence, if not the echo, of poetry lies in her works. ‘Poetry is writing that breathes and makes jumps and leaves spaces open, so we can read between the lines,’ she says, but her system of poetry transitions from text to visual, interpreting suffering, ecstasy, fear, and desperation – to name a few – through images that moved her. A crucial aspect of her work zeroes in on her use of preexisting images from which she draws inspiration, from the images seen in newspapers, magazines, or films to film stills and polaroids she has taken herself. In her book ‘Sweet Nothings: Notes and Texts’, she describes herself as an artist who uses second-hand images and first-hand emotions, swinging between the extremes and spectrums of love and death, gender and race, innocence and blame, and tenderness.

marlene dumas explores human emotions and concepts of 'open' and 'end' in palazzo grassi
Blue Marilyn, 2008, Oil on Canvas

Human emotions

One may see the air of awareness Dumas instills in her images, an invitation to her viewers to revisit their perception of selves and their ability to read the world. The representation of human figures dealing with the most intense emotions and paradoxes share the limelight of the myriad of topics her body of works touched upon. ‘Painting is about the trace of the human touch. It is about the skin of a surface. A painting is not a postcard,’ she says. As the artist herself states and Ulrich Loock underlines in his text in the exhibition catalog, ‘Some criteria for the choice of the images that are taken into consideration for painting might be rooted in Dumas’ personal biography, for example in the separation from a lover […]. The decisive factor can, however, also be more markedly general conditions, for example, her youth spent under apartheid; a corresponding sensitivity for the situation of the “Wretched of the Earth,” those deprived of their rights in the Congo, in Algeria or in Palestine; a fundamental, politico-moral position against racism and discrimination on the basis of gender; or a stand taken for a form of ‘eroticism’ matching her ‘urge towards unruly forces of life and chance, against sober systematic formulations. While moral questions stimulate her, it is her awareness of how these are experienced in and through the body that is central to her work.’

marlene dumas explores human emotions and concepts of 'open' and 'end' in palazzo grassi
Smoke, 2018, Oil on Canvas

About the exhibition

A most influential artist on the contemporary art scene, Marlene Dumas was born in 1953 in Cape Town, South Africa. She grew up and studied fine arts during the Apartheid regime, and in 1976, she flew to Europe to further her studies and settled in Amsterdam, where she now lives and works. Today, she works mainly with oil on canvas and in on paper, and her workk largely consists of portraits and human figures, which are universal representations of the full spectrum of human emotions. The exhibition was curated by Caroline Bourgeois in collaboration with the artist, which brings together over one hundred works from the Pinault Collection as well as from international museums and private collections. The focus is on the artist’s recent work including paintings created with the Venetian exhibition in mind and has been broadened by a selection of paintings and drawings achieved between 1984 and today.

marlene dumas explores human emotions and concepts of 'open' and 'end' in palazzo grassi
The Crucifixion, 1994, Oil on Canvas

marlene dumas explores human emotions and concepts of 'open' and 'end' in palazzo grassi
The Particularity of Nakedness, 1987, Oil on Canvas

marlene dumas explores human emotions and concepts of 'open' and 'end' in palazzo grassi
Die Baba [The Baby],1985, Oil on Canvas

marlene dumas explores human emotions and concepts of 'open' and 'end' in palazzo grassi
The Painter, 1994, Oil on Canvas

project info:

name: Marlene Dumas. Open-end

artist: Marlene Dumas

curator: Caroline Bourgeois

museum: Palazzo Grassi

location: Venice, Italy

until: January 8th, 2023

matthew burgos | designboom

jun 07, 2022