I visited the Tate Modern yesterday to see the Marlene Dumas exhibition "The Image as Burden". I had previously seen pictures of her work but she was never an artist I had paid much attention to in the past. I was actually unsure if I was going to get much from this visit as I saw my current practice to be quite different from hers but her reputation as a painter demands attention from anyone who can seriously calls themselves a "painter" too.
I was immediately struck with just how good her technical skill is and as a painter myself this is one of the first things I look at when visiting an exhibition. The bulk of her work was made using oils and occasionally with ink. These where then applied onto either paper, board or canvas. All of her work features paint heavily watered down with copious amounts of thinner or water (depending on the medium) to leave a watery finish reminiscent of watercolour paint. She appears to have achieved perfect control over her application of paint as the subtle tonal differences appear to be exactly in the areas she wants them to be.. This can be seen in the work pictured below "Die Baba" from 1985 .
There is often only the slightest variation in tonal value to help depict the contours of this child's face. The heavily thinned paint allows the white ground to shine through in many paintings and this gives them an airy, bright quality that is quite eerie and almost ghost like.
Dumas is also an expert at instilling emotion in her work as can be seen in the picture to the right. This painting really struck me as immediately I could see a solemn looking lady who seems to have been crying her eyes out for some time yet there are no visible signs of tears on her face. However, if we check the title of the work, "waterproof mascara" 2008, we get confirmation as to why there are no signs of tears on the subjects face and obviously her mascara has not run.
Often her work looked very close to falling apart. It was as if one further stroke of the brush would render the it overworked and too busy where as one less would have left it somewhat unfinished. She seems to have that uncanny gift for knowing exactly when a work has finished.
I was interested that she only ever works from photographs and these are very often other peoples images. I often have mixed feelings about the validity of creating work from photographs, even when using ones own. However, having seen how an artists such as Dumas can elevate the original source material to greater artistic heights has made me re-think this. Perhaps for many painters the use of source photographs tends to lead to work that is somewhat less than the original source but in the case of Dumas her finished word is somewhat elevated and more meaningful than its original source.
Recently I have been using just acrylics and these are often applied using the same consistency they come from the tube and occasionally I add medium to make it thicker. I feel that her use of oil paint, often thinned down is going to impact on my own practice.