Dumas began work on the Magdalena paintings after completing a series of portrait heads of Jesus, entitled Jesus Serene. In these, the artist explored the theme of desire, in relation to an unobtainable but longed-for object. The next step, the series of works based on the Biblical character Mary Magdalene, was, Dumas felt, 'easy, even logical'. She continued: 'I called them only "Magdalena" to make them less historically religious. I also liked the fact that this woman wants this man and he says "no". My men are often supposedly "feminine" while my women are more "masculine" (if you want to use these distinctions still). I believe in love stories, the gender of the lover does not matter in the end. I use religious subjects as I use fairy-tale figures, in order to give my audience an easy starting point, a popular reverence that relates to all times and that is familiar to most people.' (quoted in Catherine Kinley, Marlene Dumas, exhibition broadsheet, Tate Gallery 1996)
The Magdalena portraits also relate to an earlier series of large paintings of women which the artist exhibited in Venice in 1995. In these earlier works Dumas combined images of the model Naomi Campbell taken from fashion photographs, with Flemish depictions of the repentant Mary Magdalene, her naked body concealed beneath long hair. The fusion of such strongly contrasting imagery is a significant aspect of Dumas' working process, although she usually disguises her sources. The artist writes: 'I do treat my faces with a certain equality. In them the "sane" look a bit crazy, the crazy look a bit sane and everybody is trying to seduce you in some way or another...[In my work] I use all the cheap tricks of attracting attention; eyes looking at you, sexual parts exposed or deliberately covered... the primitive pull of recognition; the image as prostitute. You are forced to say "yes" or "no"'. (ibid.)
In the Magdalena series, as with the paintings of Naomi Campbell, Dumas depicts the human form naked. Dumas uses nakedness to explore themes of love and fear, of intimacy and distance. She stresses that her intentions are not at all voyeuristic. By placing what is generally regarded as a private image of a naked form into the realms of public experience, she makes her subjects appear vulnerable and isolated. However, she feels a strong connection with her subjects and believes that the viewer, once he or she confronts these images, will feel as vulnerable.
Catherine Kinley, Marlene Dumas, exhibition broadsheet, Tate Gallery 1996
11 June 1996