Marlene Dumas

Lead White


Not on display

Marlene Dumas born 1953
Oil paint and oil stick on canvas
Support: 2004 × 1002 × 27 mm
Purchased 1998


Born and educated in Cape Town, South Africa, Dumas has been living and working in Amsterdam since 1976. Her work - principally paintings in oil on canvas or ink and watercolour on paper - uses its medium to subvert male traditions of looking at and representing the female body. Exploiting the rich sensuality of paint in its sheer materiality, Dumas plays with notions of desire, the erotic, abjection, racism, nakedness, exposure and authenticity. She uses photographs from magazines and newspapers, or polaroids she has taken herself, as the basis for her images. Suggestive of portraiture, her figures and faces, which are shown singly or in groups, are titled with a name or phrase indicating the depiction of a mood or emotion. Originally Dumas used overtly autobiographical material as the subject of her work, and frequently addressed the issue of the female artist as simultaneously painter and female nude. Recently she has turned to contemporary icons of desire such as models and pornographic pin-ups. Series such as the Magdalenas 1996 (Tate T07201-6), explore the ambiguities inherent in the way that female sexuality is both eroticised and devalued through its representation in Western culture. 'A title determines the way one looks at the image. What is depicted is desire, what is central is deficiency.' (Dumas quoted in Casadio, p. 92)

Lead White and Ivory Black take their titles from the names of oil paints. As is common to Dumas' works, both women in the paintings stare out at the viewer, confronting their gaze. In Lead White, which was based on the artist's own unglamourised European body, the subject is mature and voluptuous, the antithesis of the skinny glamour girl, and depicted in a pose which is both seductive and crucified. While her arms are outstretched (since they disappear out of the painting we do not know whether this is voluntary or not) her knees are crossed, as though she is not quite confident about her pin-up role. The youthful face seems awkwardly grafted onto an older body, adding to the sense of disjunction already created by the title. Suggestive of weight, impermeability, poison and death, lead is not normally associated with the female body.

Ivory Black depicts a young black woman wearing a diaphanous white garment which simultaneously veils and reveals her. The focal point of the painting is the roughly painted gap at the top of her legs in which her genitals are suggested rather than depicted in shadowy outline. A central theme for Dumas is the relationship between pornography and the erotic; while the erotic is dependent on what can only partially be seen, the goal of pornography is to open everything to the viewer's gaze. Ivory Black plays on the tension between veiling and unveiling; the top half of the black girl's body is veiled according to the rules of eroticism, while her lower half is seemingly exposed for the pornographer. With her arms held tightly to her sides, the lines delineating them flowing out of the edges of the painting, the subject of Ivory Black has the same ambiguous status of empowered captive as her companion in Lead White.

'I don't know much about racism really,

My knowledge is skin deep.'

'What do you mean?' he said.

'Oh', she said, 'Didn't you know?

All scars have a pink that shows'.

(Dumas in Sweet Nothings, p.48)

Paint as a medium for depicting skin as well as covering skin is an important issue for Dumas. Here she uses it to explore another central issue, stemming from her South African experience: the paradoxes which operate in cultural hierarchies of skin colour and race.

Further reading:
Barbara Bloom, Dominic van den Boogerd, Mariuccia Casadio, Marlene Dumas, London 1999
Mariska van den Berg (ed.), Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings, Amsterdam 1998
Catherine Kinley, Marlene Dumas, exhibition broadsheet, Tate Gallery, London 1996

Elizabeth Manchester
June 2000

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Display caption

Lead White and the related painting Ivory Black explore the representation of race and gender. The paradoxical titles of the two works are both taken from the names of oil paints, implying that the division between black and white is not as clear as the proponents of apartheid believed. Lead White is a self-portrait, based on an image of the artist’s own body. The figure strikes an exuberant, exhibitionist pose, but her body is at the same time deliberately unglamourised, awkward and self-conscious, challenging traditional ideas about the representation of the nude

Gallery label, March 2008

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Technique and condition

The painting was executed on a single piece of fine, plain weave linen canvas that was attached to an aluminium stretcher surrounded by softwood battens with staples around all edges. The linen appears commercially primed, but was more likely to have been primed by the artist and then cut down to its present size (the top edge is unprimed). An unpigmented animal glue 'size' layer was probably the first layer to be applied to the canvas. The subsequent white priming is an oil ground, and has the appearance of a coating applied with a roller. The overall priming is even and thin, with the canvas texture still very apparent through it.

Prior to any paint application, the artist drew in the figure and many of the details with an oil stick, which is a pigmented waxy material, often in purple. Most of this preparatory drawing can still be seen through the very thin paint layers. The oil paint that was applied on top of this would have been heavily diluted with white spirits or turpentine and has therefore resulted in extremely thin layers. Many areas also appear to have been rubbed back with a rag immediately after application to thin (and blur) the paint layers even further. Mostly single applications of paint were used, although occasionally the artist used build ups of more that one layer (for example in the hair to right of face). The paint surface essentially conforms to the canvas texture apart from the occasional slight impasto, such as in the eyes and nipples. Much of the white colour used in the body appears to be largely the ground layer and subsequently consists of no paint layers whatsoever. The painting is not varnished.

The painting is in excellent condition and should remain so providing appropriate care is taken when handling and displaying the work.

Tom Learner
June 2000

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