In 1995 Dumas was included in the Dutch Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, where she unveiled a series of tall and narrow canvases, hung in sequence and christened ‘Magdalenas’, a reference to the Biblical figure Mary Magdalene, who has often been portrayed as a penitent ‘fallen woman’, the counterpoint to the Virgin Mary. Each painting is different and depicts a nude or semi-nude female figure emerging out of a dark background. They were composed from a mixture of different sources including art historical images such as Venus, goddess of love, combined with parts of contemporary figures such as Madonna, fashion models and a self-portrait. Isolated from any obvious context, much of their possible ‘meaning’ can be found in their subtitles, many of which refer to art historical figures including the French painter Edouard Manet (Manet’s Queen/Queen of Spades) and the abstract expressionist Barnett Newman whose ‘zip’ paintings placed a thin line down a monochrome canvas (Newman’s Zip). The paintings represent a variety of women – some stride, some pose, others turn their back to the viewer (A Painting Needs a Wall to Object to – to create an experience of monumental femininity across time and culture.
In 1997 Dumas paired a Magdalena-like depiction of supermodel Naomi Campbell with a painting of the recently deceased Diana, Princess of Wales to create a double portrait of two iconic figures of British culture entitled Great Britain 1995–7. Working from source images that followed the conventions of contemporary fashion photography and royal portraiture respectively, Dumas created a dialogue between two very different canvases about class, style, race and femininity in Britain and their representation within the media.
Or the megamodel meets the holy whore
It’s not the fallen woman
Nor the temptress I’m after.
It’s not the babydolls I want
nor the Amazons. It’s everything
mixed together to form
a true bastard race.
Marlene Dumas 1995