Marlene Dumas, Louise Bourgeois. Apr 2012


For this essay, I am looking at the work of Marlene Dumas and Louise Bourgeois. Apart from having great admiration for their work, I wanted to explore the careers of two female artists in a contemporary art setting. In my previous assignment, I reviewed some of Griselda Pollock’s
and Carol Duncan’s writings and concluded that reclaiming an autonomous representation of the female subject remains a challenging issue. Both Bourgeois and Dumas engage copiously in representing women in their work, and I intend to study their strategies. I am also interested in the multi-layering or denial of meaning in the work, as both artists prefer to opt for ambiguity in their interpretations of it.

Female artists in contemporary art

Within the first paragraph of Louise Bourgeois’ Phaidon ‘Survey’ section, Robert Storr comments on how all three of the oldest artists in the series, including Yayoi Kusama (71), Nancy Spero (70) and of course Louise Bourgeois (91) are all women. He goes on to say:

“This fact tells us something about the generally delayed recognition women’s accomplishments have received during the second half of the twentieth century.” (Storr, P.28)

Louise Bourgeois’ seminal exhibition was a retrospective of her work in 1982, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it was revisited by a younger audience, appreciated in a new light and simply made famous. Louise was 71 at the time. Her ability to stay “fresh” and
interesting has been credited by Storr to:

“[Her] carefully targeted attacks on ‘mainstream’ art. Eventually she has won the day by stamina, guile, vision and sheer artistic audacity” (Storr, P.31)

Bourgeois seized the opportunities the MOMA exhibition presented and set out to establish herself as an icon publicized in newspapers, as well as, art, lifestyle and fashion magazines. In the process, according to Storr, the myth of the origins and conflicted nature of what drives her work, has become embellished and stylized.

Bourgeois’ work spans seven decades and weaves a complex tapestry of reoccurring themes such as her mother’s death, father’s cruelty and betrayal and her own inadequacy as a mother, in a “fusion of classical personifications of human passions and terrors” (Storr, P.33).
Symbols, metaphors and Freudian references are used intermittently to re-examine the prevalent themes from different vantage points and guises, which transmutes them from being autobiographical experiences to narrative of archetypal proportions (Storr 2004).

Although Bourgeois rebelled against the reductive role of women in Surrealism of Sphinx, seductress or muse, and rejected the notion of accessing the subconscious through dreams, the movement did inspire her to delve into her “fertile imagination” and examine its latent psychological anxieties (Storr 2004). She also retained some of the Surrealist aesthetics in her work, as well as, the use of geometrical manipulation due to her teacher the Cubist, Fernand L├ęger.

“Bourgeois’ art rests on the fusion of Cubism and Surrealism.” (Storr, P.88)

South African born artist Marlene Dumas, is described by Dominic van den Boogerd as a “painter’s painter” because of her virtuosity. Her mastery of layering translucent layers of inks and watercolour and acrylic paint is highly seductive although her subjects can be graphic and range from decaying bodies to pornographic orgies. Van den Boogerd quickly establishes, in the ‘Survey’ section of the Phaidon book, that “[her works] lend themselves more readily to enjoyment than to the analysis of their meaning”. Dumas’ art is described as “vibrant, infectious, sexy – always looking at the erotic side of life” (van den Boogerd, P.32).

“Miss Interpreted” as Dumas calls herself, appropriates material in a truly Postmodernist way. Blatant influences of photographers like Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon, films like the “Last Tango in Paris”, Punk Rock negative titles (as in her “Love Hasn’t Got Anything To Do With It” (1977)), pornography, fairy tales, popular celebrities, clippings from newspapers and magazines, as well as her own distorted Polaroid photographs in the work, often serve to redirect the perception of the viewer. This strategy may allude to the idea of the artist being
a professional pretender or it may playfully dodge an investment of meaning through the interpretation of image and its title (van de Boogerd 2001).

The main themes in Dumas’ art are relationships, portraits, race and racism, voyeurism, babies and pregnancy and group dynamics. In a deliberate contradiction, Dumas juxtaposes the rawness of some of her images, where all is vulgarly shown and any traditional concepts of
good taste are stripped off, with veiling its perception by utilizing multi-layered references, nuances and red herrings.

Portrayal of women

In 1973, Bourgeois’ staunch supporter and husband died, forcing her to forge a career as an artist in New York and in turn, inadvertently making her a Feminist heroine. As for the portrayal of the female (entity) in her work, it is generally situated in a complex setting fraught with ambiguous metaphors. In the “Femme Maison” (1945 – 47) series, a clear example of
her hybrid of Surrealist and Cubist visuals, there is the suggestion of women simultaneously protected and entrapped in their dwellings. For “Torso, Self portrait” (1963 – 64) Bourgeois uses various lumps, bumps and shapes reminiscent of breasts, buttocks, clitoris and labia,
however, “nothing in [her] vocabulary ever has a fixed meaning” (Storr, P. 63). The duality of the subject’s solid, formidable form versus its exposure and therefore vulnerability is a theme Bourgeois explores in a variety of ways (Storr 2004).

Both the yoni and lingam forms are frequently used concurrently in the landscapes of Bourgeois’ work, adding to the passive/aggressive dialogue within the piece, for example the fetishistic versions of her “Fillette” series (1968 -99). The latter embodies the Postmodernist idea of polyvalence as the sexual gender and orientation of the audience dictates its interpretation (Storr 2004).

According to Storr, images of her overbearing mother and her own personal failings to live up to her mother’s greatness are super-imposed on Bourgeois’ “Spiders” (1990s – 2000s). In her “Eyes” pieces, (1982 -2001) she layers references to the lethal stare of the Medusa, the
authority of the male gaze and the ethereal eyes in the Symbolist work of Odilon Redon.

Van de Boogerd goes into detail regarding the many styles of painting Dumas adopts when portraying her female subjects. “…the formal function of the subject matter is to determine the style of these paintings” (Van de Boogerd, P.38) a tactic on Dumas’ part to avoid being associated with a specific type of figure but also possibly as a way of reversing the traditional role of the female model as an object projected on. Another device used is the “unfinished areas of the paintings which are explained as “escape routes in the monolithic construction of the image” (Van de Boogerd, P.39).

The subversive nature of Dumas’ approaches extends to the treatment of other female subjects and topics in her art. For example, in “Drunk” (1997) exhibited as part of the ‘Miss World’ exhibition, an intoxicated, naked woman with red eyes and no make up is confrontationally central. This sets out to deliberately counterbalance, as does her series “Rejects” (1994) (with scratched out eyes), the portrayal of women as ideals of beauty in her “Models” (1994).

In a more autobiographical exploration of pregnancy and babies, “Pregnant Image” (1988 -90) shows an awkwardly posed, naked, pregnant woman, whom the title suggests, has been stripped of her identity by her condition. Less clear are the two complementary paintings “Waiting (for meaning)” (1988) and “Losing (her meaning)” (1988) as the first portrays a sketchy, reclining nude and the second shows a bent over figure “dissolving” in water. The images and titles are evocative of many associations, including Danae awaiting Zeus and Ophelia drowning herself, but essentially remain elusive. Dumas’ “ Snow White” series (1998) aptly culminates the plethora of possible perceptions as described by Van de Boogerd:

“Snow White/ Sleeping Beauty/ nude model/ role model/ body of flesh and blood/ photographer/ victim/ corpse, lying on a bed/ glass coffin/ morgue/ awaiting a prince’s kiss/ the empathy of the viewer/ the appreciation of her beauty, while being surrounded/ accompanied/
spied on/ commented on by dwarves/ children/ art experts/ bystanders.” (Van De Boogerd, P. 55)


Marlene Dumas’ physical layering of her work, as well as its meaning, with techniques such as scratching, tearing, staining and working on both sides of the paper/canvas, have replenished my own working methods. I am currently exploring some of these in my “Mandala” series by sandwiching stained canvases and revealing parts by scratching and tearing them. Louise Bougeois’ hard/soft and lumpy/cavernous surfaces, and her use of latex in particular, are options that I am investigating in my “Bucket” series as I intend to create fertile ground for the “murkiest waters of the psyche” (Storr, P. 36). This ties in with previous thoughts on
expressing Jung’s “collective unconscious’’ in my work and has led me to new avenues of exploration.

Word count: 1469


Van den Boogerd D., Bloom B., Casadio M., ‘Marlene Dumas’, Phaidon Press Ltd, 2001.
Storr R., Herkenhoff P., Shwartzman A., ‘Louise Bourgeois’, Phaidon Press Ltd, 2004.
Deepwell K., ‘Women Artists and Modernism’, Manchester University Press, 1998.
Grosenick U., ‘Women artists: in the 20th and 21st Century’, Taschen, 2003.
H., ‘Art and Feminism’, Phaidon Press Ltd, 2004.

Videography, Louise Bourgeois – Spiderwoman, Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave, on view at MOMA, Interview Marlene Dumas

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