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portrait: Jackie Nickerson

Marlene Dumas interview: 'My better works are the ones that embarrass me'

Full of sex, death and fallen celebrities, Marlene Dumas’s provocative paintings get a huge retrospective at Tate Modern. We talk to the Amsterdam-based artist about sadness and sensationalism

Written by
Martin Coomer

Can you describe your work, for people who haven’t seen it?
‘The main words I would use are “ambiguity”, “suggestion” and “association”. I use the human figure and the face as my main subjects but sometimes these are more naturalistic, sometimes less so. If people say “I like your work” I always say “Which work do you mean?” because they’re not all alike.’

Why do you work from photographs?
‘When I started out in the late-1970s, portraiture was seen as a very reactionary thing. So was the nude. I wanted to bring them back, but I didn’t want to bring back life drawing in that sense. I wanted to find out if I could do other things with them.’

Did you set out to be controversial? Your pornographic nudes and portraits of Osama Bin Laden or Christ on the cross suggest so
‘What I’m always asking is: can I use this image? Should I use this image? When I paint a dead person with their face turned away from you, for example, I’m asking: Can you still make a painting that holds your attention? Or, take one of my best-known works, “The Painter”. The image intrigued me because of the expression on my child’s face. I don’t know what it means exactly. We can interpret it as guilt, but there’s so much more going on. And then comes the fact that you still have to make a painting of it. You get scared. Is it a stupid painting? Or not? My better works are the works that embarrass me to do, when I think: Shit, this is going to be terrible. On the one hand I would actually like to be an abstract painter because I would like to get rid of the kitschy aspect of the figure, where you always get blamed for sensationalism, or “ooh this is too naked…” but on the other hand that aspect leads me into the field of human psychology.’

Were you nervous before making your portrait of Amy Winehouse?
‘I was nervous, but I didn’t intend to make that painting. First of all, I was making paintings of Christ and thinking of the line in the Bible, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Then I was doing a painting of the record producer Phil Spector. I was interested in him and the fact that he made these beautiful songs like “To Know Him Is to Love Him”. My studio manager, who hadn’t heard that song, googled it and found Amy Winehouse’s version. She had just died, but I wasn’t thinking: Okay, I now have to paint her. I was just busy with these sad things. I see connections between everything. That’s how I see life. I have to be emotionally touched.’

Do you worry that, because people sometimes recognise the subjects of your paintings, they feel they know the work without really looking at it?
‘You need to look at all the differences in a painting. Take a work like “Evil is Banal”. She doesn’t actually have a nose, but you read it as a nose. Or “Fingers”. If you look at details of it, you wouldn’t know what it was. In Holland, because of all the attention of the exhibition, the more conservative painters gave me all sorts of criticism – she can’t draw feet, or hands. So some of those types don’t like me at all. Or an old lady might say she likes my work because I paint babies. I’ve got a strange, wide variation of people who like or dislike me for using this area of the recognisable.’

Is putting on a show at the Tate nerve-wracking?
‘I always think I’m not ready but then I get a bit worried and I think: Well, you don’t know how much time you’ve got. I’m 61 years old, and some artists get better when they get very old and some get worse, and you don’t know which type you are! It’s like rock musicians, when you think: Maybe you should stop sometime.’

And what about staging such a big retrospective?
‘The older you get the more complicated everything becomes. When I was younger I would take my drawings to a show in a plastic bag and now you’re not even allowed to touch your own works. Because it’s a retrospective I’m constantly thinking: Are those the best works? What about the ones you left out? And what about your catalogue? The book has to be in three languages but I don’t speak German so I don’t know about the translation. “A painting needs a wall to object to” is one of my favourite titles but I said that because in English you have the double meaning of object, noun and verb, and so that’s a lovely combination but I wouldn’t have said it in Dutch. If you take it seriously, it’s exhausting.’

How does it feel looking back at 40 years’ worth of work?
It’s strange to realise that there are some works you don’t want to see again. Some you think: Oh, that’s not so bad. Others you think: Uh-oh!’

Really? Which works in particular?
“Evil is Banal”, there’s nothing wrong with that painting, it’s actually one of my better paintings, it’s that they keep on reproducing it everywhere because I used myself as a subject, so they always want to put it on posters. But I have seen it reproduced so many times I don’t want to see it reproduced again. I want to see something else. But then you forget that people haven’t seen your work: a whole new generation. I used to joke that Louise Bourgeois was the older lady and I was the younger lady, but now I’m sort of the old lady.’

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