Monday, June 30, 2008

Marlene Dumas: Eros and Thanatos

(I'm still waiting for better images and permissions from the Museum of Contemporary Art press office; and will post them when they come. In the meantime, these small images are, frankly, pirated from cyberspace. Apologies...)

There's some catch-up to be done, here on The Buddha Diaries. Let's start with Thursday of last week, when Ellie and I went downtown to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see the exhibition of the South African-born artist, Marlene Dumas. Who would have predicted, twenty years ago, when painting had been pronounced "dead" and figure painting deader still, if that were possible, that today the world's hottest-selling woman artist would be a painter--and a figure painter, at that?

"Hottest-selling" means nothing, of course, in aesthetic terms. But I was moved by Dumas' unremitting, sometimes painful, always pitiless examination of the human body and the human face. As those who follow my blog entries know, I have written recently about Don Bachardy's work with the figure, about sitting for Bachardy, and have attempted my own "self-portrait" in words, so this topic has been much on my mind. In this context, I saw all of Dumas' work to be "self-portrait", even though none of it actually is. I believe that in looking at others with the kind of intensity her painting requires, Dumas is in some sense looking into the mirror and casting a penetrating gaze into her own humanity.

Given this subject matter, it's hardly surprising that her work hews closely to the classical, timeless "eros and thanatos" theme. Erotic the work certainly is, with its focus on (mainly) feminine sexuality, and the beauty--and vulnerability--of the female form: naked, often provocatively posed, sometimes mercilessly exposed to the voyeur's gaze.

Here and there, a male figure in a state of unambiguous arousal adds edge and context to the female sexuality.

Dumas' figures are palpitatingly alive, brimming with energy, desire, emotional complexity... We feel their flesh.

And yes, what would eros be without its counterpart, thanatos, the shadow of death? Dumas titles her show, tellingly, "Measuring Your Own Grave." In the poetic artist's statement included in the materials accompanying the show, she offers this explanation for the "somber title":

It is the best definition I can find
for what an artist does when making art
and how a figure in a painting makes its mark.

She shows us human flesh, post mortem, laid out, cold and blue, deprived of the life force that once activated it. She paints death masks,-the faces, I assume, of loved ones, or those who have a special meaning for her—as though to experience for herself the state of death, as much as to make a record of it.

Is it redundant to point out, yet again, that the flesh is mortal? That it is the source of the deepest--and most fleeting--of our pleasures (remember, the French call sexual climax a "petite mort", a little death?) as well as the most profound of our insecurities and fears? Perhaps. It has been done more times by poets and painters than anyone would care to count. And yet... here comes Marlene Dumas to do it for us one more time, in a way that no other human being ever has or ever will, and I for one am moved again to the contemplations of our shared mortality and, in particular, of my own. This is the ultimate teaching of the Buddha: the absolute knowledge that we all will die. It is well to be reminded of it, to keep it "in mind," if we wish to lead a fully conscious and compassionate life.

(As I was jotting these last words down, on a bench outside the market as I waited for Ellie to finish the shopping chores, a rather old, old man with grizzled beard stopped by to leer at me and offer a heavy sigh. "These women today," he said, a propos of nothing—and everything—“they don't wear bras any more." He used his age worn hands to describe, achingly, what he had seen. "You're still watching, then?" I asked, amused by his ancient, unapologetic lechery. "At my age," he told me with another big sigh, "that's all I can do." And chuckled wearily, and moved on.

Ah, eros! Ah, thanatos! We humans are so obsessively attached to each of them... No?


Roger said...

your post reminds me that a friend of ours published a book in, i think, 1994 titled "thanatos to eros."

you might like it. or not.

oh. i enjoyed your post.

hele said...

I enjoyed the way in which the older man arrived just in time for the perfect ending to your post.

One of those moments that makes waking life seem like a dream.