Marlene Dumas Pushes 'Grave' Limits

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See works from Marlene Dumas' new exhibit. Marlene Dumas hide caption

itoggle caption Marlene Dumas

Dumas became the highest paid living female artist in 2005 when one of her paintings sold at auction for $3.4 million. She gets introspective about being blonde and painting another famous blonde, Marilyn Monroe, post-autopsy.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with Day to Day. South African artist Marlene Dumas likes to paint disturbing portraits, dead people, suicide bombers, female porn stars, children who look like criminals.

Ms. MARLENE DUMAS (South African Artist): And the source actually was my daughter, who was also lovely...

BRAND: Marlene Dumas is also one of the most sought-after painters in the world. Three years ago at Christie's, one of her painting set a record for a living female artist. It sold for 3.3 million dollars.

COHEN: Here in the U.S. not many people outside of the art world have heard of her but that's about to change. She has her first major American museum exhibition here in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It opens on Sunday.

Ms. DUMAS: Well, I think it's better here.

BRAND: You can see some of Marlene Dumas' paintings at our website npr.org. Yesterday as she was hanging the show at MOCA, I met her and asked her to talk about a few of her paintings.

Ms. DUMAS: That one is called the Lookalike.

BRAND: The middle top one?

Ms. DUMAS: And this is the Believer and this is the White Disease. This is one of my favorite paintings...

BRAND: Who is that?

Ms. DUMAS: A friend of mine who is working in a place for people with skin diseases. He had to take photographs of it for medical things and it was an anonymous person with a skin disease. And I used that as an inspiration in South Africa where often the white people will talk about black people as if they were a problem. But one can turn it around and you know, they've got a problem. It's not so much that I am a literal artist or so but it's more...

BRAND: Like a metaphor.

Ms. DUMAS: Like a metaphor, yes.

BRAND: You grew up in South Africa under apartheid. I've read about this painting and many people have said that this was a metaphor for you for apartheid. Is that an accurate description?

Ms. DUMAS: Well, I always think when people only closed it down to apartheid that is very limited because it's much more universal issues, I feel that that is being addressed.

BRAND: Here in this room you have a self portrait and it's the Banality of Evil. How were you able to incorporate this idea of abstract larger-than-life images in a picture of yourself.

Ms. DUMAS: OK, well, with this portrait, that was a snapshot of me sitting in a car talking to people which was after an exhibition or show. So I looked at the snapshot and in this snapshot, I had this expression where I thought, oh my goodness, you know, there you have this person, me in disguise trying to please everybody or so but there was a sort of fakeness in it and I thought, you know, realizing things about your own relationship to people and how you react.

BRAND: As a woman, do you think painting these images, painting images of violence, of death, of torture is more...

Ms. DUMAS: Yeah, but I just want to say, I have very seldom painted direct violence. Almost never, but that's also why they-it is interesting because that's how people remember it often in one's head, but if one would simplify, one would say that it's a bit more political room, that's more the children's room, that's more the erotic room. You know, but, OK, but we wanted to see the Dead Marilyn.

BRAND: I do want to see the Dead Marilyn. That's Marilyn Monroe?

Ms. DUMAS: Yes. And...

BRAND: What about this image fascinates you and why did you want to make a painting of it

Ms. DUMAS: My mother had just died and so I was actually very, very sad about that and I also was thinking, I have this opportunity to make this exhibition in America. Everyone say you have this big opportunity and I wasn't really painting. There was nothing that I could find that could hold my attention and concentration. And then I was looking for something else. And it was an article about her about a book that had come out called Goddess and it had this picture of her in next to a picture where she was laughing and smiling. And that- I had seen this long time ago but, I then have no intention to paint that because I have also no intention to, because I thought, you know, it's such a, you know, so many people who got badges, it's like saying goodbye, you know.

BRAND: Yeah, her images are everywhere.

Ms. DUMAS: Suddenly, in this very sad picture, I think my own personal sadness and all kinds of things came together and this was then actually my last painting for this year.

BRAND: We talked earlier about your self-portrait and the blond woman being the Banality of Evil. Was that part of why you chose...

Ms. DUMAS: But also looks like your self-portrait, yes, you have to think of that too, yeah, yeah.

BRAND: So the Marilyn Monroe, obviously a famous blond woman, does that figure into that same thinking?

Ms. DUMAS: Yeah, maybe, I mean, it maybe you can call that humor? While it doesn't sound humorous now, but I mean it's not that I have anything, you know, on Marilyn Monroe but indeed in a sort humorous way, because there is also humor in the world. I have to make a point of that. My partner, he says if I didn't have humor, the work would be much more pathetic but, you know, even with the Dead Marilyn the fact that I think in sort of the joke is on me, too. So, you know, there is quote I used to have in an old book of mine for a long where, I think it was by Samuel Beckett, there is nothing is as funny as unhappiness. And the fact of, that you smile also at the human condition, there is a smile in here too. It's true, it's true but because the people keep on writing about, you know, victimization and...

BRAND: Well the images are pretty stark, I mean, you've got dead people. You've got pornographic images and got...

Ms. DUMAS: Yeah, but, yeah, but I think I done with the passion, the emphasis should be much more on that these people are strong and they believe in something, whether they are right or wrong they, I see it more positive, even if there is a lot of death.

BRAND: Marlene Dumas exhibition called Measuring Your Own Grave opens in Los Angeles on Sunday. In December, it will be in New York and in Houston next spring. You can see her paintings right now by going to our website, npr.org. Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I am Madeleine Brand.

COHEN: And I am Alex Cohen.

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