Dumas’s portrait Jen hovers between love and death. The painting depicts the head and chest of a prone, naked woman; her eyes are shut and her skin seems drained of color, except for touches of unnatural peach and green around her face and swaths of blue on her lips and eyelid. Against this ashen pallor, a strangely swollen pink-and-blood-red nipple appears to protrude from the canvas. Drastically foreshortened and closely cropped, the figure recalls Renaissance depictions of the dead Christ as much as the art-historical tradition of supine female nudes. It is hard to tell whether she is sleeping or lifeless.
The picture is in fact part of a harrowing series of portraits of corpses, but in this case Dumas borrowed the source image for Jen from a reproduction of a still from Yoko Ono’s 1970 film Fly, in which houseflies crawl over the body of a recumbent, slowly breathing actress. Dumas’s female figure thus traverses still and moving image, vitality and objecthood, arousal and burial.
Born in South Africa in 1953, Dumas has lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1976. She has painted people in vastly different places and states—whether being rounded up by police, or lost in thought, or tenderly embracing. She has said, “I want to portray people in all their complexity and never [as a] completely definable entity.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Best known for her portraits in watercolor, Dumas here employs a richly toned palette of oil paint, punctuating the female subject’s white skin with a deep red nipple and slashes of blue and black at the eye and lips. One of a series of emotive portraits of laid-out corpses, the woman’s head is taken from a still from the 1970 film Fly, by Yoko Ono, which follows houseflies as they explore the naked body of an actress. Dumas, who aims “to portray people in all their complexity and never [as a] completely definable entity,” has succeeded in rendering an image of provocative ambiguity through her use of color, cropping, and foreshortening.
Gallery label from What is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection, July 7–September 17, 2007 .