South African artist Marlene Dumas based the twenty–four portraits comprising Chlorosis on Polaroid snapshots of people she knows and on newspaper clippings of strangers. Thin, exquisite washes of color suggest apparitions or psychic projections of internal states. The title of the work comes from the Greek word for light green, and describes an anemic disease marked by a characteristic green skin tone. Sometimes referred to as the virgin’s disease, chlorosis was considered a sickness caused by the intense suffering provoked by unrequited love.
Gallery label from 2006.
In this multipaneled drawing, the twenty-four portraits, arranged in a nonhierarchical grid, resemble casual snapshots or Polaroid-like close-ups. The faces are both beautiful and disturbing; they avert their eyes and express longing, lethargy, and pleading. Their status as apparitions or psychic projections of internal states is emphasized by thin, exquisite washes of color. Certain elements of theatricality are recalled in Dumas’s rendering of these phantomlike portraits as bloodless, pale shadows. They invite multiple layers of interpretation: the images are simultaneously distressing, fascinating, haunting, and equivocal. Their expressiveness results from the tension between the depicted, the concealed, and the implied.
Chlorosis has been referred to as an “image of collective desolation.” Its title comes from the Greek word for light green and describes greensickness, an anemic disease mostly affecting pubescent females and marked by a characteristic green skin tone. Sometimes referred to as the virgin’s disease, chlorosis was considered a sickness of sorrowful love, caused by the intense suffering provoked by unrequited love, and appears in several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Romeo and Juliet.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 338.