Snow White in the Wrong Story: Paintings and Drawings by Marlene Dumas


I am the place in which something has occurred.  —Claude Lévi-Strauss

Like fairy tales before they’ve been bowdlerized, Marlene Dumas’s paintings and drawings are not pretty pictures. As the Brothers Grimm wrote it, the wicked queen’s demise was far from Disneyesque; she was forced to wear red-hot iron shoes at Snow White’s wedding and dance until she dropped down dead. For Dumas Snow White is no innocent girl: she’s a naked woman strapped to a table in a clinic. And where are her loyal dwarfs? Replaced by a juvenile tribunal of not-very-nice-looking private school boys, scrowling and staring at this vulnerable female spectacle.

The camera she’s clutching and the flurry of Polaroids beneath her cold bier incriminated Dumas’s Snow White and the Broken Arm (1988) for snapping one too many: a paparazzi crime of which the artist herself might be guilty, since her figurative paintings all originate in the myriads of pictures she takes. And though this isn’t a portrait likeness, Dumas can be further identified with the princess in the tale and its tellers.

Marlene Dumas was born in Capetown in 1953; she received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the local university in 1975. Seeking a less provincial environment for her art, she left her homeland for Holland to participate in Ateliers ’63 at Haarlem in 1976. Though her years in South Africa may not have been the most culturally stimulated, the country’s political realities gave rise to a dilemma that remains central to her art:

The fact that I realized that because I was white in South Africa I was one of teh oppressors greatly confused me. I personally don’t see myself as a real oppressor, but I am a part of the oppression nevertheless…It can never really be resolved. You have an individual feeling about yourself, but if you then see yourself as a part of something else you can reach an entirely different conclusion about yourself. The one is no more, or less, truthful than the other.1

For Dumas, discovering the dubiousness of being “fairest in the land” of South Africa entailed a loss of innocence. Her complicated self-image is reflected in a 1984 portrait where she appears looking altogether like the sweet young girl she once was, framed in radiant fall of glowing blonde hair.2 The title of the painting, Evil Is Banal, sheds a different light on her identity; in the cracked mirror, Snow White saw that she herself was the wicked queen. Or, to quote another of the artist’s works, Dumas discovered herself to be Snow White in the Wrong Story.

Dumas currently lives and works in Amsterdam. Her earliest Dutch art is an explorative mixture of drawing and collage, probing problems of artistic representation by adopting different approaches, one “no more, or less truthful, than the other.” In a note scribbled in the wings of one such untitled work, dated 1977, Dumas prescribes for herself: “The problems of interpreting circular forms” with their challenging circumferences traveling “Between the Zen circle + the traffic circel [sic].” A newspaper picture of an infant inching towards a rolling ring-toy crowns the top of a stack of pictorial solutions, which read vertically, like Chinese characters, in standing script. Below, circled and printed in red, is another photo showing an “unknown political prisoner,” bound and blindfolded. The shape of his bellowing mouth is echoed by the first letter ONBEKENDE POLITIEKE GEVANGENEN. Dumas punctuates the list with the final image, in her own hand: a lushly brushed circle of black ink.

Dumas’s solutions to the problem of circular forms also take up the three predominant modes of address in contemporary art of the eighties. Reviewing the collage, again from the top, we see appropriation’s decontextualized imagery, current political art’s graphic explications, and Neo-Expressionism’s egocentric hand. Another line of text in the drawing, ALLES WAT ROOD IS, IS NEIT BLOED (All that’s red, in not blood) adds a note of ironic uncertainty to the act of interpretation, which is certainly in keeping with the times. But from this point, Dumas hones her fluency in these strategies, so does she subordinate them, sometimes even in the same brushstroke.

In 1983 Dumas started painting assiduously in oil, beginning with a series of large portraits, followed by paintings of nudes, school children, pregnant women. The subjects were all close at hand, part of Dumas’s environment or condition. The birth of her daughter in 1987 inspired her ongoing work about infants, including The First People of 1990. But no matter how familiar, Dumas never paints from life, she states as if confessing to a crime:

My people were all shot by a camera, framed before I painted them. They didn’t know that I’d do this to them.3

Owning up to the act of violation implicit in taking pictures, Dumas is equally candid about preserving the perversities of her source, using an episcope projector to translate her images onto canvas. Her painting compositions often emulate Polaroids with their closely framed subjects pressed forward against unnaturally glowing grounds, while the paint itself follows the photo from areas of high resolution into slippery pools of unfocussed light. But as Dumas intimates, her truth to photography has a dark purpose. The Polaroid’s grease and glare act as a scrim, behind which Dumas strips her subjects, throwing away their unique identities; she has use only for their hides. Via the episcope, the artist’s own child ends up robbed of any claim to her mother’s sympathy and is transformed into a powerfully writhing cipher: one of The First People, full of unknown potential.

In a text to accompany her exhibition The Private versus the Public, Dumas railed against the current “cynicism towards representation.”4 Particularly in a postmodern period, when all kinds of representation are possible, art in which “everything is used and nothing is related,” “where (for example) nudes become signs and not ‘erotic presences,’ strikes her as disaffected and irresponsible. In a group of works whose subjects are nudes, Dumas challenges structuralism’s inability to make meaning, while demonstrating her power to create significant images.

The pair of paintings Waiting (for Meaning) and Losing (Her Meaning) (1988) each depict a nude woman bent over in a pose that obscures her face and makes her body prone to penetration. The waiting woman is bent backwards, with her legs dangling over the side of what appears to be a coffin (Snow White’s perhaps?), while her sister lies, Ophelia-like, facing downward in oily dark water. Contrary to appearance, these images are not open-ended. They are “erotic presences” offering no reprieve in the form of popular theory to regard them as “empty signs.” The paintings’ titles fully incriminate the viewer as a voyeur, whose lascivious gaze makes the recumbent nude into a signifier of very particular meaning.

In an inscription on one of her drawings, Dumas can be heard muttering ALWAYS THE FEMALE BODY, ALWAYS. This note of disappointment is amplified and clarified in a statement, “I am against…the nude.”5 But her intolerance doesn’t prevent her from taking pleasure in depicting flesh and eroitc rapture. Indeed, she even considered it an especially delectable challenge to depict “without hatred, distrust, disgust or blame” a nude man.6 The corresponding painting, The Particularity of Nakedness (1987), shows him stretched, supine, with his head resting on one extended arm, his face turned full to the viewer. The title announces what’s essential to the painting’s success in meeting the artist’s criteria. His body is not idealized brawn (in fact he’s rather skinny), nor is it formalized porn. He is, as naked people often are, vulnerable and sexual, with a gaze turned steadily on the viewer, acknowledging that his is an arousing presence. Dumas responds to these particulars with her explicitly sensual representation of his face, his flesh, his languorous pose. And though his forthright sexuality could inhabit the boudoir next door to Manet’s undressed Olympia, it actually comes from the tomb.

In a sheet of notes with the heading, “Thinking about PAINTINGS of the human Figure,” Dumas identifies the source of the painting’s composition and the figure’s sexuality in The Particularity of Nakedness as Holbein’s Dead Christ.7 These notes read, in part, like someone’s little black book, providing a list of names and what the book’s owner figures she stands to get by them: from Nolde, the glow—from Lucien Freud, the ordinary—from Alex Katz, the flatness of modernism. Other contacts are Diane Arbus, Eric Fischl, whose portrayals of “sexual guilt” are “better to read about than to see,” Philip Guston, Frida Kahlo, Stephen McKenna, Jackson Pollock, and Vermeer. There’s also a bit of the secret diary, confessing to cast-off affairs with de Kooning, whose Women she eventually found “too elegant,” and Clemente; “too sweet.” Notes of admiration are made for Alice Neel’s “beautiful portrait of Andy Warhol”; Baselitz, “My favorite painting of a foot,” and Beuys, “A Big Man” who made “tender + frail drawings.”

These remarks, which turn Dumas’s private-sounding opinions and liaisons into public knowledge, are not an isolated peep through a pinhole. Dumas repeatedly comments on her art; exhibitions of her work always include her own blunt assessments. Aimed at personal demystification, this information prevents any speculation over her intentions, sources, and meaning. Within the context of postwar figure painting, Dumas assesses her own work as being an attempt to avoid representing “men as monsters,” while admitting to the difficulty of the task. She addresses things directly, without resorting to stylization, in order to arouse “an experience of empathy with my subject matter” in both her viewer and herself.8

Beyond artist’s statements, writing is indispensable to Dumas’s work. Within the art itself, words are as essential as brushstrokes, particularly to the drawings. A sketch of a bespectacled gentleman bears the observation that WEARING GLASSES MAKES MEN AGGRESSIVE; beneath a drawing of an unbeautiful infant, Dumas declares, THE START OF IT ALL: OTHER PEOPLE’S BABIES, and she teases a naive-looking blonde to SAY SOMETHING ABOUT SOUTH AFRICA.9 Such broad declarations render one unsure of the artist’s true position. Is Dumas actually of the opinion that “A weeping woman is disgusting”? Or are these statements meant to read like in a way that is comparable to Jenny Holzer’s texts? As if trying them on for effect, each artist vocalizes a spectrum of viewpoints, whose range encompasses a complicated state of moral ambiguity. When Dumas and Holzer mimic voices of authority, they are also recording the seductive sounds of oppression.

Dumas’s drawings, which also come primarily from photographs, are more lifelike than her paintings. They seem to represent the moment when the shutter flashes open and shut, rather than including the processes of development and reproduction that are so much a part of the paintings. Coincidentally, several drawings show men with cameras, like Good Shot and Record secret sources. It’s also in Dumas’s quick-handed drawings that one finds the most explicit references to sexual and apartheid politics: there are images of police activities, torture, sexual aggression, and sexual politicking: a drawing of a man mounted atop a naked woman, who seems to be THE EAGER YOUNG ARTIST DISCOVER(ING) PROFESSIONALISM referred to in the inscription. The man’s ogling eyes are the same pair planted in the head of one of Snow White and the Broken Arm’s schoolboys, as if we were seeing the character in the drawing as a juvenile gaining youthful bad habits from a woman who is no fairy princess.

Though moral ambiguity may not seem to be one of their chief characteristics, fairytales are always cruel stories, with punishment served up in excess for both good and bad behavior. Even though “the good” live happily ever after, it’s only on the condition that “the bad” are banished, burned, beheaded, or otherwise damned: misery becomes a requisite for happiness, which, though lifelife, hardly seems all good. As the Grimms put it in the preface to their Nursery and Household Tales:

…we are not aiming at the kind of innocence achieved by timidly exercising whatever refers to certain situations and relations that take place every day and that simply cannot be kept hidden. In doing that you fool yourself into thinking that what can be removed from a book can be removed from life.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collection of folk stories began as an attempt to preserve a vanishing vernacular tradition. In the preface to the first edition of Nursery and Household Tales (published in 1812), they emphasized the anthropological nature of their original work, describing how they traveled throughout Germany, recording as accurately as possible the tales they heard told by each village storyteller. However, as their project continued, their objectives changed. They came to recognize that what sounded like an infinite number was actually only a handful of stories, endlessly embellished in place after place. Adapting these for the second and third editions of their book, the Grimms sought to strip away local variations in order to recount the essential story, making fairytales into literature.

In a similar way, Marlene Dumas’s art repeatedly recounts what was, for her, the essential experience of learning first-hand what it means to be white under apartheid in South Africa. Except for Dumas, South Africa isn’t the place in which something has occurred; she is that place. At the risk of soiling her snow-white reputation, she disarms her alter-ego, a woman equipped to make pictures, and renders her the victim of a somewhat sinister voyeuristic scene. Dangerous tension between positions of power and vulnerability coexist throughout Dumas’s work. The nude levels a challenging gaze, seducing the viewer with his erotic presence at the same time that he is the subject of pornographic exposure. In another double-take, in a self-portrait image, the artist depicts herself as an apparition of blonde loveliness, in whom she also sees responsibility for enacting oppression.

The portraits, nudes, and modern-day depictions of fairytale scenes that Dumas paints push her loss of innocence outside of a local situation into a cultural realm. They present a picture of reality complicated by conflicted points of view, aggressive sexuality, seditious words, and inexplicable acts. Central to each of these pictures, however, is expressed in her art a moral dilemma. She instills in her work all the imperative of a physical situation, in order to goad, seduce, wheedle and compel the viewer into a like struggle. And while these pictures do not provide tidy, or even grim resolutions to the questions they communicate, Dumas’s art actively investigates ambiguities of existence central to to cultural and political experience.


  1. Dumas in an interview with Anna Tilroe (1985) quoted in Marja Bosma, “Marlene Dumas: Talking to Strangers,” Dutch Heights, no. 3 (September 1990), 14.
  2. “It gave me a feeling of real distrust in relation to myself: to see myself not as a ‘sweet young girl’ but as an oppressor is quite a leap, and at the same time it makes the problem of the way you regard things acute.” Dumas, Ibid.
  3. Marlene Dumas, The Eyes of the Night Creatures (Amsterdam: Galerie Paul Andriesse, 1985), n.p.
  4. In “Notes on my Text” Dumas explains her short statement, “The Private versus the Public.” Copies of both texts are were available during the exhibition held at Galerie Paul Andriesse in 1987.
  5. Marlene Dumas, “The Private Versus the Public,” Ibid.
  6. Marlene Dumas, “Notes on my Text,” Ibid.
  7. Reproduced in “The Question of Human Pink,” (Kunsthalle Bern, 1989), 28.
  8. Artist’s statement of 1985, Ibid., 50.
  9. These drawings are all reproduced in the artist’s book, No interviews please. Marlene Dumas Strips (Amsterdam: Stichting een op enn, no. 4, 1987).