The work 'Models' by the South African artist Marlene Dumas consists of 100 drawings of women’s heads hanging on the wall in four rows, one above the other. They are done in washed ink. Occasionally the eyes have been coloured in with pastel crayons. In some drawings, it is possible to recognize the portraits of women by artists from the past, e.g., by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Cranach. Others have been drawn after photographs of film stars including Anita Ekberg and Brigitte Bardot, while others represent photographic models. There is one exception amongst the heads of the women: the head of a snake.

In 'Models' Marlene Dumas shows women from different times and from different races. What they have in common is that they have all been models at some time before being drawn by Dumas. She made her models using reproductions. The word “model” has different meanings. It is the starting point with which an artist works, but it is also an ideal, and in 'Models' these meanings coincide. In the original portraits the representation of the person complied with the creator’s ideal of beauty. This ideal was strongly determined by the time and culture in which that person was living. Dumas was not concerned with the people she represented as individuals, but with the image that has been held of women over time. The snake’s head is a reference to the woman as a symbol of temptation. The coloured eyes give the portraits a slightly diabolical character, also referring to the theme of temptation.

Dumas’s drawings are not beautiful in the sense of being sophisticated or intended to please, and in this respect her style of representing women is in stark contrast to her subject and her theme. She was not interested in external superficial beauty, but was concerned with the meaning of an image. While she was studying in South Africa, Marlene Dumas had great difficulty drawing models because attention was exclusively devoted to the external form there. When she draws or paints people now, she does not use living models but photographs. She is not concerned with the personality of the subject of the portrait, but with general human feelings such as fear, nostalgia, vulnerability, eroticism, guilt and innocence.

Queer perspective

What is a “model” of womanhood: what are the characteristics that render all these women? Is the individuality of every woman lost in this collection of “models” or is something more essential emerging from such a grouping? How to look at something already looked at? How to make sense of this plurality? The key might be in the eyes of the only non-human model of the collection…

Tags: cisgender, essentialism, femme, gaze, gender vs sex

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