Empty Handed

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  • Provenance

    Frith Street Gallery, London
    Private Collection, New York
    Thence by descent to the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Eindhoven, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum (now Van Abbemuseum), Marlene Dumas: Miss Interpreted, April - May 1992, p. 109 (illustrated)

  • Literature

    Maxine Kopsa, 'The Iconography of "Bad Painting": Marlene Dumas' Snowwhite and the Broken Arm', Simulacrum, June 1995, p. 25-27 (illustrated, p. 27)

  • Catalogue Essay

    ‘During those years, I made quite a few pictures of children, often young girls as my daughter was a child then, and it is a pleasure to notice how children discover or use their bodies. Adults often read all kinds of meanings into their gestures, but maybe they are just surprised by the wonder of it all. Looking at her own hands. Hands are miracles!’ Marlene Dumas

    Having formulated a unique painterly idiom that provides an entirely unique and nuanced perspective on all that constitutes the human condition, Marlene Dumas is undeniably one of the most significant figurative painters of her generation. Throughout her prodigious career that has spanned five decades, the artist has offered a piercingly original vision that boldly engages with topics of birth, death, sexuality and gender; the fundamentals of human existence. Gently articulated through luscious swathes of deftly manipulated oil washes, the present work Empty Handed provides an ethereal vision of childhood that is both tender and disquieting. Above all, she privileges a sense of ambiguity, synthesising the equivocation of her brush with the emotional weight of the subject. As such, Dumas makes an impassioned case for the unique powers of the painted medium, in a world increasingly overwhelmed with the expedited consumption of digital imagery.

    Born in 1953 in South Africa, Dumas’ early career began in the Netherlands, having first moved to Amsterdam in 1976. Fast becoming Holland’s most internationally acclaimed artist, Dumas finally received the highest accolade of representing the nation at the Venice Biennale in 1995. In 2008, much deserved market recognition for Dumas’ work made her the most expensive living female artist at that time and subsequently in 2014 she reached a new pinnacle of institutional recognition with the opening of a monumental retrospective exhibition, The Image as Burden, that travelled from the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, to Tate Modern, London and the Fondation Beyeler in Basel.

    A significant personal milestone in Dumas’ life had come much earlier, however, when she first became a mother in 1989. Having produced an extensive group of paintings about babies and pregnancy after this life changing event, child subjects have since remained an important, and sometimes controversial subject for the artist. In the present work, the soft pinks of flesh and rotundly stylised forms offer an intimate and nurturing view of the infant subject. Fascinated by how children discovered and used their bodies, the artist places an emphasis on the hands of the young girl in Empty Handed. This is consciously juxtaposed with the enigmatic washes of a moody blue ground, the shy posing of the figure who averts our gaze, and the unavoidable sense of isolation in the composition. As a dislocated frame from a wider unknown narrative, Dumas eliminates context to create a liminal space of paused time, creating a sense of the uncanny through a viewpoint that is both distant and highly personal. The artist has remarked how ‘it feels as if something has happened, in the sense of an after-event, or alternatively that something's going to happen but you don't yet know what it is. It's as if I can make people think they are so close to me – that they believe I've addressed the painting directly to them. I give them a false sense of intimacy.' (The artist in conversation with Barbara Bloom in Dominic van den Boogerd, Barbara Bloom and Mariuccia Casadio, eds., Marlene Dumas, New York, 1999, p. 12.) The close-up portrait format, where a single figure overwhelms the frame, is a key defining pictorial strategy that Dumas developed early in her career and one that has been utilised here to create a vision of childhood that is both sentimental and lonely.

    Crucially, Dumas places herself in dialogue with the medium of photography. Eschewing the traditional academic practice of life drawing and painting from the observation of live models, Dumas invariably paints from images that she has sourced from mass-media. As a result, her oeuvre deals with the extremities of human experience, depicting multifarious individuals and situations from celebrities, to victims of violence. But whether she paints explicit pornographic images or, in this case, a seemingly innocent child, Dumas often disregards the reality behind the source image and instead reinterprets the subject as a formal and imaginative exercise. The profound emotional ambiguity that Dumas imbues upon her subject leads us to reconsider the validity of images as harbingers of discrete narratives, and we become engrossed in the newfound capacities of paint. As the artist has surmised of her practice: ‘I deal with second-hand images and first hand experiences.’ (Marlene Dumas quoted in Mariska van den Berg, Sweet Nothings, Amsterdam, 1998, p. 24.)

    Dumas is inspired by the most existential and alluring figurative painters of the twentieth century, namely Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon. In the present work we see that she has constructed the human figure as its own visual lexicon. A suspended awkwardness of the posture and a flattened perspective of limbs, which appear to be turned out towards the frame, infuse the body with a sense of surreality that allows us to consider the human condition as a whole. Here Dumas unearths ides of innocence and loss as opposing paradigms of childhood, creating figure that is both sweet and enigmatic. As the artist has noted, ‘All things are in themselves contradictory. And its [sic] this principle more than any other which expresses the truth, the very essence of things’ (the artist cited in Matthias Winzen, ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’, in exh. cat., Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden Baden, Marlene Dumas: Female, 2005, p. 36.) What is most captivating about the work of Marlene Dumas is that such dense emotional ambiguity is not only supported by, but is fully found through the delicate ambiguity of her brush. What she reveals in the softly blended washes of lusciously muted tones is the ability of the medium of painting to take us beyond the clear cut function of images as closed signifiers that claim to narrate an external reality. Instead, her painted forms create endlessly evocative worlds of their own, where the lines of identity are not dogmatically fixed, but are beautifully unstable.

    Phillips would like to thank Marlene Dumas for her assistance with this essay.

  • Catalogue Essay




    事實上杜馬斯個人重要的里程碑在生涯早期即已鋒芒畢現,也就是1989年她首度成為人母之時。歷經人生重大改變,她創作了相當大量一系列有關嬰兒及懷孕的油畫,孩童自此也成為她畫中重要主題,有時甚或引起非議。這件作品中,主角有著柔和粉紅之膚色,圓潤的身形,藝術家以親密及關愛的視角來呈現這個嬰孩主題。著迷於孩子們如何發現與使用他們的身體,藝術家於此作中將重點放在畫中小女孩的手部動作。 背景處理卻有意識地選用了情緒性的藍色,帶著謎般難解的筆觸,孩子害羞的姿態,則迴避了觀者的注視,在構圖上自然形成了一種疏離感。就像是被錯置在一個更廣大卻未知的敘事框架之下,杜馬斯消除了文本以創造出一個時間停滯的極限空間,瀰漫著既親密卻又具強烈距離感的怪誕氛圍。藝術家曾如此自評:「感覺好像有事剛發生,一種後知後覺的混沌,或是有事情即將要發生了,但你卻還不知道究竟是什麼。觀者常誤認為與我很親近,像是我透過這幅畫直接與他們對話。我給了他們一個誤謬的親密感。」(藝術家與芭芭拉・布倫姆於藝評家多明尼克・凡・登・布格德,芭芭拉・布倫姆及瑪芮歐希雅・卡薩迪歐所編撰,《馬琳・杜馬斯》,紐約,1999年,第12頁)。在近距特寫的肖像畫格式中,單一的主角佔據了整個畫面,這是杜馬斯早期繪畫確立起的關鍵性代表手法,她在此也用以創造出童年亦可同時是多愁善感又孤單的一個觀看視角。




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Property of an Important American Collector

Empty Handed

signed with the artist's initials and dated 'MD 91' on the reverse
oil on canvas
60 x 50 cm. (23 5/8 x 19 5/8 in.)
Executed in 1991.

HK$2,400,000 - 3,200,000 

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 25 November 2018