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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.

  • Artist Biography

    Marlene Dumas

    South African • 1953

    Marlene Dumas was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and raised on her family’s vineyard in the countryside. After beginning her art degree at the University of Cape Town, she decided to continue her studies in the Netherlands: the country where she’d build her career as an artist, and still lives today. In 1995, she represented the Netherlands at the Venice Biennale. 

    Dumas is best known as a painter, using both oil and watercolor. She typically works from a reference photograph, which could be purchased, from her own camera roll or collected from print media. Her work focuses on the human body, and though figurative, she often distorts her subjects with loose, painterly brushstrokes to make plain their emotional state. Deeply influenced by growing up during Apartheid, Dumas’ work centers around themes of repression, misogyny, violence and sexuality. Today, Dumas is one of the most expensive living female artists at auction, with her work first selling for over $1 million in 2004. 

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Property of an Important American Collector

8

Empty Handed

1991
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.

Estimate
HK$2,400,000 - 3,200,000 
€269,000-359,000
$308,000-410,000

Contact Specialist
Jonathan Crockett
Deputy Chairman, Asia and Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Asia
+852 2318 2023

Isaure de Viel Castel
Head of Department
+852 2318 2011

Sandy Ma
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2025

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 25 November 2018