Marlene Dumas - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, November 15, 2022 | Phillips

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  • Dominic van den Boogerd on Marlene Dumas’ Snow White in the Wrong Story


    Dominic van den Boogerd is a Dutch art critic based in Amsterdam. His collected essays on painting, Great Temptations, were published by Roma (Amsterdam) in 2018. He contributed to several books and catalogues on Marlene Dumas, including Marlene Dumas (Phaidon, London 1999), MD (Muhka, Antwerp; Camden Arts Center, London; Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Hovikodden, 1999-2000), Marlene Dumas: Suspect (Skira, Milan 2003), and Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Tate Modern, London); Fondazion Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, 2014-2015).


    No happily-ever-after this time. Snow White has ended up in a morgue. She is resting on a raised bed or sepulcher. She is not dead. Almost fully naked, she covers her breasts with her hands in a frail attempt to protect her sexual integrity. Being undressed makes her vulnerable; to be naked is to be without disguise. The prince who is supposed to kiss her is nowhere to be seen. She is being displayed in a glass case, subject to our scrutiny, but she doesn’t return our gaze. Skittishly, she looks away, as if she is trying to find her way out of here. As the title indicates, Snow White is in the wrong story.


    Snow White in the Wrong Story is an exceptionally strong painting by Marlene Dumas, one of the most celebrated painters of our time. The work premiered in the exhibition Waiting for Meaning in 1988, presented first in the Kunsthalle zu Kiel, in Kiel, Germany and later that year in Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. This was a rather gloomy exhibition of horizontally stretched paintings, populated by naked or barely clad bodies, some of them possibly corpses. In this thematically coherent group of works, Marlene Dumas, feeling that the nude had become a worn-out subject in art and advertising, puts the genre of the reclining nude to the test. More precisely: the presupposed passivity of the female figure and the concept of universal beauty underlying this theme.

    "'Sois belle et tais-toi,' he told her; 'Be beautiful and shut up.'"—Karel Appel

    The connection between woman, inactivity and beauty is not new. It is expressed in a remark by painter Karel Appel to television journalist Sonja Barend when he grew tired of her questions during an interview: “Sois belle et tais-toi,” he told her; “Be beautiful and shut up.” Whether or not Appel was deliberately echoing the title of a 1959 song by French crooner Serge Gainsbourg I do not know, but the peculiar mixture of compliment and insult remains all the same. 


    The intertwining of femininity, numbness, and beauty is central to Snow White, the well-known fairy tale by German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The story, often understood as a warning against the dangers of vanity, supplied the plot for the first feature-length animation film produced by Walt Disney Studio. As art historian Rosemary Erpf notes, “Disney’s Snow White character created a standard for female beauty when she came to the screen in the 1930s. Her whiteness, innocence, and passivity—she had to ask a mirror if she was fair and wait for a prince to wake her up—conformed to social codes that kept women in their place and affirmed whiteness as the highest standard of beauty.”i


    Marlene Dumas, Losing (her Meaning), 1988. Artwork: © Marlene Dumas.

    In the late 1980s, Marlene Dumas made several paintings featuring Snow White or Snow Whitish characters. All of these, with exception of the present work, are now part of respected museum collections: Snow White and the Broken Arm, Kunstmuseum, The Hague, The Guilt of the Privileged, Museum of Art Arnhem, and Snow White and the Next Generation, Centraal Museum, Utrecht, all from 1988 and The Ritual, Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg, which was painted between 1988 and 1991. The central character in these works has often been written about as referring autobiographically to the artist’s ethnicity and her specific experience of privilege and whiteness in South Africa, where Dumas grew up during the apartheid era. However, the lanky, dark-haired figure bears hardly any resemblance to the artist. She is first and foremost an emblem, the embodiment of an idea. The notion at stake is skin color. Dumas does not see whiteness as “the fairest” of them all, but as “a dangerous and desperate ideology when used as a political category.”ii


    In an interview in 1985, Dumas talks about her confusion when she discovered that being a white person in South Africa linked her to oppression. “I personally don’t see myself as a real oppressor, but I am a part of the oppression nevertheless… [i]t 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.”iii For Dumas, the dubiousness of being ‘the fairest in the land’ complicates the self-image in unresolvable ways. It’s like being “in the wrong story.”


    Marlene Dumas, Waiting (for Meaning), 1988. Artwork: © Marlene Dumas.

    Fairytale characters like the mermaid and the toad, and emblematic figures of naked girls personifying abstract notions such as liberty or chastity feature frequently in Dumas’s work from the 1970s and 1980s. The images invite a metaphorical or allegorical reading. Speculating on the meaning of Snow White in the Wrong Story, Dutch art critic Ernst van Alphen suggests that Snow White is in the forbidden room of Bluebeard’s castle, submitted to the voyeurism of the male gaze (the “pornographic view,” as he calls it). Being displayed causes her demise, he writes; the painting “critiques the museum as peepshow.” If woman exemplifies pure beauty as Renaissance master Raphael once believed, it is only “on the condition of being cut up”—hence the two severed heads next to Snow White.iv Van Alphen’s interpretation is provoking. Nevertheless, it seems more likely that Snow White, rather than migrating from one fairytale to another, seeks to escape from interpretation altogether. Two smaller seminal works in the aforementioned exhibition, Waiting (for Meaning) and Losing (Her Meaning), both from 1988, hint at the arbitrariness of attributing meaning to images.

    "There is a crisis with regard to Representation. 
    They are looking for meaning as if it was a thing.
    As if it was a girl, required to take her panties off 
    as if she would want to do so, as soon as
    the true interpreter comes along.
    As if there is something to take off." 
    —Marlene Dumas

    A special role in the painting is designated to the little character seen on the back and positioned in front of the scene. It could be one of the seven dwarves mentioned in the fairytale; it could just as well be a young boy acting as stage manager. By opening the front curtain, he adds a sense of drama to the scene and turns it into a spectacle. His action transforms the morgue into a puppet theatre, so to speak, disclosing the tragedy of the unhappily framed nude.


    Peter Paul Rubens, The Hermit and the Sleeping Angelica, 1626-1628, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Image: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY 

    The history of painting includes several examples of odd little fellows offering splendid views on female nudity. One example is Peter Paul Rubens’ The Hermit and the Sleeping Angelica, 1626-1628, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The picture is based on the once popular story of Orlando Furioso, who is madly in love with a beautiful Saracen girl named Angelica. An old hermit with magical powers abducts Angelica to his cave where he puts her in deep sleep, removes her clothes and gazes at her. Paintings like these inspired art historians to articulate the distinction between the naked and the nude:

    "To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself.
    A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.)
    Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.
    To be naked is to be without disguises. […] Nudity is a form of dress."
    —John Berger

    A painting is not a rebus that can be solved. On the contrary. A truly accomplished painting raises questions, not answers, as it reaches beyond the intentions of its maker and the expectations of its viewers. Imagination is a wild thing, creativity an anarchistic impulse difficult to tame. To know where a work started, what source material and intentions initiated the creative process, does not mean you know what the painting has become. Snow White in the Wrong Story has been reworked time and again. The canvas appears as a construction site where the build-up of the composition has been constantly interrupted by new ideas and second thoughts. Several parts are hardly touched upon. Others, such as Snow White’s face, have been overpainted more than once. The stark contrasts and harsh features make her countenance look like a wooden mask, not unlike Pablo Picasso’s haunting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


    In the history of painting, the number of female artists who have painted nude women is close to zero. When Marlene Dumas set out to paint her Snow White, she radically changed the parameters established by her male predecessors: she replaced nudity by nakedness. That is why Dumas’ intense painting does not seduce but confronts us. Here, the depiction of a woman’s body is far from erotic. Being white, being a woman, being naked and gazed at - it is uncomfortable and complicated and weighs you down like a heavy burden. And making paintings, searching for meaning, and longing for salvation all adds to the confusion. These moral, political (and pictorial) dilemmas lie at the heart of the art of Marlene Dumas. Only great paintings such as Snow White in the Wrong Story succeed in bringing these dilemmas to the limelight, raw und unresolved. Just like a fairytale, Dumas’ masterpiece is amusing, and compelling, yet unsettling at the same time.


    i Rosemary Erpf, Painting in the 1980s: Reimaging the medium, Intellect/The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2022, pp. 244-245.
    ii Marlene Dumas and Yvette Rosenberg (ed.), “Marlene Dumas: Open-End,” Visitors’ guide, Palazzo Grassi/Pinault Collection, Venice, 2022, p.25.
    iii Dumas in an interview with Anna Tilroe, 1985, quoted in Marja Bosma, “Marlene Dumas: Talking to Strangers,” Dutch Heights, no. 3, September 1990, p.14.
    iv Ernst van Alphen, “Facing Defacement. ‘Models’ and Marlene Dumas’ intervention in Western Art,” in Marlene Dumas. MODELS, Oktagon/Salzburger Kunstverein; Portikus, Frankfurt; NGBK,
    Berlin, 1995-1996, pp.67-75.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1988

    • Exhibited

      Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Christian Albrechts Universitat; Amsterdam, Galerie Paul Andriesse, Marlene Dumas: Waiting (for meaning), August 10–November 19, 1988, p. 30 (illustrated, p. 31)
      Frankfurter Kunstverein; Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Prospect 89: Eine internationale Ausstellung aktueller Kunst, March 21–May 21, 1989, p. 217 (illustrated, p. 61)
      Kunsthalle Bern, Marlene Dumas: The Question of Human Pink, July 7–August 20, 1989, p. 51 (illustrated, p. 40)
      Eindhoven, Van Abbemuseum; Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art, Marlene Dumas: Miss Interpreted, March 15, 1992–January 16, 1994, pp. 15, 80, 115 (Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam, 1988, installation view illustrated, p. 53)
      The Arts Club of Chicago; Toronto, Art Gallery of York University, Marlene Dumas, February 1–May 15, 1994, n.p.
      Malmö Konsthall; Castello di Rivoli, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Marlene Dumas – Francis Bacon: The Particularity of Being Human, March 18–October 1, 1995, p. 178 (illustrated, pp. 114-115)
      Barcelona, Fundació Joan Miró, La realitat i el desig, September 22–November 7, 1999, no. 7, p. 30 (illustrated, p. 35)
      Enkhuizen, Zuiderzeemuseum, Mijn Kunst: verzamelaars delen hun passie, June 5–November 2, 2008
      Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum, 2012-2022 (on extended loan)
      Maastricht, Bonnefanten Hedge House, Far from the Maddening Crowd, April 25–July 14, 2013 (illustrated in the exhibition pamphlet, p. 3)
      Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum, Beating around the bush: Episode #4, November 7, 2014–February 8, 2015
      Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum, Collectieopstelling hedendaagse kunst, July 1–September 4, 2016
      Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum, Illusion and Revelation, December 24, 2016–November 24, 2017
      Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum, Skin, April 13, 2021–January 23, 2022

    • Literature

      IJsbrand van Veelen, "Tussen beeld en taal," Het Parool, November 4, 1988, p. 15
      Paul Groot, "Marlene Dumas," Artforum, vol. 27, no. 7, March 1989, p. 149
      Ulrich Bischoff, "Marlene Dumas: The question of human pink," Das Kunstwerk, vol. 42, December 1989, p. 63 (titled as Schneewittchen in the wrong story)
      Ella Reitsma, "'Als je geen keuzes maakt, faal je ook nooit. Je kunt altijd zeggen dat het ding niet af is.' Beeld en betekenis in de kunst van Marlene Dumas," Vrij Nederland (Color Supplement), February 24, 1990, p. 22 (Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam, 1988, installation view illustrated, p. 21)
      Christa Murken-Altrogge, "Die Freiheit, sich malend sichtbar zu machen," Kunst und Antiquitäten, no. 11, November 1990, pp. 54-55 (illustrated)
      Vitus B. Dröscher, "Das grosse Gähnen," DU, no. 12, December 1990, pp. 66-67 (illustrated)
      Axel Hinrich Murken and Christa Murken-Altrogge, Von der Avantgarde bis zur Postmoderne: Die Malerei des 20. Jahrhunderts, Munich, 1991, fig. 252, p. 332 (illustrated, pp. 330-331)
      Ingrid Schaffner, "Snow White in the Wrong Story: Paintings and Drawings by Marlene Dumas," Arts Magazine, vol. 65, no. 7, March 1991, pp. 3, 59-60
      Paul Kempers, "Marlene Dumas: Miss Interpreted," Jonas, vol. 33, no. 16, April 1992, p. 9
      Bianca Stigter, "Ik teken mezelf als een waggelend dik blondje: Marlene Dumas over alle mogelijke betekenissen van het beeld," NRC Handelsblad (Cultureel Supplement), March 20, 1992, p. 3
      Ed Wingen, "Dumas zet Sneeuwwitje in het verkeerde sprookje: Na het Van Abbemuseum naar de Documenta," De Telegraaf, April 3, 1992, p. 19
      Max Borka, "Marlene Dumas in het Van Abbemuseum: Een kwestie van opruimen," De Morgen, April 10, 1992, p. 9
      Walter Barten, "Het slechte huwelijk van kunst en leven: 'Miss Interpreted' met werk van Marlene Dumas" Het Financieele Dagblad, April 25, 1992, n.p.
      Bert Bauwelinck, "Wolfijzers voor psycho-analisten: Marlene Dumas in het Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven," Gazet van Antwerpen, April 30, 1992, n.p.
      Marlene Dumas, exh. cat., Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn, 1993, p. 114 (Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam, 1988, installation view illustrated, p. 41)
      Marina Warner and Anna Tilroe, Parkett: The Parkett Series with Contemporary Artists, no. 38, December 1993, pp. 92, 98 (Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam, 1988, installation view illustrated, pp. 80-81)
      Clifford Terry, "People, Places and Things," The Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1994, Section 13, p. 6
      Mandy Morrison, "Missing Persons," The Chicago Reader, vol. 23, no. 20, February 24, 1994, online
      Marlene Dumas: Models, exh. cat., Salzburger Kunstverein, Salzburg, 1995, pp. 63, 74
      Elly Stegeman, "Aan de nachtzijde: Een project van Marlene Dumas voor Het Hooghuys," Metropolis M, no. 2, April 1995, p. 27
      Ulrich Bischoff, "Auf der Suche nach Schönheit," Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, vol. 33, no. 1, 1996, p. 7
      Jonathan Turner, "Mistaken Identity," Tableau, vol. 20, no. 2, November 1997, p. 120
      Wounds, exh. cat., Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1998, p. 126
      Catherine Flohic, "Marlene Dumas," Ninety Magazine, no. 32, 1999, p. 19 (illustrated)
      Dominic van den Boogerd, Barbara Bloom and Mariucia Casadio, Marlene Dumas, New York, 1999, pp. 55, 125 (Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam, 1988, installation view illustrated, p. 54)
      Brenda Atkinson and Candice Breitz, eds., Grey Areas: Representation, Identity, and Politics in Contemporary South African Art, Johannesburg, 1999, n.p.
      Jostein Gripsrud, ed., Aesthetic Theory, Art and Popular Culture, no. 8, Kristiansand, 1999, fig. 4, pp. 37, 53, 56 (illustrated, p. 60)
      Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, eds., Contemporary Women Artists, Detroit, 1999, p. 179
      Inge Korneck, Georgia Illetschko and Lutz Musner, eds. The Contemporary Study of Culture, Vienna, 1999, fig. 4, p. 174 (illustrated, p. 175)
      Christina Lammer, Schneewittchen: über den Mythos kalter Schönheit, ein Eiskristallbuch, Tübingen, 1999, pp. 131, 161 (illustrated, p. 127)
      Adéle Nel, "Die kleur van vers en verf: Antjie Krog in gesprek met Marlene Dumas," Literator, vol. 22, no. 3, November 2001, p. 25
      Rosemarie Buikema and Maaike Meijer, eds., Kunsten in beweging, 1980-2000. Cultuur en migratie in Nederland, Amsterdam, 2004, p. 72
      Ernst van Alphen, Art in Mind: How Contemporary Images Shape Thought, Chicago, 2005, fig. 59, pp. 157, 207 (illustrated, p. 156)
      Ilaria Bonacossa, Marlene Dumas, Milan, 2006, p. 31 (illustrated, p. 30)
      Freda Dröes, "Art at the Edge: The Painter Marlene Dumas," Feminist Theology: The Journal of the Britain & Ireland School of Feminist Theology, vol. 14, no. 3, May 1, 2006, p. 392
      Marlene Dumas: Broken White, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 2007, p. 138 (illustrated, p. 48)
      Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave, exh. cat., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008, pp. 63, 153
      Wido Smeets, "Wat je al niet ziet op een heldere dag," Zout Magazine, October 10, 2012, p. 11 (illustrated)
      Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2014, p. 186 (illustrated, p. 51; Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam, 1988, installation view illustrated, p. 50)
      Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings: Notes and Text, New York, 2015, p. 67
      Marlene Dumas, Andrea Büttner and Jennifer Higgie, "To show or not to show," Tate Etc., no. 33, April 2, 2015, online
      Laurent Wolf, "Méfions-nous des contes de fees," Le Temps, August 12, 2015, online
      Rosemary Erpf, Painting in the 1980s: Reimagining the Medium, Chicago, 2022, p. 242

Property from an Important Private European Collection


Snow White in the Wrong Story

signed and dated "M Dumas. '88" on the reverse; further signed, titled and dated "M. Dumas. Snow White in the Wrong Story. 1988." on the stretcher
oil on canvas
39 3/8 x 118 1/8 in. (100 x 300 cm)
Painted in 1988.

Full Cataloguing

$3,500,000 - 4,500,000 

Sold for $3,781,000

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2022