We need to talk about Baby: Marlene Dumas

Nothing, but nothing, scares the bejaysus out of me like ‘Evil Kids’: the Grady Twins in The Shining; Toshio in The Grudge; The Exorcist‘s Regan when she’s at that ‘awkward’ stage between ‘normal’ and head-swivelling, mushy-pea-spewing grotesqueness which, while horrible, does not inspire ‘horror’.

‘Horror’ for me resides in what Freud viewed as an aesthetic quality and termed ‘Das Unheimliche’: the ‘unhomely’, the discomfiting, the ‘not talked about’; it inspires “dread and repulsion”; its essence is the uncanny, ambiguity, the awareness of the alien within the all-too-familiar; the sense that Something is Not Quite Right. And is there anything less ‘heimlich’ (cosy, familiar), more ‘dreadful’, more disquieting than an ‘Evil Kid’? Anything more against what we believe to be ‘nature‘?

Not for me.
Which is why Marlene Dumas’ Die Baba (The Baby, 1985) has been etched on my brain since I first saw it at the Saatchi Gallery some years ago.

Oil on linen, 130cm x 110cm

One of the four pieces which make up the series First People, the painting has been described as ‘repellent’. Why? because it subverts, trashes even, every cliché we hold dear about our beloved children and our relationship with them: it’s Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (great novel, not so great film) in one deeply unsettling image.

As always, the devil is in the detail.
First off there’s the scale – ‘man-size’ – so we’re already way beyond contemplating dandling this little treasure on our laps like a plaything; in fact, we’re not being asked to contemplate him as a ‘thing’ at all, but as a person (First People), not merely a self-indulgent version/extension of ourselves, the ‘parents’. This is a sentient, willful being who engages us directly through eyes which seem to have seen just about everything ever and not been entirely thrilled about it: the casually presumed ‘innocence’ of childhood is replaced with a confrontational ‘knowingness’, in that horribly arched eyebrow, that looks right through us, and, more disturbingly, judges us.

So used are we to being presented with images of happily gurgling, tousled-haired darling moppets, that the sight of a tight-lipped (what is that smeared on his mouth? Chocolate? Or something much, much worse?), Hitler-haired mini-man is a shock to the system. No bouncing, rosy-cheeked cherub this: the greeny/yellow-tinged palette is sickly and alienating, just plain wrong,  and, for me, it exactly conjures up what Freud was getting at.

Of course, Dumas is not out to simply scare us for scariness’ sake; she has a very serious point to make, like Shriver’s novel, about the clashing dichotomy between personal and societal expectations of parenthood and the actual, lived experience of it: the little angel can be just as often the little monster; sometimes we hate, or at least resent, our children, but it would never do to say it out loud, in public. What kind of parent would that make us?
In this brave, brilliant painting fear of the child is reflected back on us as fear of ourselves, of what we, supposedly rational, caring grown-ups, are both capable and incapable, despite what we like to believe, despite the images and conventions with which the world at large surrounds us.

Now there’s something to be scared of.

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9 thoughts on “We need to talk about Baby: Marlene Dumas

  1. I remember seeing that baby, haunting and unsettling. Then again, I’ve always felt like that about babies. Scary!

  2. You know, I think this is my favourite image of a baby ever. It looks like a real child, with that glare. “How dare you truss me up in these outrageous clothes,” it says, pooping itself. “I have dignity.”

    • Yeah! I love it. It scares the crap out of me, but I think it’s a lot closer to the truth. I don’t have kids, but I just know that if I did I’d spend 90% of the time thinking ‘you little shit’.

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