Far from literal portraits, the artist's depictions of the human figure reflect upon love, death, gender, sexuality and the influence of mass media and celebrity.

For Marlene Dumas portraiture is not part of a wider oeuvre, portraiture is a single obsession. Even as a child she sought only to represent the face or figure. ‘I never did a tree,’ she told the New York Times in 2008.

And yet she is not like other portrait artists. Rarely working from life, she finds her subjects in newspapers and magazines or recreates her daughter from old photographs. She admits to knowing little about colour, instead using it intuitively. Her work – intense and at times unsettling – captures a mood as much as a physical presence. For example, the series of weeping women she produced in the year after her mother died, her heartbreak spilling out across the canvas.

From her earliest sketches to newly finished portraits, Tate Modern presents the most significant retrospective of Dumas’s career to be staged in Europe. It takes its name from her 1993 work depicting one figure carrying another. The artist sees a connection between the subject of the painting, and the painter who carries the weight of her subject.

Terrorists, movie stars, deformed babies and strippers are captured in inky swirls of paint. Never entirely literal, for Dumas these portraits are a means by which to delve into the murky depths of the human experience. Race, sexuality, oppression, torture and death sit firmly within her scope of exploration. As Dumas told W Magazine before her retrospective in Los Angeles, ‘I am interested in what a human being is capable of.’

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