“It was difficult to decide how to go about it, because you had to think, ‘what type of figure, what type of woman am I going to choose for this Venus?’ ” she said. “In the old paintings, she was mostly painted as these blonde, voluptuous women, and Shakespeare was writing about a kind of Mediterranean type.”
The resulting images are black ink wash on various types of paper reduced to essential elements of form. In one image, Venus is voluptuous with long, possibly blonde hair. In another, she might be an African woman with dark curly hair. In yet another, she appears like a vampire, with hollowed out eyes, inspired by an Edvard Munch drawing.
Ms. Dumas felt that the “Venus and Adonis” book illustrations could be an entry point into a new series of paintings, though she was at first uncertain. “Then my daughter said, ‘You always make your best paintings of me.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to paint you, I’m scared, and a pregnant lady doesn’t fit into this exhibition.’ ”
Ms. Dumas has painted her daughter numerous times — a particularly famous image is her haunting “The Painter” (1994) in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, depicting Helena looking sinister at about 4 years old, with her small hands dipped in black and red paint.
Helena, now 29, is one of the few models Ms. Dumas has ever allowed in the studio. “I’m not really interested in real people,” she said. “It sounds strange, I know, but it’s because then I can’t do with my figure what I want. It’s more about states and emotions.”
Nevertheless, she did begin a portrait of Helena from behind, standing tall in a strong, self-assured stance, which she named “Amazon.”
Later, Ms. Dumas found an image of Inanna — the goddess of love, fertility and war from Sumerian mythology, who was associated with the planet Venus — depicted with wings and bird talons for feet. This was a starting point for another monumental nude, but because Helena was now pregnant and very much on the artist’s mind, Ms. Dumas began to work her daughter’s likeness into the image.
Taking a sip of wine, Ms. Dumas mused, “My time is up, and I still haven’t painted a Venus. Well, I have indeed, but she’s pregnant, and she looks like my daughter.”
The two quasi-portraits of Helena, “Amazon” and “Birth,” appear in the same room of the Zwirner exhibition.
It is all very fitting, since Ms. Dumas’s first grandchild, Eden, was born on April 28, the day the show opened. Luckily, Ms. Dumas had flown to New York to install the exhibit and returned to Amsterdam in time to be there with Helena for the birth.