At once comic, tragic, and erotic, Venus & Adonis (1593) is a poem by William Shakespeare based on passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This new translation by Hafid Bouazza of Shakespeare’s text is illustrated by Marlene Dumas, the renowned painter celebrated around the world for her highly charged depictions of the human form.
Through a series of expressive ink washes, Dumas paints new passion into the poem—bodies bleed into one another, lips part in sighs of passion, a flower blooms to life. Desire in all its heady intensity is evocatively washed over the pages. As with Dumas’s wider body of work, however, tragedy is not forgotten and is frighteningly played out with equal intensity. The owl, “night’s herald,” as Shakespeare writes, flies jet black across the sky; a wild boar looms like a shadow over Adonis’s suffering, wounded body; black dissolves into gray; and bodies are lost in a sea of ink.
The poem tells the story of Venus, the goddess of love, and her attempts to seduce the hunter Adonis. It is a complex, kaleidoscopic work in which love takes center stage—Venus’s lustful yearning for Adonis ripples throughout, each stanza and line tinged with unrequited longing. As Venus declares, “Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry, / Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.” Like Shakespeare before her, Dumas opens up a seemingly unending flow between light and dark, love and death, pleasure and pain.
Dumas’s complete suite of thirty-two works on paper is reproduced in this volume, exactingly placed by the artist throughout Shakespeare’s text. Copublished by Athenaeum and David Zwirner Books as an English/Dutch edition, the book is a striking yet beautiful paradox—a marriage of text and image that is as sensual, fleshy, and carnal as it is unnerving and disturbing.