Marlene Dumas: Solo
Isolation and Loss
by Jonathan Evens
Marlene Dumas writes of having admired Jesus in the works of Holbein, Zurbarán, Grünewald, Pasolini, El Greco, Velázquez and Titian. She writes of having failed him as she has failed few other subjects, citing her own The Last Supper as evidence. She also mentions not fearing him as she fears his Father and not going to think up or invent anything new about him. Her upbringing was within the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa and she writes that more than often she works with religious connotations. Sometimes these are explicit, as with her series of Jesus images including Jesus Serene and (In Search of) The Perfect Lover, sometimes they are implicit, as with her Magdalena series or the reversed Pietà in The Image as Burden.
Solo comes from an exhibition entitled Forsaken which, as well as featuring five Crucifixions, also included portraits of Phil Spector, Amy Winehouse, Osama Bin Laden and his son Omar. The connection between this disparate collection was fathers and their children. Spector, portrayed during his trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson, was inspired by his father to write ‘To Know Him Is to Love Him’, his first hit record. Winehouse covered this track but her own father, despite his best efforts, was unable to save her from herself. Omar became estranged from his father but disapproved of Bin Laden’s assassination by the US military. Jesus, on the cross, experiences abandonment by his father. There was something apposite about the strange company these Crucifixions kept in this exhibition that recalled the company Christ kept in his ministry and on the cross.
By using Christ’s cry of forsakenness as both a starting point and metaphor for our common experiences of isolation and loss, these Crucifixions begin a conversation which takes us deeper into both the experience and consequences of Christ’s death. Solo, and the other Crucifixions from this show, are images of aloneness. Christ and his cross exist in voids of darkness or light. In Solo the dark cross fills the white void, while Christ is compressed and condensed at the pinnacle of the painting and at the point of death; a defeated, forsaken, tragic figure. As with many of Dumas’ images, these Crucifixions are meditations on the depths of human suffering; homo homini lupus est, ‘man is a wolf to man’.
Solo is currently on show in The Image as Burden, a retrospective at London’s Tate Modern of Dumas’ work, and is the only one of her Crucifixions to be included. A large part of the history of painting can be said to be about depicting the dilemma of body and soul through the images of Christ on the cross. Dumas has said that Jesus has been the main figure in the history of painting and that ‘he’s this naked man who struggles between spirituality and physicality.’
Dumas has depicted this dilemma throughout her career. She has done so through a wide range of disparate images, as indicated by the files in her studio which contain photographs that inspire her art. These bear titles such as, ‘War,’ ‘Death,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘Love,’ ‘The Nude,’ and ‘Porn.’ Her work explores identity and meaning through the lens of the mass media’s preoccupation with the twin poles of ecstasy and tragedy. Within this breadth of reference, Christ and his crucifixion have significance in their own right and are also referenced in other less explicitly religious images. The fact that Christ is included within her frame of reference is testament to the influences of her own religious upbringing, the place of Christ within art history, and the universality of Christ’s crucifixion as a metaphor for human suffering.
Her work challenges the Church to engage with references and responses to Christ and his crucifixion which are outside of orthodox doctrine. Her work encourages the Church as an example of the impact that Christ continues to have in the wider population despite the growth of secularism. Her work examines and explores human desires, motivations, emotions and actions using techniques of close-up and freeze-frame. They reveal spirituality as a force and factor within our lived human experience.
Marlene Dumas: Solo, 2011, oil on canvas, 175 x 87 cm.
Marlene Dumas (born 1953) was born in Cape Town, South Africa. From 1972 to 1975 she attended Cape Town University, where she studied for a BA in Visual Arts. She then completed her studies in Haarlem in the Netherlands. She has lived and worked in Amsterdam since 1976. From 1978 she has exhibited internationally and is one of Holland’s most widely admired artists. In 1995 she represented Holland in the Venice Biennale, and in 1996 the Tate Gallery exhibited a selection of her works on paper. In the past Dumas produced paintings, collages, drawings, prints and installations. She now works mainly with oil on canvas and ink on paper. The sources she uses for her imagery are diverse and include newspaper and magazine cuttings, personal memorabilia, Flemish paintings, and Polaroid photographs. The majority of her works may be categorised as ‘portraits’, but they are not portraits in the traditional sense. Rather than representing an actual person, they represent an emotion or a state of mind. Themes central to Dumas’ work include race and sexuality, guilt and innocence, violence and tenderness. For more, see www.marlenedumas.nl.
Jonathan Evens is Priest-in-Charge at St Stephen Walbrook and Associate Vicar for Partnership Development at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, England. A keen blogger, he posts regularly on issues of faith and culture at http://joninbetween.blogspot.co.uk. His journalism and art criticism ranges from A.W.N. Pugin to U2 and has appeared in a range of publications, including Art & Christianity and the Church Times. He runs a visual arts organisation called commission4mission (c4m), which encourages churches to commission contemporary art and, together with the artist Henry Shelton, has published two collections of meditations and images on Christ’s Passion. Together with the musician Peter Banks, he has recently published a book on faith and music entitled The Secret Chord.