Monday, 6 April 2009

Marlene Dumas

Stern 2004
Oil on Canvas 110 x 130 cm

Frith Street Gallery, London
3rd December 2004

This was my first visit to The Frith Street Gallery; which comprises a group of small rooms on several floors in a terrace house in this street in Soho. Exhibition is titled "The Second Coming" and really works well in the space. Despite the positive religious note struck by the title the predominant aura of the work is one of death.

There is a good reference to the importance of the camera in Dumas work in her introduction in the press release "If we get to heaven and meet the Big Bright Light what will it be - the eyes of the saints or the flash of a camera?"

Six of the twelve paintings were of women’s heads with ambiguous facial expressions. The gallery notes gives the origin of these paintings as follows; Angelique (2004) is an upside down version of an Ingres; Lucy (2004) from is from a Caravaggio; Alfa (2004) is that of a victim of the Moscow theatre siege in 2002; Kim (2004) is from a Dutch newspaper photograph of the 25-year-old Kim Hyon-hui, responsible for blowing-up a Korean airliner in 1987; Ophelia to Medusa (2004) is from the Millais painting; and Stern (2004) is from the photograph of the corpse of Ulrike Meinhof taken from the magazine of the same name.

I found Stern the most compelling of the group, with an almost overpowering emotional sense of melancholia. The strongest perhaps because Gerhard Richter used exactly the same photograph for three paintings in his October 18, 1977 suite of paintings, depicting the body of Red Army Faction member lying dead in her prison cell.

Her version has a very thin wash on face, dark ground behind, eyebrows and lips burnt umber, a couple of white highlights left in thin paint. The face fills the canvas much more than Richter’s version (left), making the space really claustrophobic.

The green under-painting has been left in outline around the face suggesting a deathly glow, and the exaggeration of the open mouth seems to be almost gulping down the darkness above. The paint on the face itself is so sparse, but gives crucial clues to her death by hanging, yet the burn mark from the towel seems to strongly depicted, yet this flaw adds to the freshness of the image. I am sure I would have been tempted to correct it – how wrong that would have been!

I have now seen this painting over a dozen times and whilst it’s melancholic aura is undiminished, the impact in the two settings (Venice Biennale, Tate Modern) have not given the piece the stunning power it had the first time I saw it in the small white rooms in Soho.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Your information and interpretation is interesting (I saw the GR-series in Berlin (MoMA- exhibition) - I completely agree with your observations! The melancholic Ophelia-motif was my first impression and remains my last impression -after I have read Arthur Rimbaud's poem "Ophelia" - the word 'Stern'/Star has three meanings in German.

    On the calm black water where the stars are sleeping
    White Ophelia floats like a great lily;
    Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils...
    - In the far-off woods you can hear them sound the mort.

    For more than a thousand years sad Ophelia
    Has passed, a white phantom, down the long black river.
    For more than a thousand years her sweet madness
    Has murmured its ballad to the evening breeze.

    The wind kisses her breasts and unfolds in a wreath
    Her great veils rising and falling with the waters;
    The shivering willows weep on her shoulder,
    The rushes lean over her wide, dreaming brow.

    The ruffled water-lilies are sighing around her;
    At times she rouses, in a slumbering alder,
    Some nest from which escapes a small rustle of wings;
    - A mysterious anthem falls from the golden stars.

  2. Richter is a hard act to follow, yet her subsequent appropriation of the Stern image adds another different dimension. Perhaps it romanticises the subject in a way that Richter studiously avoids. Very moving painting on all kinds of levels for me. Never thought of Stern as star strangely enough, and thank you for the Rimbaud.