Sunday, 13 September 2009

Marlene Dumas

Gelijkenis 1 & 2 2002
Oil on Canvas 60 x 230 cm
Punta della Dogana, Venice
17th August 2009

This diptych by Dumas is based on the famous Hans Holbein the Younger painting “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”, both of which are now owned by François Pinault and were on display in his new contemporary art space in Venice. They were originally exhibited one above the other, but for some reason his curator has split them onto separate walls. I felt this diminished the concept and made any concept behind the work hard to grasp. Of the two it is the second canvas that is the closest to the Holbein which is in the Basel Kunstmuseum (not seen), and whilst it is only a facsimile or simulacrum, the copy draws a power and melancholic aura from the original.

The painting represents a corpse stretched out on a slab with the loins covered with a white cloth. The painting is life sized and we view the painted emaciated corpse from the side with the right arm in full view with the hand protruding slightly from the slab. The chest shows a blackened wound from the soldier’s spear and the hand the stigmata from the crucifixion. The expression frozen on the face is one of hopeless grief, a man deserted by God without any promise of redemption.

Unusually for a painting for a painting from the 16thC, Holbein leaves the figure alone without the usual coterie of figures immersed in grief but also in the certainty of the resurrection. It is this isolation that endows the painting with its major melancholic burden more so than the limited palette of greys, browns and greens. Perhaps Holbein, himself a humanist on the threshold of atheism, is expressing his religious doubt. There is nothing more dismal than a dead God, and by painting a faithful representation of the dead body of a man taken from a cross with the head thrown back in suffering (rather than with the customary traces of beauty combined with the agony on the cross), Holbein confronts us with that possibility.

So what is Dumas trying to achieve with her copies? As she says “you can’t ‘take’ a painting, you make a painting”[1] and consequently for her it must be a decisive moral act. Perhaps the clue is that the first canvas is also partially based on a tabloid image of Michael Jackson sleeping in his oxygen chamber (in an effort to stave off his own mortality). Clearly the paintings have to be read as a pair and perhaps she is emphasising that we are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We prefer to be provoked and titillated rather examine our real problems, eschewing issues that are complex contradictory or confusing.

©blackdog 2009

[1] Dumas, Marlene “The Private Versus the Public” Marlene Dumas: Miss Interpreted Van Abbesmuseum 1992. 43


  1. I suppose some protest could have been the reason in order to "split" the two paintings "onto separate walls", although they belong together according the intention of Marlene Dumas (see also her Afrikaans title "gelijkenis =Likeness I and I)- this combination (Jesus- Christus and Michael Jackson) is not far away from a kind of blasphemy and provokation for religious persons- in my opinion. The painting by Holbein is fascinating, magnificent, very modern, and audacious in his times, perhaps comparable with the painting of Matthias Grünewald in Colmar; I read that Dostojewesky's "Idiot" found in this painting an expression "to lose the faith", but I'm not sure if Holbein's painting may be observed as an "isolated" one? - The late Michael Jackson ( I was once fascinated by his charisma in earlier days) appeared like the death in person- horrifying indeed- now he might have found his rest, but the hunting media have denuded him and will denude him further - terrible, too- in this way Dumas' painting is a prefiguration of his life before he died- but in any case I deny to glorify MJ as a kind of Jesus - he was a poor man who needs some sympathy though, he made a lot of people happy...! I very appreciate your analysis- I see the transitoriness and vanity, but also the vulnerability of the human beings depictured in these paintings- persons like MJ are dressed up, hiding and covering their real identity behind rites,dresses, words, lies. .. , but in reality they are poor, naked individuals which have not more than only one life they should live, too!

  2. The Dutch word 'gelijkenis' means also 'parable' (reminding perhaps also of the parables Jesus has told to his disciples/ public), parable as a special genre in literature and art which must be decoded, having different levels of meaning, a litteral one and an ethical- symbolic... one- I think it is a parable about existential situations of the mankind like death.- The genious theatre regisseur Peter Zadek (he died some weeks ago) apologized his decision to let play also naked actors/acrtices on his stage stage with the words that we human beans are totally naked in our most important and essential situations (birth, love, illness/operation, death...)! A fine thought- and the paintings of MD may show the human being in his/her existential being! ( The shirt of a dead person has no pockets - we are then without any title, rank, position, things we once possessed...- naked)

  3. I found your comments about the decision to hang seperately interesting, and in such a city it is possible. I suspect it was more to do with the space available and I wonder if Dumas was consulted!

    I would really like to see the original by Holbein - perhaps next year.