Stern is one of a group of paintings exhibited under the title The Second Coming at Frith Street Gallery, London (November – December 2004), many of which depict figures lying prone in ambiguous states of sleep, death or sexual ecstasy. Three similarly scaled large canvases showed close-ups of corpses’ faces: Stern, Lucy (T12312) and Alpha (illustrated hanging together in Marlene Dumas: The Second Coming, [p.41]). Like Stern, Lucy is based on a previous painting – The Burial of St Lucy created by Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571–1610) in 1608. Dumas derives most of her paintings from second-hand sources, using photographs from magazines and newspapers, or polaroids she has taken herself. Her images frequently reproduce the cropping, blurring and flattening effects of the medium of photography. Stern reflects the artist’s recent concern with significant, often political, events. Dumas combines the imagery of popular culture and recent news with the religious and biblical subjects typical to old master paintings, such as those referred to by the title of her 1996 series entitled Magdalena (T07201–T07206). She has commented:
Identifying the subject is not the key to the content. To understand what the work means is to look at the relationship between the technological source material (i.e. photographic models) and the metaphysical imagination (of the artist), it’s associative rather than descriptive, it’s about the physical qualities of the actual works coming together in the cultural space of the exhibition.
(Quoted in press release for The Second Coming, http://www.frithstreetgallery.com/dumas_04.html
, accessed 29 September 2008.)
As her words indicate, Dumas is primarily interested in the language, techniques and ethics of representation. Stern and Lucy each depict a woman’s face in extreme close-up, filling almost the entire canvas. In both images, the face is upturned, the eyes closed and mouth open, poses which are suggestive of ecstatic sexual charge. As so often in Dumas’s work, the artist explores the desire to look and visually consume, while encouraging us simultaneously to remain aware of the implications of such imbalanced access. The heightened expressions of the artist’s subjects are, in fact, frozen and taught, and the deathly pallor of each is corroborated by small yet significant details which point to their lifeless states: the black lines on the woman’s neck in Stern and the gash at the throat of Lucy. In The Second Coming, the juxtaposition of these portraits with a smaller painting of a dead woman’s face, entitled From Ophelia to Medusa, 2004 (illustrated in Marlene Dumas: The Second Coming, [p.21]), makes the viewer’s position as consuming voyeur more explicit. The subject of From Ophelia to Medusa has open eyes and a mouth full of teeth, evoking the horror of death as well as its vulnerability and passivity. In the introduction to the catalogue of The Second Coming, Dumas notes that ‘Death can’t be seen, it has to be touched. Images don’t care. Images do not discriminate between sleep and death. We do. We have to.’ ([p.2.]) She has also commented:
Looking at images does not lead us to the truth.
It leads us into temptation.
It’s not that a medium dies.
It’s that all media have become suspect.
It’s not the artists’ subject matter that’s under fire,
but their motivation that’s on trial.
Now that we know that images can mean whatever,
whoever wants them to mean, we don’t trust anybody anymore,
(Quoted in Gianni Romano, Marlene Dumas: Suspect, exhibition catalogue, Fondazione Bevilacqua la Masa, Venice 2003, p.35.)
Marlene Dumas: The Second Coming, exhibition catalogue, Frith Street Gallery, London 2004, reproduced [p.33].
Adrian Searle, ‘Fatal Attraction’, The Guardian, 23 November 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2004/nov/23/1
, accessed 29 September 2008.
Marlene Dumas: Broken White, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo 2007, reproduced pp.78 and 94.