Marlene Dumas



Marlene Dumas born 1953
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1101 × 1302 × 24 mm
Purchased with assistance from Foundation Dutch Artworks and Bank Giro Loterij 2007


Stern is a large, nearly square-format painting showing a face seen in profile, lying down. Enlarged to giant proportions, and filling almost the entire picture frame, the face is a deathly white, unrelieved by the warmth of any colour that might suggest life. The eyes are closed, as though the subject is sleeping, but her black lips and black lines suggesting a rope around her neck appear to confirm that the subject is dead. Stern is in fact a death portrait, named after the German periodical which first printed the shocking photograph of the corpse of Ulrike Meinhof, the Red Army Faction terrorist who either took her own life or was murdered in her Stammheim prison cell in May 1976. The artist borrowed the source – a newsmagazine photograph – from the German artist Gerhard Richter (born 1932), who had used the image as the basis for three of the fifteen paintings that make up his suite entitled October 18, 1977 1988 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) commemorating the deaths of all four Red Army Faction members. Ulrike Meinhof was found hanged with a strip of towel, leaving black burn-marks on her neck that Dumas transformed into the suggestion of a black rope above the white shroud.

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 (T07201T07206). 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,, 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,
especially ourselves.
(Quoted in Gianni Romano, Marlene Dumas: Suspect, exhibition catalogue, Fondazione Bevilacqua la Masa, Venice 2003, p.35.)

Further reading
Marlene Dumas: The Second Coming, exhibition catalogue, Frith Street Gallery, London 2004, reproduced [p.33].
Adrian Searle, ‘Fatal Attraction’, The Guardian, 23 November 2004,, accessed 29 September 2008.
Marlene Dumas: Broken White, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo 2007, reproduced pp.78 and 94.

Elizabeth Manchester
September 2008

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Display caption

Dumas has made several paintings in which a figure lies face up with eyes closed and mouth open in an ambiguous pose. This shows Ulrike Meinhof, a member of the West German far-left militant organization Red Army Faction. Found dead in her prison cell in May 1976, she appeared to have taken her own life, although some claim she was murdered. The title acknowledges the source of the image: a photograph taken after Meinhof’s death, printed in the German magazine Stern. Dumas was interested in re-interpreting an image previously used by German artist Gerhard Richter, who made paintings based on the same photograph in 1988.

Gallery label, October 2019

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