In 2008 Dumas exhibited a series of works under the title For Whom the Bell Tolls. The title originated from the Hollywood film of the same name, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway, who borrowed the phrase from the seventeenth-century poet John Donne.
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.
The experience of loss and loneliness permeates many of the works, and was in part a response to the death of her mother in 2007. From early on in Dumas’s career she has been interested in the range of emotions that are often represented in cinema but rarely in contemporary painting.
It has always saddened me that the art form that chose me as its mistress did not make people cry. Music does. Books do. And bad movies do it even better. But not paintings.
Rather than use photographs from newspapers, Dumas largely focused on images of sadness from film, such as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Mamma Roma (1962). In the painting For Whom the Bell Tolls, the film star Ingrid Bergman stares tearfully into the distance. The distressed surface of the canvas evokes the tears and torment of the subject. Presented together, the paintings here navigate the relationship between private mourning and the public demonstration of grief in which emotion becomes crystallised into a set of gestures and physical manifestations.
As a child I was fascinated by portraits of (female) filmstars.
A moviestar can love, cry and die and then get up and do
it all over again, each time in a different time and place and
with a different lover.
In 2007 my mother died at noon.
[The exhibition] For Whom the Bell Tolls 2008 was about loss
and departure, but also about transformation and freedom.
A spirit set free. My grief and her relief.
So I made the (film)stars and the gods weep for her.
Marlene Dumas 2010