Bianca Stigter

Marlene Dumas
Acheiropoietos – Cheiropoietos

The Muse is exhausted

The muse is exhausted
because she smiles too much.

The muse is exhausted
because she works overtime.
There’s too many men and women
that feed from her breasts.

The muse is exhausted
because she has to pour the water
of inspiration, as well as make art
herself and bear children.

The muse is exhausted
Because linear time has been
abolished. Everything is here and
now and present tense.

The muse is exhausted
Because the nights are never dark
Anymore. All that neon confuses the
Night Creatures. They say that owls
and other such animals find it difficult
to sleep because our lights are

The muse is overexposed.
Too much light.

The muse is overloaded.
She is too busy to be reflective.

The muse is overprotected.
Not to be confused with respected.

The muse is pale and melancholic.
An European with a colonial past
and an authoritarian father.

The muse has lost her integrity.
Her tricks have become common

The muse is anachronic.
(Error in computing of time.)

The muse is psychopathic.
She takes too much and
reveals too little.

The muse is famous
too many face lifts, pep pills
and talk shows.

The muse is exhausted
too many bodies and not enough
soul. She’s got the porno blues.

Marlene Dumas, 1990


It’s green and black: green horizontally and black vertically, with quite a lot of gray, spots of colour quickly set on paper as if there were no time to give the colours an image. But still it’s no Pollock, whose splashes never go beyond the universe. These spots are also people as well as spots: two people even, a mother and a child, and the miracle that a person can grow from an egg and a sperm is again repeated, thinly, in watercolour. Not biology but chemistry, not chemistry but painting.

It’s a watercolour that is at issue here, one which also seems to be a short cartoon film, a practice sheet, a Rorschach test, taken by the none other than the artist. It’s as if Marlene Dumas has taken Leonardo da Vinci’s tip to heart: look at a wall with mold stains and see natural landscapes or looming armies. Only her wall is the drawing itself.


Marlene Dumas (Cape Town, 1953) probably began to draw as all kids do, with scratches and smudges. Monkeys and elephants continue that way. People don’t. Dumas, once past the scratches and smudges, focused mainly on ‘bikini girl’. Some adults may draw a girl, a sheep, a spear of asparagus, which is not inferior to a genuine sheep or mother: they are working on a doubling of the world in two dimensions. Marlene Dumas doesn’t do that. No bird would ever peck at her grapes. Which is not to say that the impulse for realism isn’t part of her motivation, or the delight and horror of her audience. Take her paintings of babies from 1991. Four giant portraits of a newborn child, portrayed accurately – nothing cute about this baby. Dumas called this four-part series, three of which portray her daughter Helena, The First People (I-IV). The paintings seem like photos gone wrong, photos at least that most parents would reject as failures because they deviate from the accepted ideal for babies: round, pink, Bambi. And then a painter is needed to see that those photos have not failed, to elevate them into art.

The whole history of painting and photography appears intertwined in the work of Marlene Dumas. She almost always works from photographs. She paints portraits from snapshots. Nobody needs to pose for her. Unlike Lucian Freud, she has plenty of models to choose from. They don’t even have to be alive to be portrayed by her: Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Pasolini, Anne Frank, Martha Freud, Amy Winehouse, Andy Warhol, they are all given the Dumas treatment. Not the world, but its photographed version, is her starting point.


The art of painting began, as everyone according to Pliny agrees, with tracing a shadow. The Roman writer wrote two thousand years ago in his Natural Histories about the origin of painting: “Everyone says that it started with drawing a line along the shadow of a man, and this was thus the first step. The shadow was the first painter.” It’s a legend that could stand not only for the birth of painting but also for the birth of photography. Painting with shadow. Writing with light.

Most stories about painting dating from classical antiquity concern realism. Grapes painted in such a way that the birds peck at them, horsed depicted so that real horses trot whinnying towards them. This remains constant until the nineteenth century, when the Austrian painter Hans Makart conducted the acid test, putting a painting of a vine hung with grapes in his garden. No birds came.

It isn’t as if the birds depicted in photos can come home to roost, but it’s true that realism has come to occupy a less prominent place in painting. Suddenly, what used to be the highest praise is not judged important anymore. Art was not a servile copy of reality, that was photography. There was no art to it.


It’s difficult to feel the delight that a painting must have triggered before the invention of photography To see what you cannot see for yourself must have made a part of the thrill. Flowers in the winter! Mountains in the plains!

Saskia alive

The more realistic the painting, the greater the delight must have been. Take the sheep painted by Francisco Zurbarán in the seventeenth century – a sheep has never looked more sheep-like. Zurbarán painted everything: the stiff white eyelashes, the hooves that make you think of human feet in high heels, the soft fleece that here and there appears matted with dirt or moisture. The animal is as present as the fruits and vegetables in the work of Adrian Coorte, who a little later (and further north) painted asparagus and strawberries. The same devotion, the same overwhelming impression of realism – as if they were not painted, but photographed. The same applies to the portraits of Jan van Eyck, for instance his man wearing a turban. It could be a photograph.

The paintings of Marlene Dumas never make that impression. Yet her works are painted from photographs. The exhibition that brought together seventeenth-century portraits and those of Dumas made that confusingly obvious. Especially in their reproduction in the catalogue, with all the brushstrokes of the originals glossed over, the overwhelming impression is of photography. Look, for example, at the faces of Michael Sweerts; certainly no brushstroke to be seen in the reproduction. Erwin Olaf could have done them. Not Marlene Dumas – yet her paintings are based on snapshots, Polaroids and newspaper photographs, whose properties are often somehow preserved in her paintings. Crazy excisions, strange distortions and out-of-focus blurring she transfers to the painting. Imagine if Michael Sweerts or any other seventeenth-century person saw her work. Wouldn’t it look strange to them?


The portrait was one of the first genres in which photography outpaced painting – quantitatively, if not qualitatively. In 1839, Dorothy Draper was the first person to be portrayed by a camera. Already in the 19th century, more people must have been photographed than painted. In the beginning, the slow shutter speed was a problem for some subjects. There are whimsical photos of small children, sitting on the knee of their mother, who is hidden under a black cloth – a painter could have just left mum out. Photographers have always done their best to look like painters. Dumas doesn’t use works by famous photographers, photographers who are seen as artists. She instead opts for the non-artistic, the casual, unfinished, random quality photos sometimes have – reality captured, not improved. Photos that aren’t forgetting their mechanical origins.


In his study The Shadow of the Photographer, Hans Rooseboom writes that, of all the great nineteenth-century inventions, photography had the least impact on people’s lives – less than the train and the phone. It’s a nice, weakening remark: he’s probably right, but increasingly less so because photographs and film have become increasingly more present. A life without paintings is quite conceivable. A life without photos isn’t. Whoever is never photographed? You should make every effort to be in any photograph. Often, being photographed is a privilege. Girls often want to be models, above all else.


They often look at you, the people on Dumas’ paintings and drawings. Yet it’s not their eyes that you see, but those of the painter. She looks back at you through paint or ink. It’s as if she wants to make her own gaze visible. The illusion is more dreadful than that of Rorschach. She can also seem sweet. Hardcore pornography is painted softly, something you do not need to stiffen.

Miss Pompadour

An ass like an ice cream, scoops of pistachio or mint and cookie dough, a cunt like an almond. Sweet meat. With Dumas, skin can assume any colour, sometimes so that it fits in with everyday use, at others inspired by the palette of the painting. For her, Mary Magdalene can be both white and black, or not white and not black.


Photography has long been held in lower esteem than painting because there no art and no talent was held necessary for it; photographs were made not by man, but by machine. Even before the invention of photography, there were images that were not created by humans, but they were held in high regard. In Greek, there is even a term for it: acheiropoietos, an image made without hands. Such works include the Sudarium (or Veil) of Veronica, the Shroud of Turin, a large number of Greek icons. Such images, usually the face of Jesus or Mary, stood in high esteem, were even sacred. The Veil of Veronica (Latin for real image), was often depicted in paintings of the Middle Ages. You could see that cloth, an imprint of the sweat on the face of Jesus, as a photograph. The Veronica was kept in the Sancta Sanctorum of the Vatican. Two researchers saw the Shroud of Turin as a photograph, taken by Leonardo da Vinci. The shroud would then be the first photograph in history.

You could call all the photos subsequently taken acheiropoieta. The work of Marlene Dumas is, contrarily, cheiropoieta. Her works could only be made by a human. It’s as if her pictures re-humanize, by appropriating what was taken away. We see people and things more often in photos than in reality. Dumas never forgets that.


From the beginning, painters have used the photograph as a tool, and before photography mirrors, the camera lucida and the camera obscura, as painter David Hockney describes in his book, Secret Knowledge. This was long done in secret, before and after the invention of photography. For example, it became known only forty years after his death that Breitner (1857-1923) not only painted, but had also photographed. Even now, there are many painters who do not like it to be known that they use photos to create their work. According to critic Hans den Hartog Jager, revealing the photograph that inspired a painting is even a taboo. It happens only in works that have become such classics that acknowledging the picture that underlies them cannot damage their status. Marlene Dumas broke that taboo. In her catalogues, she gives insights into her image bank. Then it turns out that there are still huge differences between the photo and the painting. Take, for example, a painting of a man in a long white dress, holding his jacket open. In the painting some details are omitted. For instance, the man is wearing slippers no more, and the lining of the jacket is not black but beige. The background is painted over and the other people in the photo are also missing. Even more importantly, the caption is missing. A text with the photo, which was published in the de Volkskrant in 2004, explained that the picture was taken in a psychiatric hospital that had reopened in Baghdad. The painting was called The Prophet.


Portraits almost never carry the name of the person portrayed. One of her first paintings, dating from 1984, is based on a Polaroid of herself. It is entitled Evil is Banal (1984), a reference to Hannah Arend’s 1963 book about Adolf Eichmann. The book argues that people in totalitarian systems can commit the most terrible crimes without feeling responsible for them. Dumas gives herself the role of Eichmann here, a white girl who grew up during apartheid in South Africa. Innocence does not exist – a hard lesson from a soft portrait.

Innocence does not exist, even if you are blonde. In fairy tales, the blonde is usually the heroine, a fiction that both Nazism and apartheid sought to embody. It has therefore lost some of its power, but still has not disappeared – in the children’s song, Jesus still has a heart of gold and two blue eyes. And Snow White might have black hair, but she also has snow-white skin. It took until 2009 for an African-American Disney princess to get the lead in a movie.

In the visual arts, a wedge has been driven between image and representation. How do you give significance to something when you know that the exterior says nothing about the interior? Up until the twentieth century, it was a constant that appearance says something about inner reality, from the kalos kai agathos of the ancient Greeks to the physiognomy of the criminologist Lombroso from the nineteenth century and the archetypes of photographer August Sander from the beginning of the twentieth century. Perhaps nothing is left except to repeat over and over that the beautiful and the good are not a duo. The counterpart of Evil is Banal is Osama (2010), a portrait of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, responsible for the attacks of 9/11. From 2001, for ten years before Duman painted his portrait, Osama’s image had been a personification of evil. She makes that evil into a beautiful painting, decorating his face with colour, softening his beard with curly brush marks.

The Pavlov Response to portraits is still one of reverence. They seem to ask for worship. But who wants to worship Osama?

It gets even more uncomfortable, because Osama looks a bit like the man displayed on real icons: Jesus Christ. The face of goodness is indistinguishable from that of evil.

Miss Interpreted

Dumas is not only a painter but also a writer. She writes as she paints. Often, she accompanies her exhibitions with a short text. In language her instrument is the pun, the double meaning, the expressions merging into each other. She gave herself the nickname Miss Interpreted. She once called Waiting (for Meaning) (1988) a painting of a naked woman. You call it! Her texts teem with meaning, the words tangling together until the intention is almost lost in language. She wants her paintings to be poems. Colour and shape are their rhythm and rhyme. Recently she wrote: “Looking at images does not lead us to the truth. It leads us into temptation. Now that we know that images can mean, whatever, whoever wants them to mean, we do not trust anyone anymore, especially ourselves.”

Martha, Martha, Martha

In the early eighties, Dumas painted a number of women who shared the name Martha: her grandmother, a servant and the wife of Sigmund Freud. Names say as little as appearances do, yet they say something – the servant had taken the name Martha because her own was too difficult for whites to pronounce.

Could there be a culture in which each person has a true ‘own name’, a combination of sounds that would apply to only one person? In titles, Dumas often takes names away. She turns individuals into types or mugshots. Neighbours, pilgrims, prophets, survivors. Anybody could be them. Everybody is.

Martha, Marthe, Marta

In series like The Black Drawings (1991-1992), Jesus-Serene (1994), Chlorosis (1994), Young Men (2002-2005) and Endless Rejects (1994 -) are again multitudes of faces that make you realize that a type or a mugshot does not actually exist – again a denial of meaning. The variety is endless, as in a box of strawberries. Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, Africans, Moroccans, none of them look like the others. In series such as those of Andy Warhol, it is always about the same face. With Dumas, it’s always about another.

Tiger Lily

Marlene Dumas’ work is becoming more Chinese. In the legend of the emperor, the artist and the rooster, the artist paints a wonderful bird in a few strokes. He has practiced for two years in order to be so exact. With Dumas, exactness is clouded.


Is painting like the monarchy, an institution that still exists but is remarkable mainly for the fact that it still exists? Dumas is a queen anyway, a painter queen.


As was usual in the seventies, Dumas began painting abstracts during her education. That was the norm, which you could also see even then as a result of the invention of photography. Those who didn’t paint abstracts were hyperrealists, or they didn’t paint at all. In the eighties, painting returned, first wildly and later thoughtful or sparse, with many blank canvasses.

At first, Dumas made mostly collages and drawings. In the eighties, she painted her first portraits. That was seen as daring then. That’s almost impossible to imagine now, thanks to her work. She has ensured that the standard was revised. It is now almost impossible to imagine that her oeuvre did not exist. Within twenty years, it has become a norm. Within the arts, her work has become as obvious as an apple is outside them. It could be a child, a child whose presence – even after the first surprise of its existence – you can never quite get used to, because before you know it, it’s already changed.

I would compare Dumas to Goldilocks, and not because of the artist’s beautiful head of golden curls, but because her work is ‘just right’. Scientists call the earth the ‘Goldilocks planet,’ because all the conditions here are just right for the origin of life, not too hot and not too cold, not too big and not too small. Marlene Dumas’ art is just right. Not too abstract, not too figurative, not too traditional and not too modern, not too personal and not too political, not too intellectual and not too everyday, not too abundant and not too sparse, not too emotional and not too analytical, able both to fascinate connoisseurs and to appeal to the general public.


“Maaiken, Maaiken, this is your last outing,” sang people on the street when a statue of Mary was carried through Antwerp on 18 August, 1566. Two days later the Iconoclasm began. It was not the first iconoclasm in history. During the Byzantine Empire, there had already been two.

Creatura non potest creare, wrote Augustine: the created cannot create. But despite this, artists were often seen as creators, as competitors of God, or colleagues as Joost Zwagerman called them. “Art is a magical activity,” writes the English critic Peter Conrad in his study, Creation, Artists, Gods and Origins, “and anyone who creates the likeness of a man seems to be exercising the power that created man in the first place.” In Tahiti, Paul Gauguin was hailed as ‘the man who makes people’.

Iconoclasts invoked the second commandment, which was quickly made a rule of in the Christian faith. In Judaism and Islam, people have been held to it even more. In Jewish and Arab cultures, images of living beings are not common. In Islam, it is forbidden to depict living beings with a soul. Remarkably, this applies only to drawn or painted images. Photos fall outside the prohibition, because they have a different relationship with reality. They are not made by humans, but through mechanical means. Photographers are not competitors of God, or painters. Yet this way of thinking is not the only one. It’s often said that Africans expressed the fear that photographs would take away a piece of their soul. But I’ve never heard this story applied to paintings.


You could also argue that, with the advent of photography, the idea of creating and creation has been changed or at least extended. It’s no longer just about a hand that can draw a line, but about composition, light, colour. About the decisive moment, capturing a pose, coming up with a concept. In digital photography, the craft is of less importance. You only need to push a button to get a good picture. Could a photographer do it with both eyes closed? Blind photographers exist, but they are rather in the minority.

In 1966, the American painter Willem de Kooning made a series of drawings with his eyes closed, which were nevertheless exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. De Kooning did this to disconnect his ‘head’, so that his hand could take over. Dumas tries similar things. She works quickly, at night, when there is nothing else to do. Her handwriting is recognizable from thousands.

It is sometimes said that if Rembrandt and Vermeer were alive today, they wouldn’t be painters, but photographers. The Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra had a retrospective this year at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The newspapers reported that the photographer was compared with the painters of the seventeenth century. The painter has already become a photographer. In this view, the tradition of progress in art still shines through. Dumas has nothing to do with this. She belongs to the simultaneous, the eternal moment. She might go back to Altamira. There is no progress in art. Still, there is the temptation of a line that becomes an animal, a smudge that becomes a cheek. Dumas could have worked at Lascaux. Looking at her work, all currents play a role: from prehistory to primitivism, from the Renaissance to Impressionism and abstract expressionism. Her motives are consistent: to the millions of Jesuses already hanging on the cross, in countless churches and museums, she doesn’t hesitate to add a few dozen more.


Marlene Dumas has only once used a picture by a famous artist for a painting. Usually she uses snapshots that are generally not considered to be art. The exception is Man Ray’s glass tears, a photo from 1932 of two heavily lashed eyes looking upwards. Beneath the corners of the eyes are glued artificial tears. Photos are reality for her, photographed tears tears not artificial but real tears. The distinction dissolves.


More often than famous photographs, Dumas has used famous paintings as a starting point. Goya’s Abominations of War, David’s Marat, The Funeral of Santa Lucia by Caravaggio, a Pietà by Michelangelo, a Christ by Holbein. Her most brutal reworking is Stern (2004). The source for this extreme close-up of the head of a woman – the white of her skin fills almost the whole painting – is a picture from the German weekly Stern of terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, who had been found dead in her prison cell. Gerhard Richter had already used the picture from Stern in 1988 for his series October 18, 1977. Unlike Richter, Dumas doesn’t faithfully copy the photo, she zooms in, adds colour, even though the ‘colour ‘is mostly light and dark, she does not deny that this artwork is a painting, but admits it. No confusion but confirmation.

Yet Dumas’ work has nevertheless become more cautious over the course of time, her paint thinner and almost smudged away before it’s been applied. It’s as if the great painters of our time, from Luc Tuymans to Gerhard Richter, asked themselves how many paintings we can still bear, how much paint can their public tolerate, as if they were making themselves small. Of these three, the greatest is Dumas.


When you look at the paintings and drawings of Dumas, it’s as if you were sitting in a waiting room and looking in the mirror: you see the faces of strangers, struck now by a chin, then by a bag under an eye, and suddenly with a fright you realize that others might read your face the same way, and want to connect moods and qualities to a coloured skin or a high shoulder. But unseen I feel like a blank canvas.


Dumas painted a portrait of Osama bin Laden once before. In 2006 she painted him and called him The Pilgrim. Then she added mainly pink and yellow to black and white, in 2010 blue and green. These colours are not realistic. No impression, but expression, it seems. But the difference between impression and expression may be minimal. Or non-existent. Impressionism and expressionism can’t always be distinguished from each other. Why, in Dumas’ work, does Naomi Campbell have a blue cheek and Martha Freud a red forehead? Is it impression? Or expression? Or are there higher beings who have ordained blue and red, as in 1969 Sigmar Polke commanded that the upper right-hand corner of a painting be coloured black? These higher beings would be called composition.

In 1879, Claude Monet painted a portrait of his recently deceased wife Camille. “I caught myself, my eyes fixed on her tragic forehead, in the act of mechanically analysing the succession of appropriate colour gradations which death was imposing on her immobile face,” he later wrote in a letter to Georges Clemenceau. “Blue, yellow, grey, etc. … even before I had the idea of setting down the features to which I was so deeply attached, my organism automatically reacted to the colour stimuli.” In a reproduction, the colours that Monet eventually painted can’t be seen; Camille seems now purple, then pink, then beige, as does the whole painting. How realistic would the original be?

For her portrait of Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dumas chose white and blue, as though the actress in the morgue was actually still alive and feeling cold.

Dead Marilyn (2008) is based on a black-and-white photograph, still the norm at the time of Monroe’s death in 1962. Colour was long the domain of the painter, even when colour photography was already invented. In 1960, the American photographer Walker Evans called colour photographs ‘vulgar’. Now black and white photographs are the exception, even in newspapers.

Black Beauty

In the essay “Garmt Stuiveling and the garden gnome,” Karel van het Reve once gave the following description of the human experience of beauty: “An aesthetic sensation arises when a person has the impression that something is so, and at the same time the impression that something is not so.” According to Van het Reve, the perception of two contraries can be attained. You can depict a horse very minutely, so that even the muscles under the skin are visible, or with just a few quick lines. The wonder is that they are both horses, or even the same horse.

Mohammed B.

In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Measuring Your Own Grave (2008), there are three small pictures printed side by side – a clipping from the English-language German magazine The African Courier. “Van Gogh’s killer gets life jail,” reads the headline above. The sitters are Theo van Gogh (‘brutally murdered’), Mohammed Bouyeri (‘the remorseless killer’) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (‘MP under police protection’).

Of these three, Dumas has only painted the one in the middle, Mohammed Bouyeri, in a portrait called The Neighbour (2005), which is just what this photo model stood for. Why do Mohammed B. and not Theo van Gogh? Why do Mohammed B. and not Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

“Art is a way of sleeping with the enemy,” Dumas has written.

Maybe she couldn’t choose. You certainly cannot decide who to fall in love with, or whether to like cheese. Preference is arbitrary. And for an artist, different sorts of decisions can be intertwined. Personal, political, and visual stimuli may all influence each other. Coincidence may – no, must – play a role.

Dumas has never turned her nose up as the tattoo repertoire, as her colleague Erik Andriesse has called it. Life and death. Living and dead people. In art she is thus an exception. Only occasionally are humans largely absent from her canvases, as seen in a recent series of paintings depicting the wall between Israel and the West Bank, Under Construction (2009).


Dumas failed in her attempt to paint a portrait of the Italian actress Sophia Loren. Anna Magnani did work out, however.


In 1993, Dumas produced a painting entitled The Image as Burden. We see a man carrying a woman in his arms. Dumas called it a metaphor, a Pietà for the artist who carries the weight of his or her subjects. No traditional Pietà therefore, yet it still resonates with an awful sense: this child is too big for the lap, and yet the lap is the only thing on offer. But there isn’t even a lap.


Since the early Middle Ages, many painters have ventured an image of Saint Veronica with her veil. Van Eyck, Memling, Dürer, Zurbarán, El Greco, they all painted the image of Jesus on the cloth and usually they do their best to make the image on the veil look different from the rest of the painting. As if they were trying to paint a photograph.

The work of Marlene Dumas is more reminiscent of the holy image itself, for example, that of Manopello, a village in Italy that claims to possess an acheiropoieta. The American painter Brice Marden has aspired to awareness not of the letter but the spirit. Paintings that are not made by human hands appear. The paintings would transcend their creator and simply exist, as a tree, a cat, a girl. Not created but arisen. No whys or wherefores. No waiting for significance. Dumas’ paintings have almost achieved that naturalness. But they don’t thereby transcend their painter. Fortunately. Ecce homo mainly denotes what is pictured. With Dumas it also denotes creator. Cheiropoietos, in everything cheiropoietos.

English translation: Jane Szita, Amsterdam

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