Speech State Secretary Halbe Zijlstra
“I’m not from here and not from there.” Those were your own words, Ms. Dumas, spoken in your native Afrikaans, in a documentary in 1997. Because you were born and raised in Kuilsrivier, a village between Stellenbosch and Cape Town, where your father was a winemaker. You had a carefree childhood, but from your schooldays things began to get problematic. From then on, everything became more complicated. And when in 1976 you’d finished art college in Cape Town and had won a scholarship to continue your studies abroad, you chose to travel to the Netherlands. It would become your second home. But your only real home has always remained your studio. As you said yourself, “My studio is my home, my country.”
Actually, with that scholarship you wanted to go to New York, but you were afraid that you would be no match for such a huge city. Kuilsrivier was a village with one church, a single shop and a lone café. And you came there from a farm with lots of space and tranquility. But you did dare to move to the Dutch Haarlem. Because Haarlem is obviously easier and less threatening than Harlem, and there are still ties between South Africa and the Netherlands through shared history and language kinship.
It was fortunate for the Netherlands you could settle so well here, because we wouldn’t have wanted to miss your distinctive personality. We’re proud that you could find the space in our country to bring your impressive talents to full fruition.
You devoured the great works of old European art, which you could see with your own eyes here for the first time. And you were struck by the new directions carved out by modern art. But perhaps what impressed you most was mass media, in all its manifestations. Advertisements, billboards, magazines, photography… You weren’t simply numbed by all the images, you could still marvel at them, because for you everything was new. While Dutch students had stopped looking at or even seeing pornography, in Amsterdam you let your eyes roam around the Red Light District.
You just couldn’t look enough, it was as if you needed more eyes, and so you started to make your own archive of newspaper clippings, magazine pictures and Polaroids you’d taken yourself. And so you created your own inexhaustible source of inspiration, which is still constantly being replenished.
You soon found success with your work: not only the Netherlands, but the whole world came to lie at your feet. Exhibitions in London, Frankfurt, Antwerp and Venice brought you fame and glory. Your work is on permanent display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Gallery in London. And of course in our own Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which happily opened its doors again last month.
Worldwide, your work is appreciated. Critics and the general public love you. Your name is in every international top ten of famous and sought-after artists. But for you, that’s no reason for complacency. You keep surprising, you keep renewing.
Your work is extremely versatile: you create paintings, collages and drawings. You combine cloth, paper and cardboard, you cut and scratch, working with fine and broad brushes, you let water and ink walk over paper, then dab or smudge it, you use chalk and paint. You apply the paint all over and you also give space a chance. You are not a fine artist, there are film images that show how you work: the canvas you are working does not hang on the wall, but lies on the ground. You walk around, then you squat again with your water and paint. It’s a physical confrontation, and you give yourself completely.
As though you’ve been battling with your materials in creating them, your works seek to confront the viewer. As your partner Jan Andriesse said: “Marlene hits you with a sledgehammer, but it’s a very subtle and sophisticated sledgehammer, wrapped in velvet.”
The recurring themes in your work are love and death, guilt and innocence, violence and tenderness. To the question, “How do you choose your subjects?” You once replied: “I do not choose my subjects. They choose me.” Your portraits are often based on images that you came across in the media. The same images that face us every day are uniquely translated through your eyes, so we see the world around us differently. And this confronts us with our own perception. Will we see what we think we’ll see?
Your work invites each viewer to make his or her own interpretation. You encourage that by providing each work with a commentary, and giving it a suggestive title. You are aware that art is not a mirror of reality, but its reflection. And you leave it up to the viewer as to how they want to see it, and what meaning they will give it.
In short, your art is more than beautiful; it gets people thinking and it evokes emotion. Your art touches the viewer and leaves nobody unmoved. You nourish not only the eyes, but also the heart.
Marlene Dumas: you are one of our greatest artists. So I am delighted that you were chosen as the winner of this year’s Johannes Vermeer Award, the state prize for the arts. “With enthusiasm,” writes the jury in its report.
One of the jurors – Erwin Olaf – won last year’s Vermeer Award. He used it in order to dedicate himself completely to his project, Berlin. This new photo series will soon be exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in Arnhem.
Naturally, we’d love to know whether you already have a use in mind for your prize. Perhaps you’ll give us a little hint in a moment. But first I want to invite you on stage to receive your prize: the Johannes Vermeer Award 2012. You’ve more than earned it!