The Johannes Vermeer Award is the only Dutch State Prize for the arts. It is intended to give deserved attention and recognition to a special artistic talent on an authoritative stage. In preparing its recommendation, the jury explores the landscape of unusual creative talent. It focuses on the different fields and disciplines in which the Dutch art world is so rich. In recent years, nominated candidates have distinguished themselves in the fields of the performing arts, the media and photography. In 2012, the jury once more surveyed the select group of Dutch artists who, active over a longer period, have created a convincing body of work. The jury finds it of equal importance that the candidate should occupy a prominent place in the international arena. So it is ultimately the combination of the quality of the artistic work, the personality and the presence of the artist which is decisive in the jury’s choice. This combination has more weight than the nomination of the specific sector in which the artist is working.
With the aforementioned criteria on the table, it didn’t take long for the name of Marlene Dumas to reach unanimous prominence. Over the decades, she has built up a vast, unique and recognizable oeuvre. In this body of work there are stylistic and thematic constants, yet at the same time it is characterized by constant innovation and change. The jury is also convinced that, given her unstoppable energy and creative power, Dumas will continue to have a considerable impact on the Dutch and international art world.
Life and career
Marlene Dumas was born in 1953 in South Africa. She grew up in Stellenbosch, where her father was a wine producer. As a child, she discovered that she had an ability to capture thoughts and ideas in sketches. It was soon apparent that her talent was a special one. For this reason she initially studied art in Cape Town, a period culminating with a bachelor’s degree from the city’s university. During her studies, the idea of a career in art acquired a firmer shape. She grabbed the opportunity to go abroad, opting for a place where the development opportunities for artists are greater than in her native land. She came to the Netherlands where she enrolled for the Ateliers ’63 course in Haarlem. In 1977 she completed it, and spent the following two years studying psychology at the University of Amsterdam.
Around 1980 she made a considered and patient beginning to her career as an artist. Amsterdam was the location for her studio, first the Prinsengracht, later the Tolstraat. At an early stage she chose to collaborate with gallerist Paul Andriesse, and later she returned to Ateliers ’63 as a tutor - the setting had meanwhile changed to Amsterdam. She has stayed with her tutoring work since the mid-nineties. Through working hard and seizing every opportunity to exhibit, Dumas started to gain fame, initially in small, then in ever-expanding, circles. Recognition from colleagues and audiences gradually turned into admiration. By the late eighties, she had already been able to acquire a prominent position in the Netherlands, partly on the basis of invitations from foreign museums with the request to be allowed to show her work. In recent decades, her work has been exhibited in the Netherlands almost continuously, while it is included in the permanent collections of major public and private museums here and abroad.
In the early nineties there were several exhibitions of Dumas’ work outside the Netherlands: in Paris, London, the United States and Japan. Having once made her breakthrough on the international stage, she has never left it. In 2012, Dumas’ work can be seen in a remarkable number of leading museums and galleries around the world, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Gallery in London. Her works are often included in permanent collections, but at the same time they are found widely in a stream of successive solo exhibitions. A European exhibition series in planned for, successively, Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum), London (Tate Modern) and Basel (Fondation Beyeler).
Dumas’ work is varied, but still recognizable in its variety. She produces paintings, collages and drawings in series. In these, portraits and the representation of the human form a continuous thread. She has built up a huge archive of images over time: colour magazines, newspaper clippings and photographs, her own Polaroids, and so on. All this material is an important source of inspiration and guides her way of working. In ink on paper, or in paintings featuring unexpected colour combinations, she imagines recurring themes: love and death, guilt and innocence, violence and tenderness. These are themes that have come to dominate her work from the time she left Ateliers ’63. Within the context of the figurative painting revival she has gone her own way, a way yet leaning towards abstraction, shaping her works in the painterly manner that is her trademark: confrontational, powerful, sometimes raw, but also lyrical, emotional and intuitive.
The contexts in which artistic developments take place are as just as richly and variously furnished. Dumas grew up with the Christian faith and the Bible. This fact is regularly reflected in her work with its crucifixes and Jesus images. She also reflects in texts on the mystery of faith. She gives faith a role in other aspects of life, and in painting. At the other end of the spectrum is pornography, and the penchant for the outspoken and provocative depiction of male and female nudes. In these unambiguously direct images she sees a possibility to balance the baggage and lust surrounding sex. Her artistic activity is also influenced by memories of apartheid. These have made her susceptible to contradictions: between races, classes and sexes. She brought that perspective with her to the Netherlands, where it has incited her to view sex and pornography, but also crime and innocence, under the microscope. With such work she softens degrading and humiliating oppositions into painted images of diversity. Through this attitude, Osama Bin Laden is depicted with the same brushstrokes as other sitters with a less loaded background. So in her studio she gives phenomena a place together, even if in real life they seem irreconcilable.
Her engagement - often her struggle - with the great themes of life also extends to art itself. She is happy to debate that surviving and inadequate medium. But, as she is quick to point out, traditional painting is her only way to capture moods and feelings and get them across to others. It is at this point where she leaves so many other painters behind: the inimitable way she can load her paintings and drawings with feelings. Through that magical, almost mystical process, they reach a lonely height. There are the imagined emotions, so direct and powerful that no one who sees her work can avoid being affected by them. The work of Marlene Dumas is inescapable.
Grounds for granting
The jury of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2012 commends Marlene Dumas for her impressive body of work. For over thirty years, she has been reaching the highest form of poetic imagination through her work and exhibitions. Her inexhaustible energy and her ability to tackle various subjects in depth are also praiseworthy. From one year to another, she knows how to surprise her audience with new work and convince anew with her unique quality.
The jury also admires Dumas’ approach to her profession. She never leaves her exhibition works lacking a social context and a personal interpretation. Dumas reflects continuously on painting and the artistry in general. She does this through literary texts and commentaries, and the lectures that she is regularly invited to give by museums and universities.
Marlene Dumas is a gifted craftswoman and a unique artist who never stops thinking about her subject and medium. She is also a likeable person. She remains loyal to her professional partners, once she’s chosen them: her gallery, her educational institution, the students whom she continues to supervise and whom she helps time after time to get started in the tricky art world. She has concerns about the profession and the artistic climate in the Netherlands. Not only is she solid, combative and even aggressive, but also humane and compassionate. She is known as a woman who stands up for the invaluable worth that art represents in society. In this role, she is tenacious, but also full of humour and perspective. These are also considerations that contribute to the enthusiasm with which the jury recommends Marlene Dumas as the recipient of the 2012 edition of the Johannes Vermeer Award.
The prize jury consisted of Janine van den Ende (chair), Marie Hélène Cornips, Hans Goedkoop, Omar Munie and Erwin Olaf.