The Gallery recently unveiled a new addition to the Contemporary Collection: a portrait of the singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, who passed away last year, painted by the Amsterdam-based, South African artist Marlene Dumas. Traditionally, the Gallery collects portraits made from life, so what does it mean for the Gallery to acquire a posthumous work?
The acquisition of posthumous works is not entirely without precedent. From earlier centuries we have Joseph Severn’s portrait of his friend, John Keats, in which he depicts the poet from memory. The Collection also includes a number of death masks, such as that of the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence, a piece which, with the shroud of bed linen, appears strikingly contemporary. Such portraits speak of more than a simple likeness; they belie a sense of loss, representing a desire to remember a life prematurely ended or to retain something of a prodigious talent that will be sorely missed.
As a subject whose biography unavoidably includes more difficult moments in addition to her successes, it is appropriate for the Gallery to acquire a portrait that reflects upon this. Marlene Dumas described Winehouse as a ‘great musician’, she recalled being moved upon learning of the singer’s fate and spending the night looking at photographs of her online. In common with other artists, such as Gerhard Richter and Elizabeth Peyton, her use of secondary source material is strategic. Working from photographs (excerpted from newspapers, magazines and, increasingly, the internet) enables the artist to interrogate to the obsessions of a contemporary culture that is dominated by the image. Dumas is influenced by the writings of Susan Sontag who in a 2004 essay published in the New York Times highlights the omnipresence of the camera in our lives: ‘To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one's life...’. In producing a posthumous, painted portrait, Dumas presents a restoration of a subject much photographed in her lifetime. The Gallery’s acquisition of this portrait, allows us not only to celebrate Winehouse’s talent and contribution to the British music industry but also to examine the function of portraiture in the present day.
Image Credit (from top to bottom)
John Keats, by Joseph Severn, oil on canvas, 1821-1823, dated 1821, NPG 58
Sir Thomas Lawrence, by Unknown artist, plaster cast of death-mask, 1830, NPG 1634
Amy Jade Winehouse ('Amy-Blue'), by Marlene Dumas, oil on canvas, 2011, NPG 6948