Marlene Dumas

Royal Awards: Queens, Stars and Painters

First, I want to say it is gratifying that the Royal Awards were introduced to promote young independent painters, and that they are still presented today. The event itself is nothing sensational. It is held in a palace, that much is true, but the presentation—two works by each of the winners—on short, display walls cannot be said to have any real impact on the space. Nevertheless, it is moving. The challenge of constraint, the power of a small but compelling gesture.

The South Africa that I come from has never been a monarchy. It was colonized first by the Dutch, later by the British. My mother protested by refusing to rise to her feet for the British national anthem. In London in the late 1970s Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols sang his punk version of the song God save the Queen, she ain’t no human being.

But Holland is not England. In the Netherlands of 2011, our Queen Beatrix is wiser and more tolerant than the present cabinet of ministers. They applaud and support internationalism in the arts, but not a multicultural society at home. Art, however, has always been poly, not mono as far as other cultures are concerned – Van Gogh moved to France, Alma Tadema, born in Dronrijp, was knighted in England, Mondrian and De Kooning went to America.

When I was young, I thought that queens existed only in fairytales and Walt Disney films and that princesses died out after Henry VIII and the French Revolution. My big worry was that all those beautiful ball gowns would disappear along with them. Fortunately, we were spared that calamity. Fashion comes, fashion goes, not that painters today do much with clothing. But what would dreamland America and celluloid heaven Hollywood be like without their Oscar Awards? That reminds me – from princesses to presidents – of another iconic moment in American history: the sensual, heartbreaking shots of Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ for JF Kennedy in 1962, just months before she died. Has there ever been a painting as poignant? Maybe Rembrandt’s tragic Lucretia losing her honour and taking her life, are among the most beautiful paintings I know. They are less well known in the Netherlands, probably because they are in American collections and rarely travel.

Is there still a place anywhere that paintings can truly belong, for everyone to see? Museums are no longer safe havens. I know there’s too much of everything, but it’s nice to preserve something of our vanity for future generations. Recently, in 2008, Jeff Koons became the first modern artist to exhibit his work in Versailles. He felt at home in the splendid extravagance of Louis XIV’s palace. He said ‘We are contemporaries’.

Europe was synonymous with painting until the 1950s, when New York took the lead, and for years afterwards America was all that mattered. No one was really interested in non-Western art, but in the 1990s the former colonies started to take their sweet revenge and make their presence felt. Europe began to feel old, then tired, then threatened.

But this is not the time to complain, for there is much to be done. The flatter the world becomes, the more obvious it is that painting is still necessary.

Royal Awards: Queens, Stars and Painters. Selected fragments of Koninginnen, sterren en schilders | Queens, Starts and painters, (cat.), Koninklijke Prijs voor de Schilderkunst | Royal Award for Painting, 2011, p.34-36, 40; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.