Marlene Dumas

The Death of the Author

‘I don’t want to see your source material’, he said. ‘It’s of no consequence to me when I look at your painting. It is no excuse and not part of the material evidence of the final work. You can’t judge a painting by the picture that inspired it.’

It started with a black and white photograph in a Dutch newspaper of 14th March 1986. Céline was photographed in his bed, his deathbed, 1st June 1961. The article reviewed some books written about his life. I love to read old newspapers.
There is a face covered with a white sheet.
There is a face cut off by a white sheet, covering the nostrils and mouth.
There’s half a face like an egg, the top part of the egg showing.
There’s geometry of tragedy at work.
The sheet, like a Malevich rectangle, comes from the outside. The skull is bending, pulled down by gravity, while the lower eye, like a vertical cut through the face, mediates between the two parts.

‘Most people want you to tell them everything you can remember about the making of an artwork. I hate people telling me their dreams’, he said.

Serrano made a photograph in a morgue, of a man with a sheet covering half of his face. I’ve never been in a morgue. My father died at home. We looked after him. I did not look at him after his death or rather we did not exhibit him after he died, for a last public farewell. My mother slept that night in their bedroom while the corpse of my father was not removed yet. She said that while he was alive I was not afraid of him, so why should I be now, that he’s dead. He took a long time to die. I was 12 years old and the doctor said his illness made his skin color change very rapidly. Once, about 15 years later, I tried to make a painting of him. It was a lousy painting. I didn’t know how to approach the matter. That was an instance of being deliberately vague. It was an indecisive work. It had nothing to do with ambiguity. It was just unclear.

‘One can’t speak for the dead’, he said.

The South African writer Antje Krog said that the philosopher Derrida came to Cape Town and said, concerning the truth and reconciliation trials, that one could not forgive the unforgiveable and one could not forgive in the name of the dead. And Krog’s African colleague said – ‘I can, because I’m in contact with the dead, they speak to me and are with me. Thus why may I not speak for them’?

The Death of the Author. Written for (together with The Right to be Silent and Immaculate) and first published in Frieze, issue 80 – A special edition for the Frieze Art Fair, 2004, p.86-87; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.