Marlene Dumas - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 15, 2021 | Phillips

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  • 'Here’s to portraiture, more or less,
    used by politicians, martyrs, murderers, 
    the military … be my guest'
    —Marlene Dumas

    Well-known for her provocative and thoughtful examination of human nature and experience, The Believer is highly representative of the unique contribution that Amsterdam-based South African artist Marlene Dumas has made to the figurative canon. Closely focused on the face of an ordinary young, lightly bearded man who stares out beyond us impassively, it forms part of an important group of works made by Dumas between 2005 and 2006 and exhibited in Galerie Paul Andriesse in 2006. Featuring disarmingly intimate portraits of young men drawn from media images and photographs and titled Man Kind, the exhibition eloquently articulated Dumas’s consistent interest in humanity, and her privileging of portraiture as a vehicle for excavating its depths. Speaking to our human capacity for both intense cruelty and empathetic understanding in the face of a deeply alienating fear and suspicion, Dumas cuts right to the heart of what it is that divides and unites us as a species – of the nature of man ‘kind’ itself. 


    The Age of the Image

    'I did this exhibition called Man Kind, in which I specifically looked at people from Moroccan origin. I also looked at pictures of Palestinian young boys, suicide bombers, their last pictures; and the different faces of North Africa, the Mediterranean; and also the attractiveness and the vulnerability of these young faces'. —Marlene Dumas 

    With titles such as The Believer, The Pilgrim and The Neighbour, Dumas’s portraits from this series move from the specific to the universal: at once portraits of individuals, they are also representative of larger, fundamentally human experiences or states of being on the one hand, and of the sweeping assumptions that we might make about these young men on the other. Fascinated by certain codes and preconceptions governing our visual culture, Dumas’s portraits generate a porous superimposition of the original source material and the media-governed reception, dissemination and manipulation of that same image, opening up a space where we are forced to confront our own prejudices, political positions and the limits of our humankind-ness. 


    Working from photographs rather than directly from life in this manner allows Dumas to drill directly down into the condensed strata of contemporary socio-political life, sifting through the images that record and condense our most complex feelings in the face of political, cultural and religious instability as it plays out on a global stage. A point of comparison might be Gerhard Richter’s controversial series Oktober 18, 1977 which took on a similarly loaded topic in its use of images related to the deaths of the extremist left wing Baader-Meinhof group which Dumas has separately responded to in works such as Stern). However, while both used documentary source material in a contemporary take on the genre of history painting, Richter was nevertheless focussing on events that belonged firmly to the recent past, even as he tackled the reverberations of this collective trauma. Executed in 2005 in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the culture of fear, suspicion and religious intolerance that arose in the West against the backdrop of rapidly escalating tensions in the Middle East, The Believer and its sister paintings confront a more active and volatile reality. Confidently executed on a large scale, Dumas’s painting is a strikingly brave and honest statement of portraiture’s unique and vital capacity to forge new visual languages capable of speaking to the complexities of a rapidly changing world. 


    Installation shot of Marlene Dumas’s Man Kind exhibiton with Galerie Andriesse, Amsterdam, 2006 from left to right: Skull (of a Woman), 2005; The Look-alike, 2005; The Believer, 2005
    Courtesy image: Marlene Dumas. Credits photography: Peter Cox, Eindhoven

    An Aesthetics of Empathy 


    Confronting this difficult subject, Dumas at once acknowledges the extreme power of belief and restores the humanity and dignity to her subject that the generic media-perpetuated composite image of ‘terrorist’ has eroded. Selecting and reworking her source material, Dumas’s paintings remain impartial, capable of demonstrating and eliciting ‘emotional involvement with all victims, regardless of the cause of the misery and injustice, apart from politics and religion, within the freedom of art.’i

    Well-versed in psychoanalytic theory, Dumas has a keenly developed sense of the communicative and empathic possibilities of ‘the ‘other’ [who] is also a mirror image of ourselves’.ii Distinct from sympathy which Dumas suggests describes ‘an agreement of temperament, and an emotional identification with a person’, empathy demands a more complex inter-personal exchange, which Dumas identifies as the core aim of her entire artistic project.iii 

    Selecting and appropriating source material that is already several steps removed from its origins as a snapshot of a young man, Dumas takes the insulating anonymity of the newspaper image and reintroduces a fundamentally human touch, creating a space where we are able to ‘imaginatively engage ideas of difference within a framework of intimacy’.iv Reworked in this manner, the portraits emerge, not only as human likeness, but as a complex matrix of interactions between subject, artist and viewer. As Dumas succinctly puts it: ‘When I paint a ‘terrorist’ or a ‘freedom fighter’ (the description depends on your point of view) … my painting does not clarify politics or explain a cause. I paint my anxiety’.v


    Marlene Dumas discussing her image archive as she prepared for her Image as Burden retrospective for the Stedelijk Museum


    Death and Glory: 
    'I wondered if one could paint death, death as an abstract thing, like the way you paint love or loss.'
    —Marlene Dumas 

    With his calm, even stare and almost beatific smile, The Believer seems to occupy another, spiritual dimension, also reflected in Dumas’s treatment of paint here. Working with a deliberately reduced palette dominated by chromatic variations of blacks, whites, yellows and greens, Dumas focuses colour and brushwork into a heightened level of emotional and psychological intensity. Building her watery whites over layers of blues and yellows, The Believer’s skin glows with a quasi-spiritual luminescence that magnetically draws the eye, standing out starkly against the darkened and denuded background. Lending a ‘provocative unease to the way the paint sits on the surface of her canvases’, her water-saturated colours suffuse the figure with a ghostly pallor, somehow making strange the whole history of figurative painting that Dumas nevertheless sits  

    Immediately prior to the Man Kind exhibition Dumas had been dealing directly with particularly brutal images of violence and death, including unflinching close-ups of the head and shoulders of deceased  individuals closely modelled on her careful observation of Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ. While Dumas’s portraits of the dead are deeply shocking, there is a calm, contemplative quality to The Believer that comes from the empathetic twinge that the artist elicits from us. Floating between life and death Dumas presents the unrepresentable, the presence of death in the midst of life, the believer who would die for their faith. 


    Piet Mondrian, Pietà de Villeneuve lés Avignon, 1912, Kunstmuseum Den Haag,

    This aspect of the work was beautifully drawn out in a small but significant exhibition held at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague in 2016, where The Believer was taken out of its socio-political context and reconsidered in light of modern and contemporary responses to questions surrounding faith and superstition. Hung next to Piet Mondrian’s stunning Copy After the Pieta of Villeneuve-Les-Avignon by Enguerrand Quarton, the present work speaks powerfully to our very human drive to look to higher forces to give our earth-bound lives spiritual meaning and significance. 


    A testament to the significance of this series within Duma’s oeuvre, The Believer was previously on a long-term loan to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where its sister work, The Neighbour, now resides permanently. As well as its inaugural exhibition in an important North African survey of Dutch contemporary art, and its prominent inclusion in the 2006 Man Kind show, The Believer was also included in the landmark monographic exhibition Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and organised in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles from June 2008 – February 2009. Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, this is a rare opportunity to acquire an exceptionally important work from one of the most significant contemporary artists working today. 


    'You've got to have Faith': Dominic van der Boogerd looks beyond the gaze of Dumas' enigmatic portrait to uncover the cultural legacies that inspired it.


    Collector’s Digest 


    •    One of the most influential painters of the 20th and 21st centuries, South African painter Marlene Dumas is best known for her challenging figurative works. 


    •    Notable figures depicted by Dumas include Princess Diana, Alan Turing, and Barack Obama, as well as a wide range of friends, family, and anonymous subjects. 


    •    Over the years Dumas has been the subject of several, major institutional exhibitions, including the travelling retrospectives ‘The Image as Burden’ (2014-2015) and ‘Measuring Your Own Grave’ (2008-2009). 


    •    Marlene Dumas is one of the most expensive living female artists at auction with her first work selling for over $1 million in 2004, The Pilgrim, a sister work to The Believer, came to auction with Phillips in 2018. 

    i Marlen Dumas: Man Kind, (exh. cat.), Galerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam, 2006, p. 31. 
    ii Marlene Dumas, quoted in Measuring Your Own Grave, (exh. cat.), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008 p. 44.
    iii Marlene Dumas, ‘The Eyes of the Night-Creatures’ (1985), in Sweet Nothings, p. 25
    iv Lisa Gabrielle Mark, ‘The Binding Factor: The Maternal Gaze of Marlene Dumas’, in Measuring your Own Grave 
    v Marlene Dumas, quoted in Richard Shiff, ‘Less Dead’, in Measuring Your Own Grave, (exh. cat.), The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008, p. 153. 
    vi Ara H. Merjian, ‘Marlene Dumas, Museum of Modern Art: Review’, Frieze, 1 April, 2009, online

    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 2006

    • Exhibited

      Marrakech, Musée Dar Si Saïd, Palais el-Badi, Respect! Forms of Community: Contemporary Art from The Netherlands, 16 November - 31 December 2005, pp. 89, 95 (illustrated)
      Amsterdam, Galerie Paul Andriesse, Marlene Dumas Man Kind, 17 October - 25 November 2006, pp. 18-19, 29 (illustrated)
      Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum (long term loan 2007 - 2010)
      Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, The Present, 2 June - 15 September 2007
      Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; New York, Museum of Modern Art, Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave, 22 June 2008 - 16 February 2009, pp. 12-13, 267 (illustrated, pp. 12-13)
      Kunstmuseum Den Haag (long term loan 2012 - 2021)
      Kunstmuseum Den Haag, In the Picture: Fotografie als bron voor schilderkunst, 23 May - 29 November 2015
      Kunstmuseum Den Haag, (Bij)geloof, 9 July - 11 December 2016

    • Literature

      Ilaria Bonacossa, Supercontemporanea: Marlene Dumas, Milan, 2006, p. 96 (illustrated, p. 97)
      Jhim Lamoree, 'Stedelijk wil Mohammed B.'s portret. Herkent u de buurman?', Het Parool, 17 October 2006
      Wieteke van Zeil, 'Bij Dumas is vorm de boodschap', de Volkskrant, 28 October 2006 (illustrated)
      Tom Rooduijn, 'Ik schilder het kwaad', HP/De Tijd, 12 January 2007, p. 46 (illustrated)
      Marlene Dumas: Broken White, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art, Kagawa, 2007, p. 141 (illustrated, p. 87)
      Hugo J. Postma, 'Met Osama naar New York', Het Financieele Dagblad (Persoonlijk), 20 December 2008, p. 15
      Dominic van den Boogerd, Barbara Bloom, Mariuccia Casadio and Ilaria Bonacossa, Marlene Dumas, London, 2009, pp. 196, 237 (illustrated, p. 197)
      Hugo J. Postma, 'We hebben enorm zitten schuiven', De Groene Amsterdammer, vol. 133, no. 5, 30 January 2009, pp. 42-45
      Marlene Dumas: contra o muro, exh. cat., Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, Porto, 2010, p. 15
      Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Tate Modern, London; Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, 2014, pp. 126-127, 188 (illustrated, p. 127)

Property from an Important European Collection


The Believer

signed, titled and dated 'The Believer M Dumas 2005 M Dumas 2005 The Believer' on the reverse
oil on linen
130 x 110 cm (51 1/8 x 43 1/4 in.)
Painted in 2005.

Full Cataloguing

£1,600,000 - 2,400,000 ‡♠

Sold for £1,656,000

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+44 7391 402741


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2021