London’s National Portrait Gallery has purchased a new painting of the late singer Amy Winehouse.The painting made shortly after the singer’s death in July 2011, was bought by the Gallery, with support from the Art Fund, the national fundraising charity for art. It goes on display at the Gallery today. Painted by the internationally-renowned artist Marlene Dumas, ‘Amy Blue’ is a close-cropped oil-on-canvas head study, scarcely larger than a sheet of A4 paper. Using a striking palette of mainly blue and black with hints of pink and white, the artist has chosen to focus tightly on the singer’s head with her eyes looking downwards and her mouth slightly open.The viewer is drawn to the singer’s distinctive eyes and eye-liner at the top of the jewel-like portrait, while the slight decline in the angle of her face offers a glimpse of her long black hair tumbling down her cheek. By simplifying the singer’s characteristic features in this way, Dumas has created an icon as well as a strong likeness.
The Amsterdam-based South African artist recalls being moved upon hearing of Winehouse’s death and afterwards searching through images of the singer on the internet. Like many of Dumas’s works, the portrait is commemorative, but it also presents a restoration of the subject in paint. Dumas says that Winehouse was a great musician, likening the singer’s description of her being ‘given’ a voice to the way the artist feels about her own ability to draw. ‘Dumas’s liquid handling of paint carries tremendous emotive power,’ says Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London. ‘Detail bleeds into and out of her work, directing and dispersing the gaze of the viewer. The rich, translucent blues of this portrait allude to Amy Winehouse’s musical influences as much as to the melancholy details of her career.’
Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) was born in North London and trained at the Sylvia Young Theatre School. Her exceptional voice brought her to the attention of the music industry and in 2002 she signed to the Island/Universal label. Her albums, including Frank (2003), Back to Black (2006) and the posthumously released Lioness (2011), are critically acclaimed: winning the singer five Grammys and a Brit award for best female artist. Embracing the soulful and candid lyrics of female singers and groups of the 1960s such as Dinah Washington and The Ronettes, Winehouse’s impact in the previous decade was to introduce a new affection for genuine vocal talent in the music industry, facilitating the subsequent successes of singers such as Adele. Her distinctive voice and talent for song-writing made her enormously popular with audiences internationally. Her rebellious nature and tumultuous private life, in common with predecessors such as Billie Holiday, made her a subject of media fascination.
Since her death, her family has set up the Amy Winehouse Foundation, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds in her name to help disadvantaged young people, particularly those struggling with issues around drug and alcohol misuse.
Marlene Dumas who was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1953, studied Fine Art at the University of Cape Town and later at de Ateliers and the Institute of Psychology in the Netherlands. She lives and works in Amsterdam. Dumas exhibited widely in both group and solo shows in Europe throughout the 1980s but her work only became known to British audiences in the late 1980s and to American audiences in the early 1990s. Emerging in an art historical context where issues of race, sexuality and power were paramount, Dumas’s work frequently depicts the abject or disenfranchised; including religious figures, media personalities and children. Marlene Dumas has described her work over the last 30 years as an account of our time through the representation of people. Working primarily from photographic sources, her subjects are often portrayed at close-crop. This device introduces an element of abstraction, replacing narrative concerns with larger socio-political ideas, for instance in works such as The White Disease (1985) and The Pilgrim (2006). The 1995 Venice Biennale and solo exhibitions at Tate (1996), Pompidou Centre (2001) and MoMA (2006) established Dumas as an artist of international importance.
Photo: Amy—Blue’ (Amy Winehouse) by Marlene Dumas, 2011 © Marlene Dumas