altarpiece by Marlene Dumas

Artist Marlene Dumas in Dresden

Advertisement T he South African artist, Marlene Dumas, is due to be presented with the Hans Theo Richter Prize by the Saxon Academy of Arts on 23rd November. Two of Dresden’s major galleries – the Albertinum and the Kupferstich-Kabinett – are each holding exhibitions of work by the internationally renowned artist until mid-January. Marlene has already established a lasting presence in the city, however, with the altarpiece she created for the Annenkirche.

By Jens Wonneberger
At first glance, it seems to conform to the customary concept of an altarpiece in size only. At 3.6 metres in width and 7.8 metres in height, it nonetheless radiates a striking lightness of being, which is very much in keeping with the plain interior of the Annenkirche, while at the same time resembling a comic strip in its minimalism. The way it plays around with our expectations, exposing stereotypes and inverting our way of seeing things, makes this work an event of significance and a space for reflection.

southafrican artist Marlene Dumas

A tree of life, painted by Bert Boogaard and reduced to a few branches, becomes the bearer of five circular images on which Marlene Dumas has rendered a contemporary view of biblical themes and motifs of faith. There is the sinking boat packed with refugees wearing life jackets representing the catastrophes of our time. But is not at the same time the fishing boat with Jesus and his disciples on board, weathering the storm on the Sea of Galilee? The angle of the boat recalls the image of the ladder seen in Jacob’s dream of angels between heaven and earth. A rainbow created by Jan Andriesse has been deliberately positioned above what is happening on the tree of life.

There is also a role reversal in the motif of Michelangelo’s Pietà. This time, it is not Mary mourning the dead Christ but rather a man carrying a woman who lies limp and lifeless in his arms. Dumas has represented the central religious symbol of the Christian faith – the crucifix – as a simple white cross-member in a window behind which a blue sky seems to hold out a promise.

And the crucified redeemer himself? Marlene Dumas has portrayed him as released from the cross, risen from the dead and hovering in front of a bright yellow background. She has given this particular image the English name ‘Free Jesus’. It is still a representation of a body racked by torture but nonetheless liberated – and furthermore, he is black. It is an unconventional portrayal of Jesus which some observers might find disconcerting, but at the same time, it is as radical as Christ’s core message, namely love thy neighbour. The facial features are only hinted at and reveal no individual characteristics but allow him to be perceived as a universal but by no means arbitrary figure, whose message of salvation is addressed to everyone.

With her altarpiece for the Annenkirche, Marlene Dumas has successfully negotiated the balancing act between Christian symbolism on the one hand and imagery that is driven by current events on the other. The great Christian and human themes are translated here into a reduced visual language that achieves immediacy. It is a bold concept that demands courage from the observer, the courage to face up to today’s realities on the basis of the traditional values handed down through centuries of Christianity.