New Marlene Dumas portrait is essential Amy Winehouse

In common with most of Dumas’s work, Amy Winehouse — A Portrait in Blues, is based on a photograph; on hearing of the singer’s death, the artist trawled the internet for a suitably iconic image.

The cropped, close-up view of Winehouse — the most important singer to emerge from the London scene in a generation — captures the essence of a musician hounded by the press, her image infinitely reproduced, circulated and consumed in snapshots of success and scandal, triumph and tragedy. The small, intense painting exudes surprising power — encased in a glass vitrine, the portrait reads almost as a shrine.

It’s hard to look at the deeply personal, dark-hued portrait without the strains of Winehouse’s Back to Black (2007), hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the top songs of the decade, playing faintly in the background of one’s mind. The music video features a funeral cortège carrying the singer’s heart to a burial spot, where Winehouse mourns over a headstone.
In an eerie premonition of her own media-beset fate, she intones: “I died a hundred times. You go back to her, and I go back to black…”

Dumas’s oil painting was based on an image of a living Winehouse, apparently in mid-song, but the bruised blue and black pigments and the fluid, visceral style the artist employs flirt with the visual vocabulary of death. Many of Dumas’s portraits have drawn comparison with the popular Victorian tradition of postmortem photography — images of the deceased that circulated as ­private and public commemoratives.

In early examples of death photographs, the surface of the image — usually a facial close-up rather than the whole body — was often enlivened with painted pupils or a lick of rouge. In Dumas’s portrait of Winehouse, it is the painted accretion of the singer’s trademark liquid eyeliner that produces the uncanny effect: life and death, presence and absence, familiarity and distance.

Given the combination of Dumas’s provocative painting style and Winehouse’s complex character and career, “this was never going to be a straightforward portrait”, suggests National Portrait Gallery assistant curator Inga Fraser. “And I think that’s appropriate.”

“I think it’s our duty to give a full sense of the subject and to acquire a work that does deal with the melancholy aspects of her career as much as the celebratory aspects … That was very much key for us in presenting and commemorating a subject who had both a difficult as well as a successful career. We needed to capture that in a portrait and this ­presented us with a perfect way to tell that story.”

Set against a stark white wall, the unobtrusive image is the first piece one encounters on entering the contemporary galleries. The positioning of the painting is unsettling, however, juxtaposed with an adjacent niche that is crowded with Mario Testino’s lavish photographic portraits of a newly married Prince William and Kate. Here is youth, privilege and happiness set alongside death and despair — trajectories divided by class, postal codes and the accident of birth: British culture writ large.

Fraser sees such tensions as “an appropriate reflection” of British ­culture, highlighting how unexpected juxtapositions have found their way into the historical galleries too. What is significant about Dumas’s painting is its interrogation of the politics of portrayal.

“We are pleased to have acquired a work by Marlene in our own collection, because she is an artist who is asking questions about the function of portraiture as a genre and, as such, it fulfils our mission … to understand portraiture within the context of contemporary art,” says Fraser.

Dumas’s Amy Winehouse — A Portrait in Blues probes the nature of contemporary celebrity and the mass media, and the painting’s acquisition by the National Portrait Gallery is a curiously fitting tribute to a musician who lived her life — and her death — in the public eye.

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