My favourite painting: Nicholas Cullinan

' perfectly captures the charisma, genius and tragedy of its subject.'

Nicholas Cullinan

Amy Winehouse (Amy-Blue), 2011, by Marlene Dumas (b.1953), 15¾in by 11¾in, National Portrait Gallery, London WC2

Nicholas Cullinan says:
I was (and am still) a big admirer of Amy Winehouse; I bought her debut album Frank when it first came out in 2003 and saw her in concert just as its now classic follow-up, Back to Black, was released in 2006. And then her life began to unravel in plain sight of all of us and was captured by the media – I remember it being terrible to witness. I grew up listening to jazz music and Winehouse had one of the all-time great jazz voices. She was with us so briefly and leaves such a small legacy in a way – just two albums – but it’s one that has a huge influence. Marlene Dumas’s painting is equally diminutive, but it perfectly captures the charisma, genius and tragedy of its subject.

Nicholas Cullinan is the director of the National Portrait Gallery

John McEwen comments on Amy Winehouse (Amy-Blue):
Marlene Dumas was born in South Africa, where her father owned a winery. She studied fine art at the University of Cape Town and, awarded a scholarship, chose to study in Holland because she spoke Afrikaans, enrolling at Ateliers 63, Haarlem, and with the Institute of Psychology at the University of Amsterdam. She took Dutch nationality in 1988 and has represented Holland at the Venice Biennale.

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Numerous museums have given her exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York and Tate Modern. Unlike most artists, fame has not made her relinquish teaching: ‘Art is really something you learn from being around people.’ She also writes, often accompanying her paintings with texts and commentaries.

Live models disconcert her: ‘I worry about what they think of me and I get even more worried about what they think I think of them.’ Her portraits are derived from secondary sources, principally photography in all its forms. For Amy Winehouse, she scoured thousands of images online. ‘I relate like children do. What is experienced as most important is seen as the biggest… for me, the “close-up” was a way of getting rid of irrelevant background information.’

Amy-Blue conveys a fragility attested to by the Royal Academician Tess Jaray, who dreaded the singer’s arrival as her next-door neighbour in Camden. ‘What should I do? Move? Live with earplugs?’ she wrote in The Blue Cupboard. The reality was a surprise.

‘She was a perfect neighbour, and we would wave to each other from our windows… Until that terrible afternoon when I… saw an ambulance and people screaming in the street.’

‘Marlene Dumas: Oscar Wilde and Bosie’ is in Room 21 at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until October 30.