French painter Johanna Dumet was born in 1991, and she moved to Berlin 6 years ago. Johanna shares her studio - which she found on Ebay Kleinanzeigen (!) - with her partner, the sculptor Manuel Wroblewski. The studio is located on the top floor of Villa Heike, an impressive building with a turbulent history: first built as the home of German industrialist Richard Heike and his factory for meat processing machines, after the war it became a secret storage facility for the Stasi and contained an archive of over 11 km of NS-Files. After the German reunification the building closed and remained abandoned for more than 25 years. Now the dark times are over and the building is full of life and art. The first thing you see, when you enter Johanna’s studio is a bathtub in the middle of the room. Johanna studied fashion design, she bakes delicious cakes and has a tattoo that says: too much is never enough.
Johanna, your way of figurative painting feels very contemporary to me although you actually choose very classic motifs and many of your works could be considered as standing in the long tradition of still life. What do you think, why does it nonetheless feel so 2019?
I like to choose timeless and classical themes such as portraits, still life, animals, nature, etc… Things that were always painted. And I also use classical techniques, I paint with oil, prepare my canvases with rabbit skin glue, I use pigments a lot, but I think like every painter, I paint what I see, I paint the now, the moment. I like to work fast, because it’s a lot about feelings, and as I live now in 2019 that must be the reason why it looks that way. I also always integrate something funny, I love to work on a serious subject such as a still life and bring a touch of humour in it, otherwise I get easily bored.
Some people might call your style naive. I personally have the feeling that you paint the world around you just as you literally see it and experience it – how would you describe your way of painting?
I think “naïve” used to be a great word, but now when people describe your work as “naïve” it doesn’t sound so nice, it’s the same when they use “decorative” it became really pejorative.
I wanted to be a painter when I was 4 years old! And by then, I was so naïve! My childhood was one of the best times of my life, because I was so free and nothing mattered at the moment, I was so connected to the nature and I try to keep this sensitivity when I paint, to find freedom and the wild child inside of me. And then shapes, colours, perspectives comes naturally, I don’t try to make them wrong or right, it just comes out that way and I don’t try to correct it, I’m having so much fun observing what’s gonna come out of my hand when I start drawing. So it could look naïve at first but if you keep on looking you also can see that there is a proper construction and a real observation in it.
How did you start painting or making art - was it always like this or does your older work look very different to your current work?
I paint since I’m a child, and my style didn’t change so much I think. It did evolve of course, but I keep the same path: expressing my ideas or drawing things the way they are in my head (which often doesn’t match exactly the reality), and to paint spontaneously without thinking if it’s realistic or not, like a child would do. The idea is to make simple constructions of lines and to go straight to essence of things. Do I make sense? Because it does seem really clear to me!
When we met last time you told me that you studied fashion design. I think your love for fashion is still visible in a certain way, you often use different kind of patterns and you even paint on clothes and create your own fashion pieces and collections. What do you think about the connection between fashion and art? Do you agree that fashion still has an impact on your work and on your paintings in particular?
Yes, I love fashion. I love clothes, fabrics, to wear them, it’s a big part of who I am. Fashion and painting are both ways I use to express myself. I studied fashion design in Marseille, it was great, I learned that creating a collection is not so far from making art, and you can create and wear pieces of art. But right after I finished fashion school I moved to Barcelona for a year and naturally went back to painting, that’s when I started to have my first exhibitions. And now fashion and painting became one thing for me. Already when you make your canvases you use fabrics so there you go, you can paint on the fabric stretched on wood or on fabric turned into pants, the only difference is that you can wear one and go out and look like a painting, I love it! In my studio you’ll always find the painting side and the sewing side with my machine, fabrics etc. and I just mix both, I want to go further with it. I have so many ideas!
You are using fake money and price tags for your paintings, is there any kind of message linked to that or is it just used as a visual element?
I paint often my everyday life and money, prices are everywhere so I needed to add it to complete the story I tell in my paintings. For example the painting called “Free camel trip” tells the story of Manu – my boyfriend, I made a series of portraits of him - on a camel, getting really exhausted because the idea of riding a camel is great but when you actually do it you realize that it’s kind of boring; anyway they are in the Sahara and both have their eyes open on the floor because there are 50 € laying there and they can’t believe it, haha, especially the camel! And to make a camel trip is around this price, so at least he got lucky.
I like the title of one of your works called “Dildos statt Blumen”. You posted that with the text “Happy Valentine’s Day everybody, remember to give an orgasm to your girlfriend” - would you describe your work as female or even feministic or is that bullshit?
No it’s not bullshit! It’s really important to give an orgasm to your girlfriend, and it’s really good sometimes to remind guys about it!
I mean how many guys I experienced who were so selfish and the only thing they wanted during sex was to have an orgasm and they don’t give a shit about the girl’s pleasure, and then they end up coming all over you and laying on top of you, you can’t breathe anymore and you think “I’d rather masturbate”! Thank god I’m sexually really satisfied now, but honestly those guys, we don’t need them! They don’t know that they can get pleasure also by giving pleasure and that a girl is not just a sex doll! Basically we don’t need guys to have an orgasm, so it’s a reminder to guys that if they can’t satisfy their girlfriends then they should totally get a dildo instead of flowers, much more useful! By the way “Dildos statt Blumen” was a poster from dildo king.
Currently, many young female painters are up and coming and are very successful. Fortunately women are way more represented nowadays than it was in the history of painting which was mainly written by men. What do you think about this development? Do you feel like being part of a new movement, a strong female force of young artists or do you rather feel independent and more separated from those things?
Of course I feel part of this movement, even though I don’t have so much female painter friends. I think social media gave us a voice to show what we can do. If galleries, mainly ruled by men, prefer showing male artists, social media is a free way to show your work and everybody is equal. When you open an Instagram account, the fact that you are super famous or not doesn’t really change so much, so need to start somewhere and get followers, post your photos etc... so it gives a chance to everybody to be seen. And then you start to see that there are a lot of great female artists out there with whom you could totally be best friend and create a cool female badass painter gang! Sounds great no?
Your sculptures, mainly the vases, look like if there were just fallen out of your paintings – what’s the relation between your paintings and your sculptures?
They actually did fell down from my paintings ...! No well, I sculpt exactly the same way that I paint, so it looks exactly the same but in 3D, yes my sculptures are 3D paintings, especially because they are made out the same material: paper, rabbit skin glue and pigments.
You told me that you started doing these sculptures because you got injured and you had to stop painting for a while. Do you plan to continue making sculptures in the future?
Yes, I’m currently doing more vases, all made with fake money, they will be called “Vasen voll mit Blüten” and it’s great to play with money, which is just a piece of paper, with a lot of value and to use it as a sort of pattern and make a decorative giant paper vase out of it, where o course it’s extremely forbidden to put water and flower in it. I also would like to make a sculpture of my boyfriend, real size, then I can talk to somebody and have fun even if he is not around ;)
You are a French girl in Berlin, what brought you here and how important is Berlin as a city for your work?
I arrived in Berlin 6 years ago, after a year in Barcelona I was wondering where to go and I heard that Berlin was the El Dorado for artists so I took some stuff with me and moved here. I’m really happy here. This city is great because you can find good quality material, you can live really nicely for little money, they are tons of galleries and places that inspire me and most of all you can find a place to live and to work for an ok price… I mean when I say “ok price” it’s relative right! Studios and Apartments are becoming really expensive and there are not enough ateliers in the city anymore compare to the number of artists, but I got lucky and found an amazing place to work! Let’s see how long I’ll stay in Berlin, I’m also fine to move somewhere else but so far I didn’t find any places better than Berlin.
You told me about your role in “Liberté” a theater play directed by Albert Serra at Volksbühne Berlin. It was your first job as an actress and you were on the big stage next to Ingrid Caven and Helmut Berger. How important was this experience for you and would you ever do it again?
It think it was a bit of a once in a lifetime thing. It was a wonderful experience, although the whole process was hard. Memorizing german text, acting, some actresses treated me like shit, I think they couldn’t stand the fact that I was a non-actress and had a big role. But Helmut Berger and Ingrid Caven are so cool! They were the coolest people and I enjoyed working with them, they were really on my side and enjoyed playing with me, they found me really refreshing, I mean for sure, I never played before so I was mostly just myself. My role was a French libertine in Berlin in 1774, I was called Madame de Dumeval, it was directly inspired from my last name. Albert Serra wrote the piece after he met the actors so the roles were really “sur-mesure”, which means that I didn’t have to play, but to perform and always stay myself. I don’t know if I would do it again, I guess so, to feel all the applause at the end feels good! But I’m definitely not made to be an actress I don’t like to be directed. As a painter, there is nobody to tell me what I have to do, I’m so free and this is for me the biggest luxury of being a painter.
Sometimes I thought of Matisse when I saw your work. Who are your idols or all-time-favourites in the art world?
Yes I hear that a lot, but isn’t it because we are both French and use lots of colours? I love Matisse of course and most of all his philosophy, he really synthetized the way of painting and went straight to the point with few lines and with colours. Jean-Michel Basquiat, a total enfant terrible and an inspiration for me. As well as Danny Fox, they are both self-taught painter and I think it allows them to paint so freely, they do different work but both are sophisticated and impertinent, love it! Same for Sam Doyle, as-well self-taught painter, considered as “outsider artist”. All of them have something so pure, they have it in them, you know what I mean? Don’t need to go to school, because they have it already, they express themselves with their own style and sensitivity, seen “naïve” or “primitive” for some people but it’s think it’s brut, pure and really real, they don’t try hard to gain a style, they just have it. Helen Frankenthaler, amazing work! I learned a lot from her “soak stain” technique and could experiment a lot with oil paint and reach another dimension with colours.
And even if I sound cheesy, I add Manuel Wroblewski, my beloved, in my list! He also creates in a way that I’ve never seen before, he models wood, like somebody could model clay and creates giant pieces that are directly coming out of his mind. He is totally another “outsider”/ self-taught artist who found his unique way of expression and I’m so happy I get to share his vision every day!
Your studio at Villa Heike is an amazing place to work, with an unbelievable history – how does it feel to work there?
Yes the studio is incredible, I feel so lucky to work there and enjoy every single day. The history of the building and the whole area back in the days remain mysterious and is shady. We have the chance now to open a new chapter in history and to create a positive space by the way we use this space today.
You are sharing your studio with the artist Manuel Wroblewski – how does this influence your work? Or how do you guys influence each other?
We are sharing everything: our studio, our apartment, our bed, our knowledge! We work in different rooms, so that we can really focus and create our own world. I’m definitely learning a lot from him, I think we learn a lot from each other. We do influence each other a lot, I mean I just made a whole series of portraits of him! But we always respect each others style and work. He tells me what he thinks about my work only if I ask him and vice-versa, we try to give space to each other and to don’t disturb during the creating process. And we like to take naps after lunch.
What’s next, do you already know where your next exhibitions take place?
Next is … to keep on working, I need to produce for the next exhibition. I’ll have a show in Kreuzberg in autumn. We will have another open studio in Villa Heike. And my goal is to have a gallery in Denmark this year (fingers crossed!). And for the rest, keep on being happy, in love, working my ass off and enjoy life!
Sounds awesome - I wish you all the best for the future! Thanks for the nice chat, it was really great to be here.
My pleasure! Thanks for your visit. You’re always welcome to come around for a beer!