Oda Jaune: Beyond Gravity
October 26 – December 21, 2019
The life of Bulgarian painter Michaela Danowska, better known by her pseudonym Oda Jaune, might have formed the basis of a novel by Proust, Sartre, or Nabokov. Coming to Germany in order to study painting 20 years ago, a beautiful high school graduate from a post-communist Balkan nation falls in love with her eminent professor—artist Jörg Immendorff—and has a daughter with him. Soon after, the professor dies prematurely, and the young widow moves to Paris, becoming a darling of the city’s bohème. Told this way, however, the story misses a crucial point: Oda Jaune is not just a stock femme fatale, but also an accomplished neo-classical painter in her own right. Indeed, the provocative large-scale canvases currently on view at Paris’s Templon Gallery display her unparalleled technical proficiency. Unfortunately, Jaune’s refusal to explore new ideas and subject matter leads her to a standstill.
Oda Jaune‘s first institutional exhibition—held under her husband’s patronage at the Kunsthalle Koblenz in 2004, when she was just 25—already contained much of her signature style. Her abundant references to art history, her skillfulness in realist oil painting, and her predilection for large-scale format were all present. The few dozen canvases exhibited there fell in two categories: on the one hand, nudes inspired by both Eric Fischl’s work and Eugène Delacroix’s colonial paintings, and, on the other, “symbolist” canvases, heavily influenced by Egon Schiele, Félicien Rops, Hugo Simberg and other late 19th century decadents. A topless Black woman surrounded by kids—the woman is either elderly, sitting on a dirty floor, or a supermodel, standing tall—is the main character of the first group of artworks, while the second showcases the artist herself. In one of these “symbolist” self-portraits, executed in white and tender blue, Oda Jaune painted herself sleeping, dressed in a Victorian nightshirt with hands folded in the gesture of prayer, as bulls lick her bare feet.
For her 2009 solo show at the Templon Gallery in Paris, Oda Jaune turned to the 1850s, specifically Ludwig Knaus’s Dusseldorf school of romantic painting, and introduced more explicit imagery. In one of the centerpieces of this show—an enormous Alpine landscape— edelweiss flowers and peaceful cows chewing grass are juxtaposed with collaged sexual scenes, seemingly recreating the setting of a wet dream. Oda Jaune’s exhibition in the same gallery six years later was composed of realist watercolor drawings that showcase female breasts, necks or, in a motif that recalls 1980s porn, a seductive Catholic nun. Now, in 2019, still at Templon, Oda Jaune puts on display both a new art historical passion—early 19th-century French academicism—and a new treatment of the figure: here the human body is deformed grotesquely. Her sleek, Jacques-Louis David and Francis Bacon-inspired canvases, painted in 2017 and 2018 and assembled under the title Beyond Gravity, feature, among other unsettling motifs, multiple torsos fused to one other, a pregnant belly with spread legs and a breast in place of the head, a man with a huge hand instead of legs, and feet, whether dirty or clean, female or male—feet everywhere.
Although her recent paintings explore a new visual language, the repetitiveness of their content highlights an unresolved ambiguity that haunts Jaune’s oeuvre. This is an artist with a truly Belle Époque biography, who refutes all stereotypes about female artists (large-scale canvases and a passion for art history are, in our collective consciousness, stereotypically male prerogatives), and she creates artworks which are truly breathtaking in terms of their technical perfection. And yet they are also imitative, pretentious, unfocused, and kitschy. Not only that, they are unironically kitschy. Oda Jaune might exceed Delacroix in brush-stroke precision and three-dimensional illusionism, but she lacks both the sharpness of his allegorical language and his historical consciousness. Oda Jaune might be as audacious as Eric Fischl, but she lacks his striking and brutal sarcasm. Most importantly, when you encounter Oda Jaune’s paintings gathered en masse, they quickly become boring in their monotony and their overloaded, mechanical desire to provoke.
With her splendid commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic, the admiration of the most powerful Parisian gallerists and art critics, and connections within the French elite, Oda Jaune is already inscribed in art history, somewhere between the 1980s neo-expressionist rebellion against abstraction and the recent generation of realist painters like Chloe Wise and Njideka Akunyili Crosby. The question is not whether, but how Oda Jaune will be remembered. Will it be as a brilliant copyist of the 19th-century masters, like her New York colleague Jacob Collins, or as a properly contemporary artist who is able to make relevant comments on today’s society? Trumpism, climate change, the impact of new technologies on everyday life, the ongoing migration crisis—humankind is currently living through a global emergency unparalleled since the end of World War II. Realist painting, so old and out of use that it begins to seem radically new, might be capable of providing a fresh perspective. Posterity’s understanding of Oda Jaune, then, will depend on whether she can expand her view beyond the bodily, and use her great technical gifts to tackle broader, more pressing issues.