Imagine a black canvas showing the head of a beautiful woman with black hair, deep in thought, looking straight at you. Her face is so focused on what she is thinking that she isn’t even aware that you are there. She looks like a sphinx that is self-contained, remote, sensitive, but with an amazing energy of creativity that extends out of her hand and on to the canvas when she paints. This woman is the Bulgarian-born painter Michaela Danowska. Despite her complex personality and the difficulty to enter her private space, German film director Kamilla Pfeffer took on the challenge, since she herself is interested in visuals arts and the process of creativity which lies hidden under the surface waiting to be discovered.
Danowska studied at the Arts Academy in Dusseldorf where she met and married the contemporary artist Jorg Immendorff. She always wanted an artistic name and her husband handed her a new passport with the name Oda Jaune which has stuck. “Oda” stands for “treasure” in German and “Jaune” is French for “yellow” which is her favorite color and with that we meet a woman who rejoices in the chance to paint everyday as long as she can. Upon the death of her husband, Oda Jaune decided to move to Paris for a new start in her career. It was here in Paris that Pfeffer finally tracked Oda Jaune down after two years of trying to get her to make a film by corresponding via email.
Artists are usually late but not Oda Jaune; she not only arrives early, but is willing to sit on the floor next to me while we were waiting for the interviewing room. Naturally, her first question was, “Did you see the film?” I guess at this point most journalist would lie, but I can’t. So I just confessed and said that I had not seen the film even though I had tried. I guess that gave me an interesting point of view, i.e., meet them without any preconceived notions. I also confessed to her that I admire her mysterious work. At that point director Kamille Pfeffer joined us.
SRS: I am also a painter and you have achieved what I have not been able to do. You have gotten into a space that reminds me a lot of my dreams and I wish I could get there.
OJ: I am very touched by what you have said. This is the most wonderful thing, because if you touch somebody, it moves somebody, and that the message of the movie. Each person takes something that only has a meaning for them after viewing the paintings.
SRS: I see that you have done some documentaries before. Why did you focus on Ode Jaune and what inspired you to make a film on her?
KP: I made documentaries for television and this was my first independent film. I picked up First Water, a book on watercolors from my favorite bookstore in Cologne and was immediately intrigued with the artist Ode Jaune. The images are so beautiful, with soft colors, but you have to look at them twice to see there is something different about them, e.g., a certain type of brutality, people either disabled or having super powers. Who is the person who paints like this? It was very difficult to get in touch with her.
SRS: How did you feel about someone diving into your private space all of a sudden?
OJ: When I first received the email,” I said no thank you. I don’t want to be inside of a movie.” It was hard to imagine what kind of movie this would be. Later she appeared at an exhibition opening and explained profoundly, what she had in mind; she was well prepared with other materials, so I finally agreed to it. She came inside my space and began filming the process of painting since she was interested in how a painting evolves. My way of working takes many, many months, and can take up to three years to finish one object. I immediately felt under pressure. I thought this must be boring just to film me painting, watching thousands of brushstrokes hit the canvas. Even though they were discreet, I could feel their breathing and couldn’t concentrate. I usually get into a state where I forget everything and I couldn’t achieve that while they were watching me. It was not just the process of the painting but where does it really come from? When she realized that this question needed to be answered, she decided to put a black canvas behind me and began to ask me several naive questions based on the Proust questionnaire. I took my time to answer them. In the end this front portrait of me is a big part of the movie.
SRS: So how do you feel after seeing the movie? Was it like looking into a mirror?
O: It felt strange. It was like she could see inside me.
KP: I did not get inside her.
OJ: No? You didn’t? It felt that way to me.
KP: No… I tried a little bit, but I always wanted to do a personal film, not a private film, which is why we choose to be in the studio and not at home or in a boutique. We wanted to be in a space which was very intimate. The fact that our presence made her uncomfortable was good for the film because it presents a conflict. She was very good at explaining why we disturb her. She says, “You are in-between my head, my ideas and my hand. You can see what I do but you can’t see what’s inside.” So we had to find another solution how to get into her mind. I was very impressed by her presence and her connection to her paintings. She is a very special person and to get her to feel is what this documentary can do for her in my opinion. My hope was that we could get her to the point where she was open and trusting. We had to do it very carefully.
SRS: Did you always have issues with trust with other people? Are you very much self-contained?
OJ: My way of my work is not with people. I spend a lot of time alone. I think I need this space. I love people and you can see that I am very interested in human beings because there is not a single painting without a soul inside of it. I have only very close friends and my family and I have very profound relationships with them.
KP: Back to the question: is the film like a mirror? When she first saw it, she was taken back a bit and said, “Is that your point of view of me?” I think you liked it but you were, “Oh. Ah.” It is strange to see yourself so intimately, because when you look at yourself in the mirror and the mirror reflects a different look, then you really have to look at it more closely. It is a very intense situation. The audience gets the impression that you can see her thinking. The expectation grows because of what she might say. It is unclear what Oda Jaune will say. The space of thinking is really there, even to the point that the audience might be able to answer the question for her.
SRS: That is what your paintings do as well, do you think? There is this expectation that if you turn away, they will move on their own. You have the feeling that they are alive. They are not static paintings. How do you know when to stop painting?
OJ: I continue on until I am happy with then end result. If I am not happy, it is a kind of disappointment. So I ask myself, “Is this everything I have to give?” It is a part of letting go. Sometimes you cannot stop, but then you have come to terms with that as well. Many years ago I did a painting of 100 hundred layers, searching for the right painting and my teacher told me a simple thing: you can just take another canvas. That was so simple but strange, because I was searching for something, but I couldn’t stop even though it became too thick.
SRS: So you do oils and water colors; what is the difference between these two medias for you?
OJ: I really enjoy doing watercolors. Thate is another way of control. I observe in seconds what is coming and I think I can then go another direction. The oil paintings are quite different than watercolors. Watercolor is light and free. I work dry with the oils. It is not flowing like watercolors but you can cover over them. I painted one that had an explosion in it for the film and it took me six months to do.
KP: It was a black painting and I was surprised that one day she just painted all white. It is difficult to explain her work. She had to find her own way to describe her art process. It is like a breath and it is open for interpretation. It is not only the process, but to find the right vocabulary to explain the work in her words. Who is Ode Jaune? I don’t have the answer. She is a very complex personality and we are presented the mosaic. There is a parallel film where you can answer yourself. I also interviewed a collector, her gallerist, a director, and a fellow painter to get further insight into which she is for them.
At the end of our interview, Kamille confesses to Oda that she bought two copies of her latest book. She cut out some of the pictures and hung them up since she loves her works but can’t afford them. I feel lucky to have a copy of her painting from 2006 and she is nice enough to give me her autograph, something she normally doesn’t do and it is something I normally don’t ask for, but meeting these two wonderful people isn’t something that happens every day.
Oda Jaune currently has an exhibition in Paris and is she planning a sculpture exhibition in Berlin this summer. This could be our big chance to see her work.
Kamille Pfeffer graduated from the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. She has written articles for Süddeutsche Zeitung and once dreamed of working for Arte. She decided not to do it, because you don’t have the freedom and space to do independent work. Her next project might be a book on a Polish photographer who took the pictures of all the victims in Auschwitz. She also plans to connect to the many young female producers here at the festival in Berlin.