LA VIE SECRÈTE DES FLEURS
With her views of meticulously arranged dishes, randomly arranged harvested fruit and flowers, Johanna Dumet (b. 1991) pursues a strategy with great passion: she transfers the old genre of the still life into contemporary art. Characteristic of the French artist’s painting is colourful depiction, which is not committed to realism but rather to narrative, the freedom of composition and the intuitive design of the pictorial space.
An introductory exhibition of her work in the lower rooms of the gallery shows that she has been working on this topic for several years with ever new pictorial ideas and concepts. A selection of her early still lifes traces the path that Dumet has taken since her first still life, painted in 2017. The paintings in these rooms are important works from her artistic development and are now in private collections and the artist’s own collection.
The snapshots in these pictures, realised as paintings and partly as collages, show laid tables with numerous details such as used cutlery or still-smoking cigarettes, which indicate that a group sat together here. In her depictions of meals and what remains of them, Dumet fills what in 17th-century still lifes was enriched with symbolism that was understood at that time, with associations, experiences and memories of interpersonal encounters.
Her twelve-part painting ‘Everyone Wants a Piece of It’ and the concept on which it is based suggest that she is also concerned with individual participation in community. The artist has conceived the subject, a large table set with all kinds of delicious and exotic dishes in bold, predominantly pink colours, as a monumental painting six metres wide. However, only one at a time of the twelve segments into which she has divided the motif can be acquired, just as each guest only takes home their part of the feast, their conversations, their thoughts and memories.
The focus of the exhibition on the first floor of the gallery is on Dumet’s recent flower paintings. In this new take on a chapter of art and cultural history, she also emphasises the everyday nature and reduced simplicity of the motifs. A diversity can be seen here, a diversity of species, but no less the multifaceted nature of the painterly exploration of the theme. At the same time, the artist knows how to integrate the paintings into the architecture of the gallery and the exhibition situation.
Johanna Dumet does not show bouquets of expansive splendour or particularly floriferous arrangements. In the first room, the visitor encounters one hundred and eighty framed flower pictures. Hung in a strict grid as a block, they fill an entire wall. They are wildflowers, painted on paper in small formats. Each sheet shows stems, leaves and blossoms against a coloured background, with a different coloured line at the bottom in which Dumet has written the French name in freehand.
This presentation is also remarkable in its dimensions and colourful presence because wildflowers are plants that are traditionally considered less presentable or worthy of depiction, as they are less regarded as classic cut flowers and hardly more as weeds. The structure is reminiscent of a botanical picture atlas, but there is more to it than that: each individual picture, as well as the installation as a whole, bears the title ‘Bouquet impossible’, which refers to the depiction of illusionary bouquets, of flowers that are never in bloom at the same time. The ‘bouquet’ here is the wall-filling arrangement in the exhibition space, which in this way Dumet discreetly incorporates into her concept.
This is also the case with the frieze that runs along the walls in the next room, not omitting the window front. The large-format paintings lined up in this way show flower arrangements in vases, classic subjects of the floral still life. They are sometimes painted on canvas in pastel shades, but mostly in bold, high-contrast colours. The colour compositions fill the picture space and create a dense, almost installation-like work in the room. Details allow individual flowers to emerge vividly; however, the flatness of the vases and the partially visible furniture predominates and, as in Dumet’s early still lifes, is a selective simplification that never reaches the point of abstraction.
There is no doubt that the figurative approach remains decisive for the picture, and it is possibly the source of an interesting development in terms of the viewer’s attitude towards the flowers: Dumet sometimes succeeds in personifying the plants in a surprising way, for example in the ‘forgotten artichoke’ (L’Artichaud oublié), which sprouts blossoms – out of despair or because it is finally allowed to flourish in peace. The same applies to the field marigold, which is only a few centimetres small in reality: the artist has made it so large that one of the walls is full height and this alone takes up the entire room. ‘Do You See Me Now?’ is the title and may be the demanding exclamation of the now gigantic plant, which otherwise receives no attention.
In the group of works ‘La Fête est finie’, Dumet introduces another narrative element – in the subject itself, but also through the selection and combination of materials. In the middle ground of each of these works, the silhouette of a vase of flowers rises to fill the picture in front of a coloured surface. Applied to this, as if in a free movement, are coloured porcelain discs, mostly circular, some with partially circular recesses.
The title of the work indicates that the party is over. The glazed porcelain is confetti, some with typical ‘missing punches’. The festive occasion to which they are brought is also the end of the now cut flowers; for them the party would now be over. However, these flowers are decorated with confetti and colours and remain full of life beyond this final celebration. Dumet links this realisation of her expanded thoughts on the traditional vanitas theme with a detail of her biography: the porcelain that she incorporates here as a design element in her painting is familiar to her from her childhood in her home region of Limoges.
Her almost Fauvist style of palette can be seen both in the powerful individual depictions and in the serial compositions, in which each flower becomes the protagonist. The secret life of the flowers, which the artist names with the title of the exhibition, is the one that she invents for them. And so it is ultimately more than ‘nature morte’, dead nature, as the French term for still life claims. Johanna Dumet tells of this life in many stories with the overwhelming energy of her painting, and yet succeeds in preserving mystery.