At the Service of the Invisible: Odilon Redon

At the Service of the Invisible: Odilon Redon

It has been inaccurately said that Odilon Redon (1840 –1916) was merely “a French symbolist painter, printmaker, draughtsman and pastellist.” Yet Redon was more fittingly called by deeper appreciators of his work, “the prince of dreams.” He described his own art in this way: “My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.”

Some of Redon’s work—in its depth— resembles that of the visionary artist, William Blake, who died years before Redon was born. The works of these two are related by their mutual dedication to explore and express the depths and heights of the human experience. Like Blake, Redon did not deny his palette the sketch and brush between the two extremes. He could fashion a prehistoric face at one moment; at another, the sublime countenance of a Buddhist sage. It seems that Redon had no choice but to accept and welcome the entire parade of evolution from spiders out of the shadows of the psyche to the face of the Christ, whom Redon depicted as a victorious—yet martyred conqueror of illusion.

Rather than outside on the canvas of the concrete realm, Redon looked within for his subjects. What he found was a broad array of figures. Some nightmarish and monstrous. Others sublime and beautiful.

Perhaps becoming fully human means to have become a seasoned traveler through countless time periods and histories. One wonders whether the endgame is to become Conscious and Awake to the Great Dream that is all creation. Love is the great partner to Awareness in this Enterprise of enterprises.  Many forms has love. Love spans the land and seascape, from the most raw and brutish of desires to the acceptance and integration of opposites, shadow and light. Finally, Love—with its beloved Awareness— wed: an affectionate unity of the individual soul with the Original Artist.


Brief Biography of Odilon Redon:

Odilon Redon was born in Bordeaux, Aquitaine, to a prosperous family. The young Redon acquired the nickname “Odilon” from his mother, Odile. He started drawing as a child, and at the age of ten was awarded a drawing prize at school. At fifteen he began the formal study of drawing, but on the insistence of his father changed to architecture. His failure to pass the entrance exams at Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts ended any plans for a career as an architect, although he briefly studied painting there under Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1864. (His younger brother Gaston Redon would become a noted architect.)

Back home in his native Bordeaux, he took up sculpture, and Rodolphe Bresdin instructed him in etching and lithography. His artistic career was interrupted in 1870 when he joined the army to serve in the Franco-Prussian War.

At the end of the war, he moved to Paris, working almost exclusively in charcoal and lithography. He called his visionary works, conceived in shades of black, his noirs (“blacks”–see below #2 video).

It would not be until 1878 that his work gained any recognition with “Guardian Spirit of the Waters”, and he published his first album of lithographs, titled Dans le Rêve, in 1879. Still, Redon remained relatively unknown until the appearance in 1884 of a cult novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans titled, À Rebours (Against Nature). The story featured a decadent aristocrat who collected Redon’s drawings.

In the 1890s, pastel and oils became his favored media, and he produced no more noirs after 1900. In 1899, he exhibited with the Nabis at Durand-Ruel’s. In 1903 he was awarded the Legion of Honor. His popularity increased when a catalogue of etchings and lithographs was published by André Mellerio in 1913 and that same year, he was given the largest single representation at the New York Armory Show.

Redon died on July 6, 1916. In 1923 Mellerio published: Odilon Redon: Peintre Dessinateur et Graveur. An archive of Mellerio’s papers is held by the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 2005 the Museum of Modern Art launched an exhibition entitled “Beyond The Visible”, a comprehensive overview of Redon’s work showcasing more than 100 paintings, drawings, prints and books from The Ian Woodner Family Collection. The exhibition ran from October 30, 2005 to January 23, 2006. In October of 2011 a major exhibit in Paris was held in honor of his work.

The mystery and the evocation of the drawings are described by Huysmans in the following passage:

“Those were the pictures bearing the signature: Odilon Redon. They held, between their gold-edged frames of unpolished pearwood, undreamed-of images: a Merovingian-type head, resting upon a cup; a bearded man, reminiscent both of a Buddhist priest and a public orator, touching an enormous cannon-ball with his finger; a spider with a human face lodged in the centre of its body. Then there were charcoal sketches which delved even deeper into the terrors of fever-ridden dreams. Here, on an enormous die, a melancholy eyelid winked; over there stretched dry and arid landscapes, calcinated plains, heaving and quaking ground, where volcanos erupted into rebellious clouds, under foul and murky skies; sometimes the subjects seemed to have been taken from the nightmarish dreams of science, and hark back to prehistoric times; monstrous flora bloomed on the rocks; everywhere, in among the erratic blocks and glacial mud, were figures whose simian appearance–heavy jawbone, protruding brows, receding forehead, and flattened skull top–recalled the ancestral head, the head of the first Quaternary Period, the head of man when he was still fructivorous and without speech, the contemporary of the mammoth, of the rhinoceros with septate nostrils, and of the giant bear. These drawings defied classification; unheeding, for the most part, of the limitations of painting, they ushered in a very special type of the fantastic, one born of sickness and delirium.”

His art represents an exploration of his internal feelings and psyche. He himself wanted to “place the visible at the service of the invisible”; thus, although his work seems filled with strange beings and grotesque dichotomies, his aim was to represent pictorially the ghosts of his own mind. A telling source of Redon’s inspiration and the forces behind his works can be found in his journal A Soi-même (To Myself).

He once wrote regarding his own creative process:

“I have often, as an exercise and as a sustenance, painted before an object down to the smallest accidents of its visual appearance; but the day left me sad and with an unsatiated thirst. The next day I let the other source run, that of imagination, through the recollection of the forms and I was then reassured and appeased.”

Odilon remarked on the paintings of Rembrandt: “Rembrandt gave me always new surprises of art. He is the great human element of the infinity of our ecstasy, he gave the moral life to the shade. He created the clair-obscur like Phidias did the line. And all the mysteries comprises in the modeling are from now on possible only by him, for the new cycle of art he opened out of the pagan reason”.

Paints: Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916)
Music: “Canope” from “Préludes, livre 2” by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) performed by Gordon Fergus – Thompson

O.Redon’s black period (1870-1895) on A.SHANKAR’s “Prayer in Passing”, taken from RISE(c)2005AngelRecords….
Music: Anoushka Shankar


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