Thursday, 10 January 2013

Research Point: Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon : 1840-1916

I was asked to find out about the work of Odilon Redon. I had seen some of his paintings on a trip to the Musee' D'Orsay in Paris about 15 years ago. The work I remembered in particular was Bouquet de Fleurs des Champs Click Here for Image on Wiki Paintings Website. I had liked this pastel drawing as its bright colours were highly decorative. I was particularly drawn to the strong blue of the tallest flower and the blue reflections in the base of the vase.  The vase is positioned centrally on the page. It is difficult to decipher  where the light is coming from, the subject may be illuminated from the front as there is not an obvious cast shadow just a darker area of background colour adjacent to the vase. The lack of a distinct cast shadow and the fact that there is no description of any background detail makes the subject appear disconnected from the surroundings and it has a slightly unfinished look which I like.

I looked for further examples of this artist's work on the Bridgeman Education site and found works in markedly contrasting styles lots of monochrome drawings and etchings some of which have disconcerting and grotesque images. There are also very brightly coloured paintings. A very large number of paintings of flowers and other colourful depictions apparently of mythological characters.

Image2: The Smiling Spider

Image3: The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity

These images make no attempt at realism they are drawn from imagination. The spider is a hairy ball and appears to have ten legs a smiling human/simian face. The second image shows a giant eyeball looking upwards and floating in the sky with something attached beneath it like a giant hot air balloon. These works were created much earlier in the artist's career than the  vase of flowers in figure 1. I was interested in finding out what had influenced the development of these widely divergent styles. What was happening around Odilon Redon at the time of his learning and progression as an artist? The schematic below is a very simplified attempt to put this artist in context.

Fig 4 Placing Odilon Redon in Context.

Bertrand-Jean was the artist's real name. The name Odilon was taken from his mother's name Odile. He was born in Bordeaux in 1840. He was interested and talented at drawing from an early age but was steered towards architecture by his father. He failed the entrance exams to study that profession at 'L'Ecole des Beaux Arts' in Paris(1). He did study painting there briefly but found the it difficult to fit in with the values of the art establishment. He therefore returned to Bordeaux (where he was originally schooled) and studied etching with Rodolphe Bresdin.
His career was interrupted when he fought in the Franco-Prussian War (2),(1).
After his period in the military, Redon moved back to Paris. Here he produced many of the works he called 'Noirs' which were made in black chalk or charcoal or produced as lithographs.
Several influences can be seen in these works. Redon admired the works of Goya Redon's 'Noirs' seem to be a natural successor to Goya's 'Black paintings' which contain some distrubing images and a very dark palette. (see figures 5 and 6)

Image5: Two Old Men Eating ; Goya

Image6: Saturn Devouring one of His Sons; Goya

The period in which Odilon Redon produced the majority of his works was the 1880s to the early 1900s. This would classify him amongst the post impressionists. However, 'post impressionist' is quite a broad term encompassing a veriety of artists and styles. There are, however features of Redon's work which are common to many of the artists working in that period. The impressionists were concerned with capturing the effects of light in nature. The post impressionists reacted against this. as well as reacting against the materialist and realist movements. Stepen Little says ' Characteristic of this broad, anti-borgeois movement is a focus on design and structure and a refusal to imitate nature or to moralise through narrative subjects. This emphasis on form recovered the significance of art's symbolic, spiritual and emotional meaning' (3)
Having talked about a refusal to imitate nature, it is interesting to note that Redon had an interest in  evolution and nartural history. He read Darwin's "Origin of Species", visited the natural history museum and attended lectures at the medical school in Paris. (4). Many of the 'Noirs' contain images which are reminiscent of the natural world but the artist's imagination has produced something more monstrous such as the Polyp (the cyclops in figure 7) or a man's face with cactus spines protruding from it. (4)
Redon himself said, " My most fertile system, the one most necessary for my expansion has been, I have often said it, to directly copy the real while attentively reproducing objects from the external nature, in that which it contains of the most minute , the most particular and accidental. After the endeavour of minutely copying a pebble, a blade of grass. a hand, a profile or an entirely different thing from living or inorganic life , I feel a mental ebullience coming. then I have the need to create, to let myself go to the representation of the imaginary. Nature, thus measured and infused, becomes my source, my yeast, my ferment."(5)

Image7: The Misshapen polyp (plus Audio from MoMa)

Literature had a profound influence on Redon. He produced works based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, of which 'The teeth' is s striking example. Displayed here on the Moma website. illustrates a set of disembodied teeth shining from a dark bookshelf and is based on a story in which the storyteller is haunted by his dead fiance's teeth. Other works were based on Flaubert's 'La tentation de Saint Antoine' and Baudelaire's 'Les Fleurs du Mal' (2)

Symbolism developed from aestheticism (led by Oscal Wilde and Karl John Huysmans). The symbolist manifesto was published in the 1880s. It started as a literary movement. Redon knew, admired and was admired by many of the prominent figures in this movement. Huysmans featured a description of Redon's Noirs in one of his novels. Redon was also a close friend of the writer Stepane Mallarme'. 

Symbolist paintings are not simply representative. Dreams or other altered mental states were important subject matter. One important work of this kind  is Redon's 'The Green Death' of 1905. Link to image on the Moma website. The green figure rising from the snake recalls the colour of absinthe. Stephen Little in his book '.....isms. Understanding art' suggests that the death may refer to the death of reason under the influence of intoxication, something the symbolists would have welcomed to increase creativity. 

Colour featured much more in Redon's work after 1890 (Fig's 8 and 9) and after 1900 the noirs were no longer a feature. He experimented with the use of colour

Image8: The Chariot of Apollo

Image9: Closed Eyes

He also became preoccupied with producing images of flowers. Typing his name into a google images search produces a vast array of paintings of flowers in vases (see Fig 1). at fisrt glance these seem to have an impressionist quality. However, Redon was not a fan of the impressionists. His works are deliberately decorative rather than trying to capture reflective light effects. This falls in line with the prevailing trend in decoration and architecture at the time, namely Art Nouveau. 

These later works and his use of colour provided inspiration for other painters such as the Nabis (Vuillard/Bonnard) and his work was exhibited with these artists in 1899.

Matisse also admired his late works so Redon was also an influence on the developmant of Fauvism. The Salon d'Automne exhibition in 1904 which is seen as the beginning of Fauvism as a movement included many works by Redon.

The legacy of the symbolists can also bee seen in the development of surrealism and expressionism subsequently.

(1) Odilon Redon, Biography:
(2) Redon, Odilon: Biography by Richard Hobbs- from Grove Art Online - accessed via the Oxford art Online website.
(3)...isms. Understanding Art: Stephen Little  Herbert Press. London
(5) Odilon Redon 'To Myself" 1867-1915: notes on Life, Art and Artists translated by Mira Jacob and Jeanne L Wasserman (New York: George Braziller. 1986) sourced via

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