Redon Reconsidered [Review of exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago]

The Washington Post, Jul 31, 1994, p. G.06.

“Redon Reconsidered; In Chicago, the First Major U.S. Retrospective of the Artist’s Works,” The Washington Post, Jul 31, 1994, p. G.06

By Jason Edward Kaufman

For those who regard Monet and Ce’zanne as the alpha and omega of turn-of-the-century art, “Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams,” an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago through Sept. 18, will be a revelation. Unlike his impressionist compatriots who extolled the sunlit countryside of France, Redon (1840-1916) delved into a murky dream-inspired realm inhabited by hybrid, often macabre creatures of myth and the imagination.

Redon’s peculiar conceptions collectively limn the cloudy area between nature, thought and the unknown. His works in black-and-white – together known as “Noirs” – constitute some of the most bizarre spectacles ever committed to paper: Skeleton men with bloated heads sprout from dying tree limbs, bat-winged disembodied heads flutter in a nocturnal atmosphere, and bearded savages in priestly capes inhabit an impenetrable gloom.

Compared with the kind of celebrity the impressionists enjoy today, Redon’s art remains grossly underappreciated. In fact, though he was the largest single exhibitor (and seller) in the “Armory Show” of 1913, which introduced the European avant-garde to America, the current exhibition – a collaboration among the Art Institute, the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and the Royal Academy, London – is Redon’s first comprehensive U.S. retrospective.

His extraordinary visions inspired Gauguin, Ensor, Munch and other contemporaries, and also influenced the work of surrealists Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Man Ray. Like them, Redon cherished fantasy as an essential ingredient in the creative process – “the messenger of the `unconscious,’ ” he called it.

For the current tribute to this neglected master, a curatorial team led by the Art Institute’s Douglas Druick has amassed 180 oils, drawings, watercolors, lithographs and etchings from collections around the globe, including that of the Art Institute itself, which in 1920 acquired from Redon’s widow the world’s most complete selection of the artist’s graphic output. The survey covers Redon’s entire career, from sketches after Old Masters in the Louvre, to depictions of his native Bordeaux landscape, romantic inventions inspired by Delacroix, and on to the blossoming of his own distinctive idiom.

Of several masters in Bordeaux and Paris, Redon was most affected by Rodolphe Bresdin, an admirer of Rembrandt’s prints who taught Redon the technical skills of lithography and etching. Along with drawing in charcoal, they occupied his attentions for the first 20 years of his career. A number of these eldritch “Noirs” have been beautifully installed, including one tenebrous wine-colored chamber evocative of a gas-lit turn-of-the-century salon. It would be hard to imagine a more compelling setting for these haunting hallucinations.

The disembodied head or eye – mortal or divine intelligence unfettered by physical constraints – is a recurring motif. The most famous drawing is “Eye-balloon” (1878), which shows a human head borne aloft. In the artist’s first lithographic series, “In the Dream,” published in 1879 when he was 39, a Magrittean eye-orb hovers like a vaguely menacing apparition between the columns of a gargantuan temple. In “Germination,” from the same series, a planetary archipelago of heads stretches across the night sky, charting an evolutionary progression from embryo to adult.

Several versions of “Closed Eyes” show an androgynous face consumed in introspection – a veritable embodiment of the artist’s inward turn. In another drawing, a naked man strides forth from an enveloping darkness carrying a lantern in which a luminous face appears. The emanation irradiates both the surrounding pavement and the grizzled protagonist who gropes along the dungeonlike corridor as if suspended in purgatorial eternity.

Enigma was a well-calculated effect for Redon, who wrote that his drawings “inspire and do not define themselves.” He wished to place the viewer “within the ambiguous world of the indeterminate,” free to derive significance “according to the spectator’s imaginative aptitude for enlarging everything or belittling it.”

The curators have emphasized the artist’s borrowings from the physical world by filling a room with the kind of natural history literature and specimens to which Redon may have been exposed. Their relevance is diminished, however, by the absence of comparisons with Redon’s works.

New Light on the Biography

Redon’s writings can be as elusive as his pictures. In a book-length volume of autobiographical texts, titled “To Myself,” he refers to a childhood spent in virtual isolation on the family’s country estate; this seclusion never has been fully explained. But archival discoveries reported in the 464-page exhibit catalogue shed light on the mental turmoil that gave rise to the disturbing “Noirs.”

Documents found in a village church south of Bordeaux reveal that by age 6 Redon had been suffering for more than a year from a form of epilepsy that manifested itself in “very disquieting moments of loss of consciousness.” Desperate for a cure that doctors had failed to provide, his parents brought him to the church then known for medical miracles achieved through the agency of the Virgin. After several visits, the Redons’ entreaties elicited the desired results, and by age 10 the febrile youth was miraculously cured.

Curator Druick believes that the stigma of epilepsy in the 19th century may have prompted the family to hide away their sick child. In any case, it is difficult not to infer a relationship – perhaps a determining one – between the childhood illness and Redon’s later predilection for nightmarish flights of the imagination.


Mastery of Pastel

In the early 1890s, Redon began applying pastels to some of his monochrome drawings and lithographs and soon was working in oils as well. A few years later he proclaimed, “I have married color.” The unearthly bent of his visions persisted, but gained an almost jewellike intensity, as in the electric cobalts of “Sita” (circa 1893), or in the many Venuses and Andromedas that exemplify the newfound delight he took in working from the female nude.

The curators attribute this affirmative change to positive events in Redon’s personal life, such as the birth of his son Ari in 1889 (a previous child died in infancy), the long-awaited publication of his lithographs, salutary critical reviews and an improving financial situation. Whatever the biographical factors, the depressive shroud that cloaked the “Noirs” was lifted, and Redon’s art achieved a new chromatic splendor.

Nowhere was the sensuous use of color more striking than in the unequaled exuberance of his pyrotechnic floral bouquets. Whether taken from still-life models or completely improvised, the best examples transcend nature. Fortunately for posterity, Redon acceded to the commercial demand for these flower pieces, which he produced in increasing numbers. Facing mounting debts related to the family estate, he executed portrait commissions and designed several decorative ensembles, replete with wall panels, chair backs and fire screens, whose gentle palettes call to mind Iranian carpets and illuminated manuscripts. As optically ravishing as impressionist canvases, their beautiful harmonies of silky blue-grays, pale roses and lilacs, golden tans, icy ultramarines and emeralds are the work of a colorist and abstract composer of genius.

One of the leitmotifs of his late work was “Apollo’s Chariot,” which Redon regarded as “the triumph of light over darkness.” His variations on the theme continue to portray the struggle of the imagination to leave the world of substance, to be liberated in a world of myth, idea, intuition and reverie. Yet these works exude an implicit optimism far removed from the dreadful “Noirs,” indicating that late in life Redon attained a sense of solace and bliss.

“Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams” continues at the Art Institute of Chicago through Sept. 18, then travels to Amsterdam and London.


PHOTO,Muse D’orsay/paris; PHOTO,Art Institute Of Chicago/david Adler Collection CAPTION: Odilon Redon: His signature figure, “Closed Eyes,” above; pastels, “Sita,” top right; and the frontier between nature and imagination, “Strange Flower.”



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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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