My first contact with Odilon Redon took place in the Museum d'Orsay in Paris in 1988. I still remember the moment when I saw a small pastel with exceptionally bright colours. "The Flower of Blood" was the title of that work and it had something very mysterious in it that captured my attention for a long time. The flowers and the character of the female were obvious but the giant creature in the top right corner was really weird. And the colours, the colours were just amazing: clean, bright, fantastic and glowing. It was obvious that this painting was telling a mysterious story. I could stay in front of it a whole day and just escape from my physical body and the material place into totally different world.
|The Blood of Flower|
Next to it was another pastel of Redon; with a golden background and a black creature/face at the front. The title of the work was Underwater Vision. I remembered coming back a few times to the dark part of the d'Orsay where Redon's paintings were exhibited. I was trying to find answers to why those works captured my attention so much and what was in them different to all the other amazing paintings there. The fascinating colours, the secrets, the stories? Odilon Redon was/is one of those painters, whose works are mystical and metaphorical; they will never really reveal their own secrets. In Redon's own words:
"My drawings inspire and are not to be defined. They determine nothing. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous world of the undetermined. They are a kind of metaphor. I have placed there a little door opening on to the mysterious. I have made stories."
Odilon Redon has been seen by some art critics as the precursor of Dada and surrealism. I don't agree with that. His work is mystical and fantastic but not strictly surreal. His work is very individual in most of its aspects. It is as unique as the work of Botticelli, (before he became a religious fanatic), Breughel, El Greco, Vrubel or Wojtkiewicz.
His early work, black and with drawings in charcoal, is very haunting , scary and crazy - the crying and smiling spiders, the cactus man, the bizarre creatures, they are coming straight out from bizarre and dark dreams into the perception of the recipient. His series of etchings reminds me very much of Los Chaprichos, the famous etchings by Goya.
|The Spirit Forest|
There is something very peculiar about Odile Redon. Till his fifties he worked almost exclusively in black and white - charcoal drawings and lithographs. Once he passed the age of 50 he started painting and using colours - most works being made in pastels and oil. After the discovery of colours he became an remarkable colourist. I think the colours that he used undeniably inspired Chagall. The similarity in colours between the two painters are so obvious that I have to make this assumption.
Odilon Redon remained relatively unknown until Joris-Karl Huysmans, a French writer, published his book 'A Rebours' with a passage dedicated to the art of Redon.
"Those were 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 cannonball with his finger; a dreadful 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." ¹.
Most of Redon's work is in the hands of private collectors. Lots of his work can be found in Dutch museums: Gemeentemuseum Den Hague, Rijks Museum Kröller-Müller in Otterlo, Stedelijk Museum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (a big collection). It was thanks to Andre Bonger ², who introduced Redon to Holland and to the society of La Libre Esthétique in Brussels that Odilon became extraordinarily famous in the Netherlands.
La Libre Esthétique (free aesthetics) was an artistic society founded in 1893 in Brussels to continue the efforts of the artists' group Les XX which dissolved the same year. To reduce conflicts between artists invited or excluded, artists were no longer admitted to the society, thus all exhibitors were now invited. The first annual exhibition was opened on 14 February 1894, and the exhibition of 1914 was the last.
Work by Odilon Redon has a place in my private museum of imaginary, unique and beautiful works of art.
¹.Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature, translated by Margaret Mauldon (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 52–53.
². Andries Bonger, nicknamed "Dries", was Johanna van Gogh-Bonger's favorite brother. Bonger was a friend of his future brother-in-law Theo van Gogh in Paris. It was through Andries that Johanna and Theo met.