The French artist and printmaker Odilon Redon developed an intensely personal visual vocabulary. Although he was held in high esteem by Symbolist writers and artists, he had few immediate followers.
Born in Bordeaux, he grew up on the family estate, Peyrelebade, amid the desolation of the flat, pine-covered Landes bordered by barren sand dunes and silent marshlands. This landscape haunted Redon throughout his life, providing a constant supply of visual images. Drawing lessons in Bordeaux were followed by studies in architecture and then painting in Paris. A mental breakdown forced him to return to Bordeaux, probably in 1862.
Apart from a careful study of Corot and Delacroix, it was his meetings with Rodolphe Bresdin, in 1863, and with Henri Fantin-Latour, in 1874, that were to shape the course of his artistic career. Bresdin taught Redon etching, enabling him during the 1860s to embark upon a series of small engravings whose subject matter consisted of memories of landscapes known in childhood, peopled with motifs taken from Corot and Delacroix. By 1870, however, Redon had discovered the more immediate technique of charcoal. Over the next nine years he evolved his own highly personal visual symbolism, which he translated into lithographs after 1879.
Redon was introduced to the lithographic technique by Fantin-Latour. Between 1879 and 1899 he produced 166 lithographs: 37 single plates (for example, Brunnhilde, 1886), 17 groups of book illustrations (for example, for Flaubert's Tentation de St Antoine, three sets 1888, 1889, 1896), and five groups of non-literary sequences of images (Dans le Rêve, 1879, and Songes, 1891). Most of the lithographs were complented by deliberately ambiguous captions, usually invented by Redon himself.
In his diary-like autobiography, À Soimême (1922; new edition 1961) Redon suggested that his lithographs summarized two concerns central to his art; the relationship between Man and Nature, and “suggestive” art. Influenced by his friend, the Bordeaux botanist Armand Clavaud, Redon frequently depicted images that expressed the interchangeability of Man and Nature, as in The Marsh Flower (plate II, Hommage ò Goya, 1885). He proposed an alternative theory of evolution to that of Darwin, which he investigated more fully in his non-literary series, Les Origines (1883).
Like Mallarmé, who was his close friend and admirer from 1884 onwards, Redon believed in involving the spectator in the creative process. Rather than present a finite image or idea, he created a “suggestive art” in which the spectator was invited to enter into and complete the visual and mental images initially depicted by the artist. Redon achieved this by creating a world of visual ambiguities and absurdities, using for example an illogical juxtaposition of random objects and seemingly unrelated captions and images, a total disregard for unity of scale (Sad Ascent, plate 19 of Dans le Rêve, 1879) and a frequent reference to infinite space (Blossoming, plate 18 of Dans le Rêve).
Until c. 1895, Redon's life had not been happy. He was melancholic by nature, and the death of his first son and the tardiness of critical acclaim colored both the images and the media of his art. However, growing recognition of his work during the 1880s and early 1890s (from J.-K. Huysmans, Alfred Verhaeren and Les Vingt, Maurice Denis, and Émile Bernard), the sale of Peyrelebade, and the birth of another son caused light to flood into his work. He experimented with color in several ways. He translated the subjects of his lithographs into victorious images of explosive color (as in Pegasus Triumphant, 1905 - 10; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo). He painted pastels of flower pieces and portraits in subtly balanced colors and textures. And he investigated the effects of mixed media in decorative cycles, screens, and easel paintings.
Redon's brilliant, non-naturalistic color presaged the art of the Fauves, and his use of illogical objects inhabiting an ambiguous world foreshadowed the art of the Surrealists.
Further reading Bacou, R. Odilon Redon (2 vols.), Geneva (1956). Druick, D. (ed.) Odilon Redon, London (1994). Redon A. Lettres de Gauguin, Gide, Huysmans, Jammes, Mallarmé, Verhaeren ... ò Odilon Redon, Paris (1960). Redon, O. À Soi-même, Journal: Notes sur la Vie, l'Art, et les Artistes, Paris (1961). Wilson, M. Nature and Imagination: the Works of Odilon Redon, Oxford (1978).
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