From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Odilon Redon (April 22, 1840 – July 6, 1916) was a Symbolist painter and printmaker, born in Bordeaux, Aquitaine, France. His sometimes morbid and macabre - but always fantastic - work was popularized in Huysmans Against Nature and was of influence on Alfred Kubin and many other fantastic artists. Thematically he explored the imagery of flowers and eyes.
Analysis of his work
- "But the soul must be made monstrous: in the fashion of the comprachicos, if you will! Imagine a man implanting and cultivating warts on his face."
Redon also describes his work as ambiguous and undefinable:
- "My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined."
Redon's work represent 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 being and grotesque dichotomies, his aim was to represent pictorially the ghosts of his own mind. The most telling source of Redon's inspiration and the forces behind his works can be found in his journal A Soi-même (To Myself). His process was explained best by himself when he said:
- "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."
The mystery and the evocation of the drawings are described by Huysmans in the following passage from Against Nature:
- "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.
Redon started drawing as a young child, and at the age of 10 he was awarded a drawing prize at school. At age 15, he began formal study in drawing but on the insistence of his father he switched 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 would later study there under Jean-Léon Gerôme.
Back home in his native Bordeaux, he took up sculpture, and Rodolphe Bresdin instructed him in etching and lithography. However, 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. 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, he began to use pastel and oils, which dominated his works for the rest of his life. 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. In 1923 Mellerio published: Odilon Redon: Peintre Dessinateur et Graveur.
Since 1878, under the influence of Henri Fantin-Latour Redon started to make lithographs, which came to be known as his "noirs." In quick succession lithographic albums appeared that depicted the strange dream-world of the artist: 1879 Dans le Rêve, 1882 Á Edgar Poe, 1883 Les Origines, 1885 Hommage à Goya and 1886 La Nuit. The three albums that deal with Flaubert's The Temptation of St. Anthony (1888, 1889, 1896) make up about a quarter of his lithographic work.