Odilon Redon, born ‘Bertrand Redon’, was a French artist associated with symbolism, whose works ranged from painting and printmaking to drawing and pastel work. Although at the beginning of his career, he dedicated himself almost completely to his “noirs” – works using charcoal and lithography, both before and after fighting in the Franco-Prussian War – the artist later evolved into a profound and fantastical use of pastel colors that better reflected his interest in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined and the dream.
Odilon Redon developed a very individualist style, a creation of his own which combined fantasies and dreams, characteristic of the symbolists, and nature observation. Working between charcoal, lithography, pastel and oil, he became extremely influential to several avant-garde artists of the 19th century French circle. His compositions often reflected depictions from the imagination, joining the fantasy world of dream with the descriptive nature of reality. For Redon, this last was a crucial part in his work, having written that “every time that a human figure does not give the illusion that it is … about to come out of the picture frame to walk, act or think, the drawing is not a truly modern one.” Although Odilon Redon did not identify himself with any artistic group, considering himself independent from these groups ideas, he is often recollected as a Symbolist. His compositions, greatly inspired by Japanese art, defined a particular synthesis between nature and abstraction, characteristic of his mature style in the 1900s, defining a body of work that led the foundations for both Dadaism and Surrealism.
It is universally known that he dedicated his life to the exploration of the realm of the dream, but other factors contributed to his unique representations. Redon grew very fond of Hindu and Buddhist culture, evidenced by the growing use of the Buddha figure as a theme in his work. He mixed this keen interest with the Japanese aesthetic, clearly visible in works such as Jacob and the Angel (1905), Flowers in a Japanese Vase (1908) and The Buddha (1906-1907). “The artist…” he once claimed “will always be a special, isolated solitary agent with an innate sense of organizing matter.” an idea that can also be seen self describing in some way. The fact that he received the Legion of Honor in 1903, is also a testament to his bravery, integrity and honor in combat.
Born in 1840 in Bordeaux, he studied there and in Paris. Although he had been drawing since a tender age, he only initiated his formal training at the age of fifteen. However, his drawings earned him a prize at school at the age of ten. Pressured by his father, Redon shifted to the field of architecture, but failed to pass the entrance exams at Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts, which dictated the end of a prospective career in this field. However, in 1864, Redon attended painting classes under Jean-Léon Gérôme, in that same school. In 1867, Redon, admiror of Delacroix, first exhibited his copper etchings in the Salon of Paris, and later met his fellow artists Corot, Courbet and Faint-Latour. Unable to pursue a career in architecture, he moved back to Bordeaux, where he studied sculpting, etching (under Rodolphe Bresdin) and lithography (under Henri Fantin-Latour). His artistic journey was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War, between 1870 and 1871, as he was chosen to serve in the army. As the war ended, Redon moved back to Paris, where he resumed his artistic journey, developing his style in charcoal and lithography, nearly exclusively. In 1881, the artist showed his works for the first time in the gallery of the magazine La Vie Moderne. Later, in 1884, Redon co-founded the Salon de Indépendants, and, in 1886, showed his works in the collective exhibition of the impressionists.It was in this same year, that Redon’s work started to get validation, when his drawings were mentioned in À rebours, a novel essentially about the eclectic tastes of the time, written by Joris-Karl Huysmans, who collected art, including Redon’s drawings. In 1899, a symbolist exhibition was held in his honor, showing works next to the Nabis, at Durand-Ruel’s. Redon passed his last years, from 1909 to 1916 in Bièvres, a town close to Paris.
Drawing since a young age, Odilon Redon, (whose nickname “Odilon” derived from his mother’s first name Odile) dedicated himself to drawing early in his career, having dealt with sculpting as well. When he moved back to Bordeaux, after his architecture mishap, he learnt etching and lithography, which he would so characteristically explore.Two decades later, Redon then met and became a friend of Gauguin, in 1890, to later engage in close proximity with the poet Mallarmé and the rest of the Nabis group. Up until this point, he was best known for his “noirs”, relying on lithography and charcoal drawings and working only with black to illustrate his fantastic beasts. From this point onwards, he began experimenting with colour, pastels and oil paint, abandoning his noir style completely by the turn of the 20th century, while the other became his predilection mediums.
The Smiling Spider (1887).
Around this time the artist also started to explore symbolism in a much deeper sense. In the turn of the century, Redon introduced vibrant colour and soft pastel technique, much coerced by Gauguin to do so, and oil paint. After 1900, very few “noirs” were made, as Redon ceased to work in only black, as he realised that the colours of those other mediums would better illustrate the fantastic and imaginative world of his psiche. Redon introduced colour to his work steadily with new and softer motifs, as flowers became a constant, along with butterflies and horses, stirring away from the melancholic scenes, into more lyrical and harmonic. His colour palette turned softer and powdery exalted with vibrant colour. Although Odilon Redon abruptly changed styles, the subject of his work maintained the same, as he explored the depths of the mind and the emotion to the extreme.
Redon searched in the realm of the spiritual, the soul, the imagination and the dream, in search for fantastical, mystical and magical expressions, creating his own world of creatures, monsters and beings (sometimes harmless and innocent, other times, darker, twisted and wicked). He claimed that the aim of his art was to “produce within the spectator a sort of diffused but powerful affinity with the obscure world of the indeterminate”, greatly accentuating his fascination with the intangible world. In another instance, he added that he had “recovered the hope of giving my dreams greater plasticity” by his new added use of pastel. Something that remained untouched in his artistic foundation was his vision to “place the visible at the service of the invisible”, searching for a visual representation of his own psyche.
Odilon Redon’s work can be divided into two different styles:
In his first phase, in his “noirs”, he explored the dark and melancholic side of the mind in shades of black, translating his monsters into paper.
In the second and last phase, he turned to the vibrancy of colour to better express his imaginative world of dream, serving himself with flowers and soft and airy compositions to convey delicate harmony and lyricism.
In total Redon created close to 200 different prints, starting with his emblematic group of lithographs entitled In the Dream, in 1879. About his work, Redon is known to have claimed that his “originality consists in bringing to life, in a human way, improbable beings and making them live according to the laws and probability, by putting – as far as possible – the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.”
The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon Moves Towards Infinity (1878).
Redon was a great admirer of Delacroix and Goya, something that is clear in his Homage to Goya (1885), a group of illustrations – as his well known “noirs” show a number of winged beasts and threatening forms -, and was especially influenced by the poets Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, to explore the realms of the mind, creating visual poems which echo the poet’s world, and are not merely illustrations. When it comes to technique, the artist was influenced by Henri Faint-Latour and Paul Gauguin to pursue lithography and pastelism, respectively.
A Madman in a Dismal Landscape (1885), from Homage to Goya, by Redon.
Bobalicón, Disparate N. 4 (1816-1823) by Goya.
Evocation of Kundry (2nd plate) (1883) by Henri Fantin-Latour.
Odilon Redon’s work served as a great source of inspiration for plenty of artists, contemporary of his, and later after his death. Odilon Redon’s popularity rocketed in 1913, when his etchings and lithographs were published by André Mellerio. In that same year, in the U.S. International Exhibition of Modern Art (aka Armory Show), in New York City, Chicago and Boston, he was offered the largest single representation in the show. Besides being a huge influence among symbolist artists, he also set the founding stone for surrealism, greatly influencing the Dada circle. Redon’s colour interpretations of imaginary creatures are particularly seen as the precursor of Dadaism and Surrealism, as the surrealist painter André Masson mentions that these show “endless possibilities of lyrical chromatics”, a thought that greatly influenced the Surrealist movement. Redon was also a fundamental influence to Post-Impressionism, from his explorations of emotional states and mind. More specifically, he had a great impact on the works of Gustave Moureau and Gustave Klimt.
Sphinx (1869) by Gustave Moreau.
Nixen (c. 1899) by Gustav Klimt.
“My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.”
“One must respect black, nothing prostitutes it. It does not please the eye and it awakens no sensuality. It is the agent of the mind far more than the most beautiful color to the palette or prism.”
“Colours contain a joy which relaxes me; besides, they sway me toward something different and new.”