Odilon Redon (French, 1840-1916)
Most art movements are comprised of such a variety of artists and techniques that it seems hard to define the borders that separate one from the next (other than chronology) and, frankly, the qualities that fuse them into even being one at all.
To me, this happens often with Expressionism and some of the 60′s and 70′s stampede of art nomenclatures. But for some reason it all seems copacetic when it comes to Symbolism, Impressionism, Surrealism and a few select others�
I preface this writing with this rambling because Odilon Redon is a gorgeously rare bird in the symbolist movement. Allow me to elaborate a bit-
If you think of Moreau, Schwabe, Bocklin or most other painters associated with the symbolist movement, you�ll evoke an academically realistic technique, so much so that some of them will remain unsurpassed at this.
But Redon’s diffuse pastels and feathery line work seem weightless and luminous and his color work is vibrant and sometimes almost abstract. Perhaps it was Redon’s admiration for Gaugin that had an impact on him. But his work is unique even then.
At the end of the 19th century painters turned away from photo-realistic renditions and started to value the strength of a brush stroke, the immediacy of an emotion, etc. But even these new values were still in relation to the outside world- only Redon looks to the inside. And both his concerns and his technique remain unique amongst his peers. He is the sublime anomaly.
Born in 1840 under the name Bertrand-Jean Redon in Bordeaux, France, Odilon spent most of his childhood in his family estate / vineyard, being in close contact with nature: flowers, grass and earth rooted him to this world but his mind had a much darker, mysterious universe in which to wander.
He had a hungry mind and throughout his life he dabbled in criticism, architecture (mainly to appease his Father’s worries), biology, evolutionary and botanical studies, etc
He was trained in the arts by Jean-Leon Gerume, Stanislas Gorin and Isabey d’H'ult, in different techniques including charcoal, drawing and watercolors. In his spiritual life he discovers Baudeleire and Hindu literature and in his twenties he is becomes a pupil to Rodolphe Bresdin who teaches him etching, aquaforte and lithography. Redon is influenced by Rembrandt and Delacroix.
After a stint in the Franco-Prussian war, Redon settles in his family estate and produces a large amount of charcoal drawings- Up until his 50′s Redon’s work was in a rather dark, twisted trek, his monochrome creatures and plants were infused with a perverse will and gleeful deformity.
Distinctive motifs in Redon’s work are: the feather, the eye, prisons and bars, botanical shapes, feathery line work reminiscent of animal fur and spidery forms with human faces- every one of these comes straight from the id and Pagan frenzy.
Shortly after his Father’s death he moves to Paris. He illustrates Baudelaire, Poe, Flaubert and Huysman. It was Huysman’s book ‘A Rebours’ in the mid 1880′s that exposed him to a larger audience.
The early 1990′s represent a massive turning point for Redon. The death of his first son Jean (to his marriage to Camille Falte) and the birth of his second one shortly thereafter, his connection with Gaugin, Vuillard and Bonnard -all adamant believer of color- start to encourage him to experiment past his monochrome pallette.
Redon’s work now becomes luminous and vibrant, his instant mastery of color astonishes his followers, thus formally dividing his lifelong work in two radically different periods: darkness and light, monochrome and color. His works becomes much more sought after and well-known.
Late in his life Redon seems to find spiritual peace and, celebrated and famous he dies on July 6th, 1916 in Paris.
If one needs any persuasion to find a strong connection between the Surrealists, the Dadaist and the Symbolists on doesn�t need to look any further than Redon. Most of his images go beyond the Pagan contemplation of Bocklin or Schwabe and become Iconic. They strive to capture not only the essence of a symbol but its direct link to the human psyche. Hope or dismay, Divine madness or existential angst- both are encompassed in Redon’s work.
When Bergman talks of God being a Spider in THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY I immediately think of Redon’s creature, smiling perversely. Jungian, Freudian images populate his work and remain elusive, slippery and hellish, but then his color work has a nimble, vital energy that captures mystic rapture and the true light of paradise.
After I die -if there is life beyond this one- and I go anywhere, either way, up or down, I am pretty sure that both places will be art directed by Redon�