Research point: Odilon Redon
Find out about the 19th century French artist Odilon Redon and his work.
Painter and printmaker, Odilon Redon was born Bertrand-Jean Redon (1840-1916), in Bordeaux, France. Much of his childhood was sickly or solitary, causing him to focus on the natural world that surrounded him on his father’s Médoc estate. That world stimulated the fantasies of this solitary boy, and encouraged him to attend to the inner landscape of his imagination, which would later became so apparent in his artwork.
Prior to serving in the Franco-Prussian war, he studied printmaking under Jean-Léon Gérôme and Rudolph Bresdin, and was introduced to lithography by Fantin-Latour (Thomson, 2012). Courtney Wilder, research assistant to Marcia Reed, chief curator at the Getty Research Institute, states that Redon experimented ‘obsessively with the tonal extremes of the lithograph, seemingly in the hopes of articulating – via literal lights and darks – the range and particularly the extremes of psychological experience’ (Wilder, 2012).
I find his Pegasus engraving (seen above) especially moving. Initially, in my search for images for this post, my thoughts were focused simply on finding works that might fit well within this section of the course – I was looking for examples of line, mark-making, tone and form. This picture meets all those criteria, yet my response was an emotional one, first and foremost. The mirroring of the two forms, of Pegasus and accompanying figure, is rendered so tenderly. On reflection, perhaps it could be read as threatening or intimidating but, to me, it looks protective.
After the war, Redon settled in Paris, and began producing large numbers of charcoal drawings, which he called his Noirs. These works were dreamlike scenes, often populated by strange, unrecognisable creatures, combining his passion for natural forms with his personal artistic visions. ‘Redon captured the fantastic power of nature, and drew strange forms out of it’ (Musée d’Orsay, 2007).
Another example of Redon’s work that seems particularly pertinent to this section of the course is the Head of Orpheus (above). I’m struck by the hatching, in particular, having had a less than happy relationship with it myself, thus far. It seems to have been applied over a tonal layer of charcoal, enhancing the sense of darkness. The shadowy head is offset to strong effect by the dazzling light of the triangle in the background, which also casts reflected light onto the nose, lips, chin and cheek.
Redon used a wide range of black media for his Noirs, including vine, oiled, and compressed charcoal, as well as black conté crayon, chalk, and pastel (Stratis, 1995). He explained his preference for charcoal in a letter published by the magazine L’Art Moderne in June 1894, ‘”This everyday substance, which has no beauty of its own, aided my researches into chiaroscuro and the invisible”‘ (Musee D’Orsay, 2007). The artist experimented with different ways of applying the medium – using the point, turning it on its side, wetting it, and wiping the powder across the paper using a rag or his hand (McKenzie, 2006). In addition, ‘his intermittent use of fixative allowed him to expand his methods of subtraction to include incising with a pointed tool, scraping with a hard-bristled brush, and lifting of media with a sponge or his hands’ (Stratis, 1995).
In Trees and Stars (above), highly contrasting tones have been used to depict a landscape lit by surreal ‘stars’, which look more like tiny orbs with faces. These luminous forms shine brilliant light on the trunk of the tree, the foot of which is itself encircled by light, throwing the surrounding area into darkness.
Redon gained increasing popularity with the Symbolist movement, although he maintained a discreet distance from it. However, it’s easy to see why his work would appeal to Symbolists. ‘Evocative and emotionally resonant’ as it was, it supported the notion that ‘another world lies beyond the world of appearances’ (Oxford Art Online, 2012).
From 1890 onwards, he began to work in colour, using both oils and pastels. Even so, these later works still retained a dreamlike quality, albeit with less nightmarish subject matter. Much of this work revolved around floral subjects and ‘dreaming heads’ (Thomson, 2012). ‘The transformation of nature into dream-like images, suggesting indefinite states of mind and expressed in sumptuous textures, remained his central concern’ (Hobbs, 2012). Despite the fact I chose to focus more on his Noirs here, I wanted to include this work in colour (below), simply for its beauty.
Although (literally) less dark than his work in the Noirs, The Flag still conveys a similar not-quite-of-this-world sensation. The colours are soft, the shadows are strong. In the upper right hand corner, there is even the merest hint of wings.
This bridging of the real and the imagined is where Redon’s appeal lies for me. To quote the man himself, ‘I have placed there a little door opening on to the mysterious. I have made stories’ (McKenzie, 2006). As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, mystery is an element that sparks my desire to create pictures. Whether or not it takes the kinds of forms seen in Odilon Redon’s work or not, I find it inspiring to see these examples, and to recognise the importance of his own inner vision. It’s easy to forget this when working through the necessary fundamental exercises. It does no harm to be reminded.
One final note. ‘It is precisely from the regret left by the imperfect work that the next one can be born’ (Redon quote, Art In The Picture, 2012). It does no harm to be reminded of that, either.
McKenzie, Dr J. (2006) Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon [Online], Available at studio international (Accessed 23 November 2012).
Musée d’Orsay (2007) Drawings by Odilon Redon (1849-1916) [Online], Available at Musée d’Orsay (Accessed 23 November 2012).
Oxford Art Online (2012) Symbolism [Online], Available at Oxford Art Online (Accessed 23 November 2012).
Redon, O. (2012) Odilon Redon [Online], Available at Art In The Picture (Accessed 23 November 2012).
Stratis, H.K. (1995) A Technical Investigation of Odilon Redon’s Pastels and Noirs [Online], Available at The Book and Paper Group ANNUAL Volume Fourteen 1995 (accessed 23 November 2012).
Thomson, B. (2012) Oxford Art Online [Online], Available at Oxford Art Online (Accessed 23 November 2012).
Wilder, C. (2012) Views From The Getty [Online], Available at Explorations in Darkness and Light: Odilon Redon (Accessed 23 November 2012).