Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams


Odilon Redon, The Cyclops c. 1914

Nothing can be created in art by the will alone. All art is the submission of the will to the unconscious. –Odilon Redon

Bertrand-Jean Redon, called Odilon after his creole mother, was born in 1840 and died in 1916. He lived during the age of industrialism that characterised European culture after the French Revolution and the ravages of the Napoleonic wars. In France, the monarchy and religion had been swept away and subsequently restored as the rising bourgeoisie took over the reigns of power throughout Europe, albeit under the tightening grip of monarchies and suspicion of the democracy that had been let loose in France. The aftershocks of these seismic events divided intellectuals and artists between allegiance to the growing powers of industry and its materialism and a clinging to the powers of the imagination that had characterised the Romantic movement. This division can be understood by comparing Redon’s aphorism above, with Courbet’s statement about art:

Painting is an essentially physical language made up of what is visible. That which is abstract and invisible does not belong to the domain of painting.

Redon was born into a prosperous Bordeaux family and began drawing at the age of ten. As a young child he suffered from epilepsy and was sent away to live with his Uncle on the family vineyard at Peyrelebade in the Medoc, where he experienced the “full solitude of the countryside”. It was perhaps here that he formed the fusion of the natural and the fantastic that characterised his work as a graphic artist. At fifteen, he had his first lessons in drawing from Stanislas Gorin, who encouraged him to copy the works of Delacroix, available to him at the Museum of Bordeaux.

In 1857 he studied architecture to please his father but failed his entrance examinations to the Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In this period of youthful development he formed an important friendship with the botanist Armand Clavaud, who introduced him to the works of Darwin and the problem of the origin of species. He also read the Hindu epics and Baudelaire’s Fleur du Mal. In 1862 he travelled to the Pyrenees and painted his first known picture, Roland à Roncevaux, clearly a work of Romanticism reminiscent of Delacroix. Back home in Bordeaux, Redon studied with Rodolph Bresdin, a noted engraver, working mainly in charcoal, etching and lithography. Colour lithography had been developed in France as early as 1837 but Redon is notable as having worked almost exclusively in black until the 1890s, thus dividing his prolific oeuvre into two distinct periods: his noires and his later pastels and paintings with their characteristic brilliance of dense colour.

In 1870, Redon served in the army during the Franco-Prussian war, moving to Paris in 1871 after the German victory. It was not until 1878 that he gained any recognition: first with the lithograph Guardian of the Waters, and then with an album of lithographs Dans le Rêve. The peculiarity of his work is evident from The Smiling Spider (1881) shown below.

Odilon Redon, Guardian of the Waters, 1878

Odilon Redon, The Smiling Spider, 1881

The giant winged head looking down on the diminutive boat clearly illustrates Redon’s preference for the unseen forces he believed lay below the surface of appearances, his intention being to make these known through his imaginative art. The spider, with ten legs rather than the usual eight, smiles mischievously as it performs a lopsided dance. A cursory Freudian analysis might suggest that Redon’s dark little demon is pleased with its freedom to express his unconscious desires through the medium of art. Redon explained himself by saying:

My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.

His weird subjects were partly inspired by the poems of his friend, Stéphane Mallarmé and by the works of Edgar Allen Poe, as well as the half remembered torments of an unhappy childhood. Not all of his childhood memories were unhappy, and he recalled the exaltation he felt at his first communion and the many happy hours spent in his first master’s studio.

Odilon Redon was a sensitive and cultured man, including among his friends symbolist writers and painters. He performed as a violinist with the composer Ernest Chausson and was familiar with the works of Debussy. Redon recognised the talent of Gauguin and became a close friend of the Nabi artists, including Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, and Maurice Denis. The Nabis (prophets) were inspired by both Redon and Gauguin, but it was the latter younger artist who persuaded Redon to forsake black in favour of the brilliant colour which distinguished the Impressionists and Post Impressionists from their predecessors.

Having finally embraced colour, Redon’s subjects were eclectic, including figures from antiquity, Christianity and Eastern religions. Although this was in marked contrast to the works of the impressionists and their successors it was not too different from the works of many artists, such as Maurice Denis, who had not embraced materialism and the cult of painting directly from nature or from models in a studio.

Gustave Moreau, Orpheus, 1865

The leading French symbolist painter of the mid 19th century was Gustave Moreau, rival of Delacroix, and it is interesting to compare Redon’s treatment of Orpheus, albeit some forty years later. Redon’s work is strikingly modern in its abstract treatment and emphasis on broad “unnatural” areas of bright colour and retains nothing of Moreau’s academic and realistic treatment of figures in a landscape – it is recognisable as “modern art”. Moreau’s Orpheus is symbolically combined with his instrument but Redon’s demigod lies dreaming, combined with the rocky earth, an eternal figure ever ready to inspire musicians of any age. This nebulous, undefined quality leaves scope for interpretation by the viewer and pays little attention to the baggage of classical tradition. The meaning is left to emerge from the visual rather than the literary qualities.

Odilon Redon, Head of Orpheus, 1903-05

Like the realist painter Fantin Latour, Odilon Redon painted or drew pastels of many vases of flowers. The oil painting below shows his fully developed technique, with its glowing, feathery colours contrasted with the dense black of the vase. Many of his similar works show brilliant blooms, isolated in a nebulous space, which is clearly metaphysical rather than an imitation of what the eye sees. This quality of the eternal and the infinite is also evident in Van Gogh’s sunflowers and represent a departure from traditional Dutch and French masters of flower painting.

Odilon Redon, Flowers, c. 1903

As to the symbolic meaning of these flowers the artist may be trying to explain in the painting below entitled Mystery, the answer perhaps being je ne sais pas. Mysticism in painting, as elsewhere, is characterised by posing questions rather than in answering them.

Odilon Redon, Mystery, 1910

Redon had been strongly influenced by Rembrandt and his chiaroscuro technique, and his many years of working in monochrome had taught him the importance of tone, experience that paid off when he finally embraced colour to the full. Control of tone is the key to the effective use of colour. Because of his diffuse style it is not immediately evident that Redon was a master of drawing, however, the portraits below provide examples of his technical ability. Take away the flowers and the portrait of Madame Domecy might pass as a blue period Picasso.

Odilon Redon, Madame de Domecy, 1903

Odilion Redon, Maurice Denis, 1902

Redon said of his noires, “They were executed in hours of sadness and pain”, perhaps indicating a psychological inhibition against the use of colour. But of his late awakening to colour he said, “If the art of the artist is the song of his life, a grave or sad melody, I must have sounded the note of gaiety in colour”.

This half-hearted admission to the possibility of joy is evident in the brightest of his works, where melancholy prevails in spite of the glorious colours. This melancholy appears to have been a constant foil to the optimistic and joyful outpourings of the impressionist masters, revelling in the joys of bourgeois materialism and seemingly unlimited progress through reason and industry. Not for Redon the retreat to some tropical paradise, like Gauguin’s attempt to escape from the harsher realities of 19th century life, but rather a refuge in dreams and the resources of the mind and its aesthetic possibilities.

Redon believed that art cannot be analysed or subject to systems, but required three fundamentals: tradition, or the “the entire thinking and life of humanity”; nature “outside of which our ambition to create remains a state of dream”; and personal invention, “the intuition that combines and summarises everything”. The implication is that the artist must embrace the past, while admitting that nature only manifests as an illusion (la reve) which human imagination exploits to create art.

This seems quite different from the rejectionist programmes like cubism, surrealism and abstraction in general, which sought a break with the past through the fetish of continuous revolution, until we recall that Cezanne, Matisse and even Picasso sought to exploit past masters in order to eventually join them in the pantheon.

The principle of “art for art’s sake” had been advocated in Edgar Allen Poe’s postumous essay, The poetic principle, and it is not too far fetched to suppose that Redon was broadly in favour of this idea, which underpinned the symbolist movement. The idea that works of art should express aesthetic values independent of social goals is hardly heretical to the modern mind, where fine art is readily distinguishable from the products of advertising agencies. The transformation on this aphorism wrought by Warhol and the Pop Art movement merely elevated certain aesthetic values of commercial art to the status of high art, and so confirmed the principle.

The Symbolist Manifesto of 1886 declared itself against “plain meanings, false declarations, sentimentality and matter-of-fact description”, aiming instead to express some ideal or hidden meaning behind mundane depictions. This certainly excluded the works of Courbet (pace The Origin of the World), the brothers Le Nain and even Millet, but how would it apply to Van Gogh’s tormented landscapes and that pair of muddy boots?

Symbolism has been the norm rather than the exception throughout the history of painting, including the works of Hieronymous Bosch, Pieter Breugel, Michaelangelo, the whole panoply of religious and neo-classical painting, the surrealists and the peculiar iconography of Marc Chagall. Placed in this context, one might then ask, what esoteric message did Odilon Redon impart, beyond the immediately apparent aesthetic values of his works?

Redon painted certain themes in many variations, particularly vases of flowers, human heads, small boats at sea and mythological figures. The depiction of Ophelia below seems not at all tragic, but rather an idyllic scene of a naked bather in a limpid pool of flowers. The design and colour scheme is masterly and original, being merely suggestive of the tragedy of death after rejection and madness. By comparison, the painting by Millais of the same subject combines a precise depiction of nature with the “bright” Pre-Raphaelite palette and unashamed sentimentality. Any symbolism expressed does not stray beyond the literary confines of Shakespeare’s text. This is in contrast to the works of Holman Hunt, whose sweaty religious symbolism was what the French symbolists had wished to avoid.

Odilon Redon, Ophelia, 1901-05

Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852

The painting below, by Puvis de Chevannes, epitomises the spirit of French symbolism and contrasts strongly with the meticulous detail of the Pre-Raphaelite painting, which serves to detract from any mystical feeling. The Dante like figure of Puvis’ painting sleeping by the shore is timeless and indeterminate. The dream muses flying above may be inspiring a poet, a musician or a philosopher, and it is up to the observer to fill in the details. This deliberate state of indeterminacy serves to stimulate the imagination to multiply the possible meanings of the image.

Puvis de Chevannes, The Dream, 1883

To understand the works of Odilon Redon, surrendering to the possibilities of the image by a kind of meditative fusion with the work is required to realise its potential meanings. As with actual dreams, the attribution of meaning is itself an act of imagination which creates meaning, rather than unravels what the creator had in mind during the creative process. The hidden assumption is there is a deep fund of understanding common to all humans, which Jung called the collective unconscious. There is a philosophical divide between those artists who stress sensation as a basis for enhancing what they call material reality and those who delve more deeply into the nature of being by means of pure imagination. Odilon Redon belonged to the latter group and appreciating his art demands a degree of sympathy with the processes of reverie and introspection.

Perhaps the last word, or glance rather, should be left to Redon’s little Cyclops, who is surely innocent of any profound thoughts on the theory of art.

Odilon Redon, Smiling Cyclops, 1883

TTcutTony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: writing fiction, poetry, and blogging political diatribes. Other abiding interests include political and social philosophy, with occasional forays into logic and the foundations of mathematics.