From darkness into light

Retrospective traces the career of Odilon Redon

by C.B. Liddell and c.b.liddell

At the turn of the 20th century, Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was one of the most intriguing and original painters in Paris, and his subject matter, the timeless world of myths and dreams, has ensured he is not forgotten. With the current exhibition of his works at the Odakyu Museum in Shinjuku, the curators have succeeded in creating a little oasis of calm and beauty above the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s busiest station.

An illustration for the book “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (1888), lithograph
“Pegasus and the Muse” (ca 1907-1910), oil
— Gunma Prefectural Museum of Modern Art photos

Going to Paris as a young man, Redon first studied architecture and then art, but he became disillusioned with the academic style of painting taught by his professors and returned to his native Bordeaux, dissatisfied and unhappy.

Here, like an insect pupa, his career went into a kind of stasis. Working almost exclusively in charcoal, he slowly developed his art in dark, introverted seclusion, finding inspiration in his dreams and inner life. He was drawn to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and the more fantastic etchings of the great Spanish artist Francisco Goya, who died in Redon’s hometown in 1828. In “Adam and Eve” (ca 1875), two tree trunks soar into the air, like the legs of one of Goya’s giants, above the furtive Biblical characters.

Some of the most astounding images at the exhibition are Redon’s monochrome prints, depicting, among other things, disembodied heads, shrouded figures and sea creatures with human faces.

The oddity of these works found favor with the poets and writers of the Decadent and Symbolist movements that were popular in late 19th-century France, and soon Redon was producing illustrations for books, including the “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” by the Realist writer Gustave Flaubert.

The Symbolists proclaimed the imagination as the true interpreter of reality, and Redon’s black-and-white works are certainly imaginative, but, although quirky and amusing, they often seem doodlish and adolescent.

The recognition they brought, however, helped him to emerge from his self-imposed cocoon. As he passed the age of 50, he began to spread his wings and started working increasingly in color, both in oils and pastels, discovering long-dormant talents.

After undergoing a religious crisis and recovering from a serious illness, he also developed a much more positive attitude. From a twilight world, his art finally emerged into the sunlight.

His subject matter remained rooted in the mythical or supernatural, but instead of figures symbolic of death, he painted flying chariots and the winged horse Pegasus.

His oil painting “Pegasus and the Muse” (ca 1907-1910) shows the central figures against a sky filled with a riot of rich, warm colors, as if the sun were shining through the clouds of Jupiter.

Just like a butterfly that has emerged from its cocoon, he also turned to flowers, painting masterly still lifes such as the pastel “Flowers in a Blue Vase” (ca 1912-14) and the oil painting “Peonies and Chrysanthemums” (ca 1900-02).

His extremely soft touch captured the delicacy of the flowers, but more remarkable than these still lifes was the way he successfully used flowers and verdure as a background in his paintings, complementing his soft, dreamy skies. An excellent example of this is “The Death of Orpheus” (ca 1905), where the dying figure of the mythical poet seems to dissolve into the surrounding beauty of nature.

Redon was a great influence on subsequent generations of painters. His flower pieces were much admired by Matisse, and the Surrealists regarded him as one of their precursors. But his life was also an inspiring tale of one man’s journey from darkness into light.