The most radical force in art is not, as most people assume, genius, inspiration or sheer talent, it is instead a lack of technical ability. Combined with a strong desire to be an artist, this can prove to be a powerful driver of change and innovation, as revealed by “Odilon Redon: The Origins of the Fantasies” at the Sompo Japan Museum of Art.
The exhibition takes a long, slow look at the artist, first exploring the artistic milieu of Bordeaux, his hometown, with paintings by the naval artist Stanislas Gorin, botanical drawings by Armand Clavaud, and print works by Rodolphe Bresdin, a draughtsman and engraver who loved to crowd his works with strange details.
All three played an important role in the young Redon’s development — or lack of it. At the age of 15 in 1855, he began his artistic training by studying drawing under Gorin. When he was 17, he met Clavaud, a botanist with literary interests. Clavaud introduced Redon to the works of Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, Edgar Allen Poe and other writers who subsequently led him toward a more symbolist and poetic approach to art.
As for Bresdin, he became Redon’s teacher after the young man returned to Bordeaux in 1865, following an unhappy time studying art and architecture in Paris. Bresdin’s lithographs, “The Comedy of Death” (1854) and “The Good Samaritan” (1861), are fantastic, detailed gothic images, requiring a great deal of skill, a skill that Redon was unable to match. But at least Bresdin taught his student the techniques of etching and lithography, two methods of artistic creation that helped the painfully self-conscious Redon distance himself from the creative act and thus develop some confidence.
In these years, there was a gradual improvement in his technique, but as a series of charcoal sketches and oil landscapes show, there were clear limits to his abilities. Despite this, simple paintings like “Windmill in Brittany” (1875-85) have a mysterious atmosphere that hints at potent emotions beneath the surface.
Attempts to emulate the great painters of his day, including Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, with heroic themes, such as “Roland at Roncevalles” (1862) and a copy of Delacroix’s “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi” (1867), reveal yet again his technical limitations. Unable to paint in the classic academic style, Redon instead sought refuge in proto-surrealist lithographs. This also limited him to black and white, eliminating another technical difficulty.
His art turned in such an increasingly idiosyncratic direction that it could not be judged by a general standard or compared to works by others. Finding his artistic comfort zone in this way finally helped him to unleash his true creativity, something that ultimately led him to develop his technique as well.
A key moment was his lithograph series “Dans le Rêve” (1879). Translated as “In Dreams,” these cartoonish works rely for their artistic effect on oddity rather than artistry, presenting us with strange disembodied eyeballs, winged heads, and other dreamlike images that exert an occult power because they cannot be explained.
“My originality consists in putting the logic of the visible to the service of the invisible,” Redon once explained. “My drawings inspire and are not to be defined. They determine nothing. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous world of the undetermined. They are a kind of metaphor.”
Growing confidence and a belief that art worked in a similar way to poetry and music also led him to try color after a long gap. Suddenly the shadows that had dominated his works were replaced with light and color. In “Icarus” (1890), the ill-fated aeronaut is bathed in a red light and the sky is suffused with pink, hinting at the ominous flight he is about to make.
Increasing reliance on the effects of color also liberated him from the demands of line and figure, something that suited him. It was enough now to sketch a few suggestive lines that could then be brought to life by color, as in “Buddha in his Youth” (1905), where the mottled colors do most of the work, with the figurative outlines almost ghost-like.
This characteristic also gave Redon’s work a kind of redolent agedness as if the lines had somehow broken down over time to release their “spirit” in the form of color. This, combined with mythic subject matter — for example, “The Chariot or Apollo” (1909) or “The Muse on Pegasus” (c 1907-10) — gives his work an atmosphere of timelessness.
Working in oils and pastels, he also enlivened the relatively dead genre of still-life. In the hands of the Dutch masters who had defined it, the still-life had been a tour de force of precise if somewhat dull realism. Redon, in his paintings of vases of flowers, ignored such illusionism, preferring instead to explode it in a blaze of color that achieved a higher realism.
“Odilon Redon: The Origins of the Fantasies” at the Sompo Japan Museum of Art runs till June 23; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.sompo-japan.co.jp/museum/english/info/index.html