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The Museum of Modern Art’s Odilon Redon show was a quiet triumph. In addition to a much-needed and long-overdue consideration of a major figure within the history of French Symbolism, this intimate exhibition provided a welcome respite from the mall-like spaces of the rest of MoMA’s cavernous emporium of modern art.
The exhibition was made possible by the Ian Woodner Family Collection donation in 2000 of more than one hundred Redon works on paper and canvas, and its breadth reveals Ian Woodner’s deep commitment to Redon’s work, from the artist’s drawings and charcoal noirs to his illustrated books and later oil paintings. The collection provides a comprehensive look at the artist’s career without being an exhaustive retrospective.
The show was accompanied by a well-illustrated catalogue that features three thoughtful essays. Curator Jodi Hauptman’s contribution provides a broad overview of Redon and French Symbolism at the fin-de-siècle. Marina van Zuylen’s essay focuses on the topic of monsters—both as a major topoi for Redon and as a dominant motif in European thought since the Enlightenment. Finally, Starr Figura’s study focuses on Redon’s lithographic portfolios. The essays, though largely descriptive, are informative if not ambitious, and the illustrations are excellent; each essay is careful to point out Redon’s many influences, from Rembrandt’s prints to the scientific theories of the late nineteenth century. The catalogue represents a substantial contribution to the field and an enriching companion to the show.
The exhibition was not overly large, and did an outstanding job of introducing US audiences to Redon via a rigorous contextualizing of his work. Organized roughly chronologically, with works in each room also grouped according to theme, subject matter, or medium, the installation highlighted Redon’s continuing interests, which include religious imagery, literature—from Poe to Flaubert to the Bible—and the exchanges between the natural and the fantastic, or supernatural.
The opening wall text provided a provocative quote from the artist, stating that his goal was “to bring to life, in a human way, improbable beings and make them live according to the laws of probability” and to use “the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.” These two quotes provided the platform from which the exhibition proceeded to convincingly assert how deeply Redon drew on the dominant intellectual trends of his time—including such disparate approaches to reality as, on the one hand, Darwinian evolution and probability theory, and on the other, the literary cult of the monstrous, the fantastic, or the nightmarish. The texts also introduced us to Redon as an artist who labored in service of the imagination, another theme that the show convincingly presented.
The first room of the exhibition space contained small early works, including several beautiful landscapes such as Landscape at Daybreak (1872), a hazy affair, heavy with bitumen and lead white, and featuring a barely-perceptible figure in the foreground. Also in this room were several sketches as well as finished drawings that evidence how at this early stage in his development Redon seemed to be casting about quite broadly in search of his own voice. Included here were hung drawings, such as the Head of Saint John (After Andrea Solario) (ca. 1868), and several landscape studies, such as Trees (ca. 1865–68), a beautiful, detailed pencil drawing on blue-green paper.
The drawings and paintings included show Redon moving back and forth between a meticulous rendering of natural objects executed in a delicate line and a broader, sketchier style, with an emphasis on texture and tone. But this first room was, both in its placement and its role in the larger exhibition, more of a preamble than a place to linger. It was in the second, larger room featuring Redon’s work from the 1870s when he began to work almost exclusively in blacks that the exhibition documents the ways in which Redon began to develop his startling vocabulary of images.
This second room contained some of the show’s highlights, and introduced the viewer to Redon’s love affair with black. Indeed, the noirs dominated this room (the term is Redon’s own, and the curators explain that he adopted this term to “foreground their essential blackness”). In these works, Redon achieved a subtlety and richness of effect by applying charcoals, pastels, and other black media to ivory-tinted paper, with many interlaced layers of fixative. The paper is warm in tone, and aptly described as “patinated,” since the overall effect is to make the paper seem antique. The exhibition text effectively informed the viewer of Redon’s techniques for achieving this range of effects, including the use of various materials, the procedures for tinting the paper, and his use of diverse techniques such as stumping and incising.
Redon’s iconic Eye Balloon of 1878 was included here both in the original charcoal and as a lithograph, created for the portfolio To Edgar Poe, produced by Redon in 1882. Another Poe-inspired image, the charcoal-on-paper Masque of the Red Death (1883), would certainly have pleased the author with its eerie and vibrant imagery. In this work and elsewhere in the first large room, viewers were exposed to the influence of another imaginative genius, Francisco Goya; the heads of the four approaching figures in Masque of the Red Death distinctly evoked Goya’s Caprichos (especially the rear figure). Redon’s 1885 lithography suite Homage a Goya was hung nearby, and included Marsh Flower, A Sad Human Head, a particularly arresting hybrid of botanical and human forms and an excellent example of Redon’s singular talent for combining familiar elements to create surprising, monstrous images.
Other, less-familiar but equally remarkable images were in ample evidence, including The Teeth (1883), a charcoal in which a disembodied set of teeth appear, surrounded by a halo of light, hovering over a darkened bookshelf. Another charcoal titled Germination (ca. 1890–96) presented an almost beatific black head sprouting from a column or shaft and surrounded by an equally black halo of sorts, which exuded a luminosity despite its dark tones.
The third room was dominated by a suite of twenty-three to twenty-four lithographs after Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, all published by Ambrose Vollard in 1896. These were hung along a single wall, and after the evocative images of the previous room, the density of the presentation here presented the viewer with something of a difficulty in adjusting her or his focus. Images such as Plate XIII from the 1896 suite, titled . . . And Eyes Without Heads Were Floating Like Mollusks (1896) showed that Redon had, by this point, mastered the medium of lithography, which he was now able to infuse with all of the tonal subtleties he had achieved in charcoal.
Several other print series displayed in this room demonstrated Redon’s increasing involvement with lithography in the 1880s and 1890s. His range of sources remains broad, stretching from Saint John’s Revelation to Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. Redon also seems to have been in demand as a book illustrator, and a collection of his books are represented here, including Jules Destrée’s Les Chiméres (1899) and Emile Verhaeren’s Les Flambeaux noirs (1891). These and other links between Redon’s symbolist vocabulary and the literary movement that bore the same name were vividly and successfully illustrated by the exhibition.
The explosion of color in the final room of the exhibition provided as dramatic and complete a transformation as one could imagine. The work in this room was of mixed quality, but taken as a whole, it provided a vantage point onto a fascinating chapter in the artist’s career. An introductory wall text informed viewers that by the end of the nineteenth century Redon had started to use colored pastels and oil paint with greater frequency. Yet it was not only color, but Redon’s own particular form of Orientalism at play in this room, particularly in works like The Three Fates (1900) and The Black Sun (ca. 1900). Both are painted in oil on board, and feature very dark-skinned veiled figures in desert settings. The Black Sun in particular shows how Redon became adept with color: its sky composed of a rendering in a range of yellows from mustard to gold to the palest yellow, evoking a sweltering heat that, paradoxically, emanates from a black aureole, complete with an expressionless face. The earth explodes in magenta, green, and ochre, colors echoed in the two veiled figures.
A number of pastels in this room proved that Redon continued to invent new forms and images through the early part of the century. Temptation (ca. 1912), a work on paper with conté crayon and gouache, depicts a contorted female figure perched on a leaf, surrounded by flowers and plants almost her size. The delicacy of sketches such as this one is tempered by the bold use of color, which bring to them a level of finish and authority. Redon’s flower paintings provide a stunning surprise, even to viewers well acquainted with his production, ranging from deceptively simple compositions such as his pastel Vase of Flowers (ca. 1912–14), to the more innovative pastel Yellow Flowers (ca. 1912), or Composition: Flowers Without a Vase (ca. 1905).
While certainly focusing on works such as these last two, Hauptman emphasized an increasing tendency toward abstraction in Redon’s later work. However, this curatorial emphasis seemed a bit odd. While lush and visually complex, these later flower images did little, on the whole, to show Redon abandoning subject matter. While they may appear more abstract than earlier images in that the “flowers” have been reduced to shape and vivid color on a relatively flat picture plane, this tendency toward abstraction seems beside the point in this context, since Redon remained so clearly committed to inventing and representing his own particular subjects.
In fact, the overall impression with which the show left the viewer was that Redon was an artist for whom subject matter was deeply important. In fact, it was in the areas of subject matter that he was most inventive—his technical developments were always in the service of his desire to depict spaces and situations “beyond the visible.” It was Redon’s constant and unrelenting invention of new imagery and motifs that this show presents so well.
Assistant Professor of Art History, Ramapo College of New Jersey
Odilon Redon. Roger and Angelica. ca. 1910. Pastel, with wiping, stumping, and incising, on paper, mounted on canvas. 36 1/2 × 28 3/4 in. (92.7 × 73 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Lillie P. Bliss Collection, 1934.