Odilon Redon (1840-1916) : Unclassifiable French painter. Closest to Henri Rousseau; both seemed to work in the dreamworld, except that Redon's art was less sharp-edged in style. He worked first in prints and then later in pastels and oils; first obsessed with darkness, later luminous. Many emotions run through his work, but longing seems to be a key (see his painting, The Cyclops). His work prefigured both surrealism and Marc Chagall's.

Stupid and brutal will the contempt you endure go before you, like all that is invisible? Will the pain you communicate leave in you the best of you and of your soul? Will you feel finally that your role is the lowest? The one who suffers is the one who rises. Beat, beat again. Wounding is fertile.

To judge does not mean to understand.

To understand all is to love all.

The Cyclops: http://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/IPHS/Projects/carletonminihan/Pages/Frankensteinart.htm
Flower Clouds: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/R/redon/flclouds.jpg.html
Cactus Man:http://www.artchive.com/artchive/R/redon/cactus.jpg.html
Buddha: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/R/redon/buddha.jpg.html
St. John: http://www.holycross.edu/departments/visarts/vraguin/projects/cornell/ca6.htm

Odilon Redon loved Rembrandt, a love that seemed to transcend his love of any other individual painter. He was fairly obsessed with chiaroscuro, and yet we would struggle to find that light-shadow dichotomy represented in any of his works, barring consideration of his charcoals. As has been stated, Redon's works are exploding with luminosity, and daring, even wanton, color; is this man's body of work so perplexing a mystery that we cannot even place the effects of his inspirations?

When we look hard enough for it, we find the shadow-dominated chiaroscuro of Rembrandt presented in a strange, fantastical inversion in the works of Redon. Instead of Rembrandt-style contained luminous objects, of mysterious glimpses into the openings of dominating shadow, in Redon we often find people depicted in very quiet hues, and only in small glimpses in the openings of dominating, varied, extreme color. When we study Redon's St. John, do we not feel the sensation of the man as shadow, the man as that bland and colorless background upon which all fantastic colors--neon orange, purple, blue, turqoise--are stamped? So, too, in Redon's Buddha, Flower Clouds, his Phaethon and his The Chariot of Apollo, Stained Glass Window, in all his portraits and his still-lifes, even in his depiction of The Cyclops, which, I might argue, is the most incitefully human representation to which he has ever attached his name. One might do well, in comparing Redon to his beloved Rembrandt, to compare Redon's Winged Old Man to Rembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation.

Whereas the painting of Rembrandt described people and events as dominated by shadow and mystery, Redon's subjects are dominated by color and mystery. The subjects of each painter's work is imbued with a singular humility, but the contrast is stark: in Redon, the humility of his subjects is derived not from the awesome mystery that surrounds, commands, and threatens to subsume them, but rather the subject's relative dullness in relation to the world--that everything is a center and worth perceiving except, perhaps, for the individual who himself perceives.

Redon was always, wisely, evasive on the meanings of his work, on those things which he intended to represent, as if there necessarily must be some specific and single thing. He believed that ambiguity, that is, mystery, was key to high art, that one's task as artist was to present, not meanings and emotions in isolation, but vast arrays of different and even directly conflicting potential meanings within the same works:

The meaning of mystery is to be always in ambiguity, with double, triple aspects; in the hints of aspect (images in images), forms which will be, or which become according to the state of mind of the beholder. All things more than suggestive because they appear.

Redon heightened this effect by limiting his titles to the all-encompassingly vague, so that those who looked upon his works in search of some specific meaning were forced, ultimately, to find in them something of themselves, to complete the partial picture, the "hint of aspect", with something derived from the beholder himself. Is The Cyclops a work on alienation, on the suffering and yearning of being "other", or does it describe vulnerability? Is it a tender curiosity we find in that one eye, or is it some terrible pain? Or can the harrowing vulnerability of the naked woman be reconciled with the pained alienation of The Cyclops into a work in which each is mutually oppressor and oppressed? Such is the ambiguity of Redon, and all of our story unfolding in dulling beige-orange among a demanding, riveting, eye-stealing landscape which itself we cannot quite decipher.

To submit talent and even genius to concepts of justice or morality is a great error. With the artist, it proceeds from predominance of speculative intelligence over free divination.

As I have said, the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt is passionately inverted in most of the work of Redon, but there is another body of work that better adheres to Rembrandt's model: Redon went through a period in which he worked only in charcoals.

The charcoals of Redon are something else altogether, and again one must struggle to find in them the same artist who wields color so ferociously. His charcoals are somewhere between sci-fi and kafkaesque: Cactus Man, in which a cactus with the face of a man stares forlornly off into the distance; Eye-Balloon, in which a hot-air balloon hovers above a lake, with a gigantic, upwards-peering eye taking the place of the balloon. Again one must search for Redon, and again, perhaps, we find him, in the pot of the cactus, indecipherable but suggestive, a hint of aspect. And in the phenomenal weirdness of his charcoals, still, too, somehow we find the wild color of Odilon Redon.

As for me, I believe I have made an art that is expressive, suggestive, undetermined. An art that suggests is the irradiation of divine plastic elements brought together, combined in order to call forth dreams that it illuminates, exalts and incites to thought.

Redon mellowed over the course of his life. If you read him, you will find that his bouts of intense, exhausting inspiration often muddle his thoughts, and the profundity of his thinking is often severely limited in his writing by his not wielding the pen so deftly as he wielded the brush. But as he grew older, his work certainly improved, as did the depth of his perception.

I thought in former days that art was useless: it might perhaps be necessary.


Redon, Odilon. Trans. Mira Jacob and Jeanne Wasserman. To Myself; Notes on Life, Art, and Artists. George Braziller, Inc.: New York, NY, 1986.

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