A Mysterious World of Shadows
Odilon Redon's oeuvre can be roughly divided into two long phases: the “black period” of his early work and the “polychrome period” of his later years. From about 1870 to 1890, the artist favored charcoal as a means of expression, and created a considerable number of dark drawings, known as Noirs. These were characterized by a great love of experiment. Redon's fascination with darkness went hand in hand with an exploration of occult, eerie and enigmatic phenomena, from which ghostly apparitions and fantastic creatures emerged. These motifs embodied Redon's notion of an art of the indeterminate, which appeal to the viewer's imagination.
From Darkness to Light and Color
After concerning himself in his early phase principally with charcoal drawing and lithography, Redon's re-evaluation of color in 1889-90 marked a turning point in his career. Now, imaginary subjects that had occurred only in the Noirs were treated in the media of oil painting and pastels. One motif that introduced the entry of color into Redon's oeuvre was that of closed eyes, reflecting the themes of sleep, dream and introspection so crucial to him. Similarly to these closed eyes, mystical nocturnal themes signaled the transition from the gloom of black to the brightness of color in Redon's oeuvre.
The Blossoming of Color
Redon's floral compositions include delicate depictions of idealized women, such as Ophelia and Beatrice, as well as portraits of female individuals who enter a miraculous interplay with the realm of flowers. In the famous bouquets of the late phase, this visionary of color finally transformed proliferating blossoms into a field of artistic experimentation and a virtual homage to painting. Polychrome flowers of various kinds are loosely arranged into sumptuous bunches, as it were turning the vase into a volcano magically erupting colors and forms. “Art”, Redon once said,” is like a flower which opens freely, outside of all rules....”
Visions in Water and Air
It was the botanist Armand Clavaud, an advocate of Darwinist evolution, who awakened the young Redon's interest in the natural sciences and spiritual questions. One of the main protagonists of Symbolism, Redon purposely turned away from the “superficial” imitation of nature practiced by the Impressionists. He devoted himself especially to spheres beyond the visible world, to dream and the imagination, but also to microscopic realms. These preferences entered his visions of the underwater world and the skies, which were marked by an interplay between precise observation of nature and untrammeled imagination.
Celebration of Light
Redon's turn to color found its culmination in the mythological subject of Apollo's chariot, which in his view embodied the “triumph of light over darkness.” The four brilliant white steeds of Apollo charge through the spacious sky as the sun god vanquishes a monster emerging from the darkness with his arrows. In this triumph of light, the subject matter tends to dissolve into pure color without losing its symbolic force. Redon's other mythological works likewise reflect a profound experience of the content of ancient traditions.
Sacredness and Spirituality
Spirituality played a special role in Redon's art, offering a key to an understanding of his works. The images of a sacred character largely elude concrete content, the figures being united by an attitude of introspection and enlightenment. The works have a metaphysical aspect and hence the quality of votive imagery. An idealistic thrust of this kind also suffuses Redon's depictions of the Buddha, Christ crucified, and St. Sebastian. His approach has a syncretist character that goes back to his belief in the equality of all confessions of faith.
On the Brink of the Infinite World
Redon's seascapes are all composed in a similar way. Under an opalescent sky extends a quiet sea, on which one or two figures in a boat, perhaps a barque, float towards some unknown destination. We do not expect to find a simple impression of nature or illustration of a boating trip here. The seascape serves to convey an ideal. From time immemorial, sea voyages have conveyed a deeper meaning – from the transition of souls to the beyond, through depictions of the Deluge, to voyages of initiation and life. In that they convey no definite narrative, Redon's boat images function partly as symbols of the infinite.
Redon’s large decoration paintings were destined primarily for private collectors and in some cases filled the walls of entire rooms in their homes. The originally seventeen panels created for the dining room of Baron de Domecy’s château in Burgundy represented perhaps Redon’s most radical compositions to date. What distinguishes these landscape views is the indeterminate nature of the locations and environments they show. We recognize isolated tree trunks, branches bearing leaves, and flower buds that invade and crisscross the horizonless space and form a structure covering the pictorial plane. In his decorative panels, Redon arrives via this ornamental dimension at abstraction, which here finds one of its earliest forms of expression in painting.