The New Criterion, December 1994, p. 38-45                                Back to Writing

Redon: the subjective world


Deborah Rosenthal

To get at the nature of Odilon Redon's genius requires us to look at his whole career, the three and a half decades of which were divided into two distinct phases. From 1880, when he began showing at the age of forty, to about the early 1890s, Redon worked almost exclusively in black-and-white, on the prints and drawings that he called his noirs, and seems to have produced little if any painting. By about 1890, he had begun painting regularly in oil and distemper, and drawing in full-color pastel, and from then until his death in 1916 his output was predominantly in color. Redon's statement that "a truly sensitive artist does not find the same invention in different materials, because he is affected by them differently" seems meant to underscore the variety and multiplicity of his metaphors.
      The more familiar Redon is the inventor of those strange images of his first phase—the detached and floating eyes, the eye-balloon, the long-legged, toothily grinning spider's head, the skeleton-homunculus sprouting branches—executed in the most luscious range of grays and blacks ever produced in charcoal and lithography. Although it is much less likely that one will have seen work from Redon's later, color phase, there, too, he is an artist who has been known by a signature image or images—the so-called "Yeux Clos" (a bust head with closed or semi-closed eyes) or a single centrally placed vase holding a profuse bouquet of flowers. As the sum of all these isolated images, Redon's career seems to bifurcate into the work of two artists, of quite disparate natures: indeed, thumbing through reproductions of his works arranged in chronological order, one might think that Redon was a Symbolist who later settled down, or just settled. Against the backdrop of the large movements of art from the last century into our own, the internal shifts of this artist's unusual career may seem obscure. As a result, his reputation stands divided; famous as the maker of a few memorable images, he is mostly still unknown as an artist.

Over the past ten years or so, scholars and curators at some major institutions have shown a new interest in Redon. In 1988, the Ian Woodner collection of works by Redon was shown at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.; last year, some of the prints and a couple of the paintings were shown at the Drawing Center in New York. The artist's autobiographical volume, To Myself, came out in English in 1986; a scholarly book called The Temptation of Saint Redon, by Stephen F. Eisenman, was published two years ago.¹ And earlier this year we were given, at last, a large exhibition of almost two hundred works—accompanied by a huge illustrated catalogue—at the Art Institute of Chicago.²
      For admirers of Redon's art, what is most important about this renewal of interest is that now, in these new exhibitions and publications, we can see a number of Redons at one time, compare noirs to paintings, and become acquainted with works other than the most familiar ones: at last, we can describe the contours of the whole artist. Certainly the curators of the Chicago show meant to present the totality of Redon's career. The sheer volume of works in the show bespoke this effort, as did the unusual arrangement of the galleries, where instead of a purely chronological sequence of rooms we saw many and various ways to group the works. Although I disagreed with some of the curators' choices of works, and also wished that the show had been edited down to a smaller and more selective one, in almost every room I found thrilling pictures. And, making one's way through the path of those pictures, one could discern within the bulk of the show the shape of a career whose depth and range are those of a great artist.
      The prospect of reading new writing about Redon was exciting as well: the exhibition catalogue, a volume composed of several essays by a variety of writers, copiously illustrated not only with Redons but also with associated imagery, followed by less than a year Eisenman's book-length examination of the noirs. I know that Eisenman and the Chicago authors don't agree on their interpretation of Redon, but both, I think, take approaches to Redon's art that in the end disappoints by depending too much on what is external to the works themselves. This is not a new temptation for writers about Redon; I was reminded, reading these new texts, of the adjective that the painter Andre Masson preferred for Redon: "elusive." Some forty years ago, on the occasion of a similar major Redon retrospective in Paris, Masson wrote a wonderful essay for Art News called "Redon: Mystique with a Method" in which he tried to extract Redon the essential painter from the clutches of writers who would make him into a Breton-style Surrealist. Thus Masson the early modernist (and surrealist) rejected context as the ultimate interpreter.
      Today the pendulum has in some sense swung back. Postmodern contextualizers, among whom I would number Eisenman and the writers of the Chicago catalogue, have fashioned a different but no less cumbersome carapace for Redon's work to bear on its back, this one made out of nineteenth-century facts. There are so many! and they are so interesting!—but finally the reader must ask whether they offer the key to the work that the writers want them to offer. What all these writers would like to get at, of course, is what distinguishes Redon from his contemporaries—the essence of his genius—but to do so they have marshaled a huge amount of information about the world he lived in. It's as if they think that Redon's essence, his genius, could be discovered merely by citing enough things to which he might have responded in his time and his place. The trouble with this approach is evident in the books themselves; worse, it was evident in the exhibition itself. There we were offered that strange hybrid creature that is the-work-and-the-life, the meanings of both horribly intercut and intermingled so that, even on the wall, the work never stood alone: the curators' commentary was right there on a label.
      Such an approach has rather obvious utility when the writer begins with a bias, as it seems to me Eisenman does. The "temptation of St. Redon" of Eisenman's curious title is derived from an episode in Redon's life when the old, long-married artist confessed a crush on a young woman of his acquaintance. Most of the book is based on Eisenman's interest in Redon's noirs as testimony to the socio-political realities of his day, and some of this discussion is quite interesting and may even bear on the work. But when Redon ceases to work in the graphic medium, which is so readily connected to print and, by extension, to ideas (and even to political action, perhaps), Eisenman drops all consideration of the work itself. Since the achievement of the noirs is to Eisenman's mind a triumph of correct thinking, the patent change in Re-don's mode of expression leaves the author without a handle on two-thirds of the career. The sardonic "St. Redon" becomes his handle—a phrase from a contemporary letter gossiping about Redon which Eisenman uses as a sort of dishonest piece of "evidence" to bolster his case for the silliness and impotence, as it were, of the old man's Technicolor fantasies. Eisenman reveals himself to be a Puritan who believes wholeheartedly that the sensuousness of Redon's color gets in the way of his more important concerns (that is, his politics). Eisenman's comment on Redon's late work is, finally, a sneer.
      The curators and catalogue writers for the Chicago show, nineteenth-century contextualizers themselves, were, I think, made uneasy by Eisenman—for they do admire Redon. (No one incapable of admiring his art could have put together the marvelous first room of the show, a grouping of masterpieces, both black-and-white and color, spanning the career.) The Chicago approach, unlike Eisenman's, had a multiple focus—different writers, with different aspects of the career to examine, viewed Redon through various lenses. But throughout, the carapace of facts felt like a drag on the work. I will give only one example from the catalogue. In Chicago, Redon was also given a name culled from period documents—the much nicer "Prince of Dreams"—and here too the period name is meant to serve as a rubric. This "dreamer" is to be psychoanalyzed: seizing on the fact that Redon often referred to his isolation as a child—he was sent to live away from his parents to lead what he remembered later as a highly solitary life on their country estate—the catalogue leads the reader through an astonishingly long (and straightfaced) discussion of what the "physiological etiology" of this banishment may have been. In all of this, the sensations of being alone that Redon meant to convey to us are totally lost, and with them something key to his work and the nature of his invention.
      I could draw many, many more examples from the catalogue text, but in Chicago, where text and teaching pursued the work right into the exhibition, the curators' contextualizing could affect viewers who never even opened the catalogue. Some of what the curators felt we had to know insulted the viewer's intelligence—in the Birth of Venus, we were told by the wall label, a shell and succulent flower "both have obvious sexual allusions." Sometimes the curators second-guessed Redon—a cloud became a "personal symbol" or a color represented only a particular emotion. The problem with this approach was most evident to me, though, in the way it led the curators, people of good intentions, to commit two atrocities on work they admire. In one of the first galleries, a signed print was hung upside down to demonstrate the derivation of its imagery from the earlier print beside it. I thought this hanging the worst result of the curators' approach—until I reached the middle gallery of the exhibition. In this room were several showcases filled with scientific specimens from Chicago museums, just the sort of natural-history specimens—butterflies, shells, fossil forms, etc.—that Redon himself might have seen in nineteenth-century collections and that, of course, correspond in type to some of the parts of entities he concocts in his pictures. Here, finally, was what all the contextualizing led to—scientific "proof" required to validate imagination. In this gallery I, at least, found myself feeling as bewildered as one of the children in Dickens's Hard Times when their schoolmaster, Mr. Gradgrind, pushes their eager speculations into the Utilitarian vise with the phrase "Nothing but Facts!"
      My disappointment with this way of looking at Redon leads me to think that, in general, we must stop asking the question "What is the work about?"—or, even, "What is the career about?" (In Chicago I overheard museumgoers, inspired by wall commentary suggesting that Redon's color work was the byproduct of a kind of psychological liberation, asking each other what permitted Redon to switch to color, or rather kept him from it to begin with.) "What is the work about?" is the question contemporary artists are always being asked, and perhaps the gobbledygook the public sometimes gets back in return is inevitable: the question, after all, resounds very little with what an artist concerns himself with. In the studio, the artist sets himself problems. How, if you are Redon, do you compare two entities—say, a butterfly and a flower, or Christ and a serpent—in such a way that the two forms turn on themselves or open into greater and greater spaces, becoming a third entity in the process? How do you get two completely different paint surfaces, one matte and the other shiny, one heavily globbed-on and the other thinly painted, to read as different kinds of forces operating within a single continuum of space? How do you allow a single color to infuse an entire composition without losing the dynamism of composition—color movement—to the stasis of mere design? The answers to these questions, and to many other questions we could raise about Redon and about the work of contemporary artists, are the pictures themselves.
      Redon himself said as much. Faced with a questionnaire about his work and processes from his well-meaning but Gradgrindian biographer Andries Bonger, he wrote back plaintively, "What good is it to reveal anything but the result?" (The Chicago curators quote this but they do not believe it—at least not of the work of an artist who started out in the nineteenth century.) These days, exhibitions and their catalogues, whether on nineteenth-century artists or our contemporaries, are overcrowded with nouns—information heaped up "about" (and "around") the work. Works of art that are alive, whether they are old or new, are verbs—processes of becoming. The questions we miss in publications and shows like the recent ones on Redon begin with "how": instead of identifying the things in his dreams, we should try to figure out how he meant us to dream them with him.

Though the catalogue warns us away from Redon's autobiographical volume To Myself: Notes on Life, Art, and Artists, a book supposedly tainted by questionable facts and the involvement of Redon's widow in the compilation of its contents, I agree with Andre Masson, who advises us to read the artist's "beautiful book" in order to know what the artist himself felt we should know about his life. Redon refused Bonger's effort to explain away the poetic contents of his metaphors, but in To Myself he does, if perhaps reluctantly, take up the effort to point to the nature of their connection to the circumstances of his life. In an unadorned prose, he lays out his childhood years in the Médoc region of France and his subsequent development into a young artist. The truth any artist might recognize in his account lies in his description of the way it feels to respond to the pleasure one has in the world by making things up. Redon writes: "I spent hours, or later the whole day, stretched out on the grass, in the deserted places of countryside, watching the clouds pass, following with infinite pleasure the magical brightness of their fleeting variations." A curator or scholar who deplored the lack or arcana in those lines might instead note their similarity in spirit to passages in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, the visionary artist Redon himself admired most.
      The young idler whose first fancies were projected into the clouds over Peyrelebade turned into the artist who, as he recalled that earlier self, looked back from a mature oeuvre whose invention went from severed heads on blocks to man-sized spiders to enigmatic panoramas of underwater forms to flowers in vases to stained-glass windows and mythical figures. His overarching ideas—I don't mean his subjects—had to do with the action of forces rather than the arrangement of things; with states of consciousness rather than the record of actions. Reverie, the precondition of all his works, is Redon's way of being in the world, not taking his leave from it. Although Huysmans set Redon into his novel Against Nature, the fantasist painter does not in fact fit the role of decadent. Through his abiding admiration for Corot, a painter humble before nature, Redon is connected to a modern's idea of nature as teacher. The isolation of Redon's early years, his description of which is rooted in the pastoral, puts him into nature as an autogenous being among other autogenous entities, both actor and acted upon, able to see correspondences throughout nature as the well-spring of his visions both lyrical and grotesque. The single tree that Corot recommends young painters to go and study with a pencil day after day could as well be the face in the mirror. Solitude is the apprenticeship in what Redon called the "subjective world."
      Redon was, I believe, an artist whose artistic yearnings were fairly clear to him long before he could satisfy them on paper or canvas. He emerged with an exhibition of a group of his great noirs only at the age of forty, in 1880. In his early muteness (he would later become a prolific artist) he reminds me of Paul Klee, who was in some ways his artistic descendant. Also a slow beginner whose mature style emerges when he is about forty, Klee notes to himself in an early diary, "Why hurry when you want so much?" I think, too, that, much as Klee seemed to work out many of his ideas in the graphic media, Redon unfolded his ideas first, including many of his formal solutions, in the noirs. A visionary art is an art of comparisons, and it is by drawing that artists literally give shape to the exaggerations and correspondences from which they derive the motifs of such an art.
      Thus in Redon's noirs we see for the first time enormous human heads conflated with heavenly bodies; a head conflated with the round body of a spider; a huge ball, seemingly of stone, juxtaposed with a round bald head; a bulging human eye conflated with a balloon; and so forth. These are only examples drawn from the possibilities of a sphere, one of Redon's most fruitful early motifs. Even earlier, as a student landscapist, Redon had tended toward enigma—trying to draw clearly an emptiness or an anonymous form. Thus his discovery of the indirect processes of printmaking must have seemed particularly apt. Since one must work on a print additively or incrementally—intensifying a dark, say, by first establishing strokes in one direction, printing the area, then adding strokes in another direction—the relationship of parts to the whole is constantly being reconsidered. His mastery of light and dark through this indirect process gave him, finally, a way to invent rather than imitate. Like Dürer's Melancholia, which Redon loved, many of the noirs include unnatural light sources—an aura around a head which irradiates the area around it, for instance—or an overall radiance seemingly owed to no single source; sometimes, both. The sum of what Redon achieved in the noirs was nothing less than a conquering of color—a freeing of color, in the media of black-and-white, from descriptive or naturalistic purposes.

Given that achievement, it is interesting to wonder why he he ultimately abandoned working in the black-and-white graphic medium in the 1890s. It is clear to me that Redon saw himself, always, as a painter—his primary heroes were painters, and his early ambitions were toward painting. But a failed effort at oil painting that was included in the Chicago show—a greasy work of 1882 called Distributor of Crowns—shows that when he turned to a full palette, he really did not know at first how to translate into color what he has accomplished in black-andwhite. What he had done was genre-breaking: inventive as the noirs may seem as a sort of literary adding-up of images (which is how the Chicago writers see them), they are really much more radical as pictorial emptyings-out. Redon is able to set aside the conventional strategy of starting a picture as a total space: he begins instead from a formal appositeness—the reciprocity of two curved but opposing contours, or the different but equivalent rhythms of two surfaces built from various kinds of strokes of the charcoal, or simply the contrast between a white luminosity and a dark one.
      This desperate approach to his materials—he would risk everything to build the metaphor—makes Redon a revolutionary, but also may help to explain his slow approach to color. He would have to search in the paint itself to reinvent his ideas in color. Some of what he began to figure out as he began to paint was how to get a large field of chromatic color (hue, rather than tonal color) to hold the entire pictorial space within itself; how to use the drawn line, and what kind of drawn line could work under and through the sheets of color. There were only a few places around him to look for answers—perhaps a bit to Gauguin; to Moreau, too, perhaps, for the idea of spots or constellations of color. Masson suggests that Monticelli shares Redon's role as a pioneer in the unusual handling of surfaces as texture. If we look at them as formal problems, it is possible to see the continuities between the noirs and the color pictures. Surely the later metaphors sometimes feel quite different from the earlier ones, but Redon—like the later genre-confounding artists Klee and Masson—revolves around images, re-setting them, finding new means of comparison, of transformation.
      When the later Redon devises the brilliant vases of flowers posed on a table-less ground tone, he reinvents the earlier Redon's metaphor of the mysterious light limning a void; when the later Redon paints the Cyclops as all eye, poised over an embankment sheltering a tiny woman, he paints the two zones of the picture with different kinds of paint surfaces, reconfiguring the earlier Redon's noir juxtaposing the textures and similar shapes of eye and pine knot. If Redon's color seems finally to arrive all at once, in a rush of outrageousness, as if he had been holding his breath and let it out all at once, perhaps it is because he had realized at last that he could continue to proceed in color as he had in the noirs—from nothing but formal relationships, in color and the drawn line.
      The "subjective world" of Redon's color turns out to be devised as a kind of cross-section between the matter-of-factness of his drawing and the power of color to sweep everything before it. Perhaps it is having hit upon this equilibrium in his pictorial means that enabled Redon to create both the mythologically based pictures, such as Apollo in His Chariot or the great Cyclops, and the many, many late flower paintings. Position in the plane substitutes for spatial, even temporal, location in Redon's pictures; rarely does he arrange the configuration of the plane symmetrically, since to introduce movement to the intrinsically still parallel planes of color, asymmetry is necessary. In the 1912 Apollo, a large canvas 163 centimeters long, all colored in one mottled honey tone, Apollo stands, tiny in his chariot, just to the right and below the middle of the painting; one shining strand of his reins stretches up, a hypotenuse, to the four stamping horses in the upper left. The location—an empty plane of modulated tones—becomes a charged one—an irradiated heaven. Redon can, without linear divisions, without attaching any form to the edges of the rectangle, draw us to it as an entity in time and space that is completed by its links to fellow forms rather than by its story line. Each thing—Apollo in his chariot, the horses, and the edge of the sort of cliff they rear up against—takes its own closed graphic form; but it is the plane of color, unified through tone, that keeps the time-space continuum that is the picture from falling apart into separate narrative entities.
      Redon's famous bouquets are all set off-center in rectangles that are just washes of parallel color, always drawn without the interruption of the perpendicular of any tabletop. This ordinary subject, which Redon painted over and over again, becomes (in the successful ones) something explosive. In these pictures, it isn't just a matter of his getting an ensemble of perfect tones—though he often does, whether he has invented the bouquet or painted it from life (he did both). Looked at closely, the flower paintings and pastels have nothing of the elisions and abbreviations that paintings of an observed bouquet have. Rather, each flower and leaf or grouping is delineated, often with black crayon as well as pigment, and with a trillion kinds of lines: I was amazed to see, in the pastels, groups of small curlicued lines, scratched lines, dots, and more. The group becomes less a singular entity, more a series of botanical studies in which each flower is being compared with the others in terms of its trajectory from bloom to death. There is nothing stylized in the bouquet's representation.
      Redon's color is invented, non-naturalistic color, surprising and surprisingly saturated color. This sort of palette, which inevitably partakes of a relish for pure sensation, seems to disturb some viewers who might more readily accept it within the Mediterraneanism of Matisse or Bonnard. But aside from its acknowledged affinities with the heightened, decorative color of Gauguin (Redon's admirer and sometime defender), Redon's color is so far-out that it catapults him right out of the context of the Post-Impressionist generation and places him in the company of, on the one hand, the Byzantine mosaicists and, on the other hand, the great twentieth-century abstract colorists. And, a bit like the Byzantines or, say, Kandinsky, Redon the color extremist is nevertheless an artist of rather grave demeanor. His pictures, though small (rarely over three feet high), are no more intimate than the Chi-Rho page of the Book of Kells. They are experiences of inwardness offered up to the viewer.
      Redon's astonishing color is bound to the great challenge he makes to any kind of traditional pictorial construction. Redon's compositions (the "contents" of which are often just one or two shapes juxtaposed in a sort of arbitrary placement within the rectangle) replace the architectonics of planar construction with a metaphysics of color densities. In Chicago, with so many good and great Redons lining the walls, I felt almost as if pictures were bursting into flames as I came to them. Large fields and spots of saturated cobalt blue, a brilliant enamel-like green, a biting purple cover large parts of the surface, articulated, with a plain, discrete line, into the closed shapes of heads, garlands of flowers, a chalice. The demeanor of the heads, which offer their profiles or three-quarter views, may be grave or even quiescent at times, but with their imminence, Redon has ripped away any planar construction of a space that would hold distance, physical and psychic, between us and them. Redon's staring-back-at-us eyes (including the huge one that dominated the wonderful Cyclops painting in the Chicago show), even perhaps the half-closed eyes of the numerous versions of Yeux Clos, are there to dislocate us from viewer to semblable. Modeling is not present, but the colors that are identified with the surface are worked, constructed at the molecular level, as it were; the simple juxtaposition of two major similar shapes (head and garland, for example, head-and-shoulders and chalice, for another) we experience as an orbit between different densities of paint; that is, different locations; that is, separate aspects or moments of one continuum.

One of the good things about a big show like the one in Chicago is that there is room for themes and variations. Two of the best color works in the show were variations on a theme that Redon had worked on in the noirs as well: a window. The two works I am thinking of—The Window, a pastel of 1905, and The Window, an oil on canvas painted two years later—both represent only the window itself: it is the Gothic tracery in both, and the oil painting's rose-window design, that tell us that these are church, or cathedral, windows.
      In the pastel, the framing of the window is indicated in the luminous black tones; "through" the window ("in" the window?) we see shapes with indefinite contours but very strong color—yellow, red-orange, and, dominantly, a strong purple-blue. They are suggestive, but only suggestive, of the contours of a vague landscape. In the oil painting, on the other hand, the tracery shapes of the rose window enclose clearly defined spots of brilliant color—going from red in the small peripheral shapes to a greenish blue at the center. Framing the glass itself, and below it, greenish gray tones render the stone of a wall; the small triangle in the lower corner of the canvas, a detail of a sculpted Pieta. The luminescent tones of both pictures are amazing (and unconveyable in a catalogue reproduction, apparently). They combine the thinness of an almost modest surface with the weight and force of the most highly saturated hues.
      These are works that spiral us back through Redon's career. Think of them not (as some would have us think of them) as connected to the Church, or the ideas of the Church or the Catholic revival of the period, but as latter-day variations on the mysterious windows that are some of the greatest of his noir images. Like those earlier windows, these colored ones seem to be about nothing much that is of the material world (even the Pietà and its associations are tiny). And so for anyone who can see the connection between Redon and a modern metaphoric abstract art, these are the works of Redon to go and study. They are essential Redon.
      But Redon also wrote about Pissarro and his dictum "Go paint an apple." In the exhibition was one of the two tabletop still lifes Redon painted in 1901—a white cloth on a table, with, in one case, a lemon and a pepper on the cloth, and, in the other, a pitcher, a plate, and four vegetables. Painted with a dry but not an inelegant brush, these pictures are more enigmatic than anything else in his oeuvre, since they suggest a retreat from the fantastic, the dream, the myth—the infinite. One could be afraid of their all too clear boundaries, their delimitation of a world that seems less full than the world of dreams. Who wants to paint an apple? Redon didn't, very often; but when he did so, he made it as much an expression of inwardness as anything else he painted. These still lifes don't offer themselves as ensembles of light, or surface, or action in a circumscribed area of volumes; they are as if projected, plainly, onto the sky of the tabletop. I don't think these are great paintings, but they do not seem false. And when I return to the Windows, part of the marvel I see in them is the way the metaphor of the window—seeing through compared to seeing within; light as the agent of both—is inseparable from the gorgeousness of color within the paint surface. That is all these pictures have in them; there is nothing there that is redundant or extraneous to the completeness of emotion they express. From the grotesques of the noirs to the still lifes to the mythical figures to the Windows, Redon shows us that there is no particular matter to his art at all, its reality no "realism." In the two Windows, everything is there to induce in us exactly the state of the painter—an ecstatic reverie. The matter of Redon's metaphors is something that can be gotten at, approximately, by research; their effect as paintings, though, is to take us, through them, to an exact truth.

¹The Temptation of Saint Redon: Biography, Ideology, and Style in the "Noirs" of Odilon Redon, by Stephen F. Eisenman; University of Chicago Press, 289 pages, $55.

²"Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams 1840-1916" was on view at the Art Institute of Chicago from July through September 18, 1994. It can now be seen at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (October 21, 1994–January 15, 1995), and it will travel to the Royal Academy of Arts, London (February 22–May 21, 1995). A catalogue, edited by Douglas W. Druick," has been published by the three participating museums in association with Harry N. Abrams (464 pages, $60; $39.95 paper).

Back to Writing