Will Stone

The Melody Maker

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Odilon Re­don – La Lit­téra­ture et la Musique, Kröller-Müller Mu­seum, Ot­terlo, 2 June 2018 – 9 Septem­ber 2018 and Ny Carls­berg Gly­potek, Copen­hagen 11 Oc­to­ber 2018 – 20 Jan­uary 2019

It is dif­fi­cult to de­scribe the art of Mon­sieur Re­don. There are no real pre­cur­sors to be found, ex­cept per­haps among the mu­si­cians and cer­tainly among the po­ets. – JK Huys­mans in L’Art Moderne, 1883

To lovers of art in the West, the name of Odilon Re­don seems al­most over fa­mil­iar, like that of Munch, or Matisse, an iconic artist we dis­cov­ered long ago, per­haps in our youth, when those be­guil­ing dream-like images graced many a bed­sit wall, their vis­i­bil­ity like the work of Schiele and Klimt en­hanced by the poster boom of the Eight­ies. But this ex­cep­tional ex­hi­bi­tion held at the su­perb Kröller Müller Mu­seum in the Nether­lands demon­strates that in fact we knew very lit­tle. Re­don might have been her­metic, ar­cane, cre­pus­cu­lar, hal­lu­ci­na­tory with his trade­mark litho­graphic ‘noirs’, but he was also beau­ti­ful, rav­ish­ingly so, as many of the colour pas­tel and wa­ter­colour works in this ex­hi­bi­tion re­mind us. If the Kröller Müller cu­ra­tors had merely laid out a sump­tu­ous col­lec­tion of the French artist’s works, cov­er­ing the de­vel­op­ment of his oeu­vre, this would have been enough, but they have gone much fur­ther, by fo­cus­ing on the core in­spi­ra­tion for Re­don’s art, mu­sic. It be­comes clear that without mu­sic there would be no Re­don. The sec­ondary theme to the ex­hi­bi­tion is lit­er­a­ture, which not only strongly in­formed Re­don’s art but was served by it through the il­lus­trated se­ries and fron­tispieces which he pro­vided to ac­com­pany works by au­thors he most ad­mired; chiefly Flaubert, Baude­laire and Poe. The Nether­lands was one of the first coun­tries where Re­don’s work was shown, ap­pre­ci­ated and col­lected. The Kröller Müller col­lec­tion is one of the most im­por­tant, boast­ing some two hun­dred works by the artist. The

per­ma­nent col­lec­tion has here been en­hanced by a sub­stan­tial pri­vate cache af­ford­ing vis­i­tors an un­par­al­leled in­sight into the mas­ter’s legacy.

Re­don’s pas­sion for mu­sic dates from his youth, his fas­ci­na­tion fur­ther en­cour­aged by his older brother Ernest, a suc­cess­ful com­poser. Ernest’s fame meant that Odilon, al­ready a gifted vi­o­lin­ist, was in­tro­duced to the mu­sic world, forg­ing last­ing friend­ships with com­posers, as well as writ­ers, painters and collectors. It was this Parisian mu­sic world be­drock which be­came so cru­cial to his early for­ays into art in the 1870s. Re­don’s taste in mu­sic was wide rang­ing, from JS Bach to Schu­mann, Ber­lioz, De­bussy and of course the in­escapable spir­i­tual force that was Wag­ner. Though mu­sic was pri­mary, Re­don as­cribed lit­er­a­ture to be the queen of the arts. He was a vo­ra­cious reader and was ad­mired as an as­tute art and mu­sic critic. Along with the il­lus­trated se­ries men­tioned above which are in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion, Re­don com­bined his own texts and images in the most am­bi­tious man­ner, pro­duc­ing litho­graphic se­ries such as Hom­mage à Goya (1885). Many artists might claim a pas­sion for mu­sic and lit­er­a­ture, but with Re­don, the two dove-tailed nat­u­rally with his vis­ual tal­ent, not only dic­tat­ing his choice of sub­ject mat­ter but in­form­ing his whole con­cep­tual ap­proach to art.

Be­fore Re­don had even left art school in Bordeaux, his teacher Stanis­las Gorin was re­mark­ing on his draw­ings as ‘one of your sym­phonies’. Re­don’s early ef­forts of em­bat­tled cav­alry and bat­tle scenes are awash with sound, a Lied of Schu­mann al­ready dis­cernible. At the age of twenty Re­don was al­ready be­ing ad­dressed in a let­ter from the com­poser Ernest Chaus­son as ‘M. Odilon Re­don, sym­phonic painter’. Fu­sain (char­coal) be­came Re­don’s pri­mary medium, the dark shadow-like blocks and dif­fused light per­fectly suit­ing his sig­na­ture mood mu­sic. In Re­don’s hands fu­sain and lithog­ra­phy seemed a per­fect match. Fan­tas­tic crea­tures of dream and de­range­ment be­gan to ap­pear in Re­don’s work. Un­set­tling vi­sions, vied with melan­choly beauty, all set in a silent re­al­ity-sus­pended at­mos­phere, where strange ap­pari­tions drifted in space, or loomed be­fore the viewer from the ether. Re­don re­ferred to his new ‘mon­sters’ as ‘melodic play...’

Re­don’s first land­mark litho­graphic se­ries Dans le Rêve of 1879, was in­spired by mu­si­cal soirées in the Faubourg Saint-Ger­main in Paris. At the renowned Rayssac sa­lon he had met the older painter Henri Fantin-La­tour, a fel­low en­thu­si­ast for mu­si­cal com­po­si­tion who ex­pressed his ado­ra­tion for Wag­ner and Schu­mann through his art. La­tour in­structed Re­don in the art of lithog­ra­phy, shar­ing the se­crets of his tech­nique. The new style of art ap­par­ent in Dans le Rêve emerged then from this rich ar­ray of synes­thetic pos­si­bil­i­ties. In the grow­ing cli­mate of sym­bol­ism whose watch­word was ‘sug­ges­tion’ over re­al­ity, Re­don seemed to have sealed his cre­ative ini­ti­a­tion at the op­por­tune mo­ment. Those who ac­cessed Re­don’s ‘In Dreams’ al­bum might have be­lieved they were turn­ing the pages of a mu­si­cal score rather than a book. The pages were num­bered, there was a def­i­nite or­der to fol­low. The cover showed be­side the ti­tles a mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure hold­ing a lyre emerg­ing from the edge of the page by a tall stark dead tree, re­sem­bling a black mi­nor key on the pi­ano. In an es­say on his idol Delacroix in 1878 Re­don ex­plained how mu­sic could be sug­gested through vis­ual means. ‘Depend­ing upon the strength one af­fords them and the man­ner in which one uses them, black and white may soften or en­hance the tones around them; some­times the role of white in a dark paint­ing has the same ef­fect as the strike of a gong in the mid­dle of an or­ches­tral per­for­mance.’ Such pro­nounce­ments are fas­ci­nat­ing not just for the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Re­don’s graphic works but for those of the mas­ters in this medium who pre­ceded him such as Goya and Rem­brandt, not to men­tion those who came af­ter; Munch, Rops, Spil­li­aert, Klinger, Ku­bin and Dix. Jules Destrée, a Wal­loon cul­tural critic, saw Re­don’s draw­ings as hav­ing no other pur­pose than ‘to awaken, through a spe­cial ar­range­ment of tones and lines, an aes­thetic emo­tion evoca­tive of dream­ing’. Once Destrée learned of the im­pact mu­sic had on Re­don’s for­ma­tive years, he saw the lith­o­graphs in a new light; he gained ac­cess to them, where be­fore he had only seen ‘seem­ingly ir­ra­tional, con­fused im­pres­sions’. Unlike La­tour whose works ref­er­enced com­posers ex­plic­itly, Re­don saw per­sonal ven­er­a­tion as su­per­fi­cial, a sideshow; all that mat­tered for him was the source, the mu­sic it­self.

How­ever, a num­ber of strik­ing lith­o­graphs in the ex­hi­bi­tion de­pict or at least are la­belled as fe­male fig­ures from Wag­ner’s op­eras. In Re­don’s

time it was im­pos­si­ble to es­cape the Wag­ne­r­ian jug­ger­naut, and it is not sur­pris­ing Re­don chose to por­tray am­bigu­ous fig­ures ti­tled as Brunnhilde and Par­si­fal. It seems Re­don was more in­ter­ested in the char­ac­ters than the cult of Wag­ner­ism, how­ever his con­tem­po­raries en­sured that the Au­gust 1885 edi­tion of La Re­vue Wag­néri­enne car­ried a re­pro­duc­tion of Re­don’s Brunnhilde. Destrée spoke of the ‘sa­cred bat­tal­ion who gather to­gether at Wag­ner per­for­mances’ in Brus­sels as be­ing an ex­clu­sive Re­don sup­port­ers club, who ex­pressed ‘ab­so­lute ven­er­a­tion’ of his work. For as with so many new French artists and writ­ers of the time it was in the Bel­gian cap­i­tal that they found a sym­pa­thetic au­di­ence, as against the ini­tial con­ster­na­tion or in­dif­fer­ence that greeted them in Paris.

Re­don’s black and white litho­graphic se­ries con­tin­ued un­abated through the 1880s, no­tably Les Orig­ines (1883) and Ed­mond Pi­card – The Juror (1887). In Les Orig­ines, Re­don seems to lend full force to his in­ner imag­i­na­tion, rein­tro­duc­ing a mytho­log­i­cal cast of cen­taur, satyr, cy­clops and siren into a phan­tas­magor­i­cal land­scape, along­side dis­cernibly hu­man fig­ures in the throes of a pri­mal me­ta­mor­pho­sis which has lit­tle to do with sci­en­tific as­sur­ances of life’s be­gin­nings. In the fi­nal plate, ‘And Man Ap­peared...’ a dark naked hu­man fig­ure, more a shade, gropes his way to­wards the light, but al­most de­fen­sively, like a boxer edg­ing for­ward in the ring, guard up.

By the later 1890s Re­don had moved de­ci­sively away from mu­si­cal ref­er­ences, show­ing a greater in­flu­ence of lit­er­ary sources, ex­em­pli­fied by the late litho­graphic al­bums The Temp­ta­tion of Saint An­thony (1896) and The Rev­e­la­tion of Saint John the Di­vine (1899). Gus­tav Flaubert was the writer Re­don drew on again and again through the 1880s and 90s, his Saint An­toine res­onat­ing with Re­don’s own psy­che. Re­don de­clared the book ‘a lit­er­ary mar­vel and a mine for me.’ Re­don’s early se­ries of lith­o­graphs be­lie his love for Baude­laire, who loi­ters in the shad­ows. Skulls, masks, weird moon faces and skele­tons which ap­pear sus­pended within or emerg­ing from the edges of the inky black­ness echo in part the un­ortho­dox cre­ations of the mav­er­ick Bel­gian artist Féli­cien Rops, who had drawn Baude­laire’s gaze. But Goya is also strongly present, es­pe­cially the legacy of his most al­le­gor­i­cally com­plex fi­nal se­ries known as Los Dis­parates (the fol­lies) or

Los Prover­bios (the proverbs) of 1816-1824. The se­ries also came to be known as Sueños or Dreams, which for Re­don seemed most apt.

Re­don also fa­mously cel­e­brated Poe with his À Edgar Poe of 1882. He would have read Poe in Baude­laire’s land­mark French trans­la­tion of 1856, so the se­ries is as much a trib­ute to the poet who re­vealed Poe’s vi­sion­ary land­scape to a whole gen­er­a­tion. This se­ries con­tained images, now re­pro­duced man­i­fold times and recog­nis­able to all; the drift­ing bal­loon with its sphere as an oc­cluded eye and the creepy alien-like skele­ton with its hu­man mask tolling the bell of death. JK Huys­mans, who be­came a close friend and was an early ini­ti­ate into the cult of Re­don, was well served with a fron­tispiece for his epochal deca­dent novel À Re­bours of 1884. This showed the anti-hero Des Es­seintes slumped in an arm­chair, his spent body a wash of dark­ness topped with a ghoul’s white face up­turned by the chair’s grey wing, the fea­tures scored ex­pres­sively in dark jagged lines, eyes ex­tin­guished by un­be­lief. This tiny Des Es­seintes litho­graph al­most lost in its white mount, like a dark body trapped at the cen­tre of an avalanche, is a mi­nor mas­ter­piece of graphic art which has al­ready stepped over into the modern era and sig­nals to Ex­pres­sion­ism.

By the end of the 1880s Re­don’s renown as an il­lus­tra­tor (though he re­fused to em­ploy that term) had spread and the Bel­gian poet Emile Ver­haeren was thrilled when his pub­lisher se­cured Re­don to pro­vide one of his ‘noirs’ as a strik­ing fron­tispiece for Les Flam­beaux Noirs, the third part of Ver­haeren’s so-called ‘trilo­gie noire’. The nineties also saw some of Re­don’s most beau­ti­fully nu­anced cre­ations us­ing the fu­sain tech­nique. Day from the se­ries ‘Dreams’ (1891) is surely one of Re­don’s most ap­peal­ing of­fer­ings in terms of the sim­plic­ity and un­der­state­ment of its ar­range­ment, with per­spec­tive fur­ther in­creas­ing its sym­bolic ef­fec­tive­ness. A sin­gle tree with a scat­ter­ing of leaves re­main­ing is seen through a win­dow be­hind the grid of panes. Be­yond the frame we are in bound­less space, in which tiny balls, pos­si­bly heads, float aim­lessly. The lighter shad­ing at base could rep­re­sent the curved edge of a planet. Al­ways Re­don keeps the viewer guess­ing, us­ing the in­fini­tude of space and the ab­sence of a hori­zon to sug­gest realms be­yond our grasp, ex­is­ten­tial rid­dles whose solv­ing lies be­yond

our in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­ity. The se­ries Night of 1896 seems to point to the twi­light years, to old age and death. In The Pri­estesses were Wait­ing, three re­li­gious novices stand within a cathe­dral arch like sen­tinels in their long white robes. The mid­dle one rests her head ten­derly on the shoul­der of her sis­ter. They seem ex­pressly alone, hemmed into the arch con­tours and yet ex­ude no­ble pres­ence, brightly lit as they are against the dark back­ground. What are they wait­ing for? Re­don wrote his own lyri­cal cap­tions for Night, and in­cluded each line be­neath an im­age:

To old age Man was alone in a night land­scape Then the lost an­gel spread black wings The chimera looked with fright at all things The pri­estesses were wait­ing And the seeker was for­ever seek­ing.

These po­ten­tially pre­car­i­ous em­bel­lish­ments act as re­in­force­ments, em­phatic un­der­lin­ing, re­veal­ing the lit­er­ary vein run­ning through Re­don’s vis­ual cre­ations. This ten­dency to show one­self, to leave a sig­na­ture was most nakedly em­ployed by Goya with his raw and un­flinch­ing cap­tions, but we see it also in the vi­sion­ary etcher of Paris, Charles Meryon (18211868), cham­pi­oned by Baude­laire, who left ex­trav­a­gant verses along­side his etch­ings. Re­don must surely have known and ad­mired the work of Meryon, who in­tro­duced into his painstak­ingly wrought clas­si­cal etch­ings of the old city bizarre crea­tures of the sub­con­scious fore­shad­ow­ing those of Re­don.

Along­side Re­don’s rich black and white out­put, the cu­ra­tors at Kröller Müller have wisely in­tro­duced his ra­di­ant colour works, both those fa­mil­iar from pri­vate col­lec­tions which have slipped through the net of pub­lic aware­ness. Chief among these is the re­cur­ring im­age of Pe­ga­sus the winged horse which con­sis­tently rears up in Re­don’s oeu­vre. It is a Pe­ga­sus ris­ing from the ashes, a phoenix-like Pe­ga­sus which ob­sesses Re­don, sug­gest­ing a strug­gle of au­then­tic­ity over triv­i­al­ity, re­newal over de­cay, light bat­tling with dark­ness. Pe­ga­sus re­turns again and again de­picted in

gor­geous in­ter­weav­ing pas­tel swirls of ver­mil­ion, grotto blue and sun­set red; a laven­der Pe­ga­sus, a blue Pe­ga­sus, a red Pe­ga­sus of­ten atop a rocky out­crop leaps tri­umphant, wings aloft, then in Roger and An­gel­ica ( Perseus and An­dromeda) from 1910, we be­hold an am­ber Pe­ga­sus bear­ing Perseus who bat­tles sea mon­sters, while a frail, doll-like An­dromeda lies supine above the waves, chained to a rock which here re­sem­bles some fan­tas­tic coral. Colour in­vites the spec­tre of hap­pi­ness to loom over Re­don’s work, the riot of tones and sculp­tural pos­si­bil­i­ties lead­ing the artist out of the nar­rower con­fines of black and white. Re­don’s colour is in some way a re­lief, like the sun ap­pear­ing af­ter a pro­tracted cloud­burst, but one al­most feels as if be­hind these en­chant­ing pas­tels the orig­i­nal ‘noir’ litho­graph lurks still, that in spite of the achieve­ment in sub­lim­ity, mono­chrome is the artist’s most deeply felt place. A work like Nude Woman on the Rocks – The Birth of Venus (1912) be­guiles, for this nude which could be the work of a De­gas, Manet or Corot has been moved on. No longer does the rock she stands on faith­fully re­sem­ble a rock, for it is stri­ated in an un­likely pur­ple and the top half of the fig­ure is swathed in cloud made up of del­i­cate blues and vi­o­lets, more a mys­te­ri­ous mist en­velop­ing her body as she lan­guidly stretches up. Re­don’s Ophe­lia, Re­don’s Or­pheus, they all share that same soft melt­ing qual­ity, as if the fig­ure is not cor­po­real but merely a wraith, an ephemeral vi­sion float­ing past, en­veloped by flow­ers as with Ophe­lia, or upon the car­cass of his lyre as Or­pheus.

This out­stand­ing ex­hi­bi­tion closes with a room of ex­quis­ite works show­ing Re­don’s preoccupation with muses and femmes fa­tales. These com­po­si­tions, where a fe­male emerges from, is en­veloped by or cer­e­mo­ni­ously crowned with flow­ers drew on a com­mon mo­tif in the lit­er­a­ture and mu­sic of the time as Cor­nelia Hom­burg at­tests in her in­sight­ful es­say in the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logue. A range of in­ter­pre­ta­tions could be of­fered by the sub­ject of these ‘ filles-fleurs’ as Wag­ner termed them. Here Re­don was sail­ing close to the Bel­gian sym­bol­ist painter Fer­nand Khnopff and be­fore him De­gas, Corot, Delacroix, Fantin La­tour, all of whom were drawn to the al­lu­sive po­ten­tial of the flower maid­ens. The young women Re­don de­picts are seem­ingly sev­ered from the world of re­al­ity and the flow­ers which bor­der their hazy muted pro­files ap­pear to of­fer pro­tec­tion as well as a mode of tran­si­tion

to the out­side world, a bridge be­tween in­te­ri­or­ity and na­ture. Some­times, as in The Church Win­dow (1908), or the sub­lime Woman amidst Flow­ers (un­dated), Re­don would place his fe­male fig­ure in an arched win­dow, sug­gest­ing a re­li­gious space. In Head of a Child with Flow­ers (1897) a del­i­cate child’s head emerges ghost-like from the sur­round­ing blooms. The blos­som­ing of na­ture is seen as the cat­a­lyst, the eter­nal ex­am­ple for hu­man spir­i­tual awak­en­ing. Con­tem­pla­tion and the imag­i­na­tion is ev­ery­thing, Re­don in­sists, and this can hardly be bet­ter ex­em­pli­fied than by Woman in a Boat (un­dated) and The Boat (1898), two mes­meris­ing colour works in the ex­hi­bi­tion, where silent mus­ing fe­male fig­ures placed in bar­ques drift against back­grounds dom­i­nated by a deep ul­tra­ma­rine blue, their heads en­closed by haloes of mists, rays of light or dif­fuse blooms. The beauty of Re­don’s colour works over­whelms and one sus­pects the con­scious mind’s abil­ity to ap­pre­ci­ate them is un­for­tu­nately fi­nite. Yet one does not abruptly turn away hav­ing con­cluded the ex­pe­ri­ence of look­ing, for these works seem, like the mu­sic that per­me­ates them, to be sus­tain­ing the note. They beg a re­turn for fur­ther lis­ten­ing. Whether mu­si­cian, painter, draughts­man or writer, Odilon Re­don was above all a poet artist in the sense that Wag­ner him­self de­scribed:

The Com­mon world, stand­ing un­der the ex­clu­sive in­flu­ence of ex­pe­ri­ences forced upon it from without, and grasp­ing noth­ing that is not driven home by the sense of touch, so to say, can never com­pre­hend this po­si­tion of the poet to­wards his own ex­pe­ri­en­tial world.

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