The Melody Maker
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.