The Powers of Invention

The large recent exhibition of the French artist Odilon Redon (1840– 1916) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York brought together 140 of his paintings, drawings, prints, pastels, and illustrated books and was accompanied by the publication of a lavishly illustrated catalog. In addition to one hundred color plates, Beyond the Visible contains the full inventory of the museum’s collection of his art, which is now the largest outside France. It also includes valuable essays on the artist’s work by Jodi Hauptman, Marina van Zuylen, and Starr Figura.

Born in the same year as Monet, Redon belonged to the generation of the Impressionist painters, but he chose to make his way alone. His bizarre little drawings of the 1870s attracted almost no attention. It was the poets and writers of the Symbolist movement in the 1880s who provided the necessary ambience for the appreciation of his art. All that changed with the next generation of painters. Gauguin and Émile Bernard thought highly of him. Bonnard, Vuillard, and Maurice Denis, and even Matisse considered him one of their own. I was surprised to learn that America had its first look at him in the famous Armory Show in 1913, where forty-one of his prints were shown and where one was allegedly sold for two dollars and fifty cents. His work drew the curious and that interest did not wane in the years following as his prints continued to be sought by collectors in the US. Still, no matter how familiar Redon’s most famous images have now become, they have preserved their air of mystery. They remain as puzzling today as they were in 1884 when these words were written:

Those were pictures bearing the signature: Odilon Redon. They held, between their gold-edged frames of unpolished pearwood, undreamed-of images: a Merovingian-type head, resting upon a cup; a bearded man, reminiscent both of a Buddhist priest and a public orator, touching an enormous cannonball with his finger; a dreadful spider with a human face lodged in the centre of its body. Then there were charcoal sketches which delved even deeper into the terrors of fever-ridden dreams. Here, on an enormous die, a melancholy eyelid winked; over there stretched dry and arid landscapes, calcinated plains, heaving and quaking ground, where volcanos erupted into rebellious clouds, under foul and murky skies; sometimes the subjects seemed to have been taken from the nightmarish dreams of science, and hark back to prehistoric times; monstrous flora bloomed on the rocks; everywhere, in among the erratic blocks and glacial mud, were figures whose simian appearance—heavy jawbone, protruding brows, receding forehead, and flattened skull top—recalled the ancestral head, the head of the first Quaternary Period, the head of man when he was still fructivorous and without speech, the contemporary of the mammoth, of the rhinoceros with septate nostrils, and of the giant bear. These drawings defied classification; unheeding, for the most part, of the limitations of painting, they ushered in a very special …

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