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 type of the fantastic, one born of sickness and delirium.1

The passage comes from À Rebours, translated as Against Nature, the fin-de-siècle novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907). It is a story of a bored, rich Parisian who retreats to an isolated villa in the countryside to create for himself an artificial paradise. Living alone, sleeping most of the day, he spends his waking hours indulging in his tastes in rare books and works of art, antique furniture, precious stones, rich scents, and other beautiful things. He replaces his windows with aquariums to better filter the light, gives a funeral banquet at which black food is served on black dishes by naked black girls, has gems embedded into the shell of a tortoise, and cultivates flowers that resemble artificial ones. Traveling, or even leaving the house, he considers pointless, believing that the imagination can easily compensate for the vulgar reality of the actual experience.

Duc Jean Floressas Des Esseintes, as he is called, collects the work of painters like Gustave Moreau and Redon who reject realism and books by poets like Baudelaire and Mallarmé who write about dreams, mystical experiences, and other exceptional states of mind. To appeal to Des Esseintes, a work of art had to possess an aura of strangeness that Edgar Allan Poe also required. He turned his house into a museum and a library of obscure works whose aesthetic ideas were at odds with prevailing notions of his day. Against Nature is a prophetic book in that it anticipates the spirit of negation found in art and literature of the next century.

The notoriety of Huysmans’s book gave Redon whatever modest fame he had. He became a part of a group of little-known poets, writers, and artists associated with Mallarmé while continuing to work on his small black-and-white prints and drawings and on an occasional color painting in his later years. “I have made an art that is expressive, suggestive, undetermined,” he wrote in his journal.2 In the long-running battle on the relative merits of copying nature or relying on one’s inner vision, he took the side of imagination. In her fine essay in the catalog, Jodi Hauptman shows how old that debate is. Already in the fifteenth century, the painter and writer Cennino Cennini made a case for the power of invention. The artist’s aim, he said, was to discover things not seen, hiding themselves under the shadow of natural objects, and to present to plain sight what does not actually exist. What gives Redon’s art its originality is that it is a product both of the nineteenth century and of an older tradition that goes back to Bosch, Dürer, and Grünewald. He was unlike any other French artist of his time, and he still stands apart, his vision closer to that of painters like James Ensor and Edvard Munch who came from countries to the north.


Redon narrowly missed having America as his birthplace. His father had immigrated to the United States, made a fortune in Louisiana, and married a local Creole woman. She gave birth to his older brother in New Orleans, but when she became pregnant again, the father took the family back to Bordeaux, where Odilon was born on April 20, 1840. Because of his poor health, he was sent by his parents to be raised by an old uncle who was a manager of the family’s vineyard in the commune of Listrac in the Médoc. A frail, introspective child, he was happiest hiding among the curtains in dark corners of the manor house called Peyrelebade, playing with peasants’ children, and listening to the tales of the supernatural told by their elders. All his life, Redon felt that he had suffered at the hands of a family who neither loved him nor ever understood him. He was like the disinherited prince in Gérard de Nerval’s famous Romantic sonnet “El Desdichado,” a poem whose spirit permeates more than a few of his drawings:

I’m the dark one,—the widower,—the unconsoled,
The prince of Aquitaine at his stricken tower:
My sole
star is dead,—and my constellated lute
Bears the black
sun of the Melencholia.3

Nonetheless, he returned to Peyrelebade many times over the years and was heartbroken when the estate was sold in 1897. The sad faces of his childhood, an old bare wall, an old tree, and the grim, colorless landscape stretching to the horizon continued to provide him with material.

Sent to school in Bordeaux, Redon studied drawing, learned how to play violin, and developed a strong interest in literature and philosophy under the influence of the botanist Armand Clavaud, who became his friend and intellectual mentor. His vocation was undecided. From painting, he changed to studying architecture to please his father, but did not do well. He was finally allowed in 1864 to enroll at the School of Beaux-Arts in Paris where he briefly took classes with the academic painter Léon Gérôme, who strove to impose the school’s aesthetic standards and failed to appreciate his student’s particular gift. Redon learned far more from two artists who kept their distance from the academy, the much-acclaimed Camille Corot and the obscure artist Rodolphe Bresdin, whom he encountered upon his return to Bordeaux. Corot, who was forty-four years Redon’s senior, told him to go paint the same tree each year. He also gave him another piece of advice that Redon never forgot: “Next to an unknown, place a known.” In other words, strive to have “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” as Marianne Moore told poets to do.

Bresdin, who taught Redon the skills of the engraver, did not work from nature. He relied on imagination. Self-taught, poor, in chronic ill-health, increasingly destitute toward the end of his life, he died of hunger and cold in 1885. The small drawings and prints he left were remarkable for their obsessive profusion of detail. This is how Huysmans describes them in À Rebours:

An improbable landscape bristling with trees and bushes and tufts of vegetation that are shaped like demons and phantoms, and covered with birds with rat heads and vegetable tails, on a ground strewn with vertebrae and ribs and skulls, on which grow gnarled and cracked willows, surmounted by skeletons waving bouquets of flowers in the air…. A Christ figure is fleeing across a cloud-dappled sky while a hermit meditates, head in hands, deep in a grotto, and a miserable wretch lies dying, exhausted by privations, prostrated by hunger, stretched out on his back with his feet by a pool of stagnant water.

Hippolyte Taine is supposed to have said that the beautiful was not the pretty, and Émile Zola that art was a fragment of nature seen through a temperament. Bresdin’s greatest lesson to his pupil was the value of what he called “unalterable originality.” “Look at this chimney flue,” he told Redon. “What does it say to you? To me it tells a legend. If you have the strength to observe it well and to understand it, imagine the most strange, the most bizarre subject; if it is based and remains within the limits of this simple section of wall, your dream will be alive. Art is there.” Writing about his teacher years later, Redon explains what that meant to him:


The artists of my generation for the most part have surely looked at the chimney flue. And they saw nothing but it. They have not offered all that could be added to the wall panel through the mirage of our very nature. All that surpasses, illuminates or amplifies the object and elevates the mind into the realm of mystery, to the confusion of the irresolute and of its delicious restlessness, has been totally closed to them. They kept away, they feared everything pertaining to the symbolic, all that our art contains of the unexpected, the imprecise, the undefinable, and that gives it an appearance bordering on enigma. True parasites of the object, they cultivated art on a uniquely visual field, and in a certain way, closed it off from that which goes beyond it, and which might bring the light of spirituality into the most modest trials, even in the blacks. I mean an illumination that seizes our spirit and escapes all analysis.

In 1868 Redon published his first articles on art in a Bordeaux newspaper. One was a review of the Paris Salon of that year and the other an appreciation of Bresdin. Both assert that the art of the future will be the work of the imagination. Redon was undoubtedly familiar with Baudelaire’s critical writings and especially his review of the Salon of 1859 in which the poet praised imagination as the queen of faculties and grumbled that art was losing its self-respect by prostrating itself before external reality as painters were becoming more and more inclined to paint what they saw and not what they dreamed. For Baudelaire, “A good picture, faithful and worthy of the dreams that gave it birth, must be created like a world.”4 Redon, in his own review of a later Salon, explains how this is to be done:

The Old Masters have proved that the artist, once he has established his own idiom, once he has taken from nature the necessary means of expression, is free, legitimately free, to borrow his subjects from history, from the poets, from his own imagination, from the thousand sources of his fantasy. That makes the superior artist: face to face with nature he is a painter, but in his studio he is a poet and thinker.5

In September 1870, Redon was inducted into the army and fought briefly in the Franco-Prussian War. The experience of the war, he later claimed, was decisive in making him choose the life of an artist. Outside his family, no one knew or cared about that decision. Except for a single entry to the Salon of 1870 which passed without any critical mention, he was almost invisible. The work of most of his contemporaries left him cold. He found Manet superficial and facile, and the Impressionists too tied to the representation of external things. Redon had not yet read the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and Lautréamont and so was not aware that the discovery of inner imaginative space he was fumbling toward had already been made by these poets. Rimbaud wrote as follows to a friend in May 1871 when he was just seventeen years old and already the author of several of the most beautiful poems in the French language:

The first study of the man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, complete. He looks for his soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it. As soon as he knows it, he must cultivate it! It seems simple: in every mind a natural development takes place; so many egoists call themselves authors, there are many others who attribute their intellectual progress to themselves!—But the soul must be made monstrous: in the fashion of the comprachicos,6 if you will! Imagine a man implanting and cultivating warts on his face.

I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer.

The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses.7

In one of Redon’s drawings, The Heart Has Its Reasons, made around 1887, a naked man stands on a balcony with his right hand reaching inside a slit in his chest to feel his heart. The title comes from Pascal, who says in full: the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. In his book The Temptation of Saint Redon, Stephen F. Eisenman notes that the man has the high forehead characteristic of Redon’s self-portraits, but that he has the ringlets, facial features, and postures of portraits of Pascal. The gesture, he claims, is onanistic. With the left hand close to his groin, the Redon/Pascal figure fondles his heart. What is troubling to me is not the meaning behind the image, but the image itself, the way in which the unthinkable has been made plausible and the boundary between the imaginary and the real blurred. Redon’s intention was not to leave the viewer with a single idea. Nearly every gesture, every facial expression, every title in his art tends to be ambiguous. This was deliberate:

The designation of my drawings by a title is often, so to speak, superfluous. A title is justified only when it is vague and even aims confusedly at the equivocal. My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They determine nothing. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.8

Beginning around 1875, and for the next twenty years, Redon’s work consisted mostly of black-and-white charcoal drawings and lithographs. Influenced by the noir drawings of Goya, he created the series of extraordinary images on which his reputation rests. A man runs through the woods with a huge die on his back; a head of a child lies with eyes closed on the bottom of a well; a mask rings the funeral bell; a centaur with a bow aims an arrow at the clouds; a bald, egg-shaped human head peeks out of an egg holder; an emaciated convict lies curled up with a hand over his mouth behind the bars of his cell. Some of these images are so dark that we can barely make out the background. We could be inside one of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons, a corner of a cathedral, a madhouse where inmates dress up as historical personages, or we could be inside someone’s nightmare. “My whole originality,” Redon said, “consists in having made improbable beings live humanly according to the laws of the probable, by as far as possible putting the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.” That’s what poems do too. They contrive to make us believe imagined things are real.

As striking as Redon’s images appear to be, some of their comic and fantastic figural distortions of bodily proportions may have originated in the political caricature of the day, where substitutions of plant, insect, and animal parts for human ones were commonplace. As Stephen F. Eisenman demonstrates in his invaluable book, at the very least, Redon’s marsh flowers with human faces are derivative of the work of Faustin Betbeder, Daumier, and Grandville. What is missing, of course, is their satirical slant. Redon is never funny. Another possible source of inspiration may be pantomime, the lost art that fascinated both Baudelaire and Flaubert. Redon’s solitary figures, dressed in black with their white painted faces and their downcast eyes, have the somberness and melancholy of old mime shows in early-nineteenth-century Paris.

Redon, more than any other artist of his time, drew his material from books. Even his early Romantic landscapes and his late paintings of flowers were frequently inspired by something he read. His portfolios of lithographs all combine text and image. In the Dream (1879), To Edgar Poe (1882), The Origins (1883), Homage to Goya (1885), Night (1886), and The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1888–1896) all use enigmatic-sounding titles and captions to stir the viewer away from any obvious interpretation of the image.

Redon is not interested in sticking closely to the original text. The captions he composed for the portfolio devoted to Poe allude far more to Baudelaire and Gérard de Nerval. Nonetheless, these bits of language contribute to the way we experience these images. A plate entitled The Eye like a Strange Balloon Mounts toward Infinity is said to be based on a passage from Baudelaire’s essay “The Life and Works of Eugene Delacroix” in which he describes the painter’s political resignation and despair in the face of the great chimera of the modern age, the monster-balloon of perfectibility and infinite progress rising over us. For me, the image has more to do with universal nocturnal fantasies than with fear of modern technology. The eye ascending silently in the dark winter sky carrying a severed head in a basket belongs to someone lying on the verge of sleep. The flight is his reverie, the eye his last glimmer of wakefulness. Beyond the visible—that’s where the eye is taking the sleepy head. The infinity of the title is the name for the imagination at its purest. One can do nothing but speculate on what still draws the gaze of that wide-open eye as it floats off into the opaque distance.

Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), which inspired three different portfolios of Redon’s, is the least known of the great novelist’s works. Flaubert started working on it before Madame Bovary and was still tinkering with it twenty-five years later while working on Bouvard and Pecuchet, which was to be his last book. Although he called it a novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony reads like a play or a Surrealist opera unimaginable by the Surrealists themselves. Michel Foucault wrote that it was to literature what Bosch, Breughel, or the Goya of the Capricios are to painting. Flaubert’s version of the legend is a series of tableaus based on the familiar tale of a third-century hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert and who was said to have been besieged all his life by demons jealous of his piousness.

The action takes place during one night. Bands of imaginary animals and monsters attack him; he is tempted with gold, food, women, worldly power, and heretical ideas. The tale had been one of the favorite subjects of painters over the centuries. Flaubert made it into a play as difficult to stage as Goethe’s Faust, though Robert Wilson gave it a try recently. Not only is the cast of characters huge, there’s too much going on. In The Temptation of St. Anthony Flaubert took the opportunity to put forward in the name of the devil all the different beliefs in God that were held by various Gnostic sects and other religions. As a final joke, the Satan who appears in person at the end of the play turns out to be a believer in modern science. What attracted Redon was the carnival of fantastic imagery. Never before had so many monsters seen only in old bestiaries, natural history books, narratives of imaginary travels, and medieval diableries been brought all together and used in a literary work to convey the turmoil of inner life.

In Redon’s lithographs we see vultures bearing specters; crocodiles playing upon lyres; faces of men with bodies of serpents; cow-headed women prostrating themselves before ithyphallic gods; peacocks who quench their thirst on rivers of gold dust; ancient gods seated on benches of some vast circus; creatures that are half deer, half ox; heads of alligators with hoofs of deer; owls with serpent tails; calves with two heads, one bellowing, another weeping; and many other such wonders. These fabulous creatures from mythological zoos were an early example of collage and caricature. Instead of using scraps, junk, and other odds and ends, anatomical properties of human beings and animals were freely exchanged, not only to construct allegorical figures, but, I suspect, out of the sheer love of invention. Marina van Zuylen is entirely convincing when she argues in her catalog essay that Redon’s monsters are mainly inspired not by ideas but by forms. Redon always insisted that his most fantastic creatures began as an effort to faithfully reproduce something as ordinary as a blade of grass before his imagination took over.

One quarter of Redon’s lithographs (forty-one separate plates) deal with The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Each image corresponds to a specific line or passage in Flaubert’s book and these lines serve as captions. Even so, removed as they are from any context, these demonic apparitions, erotic visions of the female body, Christ-like faces, and glimpses of the saint himself are too ambiguous to be mere illustrations or to work as a sequence in any obvious way. With their looming shadows, recessed doorways, steep stairwells, dungeon-like interiors, and paucity of light, they recall film noir stills. As much as I admire the luxurious colors of his later paintings and agree with John Ashbery, who called these realistic paintings even more fantastic than his imaginary ones, it is his black-and-white drawings that engage me the most. “One must admire black,” Redon wrote. “Nothing can debauch it. It does not please the eye and awakens no sensuality. It is an agent of the spirit far more than the fine color of the palette or the prism.”9 His drawings and lithographs are like mirrors one encounters in a house almost dark in which one is unable to distinguish real things from phantoms. The blur that confounds, the unbidden, half-seen something that won’t leave us alone was the experience he was after.

Now almost universally admired, Redon’s art met with hostility, indifference, and misrepresentation early on. He was charged with elitism and obscurantism. Émile Hennequin, his earliest and most sympathetic critic, claimed that Redon “has conquered that desolate region which exists on the borders of the real and the fantastic—a realm populated by formidable phantoms, monsters, monads, and other creatures born of human perversity.” He saw him, in other words, as a kind of super-realist who rendered clearly what to the rest of us is invisible. This view, which one still hears repeated today, leaves out the creative aspect of art. Redon fussed over his drawings, fixing and refixing the layers of charcoal, then drawing over them again, very much the way poets fuss over their poems until some unexpected image turns up. Beauty is always inexplicable, whether the beauty of a metaphor or the beauty of a drawing. What made Redon a precursor of so much of what happened to art in the next century is that he understood the part imagination and accident play in creating a work of art. The enduring mystery of his images fits one of Baudelaire’s definitions of beauty, “something slightly vague, giving rein to conjecture.”10

This Issue

March 9, 2006