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Mastering form with color. All the stern self-knowledge, the risk-taking and awareness, of the early work is assumed by these sometimes childlike pictures.

By Thomas D'Evelyn / November 25, 1987



To Myself: Notes on Life, Art, and Artists, by Odilon Redon. New York: George Braziller Inc. 154 pp. $16.95. Odilon Redon: Pastels, Introduction and commentary by Roseline Bacou; translated by Beatrice Rehl. New York: George Braziller Inc. 190 pp. $65.

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``To Myself'' is a gathering of personal notes and journals kept by the artist Odilon Redon for more than 60 years. To those who know Redon by his late flower pastels - they made his name at the Armory Show in 1913, and they remain his best-known works - ``To Myself'' may come as a surprise. Redon was a good critic, of other artists, of music, and best of all of his own interior life.

The vibrancy of those seemingly off-the-cuff flower arrangements apparently is rooted in severe discipline. Born in 1840, Redon lived through several revolutions in society and art, but not much influenced him outside his own development.

One of the items dated 1913 in ``To Myself'' suggests his indifference: ``I see in a window a book with the title `Social Art.' It is disgusting. I open it nevertheless, and I see: Socialization of beauty, and I close it.'' The simplicity of this note does not hide Redon's proud independence, it reveals it.

Redon's pride, his capacity for isolated work, stems from the fact that his childhood, and many a summer of his adult life, were spent on a heath-covered estate in the province of Gironde. It used to be ocean bed. Odilon spent hours dreaming and sketching; his lifelong fidelity to natural forms took root in that hard, sandy soil.

Odilon learned his craft under a series of master artists. His first successes were in lithography; the polarized combination of stone and ink gratified his sense of discipline. He composed several albums of strange black and white pictures combining natural and dream forms. One famous one shows a man's head with cactus spines sitting in a pot. He illustrated Baudelaire and Poe, and sometimes wrote his own captions.

That was the first half of his career. Redon married Camille Falte, a young Creole, in 1880; he was 40. In ``Odilon Redon: Pastels'' we see something of the majesty of his later achievement, and something perhaps of her beneficent influence. There are several portraits of Mme. Redon and of their son; and she arranged the flowers for which Redon became famous. Perhaps, too, Camille's influence is seen in Redon's discovery of color.

``Odilon Redon: Pastels'' is, quite simply, a marvelous book. Though the artist created many books of lithographs, he did not compose his pastels into a book. And yet, now that the Redon scholar Roseline Bacou has done it, it seems natural and right. For, like his black and white pictures, once put together like this, these pastels tell a story. It's the story of the spiritual adventure of an artist, and it gives one pause.

Knowing the nightmare world of the lithographs, we come to the pastels with a sense of relief that is only partly justified. All the stern self-knowledge, the risk-taking and awareness, of the early work is assumed by these sometimes childlike pictures. One can spend hours looking through this book, figuring out its secret architecture.

Reading this book, one comes face to face with what Redon called ``the morality of color.'' Years ago Klaus Berger pointed out the stages of Redon's career, culminating in the flattening of space, the replacement of formal, extrinsic order (up-down, right-left) with intrinsic integrity that frees the image from conventional laws.

Such formal analysis neglects what this book reveals: Redon consistently went back to the source of his art in nature. Color gave moral tone to his long meditation on form in nature.

Redon's artistic morality was not, like so many, at odds with traditional morality. Some critics have imposed a progressive narrative on Redon's work, noting that a personal crisis in the late 1890s was met with pictures using Christian images.

Bacou's arrangement of the pastels shows how Redon's hard contemplation of the crucifixion and the imagery of the flight into Eqypt fitted into the whole. When critics see the marvelous Buddha of 1904 as a turning point as well as a turning away from Christian imagery, they overlook the superb St. Sebastians produced between 1905 and 1910.

As this book shows, Redon never dehumanized his art. However abstract in effect some of the late flower pictures are, one notes that the flowers first appear crowding the foreground of some of his portraits of girls and women. The presence of these lovely portraits does much to balance the crown of thorns theme.

After the last flower pastel, there is a magnificent sequence of pages that recapitulate Redon's life and themes. The red crown of thorns has become the green crown of art. Next is a breathtaking ``Seashell,'' one of Mme. Redon's collection. Realistic and to scale, the shell seems to breathe, from its tender nacreous pink center, the universal story of life.

Turn the page. A man in silhouette turns away from you, walking, almost running. The horizon is a burst of pollen. This pastel, somewhat smaller originally than many of the flowers, has the universality of the Lascaux cave paintings and the freshness of the moment when Redon decided to complete his mastery of form with color.

``Odilon Redon: Pastels'' is itself a work of art. It belongs to the distinguished series of artists' books having the imprint George Braziller Inc. It is my pick of this season's art books.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.