Unraveling The Mystique Of Odilon Redon

`Prince of Dreams' exhibition in Chicago brings the master symbolist out of the shadows

ODILON REDON was a master artist of interior worlds. Born in Bordeaux in 1840, he spent much of his lonely childhood on a colorless estate in a sparsely populated agricultural stretch of southwestern France. His mother was largely absent from his life; his father encouraged a career in law or architecture; and attention was lavished on his younger brother, Ernest, a musical prodigy.

Redon came to confidence in his art at a late age, publishing his first volume of black-and-white lithographs, ``Dans le Reve'' (``In the Dream''), at age 39 after his participation in the Franco-Prussian War and after years of painstaking study of etching and lithography from the masters of those crafts. The fluency he acquired in the technical aspects of printmaking and charcoals liberated him from the strictures of the reigning Salon style and from the Beaux Arts education that perpetuated them.

The Symbolist poetry of his friend Stephane Mallarme provided a guidepost to his dark and mysterious subject matter, as did the macabre tales of the American writer whom the French adore as ``Edgar Poe.'' Poe was, in fact, the inspiration for Redon's next major volume in 1882 and an ``Hommage a Goya,'' dedicated to the Spanish painter well acquainted with the night, followed a year later.

Redon's images of floating heads and eyes, melancholy men trapped in animal bodies or even plant forms, and a mischievously smiling spider, led French writer Joris Karl Huysmans to christen him as ``the prince of mysterious dreams.''

This quotation provided the title of the authoritative retrospective ``Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams, 1840-1916,'' on view at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Assembled by the Art Institute's senior curator, Douglas Druick, with the cooperation of Amsterdam's Vincent van Gogh Museum, and London's Royal Academy of Arts, the mammoth show of more than 180 works is one of the most sensitive displays of a single artist in recent years.

Druick and his colleagues have also produced a 464-page catalog with more than 550 illustrations, including (chiefly for the discussions of Redon's later works) 160 color plates.

In conjunction with this catalogue, ``Prince of Dreams'' effectively introduces Redon to new generations of museum visitors and dispels a number of myths that surround this elusive artist. Chiefly, we are reminded that while his work took a unique path and his subject matter was often bizarre, he was hardly isolated from the Impressionist movement booming around him.

Rather, Redon saw himself making choices that consciously ran counter to those of his contemporaries. He saw the Impressionists as slaves (he even used the word ``parasites'') of the object, preferring for the first two-thirds or so of his career to eschew subject matter from the natural world, however impressionistically treated, for realistic renderings of the more dramatic worlds of his own imaginings. Like his literary counterparts, he saw mood as a key element.

In his 1878 ``Guardian Spirit of the Waters,'' a giant head floats benignly over a calm sea and a single sailboat. Even more than the fantastic imagery, we come away from this charcoal with the human sense of wistfulness it contains.

When Redon took up color on a full-time basis near the turn of the century he found himself in an awkward place. At first, it seems he only created ``colorized'' versions of the charcoals that he called his ``noirs.'' Some of them, including the famous ``Yeux Clos'' (``Closed Eyes'') begin to anticipate the kitsch of New Age art. His portraits are too self-consciously dreamy. At first Redon lacked the skill at the easel that he displayed so expertly on paper.

Oddly, Redon found his redemption in color when he turned to the seemingly naturalistic subject of floral arrangements. The continuum here is again with Redon's concern for worlds beyond the frame. Just as the object was a jumping-off point for him in his previous works, so the subject of his floral paintings is often color itself.

Some literal-minded critics have seen in these flower paintings a return to naturalism or literalism. And while the specific flowers and colors are recognizable, their purpose and effect lie along the plane of the subconscious. In ``Flowers in a Turquoise Vase,'' ca. 1910, the flowers almost grow off the canvas. In the pastel ``Bouquet in a Persian Vase,'' the deeper purples, reds, and blues have migrated out of the more joyous bouquet and onto the vase itself.

Finally, in ``Nasturtiums,'' the vase has ceased to matter, and the flowers jut out toward the viewer. They entwine each other and wrap the viewer into their world, which is so unlike our own and yet so necessary to it.

* The Redon exhibit remains in Chicago until Sept. 18. It then travels to Amsterdam (Oct. 20 to Jan. 15, 1995) and London (Feb. 16 to May 21, 1995).

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