In the first of these two articles about the Symbolist draughtsman, print-maker and painter Odilon Redon (1840–1916), I showed a selection of his works up to the dawn of the twentieth century. This article concludes my short survey of his work.
By the early years of the twentieth century, Redon was in his sixties, and many of his paintings were executed using pastels, often in what is now best desribed as mixed media. Although most are now quite fragile and seldom left on display for long, they are worth seeking out for their originality and vivid colour.
Ophelia (1900-5), a pastel of the well-known lead from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, shows her in a lily pond, presumably just after her suicide. The contrast between this and (for example) JW Waterhouse’s paintings of Ophelia from the period 1889-1910 could not be more stark.
Flower Clouds (c 1903) is a pastel introducing a theme which recurs in Redon’s later paintings, a sailing boat containing people. In this version, it is set against a riot of colourful flowers in the sky.
In 1903, Redon was made a member of the Legion of Honour, in recognition of his art.
Redon was strongly influenced by Japonisme, as were many artists in France at that time, but unusually by Asian Buddhist art in particular. His Buddha from 1904 sets the meditating Buddha at the foot of a great tree, into whose trunk he partly merges. Around him are more brilliantly colourful and imaginary flowers.
Le grand vitrail (The Large Window) (1904) is one of the most remarkable pastel paintings that I have seen. Framed by carved masonry shown in the dull greys of charcoal, a mediaeval stained glass window dazzles with its bright, rich colours.
Much like the avant garde American artist Charles Demuth, Redon also painted a succession of much more conventional floral still lifes, such as his Vase of Flowers (c 1900-10). In Demuth’s case, these appeared to be his therapy when he was suffering the consequences of his diabetes. Redon’s may have been studies for the flowers which he then included in his more complex works.
In 1904, at the Autumn Salon, a total of 62 of his works were exhibited in a room dedicated to Redon. He also had his first painting purchased by a major French public collection.
His pastel La Voile jaune (The Yellow Sail) (c 1905) is one of his best-known paintings, and follows on with the sailing boat theme from Flower Clouds. It is best-developed here: the small boat with its distinctive ochre sail is filled with brilliant, twinkling jewels. Two women sit at its stern, one with her hands on the tiller. The sea is not calm, though, and small waves break by the boat, while the sky is full of scud clouds.
The Chariot of Apollo (1905-16) is an oil painting showing a fragment of classical narrative, that of Apollo the sun god, and the sun-chariot which he drove across the sky each day. From 1905, Redon painted several different versions of Apollo, and his ill-fated son Phaëthon, who lost control of the chariot and had to be struck down to save the world from destruction.
Buddha (1906-7), a wonderful pastel now in the Musée d’Orsay, revisits the Buddha theme in its best-known form, with the figure of Buddha now stood near the tree, and a weird collection of plants around them.
It’s sometimes claimed that Redon’s later paintings became progressively more abstract and less rooted in the real world. Butterflies, an oil painting from around 1910, shows how his images still retained form, even though their content was so radical. The bizarre butterflies, flowers, plants, and rocks are often outlined to emphasise their form (as with Blake, a reflection of his print-making).
In 1910, his paintings were included in Roger Fry’s exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists in London. Although initial responses were largely of shock, it kickstarted the move to modernism in Britain. Three years later, his paintings were included in the large and highly influential exhibition of modern art in New York popularly known as the Armory Show, which did the same in America.
The Cyclops (c 1914) shows a scene from another story of classical legend. Polyphemus, the one-eyed cyclops, is here spying on the naked figure of the Nereid (sea nymph) Galatea. Polyphemus is now better-known from his blinding by Odysseus, but in this story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he lusts after Galatea, who is in love with Acis. When Polyphemus finds them embracing, he crushes Acis with a boulder, but Galatea responds by changing Acis into an immortal river spirit.
Widely recognised as one of the masterpieces of Symbolism, this continues Redon’s recurrent theme of the eye and sight.
Redon painted a series of works examining the well-known myth of Pandora, a parallel to Eve and the Fall of Man in Judeo-Christian mythology. Pandora was the first human woman created by the gods, and as punishment for the theft of fire by Prometheus, she was moulded from earth and equipped with seductive gifts. She was provided with a jar (later corrupted as a box) which contained toil, sickness, and diseases. When Pandora was given to Epimetheus as a gift from Zeus, she opened the jar and scattered its contents – ending the ‘golden age’ of mankind. The one item which remained trapped inside the jar was Hope.
This oil painting of Pandora from about 1914 develops the series further, with the flowers shrinking to a more lifelike size, and the box still firmly held to her bosom.
Redon’s late oil painting of Dante and Beatrice from 1914 refers to Paradise, from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The artist died in Paris on 6 July 1916, at the age of 76.