As an artist, Odilon Redon expressed his volition to “place the visible at the service of the invisible.” What, in these terms, constitutes the “visible” aspect of Redon’s works, and what constitutes the “invisible”? Similarly, what reappearing motifs do we see in Redon’s works, and how might these be contextualized or interpreted?
As a child, Odilon Redon had learned from his father, to watch the rolling clouds and see the infinite manifestations of form. This carried on far into his career as an artist, the man who saw orphaned dreams lurking behind every corner of reality. He was the rare Symbolist artist who found the strange grey plane between science and art, and saw their inseparability in a time when the human race obsessively sought to classify the infinite works of Mother Nature.
Redon saw in the great technique of sculpting reality known as Chiaroscuro, the ability to create a sense of reality even in the fantastical. This he discovered from his study of the shadowy paintings of Rembrandt, The Night-Watch in particular. Here he saw how shadow could be used to create a sense of curious ambiguity in stark contrast to figures in the painted light. The darkness, to him evoked a strange sense of the unknown, and this he would apply over and over again in Noirs, or Black drawings and etchings. Chiaroscuro is a method used to create the great illusion of reality in a painting, and this Redon employed to represent his visions of the fantastic with a sense of credible reality. He tells the viewer what is visible by describing his figures in light, even though they may be the stuff of fantasy. Such presentation of “reality” encourages the viewer to challenge the concept of real “sight”, which I will go further into later in this essay. The visions of Redon are by no means mere whims of fantasy, but rather things that were constructed by the same general laws of nature.
For a creator of monsters and apparitions, a huge amount of passionate effort was spent studying reality in order to create the strange creatures that float in the space of Redon’s world. His creations were all scientifically authentic, in the sense that he studied botany, biology, microbiology and anatomy among others in order to create his imaginary beings. Redon saw reality as infinite fodder for the creative mind, and his works were usually products of the distortion or degeneration of reality as he saw it. This, he felt, was the true sight of an artist; the ability to see into and beyond the physical forms he was presented with. His delving into botany arose from a lifelong mentorship with Armand Clavaud, an artist and the keeper of the Bordeux Botanical Gardens who took great interest with the microscope and the study of plant germs. Much of Redon’s work is reflective of microbes seen through the microscope and the character of plants and flowers as believed by Clavaud.
The influence of the science of biology in Redon’s work was reflective of the times. The sudden surge of research in the sciences came shortly after the Franco-Prussian war, in which the French had lost. Hence, the nation saw research in the sciences as the only way for the country to reemerge out of post-war melancholy, with many writers and artists reflecting this ideal. It is notable then, that Redon’s works reflect a transitory world caught between an emphasis on Realism and Naturalism coupled with the responsive rise of the Symbolism and Decadence movements, which looked at the importance of the dream and imagination.
Many more aspects of the visible and “real” were incorporated into Redon’s drawings in order create a credible world of fantasy. Perspective and depth was not forsaken in his images, with the appearance of accurately drawn tiled floors such as those used in Vision, from his series In Dreams, usually found in the lower part of the painting whose lines followed the rules of perspective. This gave the images a proper sense of space that made...
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