Bertrand-Jean “Odilon” Redon was born 22 April 1840 in Bordeaux. Redon narrowly missed being an American, his father having emigrated to the United States and making his fortune in Louisiana and marrying a Creole woman. I fact his brother Ernest was born in New Orleans and it wasn’t until Redon’s mother, became pregnant for the second time, that it was decided they move back to France.
Redon began his artistic training at the age of 15, however to please his father at the age of 17 he turned to architecture though he was not too successful, failing the entrance exam at the Ecole des beaux-arts in 1862. Redon begun studying under Jean-Leon Gerome but found his teacher overly academic and rather sterile, describing himself as “tortured” by the teacher. He in 1865 met Rudolphe Bresdin who had a huge influence on Redon, teaching him the technique of etching he admired Bresdin, so much so that on one of Redon’s earliest etching he signs the piece “pupil of Bresdin”
Redon was drafted for a short spell as a soldier in the Franco Prussian war and whilst his term in the army was short, the horrors that he witnessed made him the Odilon Redon we think so highly of. He married to Camille Falte on 1st May 1880 at forty and had 2 sons, he struggled to support them financially with his art and it wasn’t until the last 10 years or so of his life that Redon was able to live comfortably.
Huysmans was a strong advocate of Redon and it was he that introduced him to Stephane Mallarme, leader of the symbolists and from here Redon often participated in the mardis, a Tuesday reception held by Mallarme for the Parisian art world in the 1880’s. It was here that he met the likes of Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis and the dealer Ambroise Vollard among others, catapulting his reputation as one of the most influential symbolist artists amongst the avante-garde.
It wasn’t until 1903 after Redon had turned 60 that he received the Legion d’Honneur, his first honour and in 1904 the Salon d’Automne devoted an entire room to Redon at their first annual show, He was soon able to live a far more comfortable life in a more affluent area. Redon died on 6th July 1916
Odilon Redon, Two Tree’s c.1875 (charcoal on paper)
My first impression of this drawing is of gloom and danger. These 2 old trees are in the corner of a forest with such a darkness behind and in between them you can’t tell whether this is the edge of the forest or whether there may be a path leading somewhere further and beyond. I put this feeling of gloom and spookiness down to not just the ominous setting but also the high contrast, the juxtaposition of darks and lights at their most extreme for example the branch of the left hand tree or the left hand side of the right tree. I’m not sure I’d want to go there but I feel that if I were there I may, against my judgement, be beckoned towards it.
When I begin to look closer, I find it hard to believe this is drawn in charcoal, it looks to me like an etching that Redon is famous for. The texture in the trees is made with sharp, scratchy (and in areas, incredibly fine) marks that look as though they have been scraped away somehow. There are other types of marks, most prevalent at the bottom right of the right tree looking like undergrowth, that show bright highlights through the charcoal they looks as though a liquid has been sprayed on with a toothbrush to create this effect. Again there are leaves on the branch of the left hand tree with bright highlights on a very dark background and blades of grass to the bottom. It is hard to imagine the darks being drawn in and the highlights left with such accuracy and delicacy and whilst this is a possibility I wonder if Redon had a way of removing the charcoal so cleanly perhaps with a solvent.
Odilon Redon, Guardian Spirit of the Waters, c.1878 (charcoal with black chalk, stumping, erasing, incising, & subtractive sponge work, heightened with white chalk, on cream wove paper altered to a golden tone)
I think what first attracted me to this drawing was its description. Firstly it answers many of my initial questions with regards to the processes Redon uses. The description is so honest, he clearly doesn’t wish to keep his processes to himself but instead decides to give an insight into what he does, I imagine to some this would be the equivalent of a magician revealing a secret.
The work itself, unlike Two Tree’s I find comical initially a huge, friendly almost clown like face looking over a comparatively tiny sail boat. This of course is a very different depiction of a guardian or god to what is usual, they would normally be depicted as warriors ready to punish insolence or disrespect severely. I wonder whether he is making a mockery of paganism or perhaps he feels that a god should be seen as mild and compassionate. Although the image is still high in contrast it doesn’t have the same feel to it. I think this is because in this drawing the background is light and airy where as in Two Trees the drawing is predominantly dark giving a more oppressive feel. I don’t find this image as technically appealing although there is plenty to look at, the hair has a great feel to it as does the water. I am also drawn to the white gull towards the centre of the sea and the outline of the sail and of course that big dreamy eye right in the centre of that round head. Overall, the lightness of subject and comic look of the guardian in this drawing makes me smile each time I return to it.
Fitzwilli Museum, The http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/redon/about/childhood.html
Dover Publications -The Graphic Works of Odilon Redon