REDON Odilon
( 1840-1916). Born in Bordeaux; died in Paris. Born in the same year as Monet, Redon belonged to the Impressionists' generation but preferred to make his way alone rather than join their movement, which he found too limited in scope. From the start he insisted on the role of imagination in art, and as early as 1868, when Courbet and Naturalism were at their height, he gave his opinion clearly on the subject: 'There are those who want to confine the art of painting to reproducing only what they see. Whoever remains within these narrow limits restricts himself to an inferior ideal. The great painters of the past have proved that the artist, once he has mastered his medium and found in Nature his means of expression, is genuinely free to take his subjects from history or the poets, or to seek it in his imagination.' And he declared that 'while I recognize the necessity of the thing seen as a base, true art is in reality felt'. These early convictions remained his creed all his life.
He loved Nature and studied her closely, but his precise drawings led him to develop a personal style appropriate to the strange world of his dreams. Little by little the reality seen blended in his vision and work with the reality felt. Redon himself explained this double inspiration in a letter to a friend: 'I have always felt the necessity for copying small, fortuitous, individual objects from Nature. Only after an effort of will faithfully to reproduce a blade of grass, a stone, a branch, part of an old wall, am I fired with the urge to create something imaginary. Nature thus accepted and transformed, becomes my inspirational source. My best works have been the outcome of this approach.' Redon always insisted that his imagination had its roots in the observation of Nature and that his fantastic creations, demoniacal visions in black and white, belonged to a world never wholly divorced from reality. In his own words: 'My originality consists in making incredible beings live according to credible laws, in placing the logic of the possible at the service of the invisible'. Thus Redon succeeded in translating that disturbing dream world which for him partook of reality into a purely plastic language of mysterious lines, subtle contrasts and harmonious colours. He was not interested in probing its meaning; his one aim was to express himself in luxuriant, vigorous colours or in delicate contrasts of black and white.
Redon worked for many years without attracting any attention, or even trying to make a name for himself. His first album of lithographs (In a Dream) -- a medium he was to choose for some of his most original and important work -- was not published until 1879, when he was nearly forty, and his first small exhibitions in 1881 and 1882 passed almost unnoticed. But as Symbolism in literature developed and reached its peak in 1886, Mallarmé, a close friend of Redon's, and the other poets of the movement were quick to recognize affinities between the painter's work and their own trend. Mallarmé, in a letter to Redon, expressed the pleasure a study of his lithographs gave him: 'The impression received never diminishes, so powerful is your sincerity of vision as well as your capacity for transmitting it to others'. But if it was Symbolism that created the climate necessary for an appreciation of Redon's work, it was not only men of letters who admired his work. The new generation of painters soon came to accept him as of importance to them; Gauguin was proud to be known as his friend, Émile Bernard was unsparing in his admiration, and did all he could to make his work known, while the young Nabis -- Bonnard, Vuillard and Maurice Denis -- came to him for advice. Henri Matisse, attracted by the intense colours introduced by Redon into his painting about 1890, called on the artist to express his admiration. But Redon's role as precursor was not widely acknowledged until after his death, when the Surrealists broke in on the world with their fantastic art -- often far more literary and intellectual than that of their great predecessor.
Redon's art is not easily accessible; as with Delacroix and Goya -- whom he admired without imitating -- there is an 'obvious' side to his work which is easy to grasp but also a 'hidden' side, an inherent poetry, a masterly control, and a true harmony only visible to the initiated.
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