Severed heads, grinning spiders, an eyeball soaring through the air like a balloon -- Odilon Redon had a penchant for strange subjects.
While his contemporaries, the Impressionists, left their studios to paint outdoors, directly from nature, Redon stayed home and peered into the unplumbed depths of his soul. No wonder the Surrealists admired him as a forerunner.
Oddly enough, French museums have neglected him for more than half a century. The show at the Grand Palais is the first in Paris since 1956.
To make up for such a long absence, the organizers have amassed some 300 works. It’s the most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to the visionary artist.
Until well into his fifties, Redon (1840-1916) worked almost exclusively in black and white, producing lithographs and charcoal drawings.
Having failed to get into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he trained with the engraver Rodolphe Bresdin, an eccentric who called himself Chien-Caillou (after Chingachgook, the father of U.S. author James Fenimore Cooper’s last Mohican) and eventually moved to the U.S. Redon inherited from Bresdin a taste for the fantastic and the grotesque.
In 1882, Redon’s illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre stories catapulted the artist to fame. Two years later, Jean Des Esseintes, the decadent hero of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel “A Rebours,” or Against the Grain, was depicted as an enthusiastic collector of Redon’s “noirs.”
Redon became a figurehead of the Decadent movement, which celebrated fetishism, violence, incest and all sorts of erotic obsessions. The art critic Thadee Natanson called him in the Revue Blanche a “Prince of Dreams.”
It was only natural that Redon subsequently illustrated “The Flowers of Evil,” Baudelaire’s scabrous and sacrilegious collection of poems, and Flaubert’s hybrid philosophical drama “The Temptation of St. Anthony.”
Then everything changed. It’s hard to tell when the decisive moment occurred. Was it Redon’s religious crisis in the early 1890s? Or his serious illness in 1895? Was it his first trip to Italy in 1900? Or the commission from his travel companion Robert de Domecy to paint a mural in the dining room of his chateau in Burgundy? (The mural is on view in its original layout at the Grand Palais.)
Whatever it was, in 1900 Redon turned to painting, and in 1902 he completely abandoned his “noirs.”
The second part of the show is a letdown. Although Matisse loved Redon’s flowers, they’re tame compared with the nightmares he had so masterfully conjured up before.
Instead of the black-and-white monsters, there are divine apparitions and mythological scenes in radiant colors. Redon doubtless knew how to handle oils and pastels, yet his earlier work is incomparably more interesting.
It seems that he was a happy man in his last years while his earlier life often had been overshadowed by depression. Could it be that, with his depression, he also lost the better part of his talent?
“Odilon Redon,” which is supported by Barclays Plc, runs through June 20 and then travels to Montpellier, France, where it will be on view from July 7 to Oct. 16. During that period, the library of the former abbey of Fontfroide, which Redon decorated, will exceptionally be open to the public. Information: http://www.rmn.fr or +33-1-4413-1717.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)