Research Point: Odilon Redon

Bertrand ‘Odilon’ Redon was born in 1840 in Bordeaux, France and died in 1916 in Paris.  ‘Odilon’ was given as a nickname to Bertrand by his mother, whose name was ‘Odile’. 

Fig. 1. Self-Portrait (1880)

Redon won several prizes throughout his lifetime, including a drawing prize at school and the Legion of Honour, awarded in 1903, but was a relatively unknown artist until 1879, gaining further exposure in 1884 when he was noted in a cult novel.

Redon was instructed by and studied under Jean-Leon Gerome (painting) and Rodolphe Bresdin (lithography and etching).  Redon enjoyed poetry and was a great fan of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, with their darkness and sinisterism.

In his earlier years – after being drafted into the army and the war ending in 1871- Redon focussed solely on working in charcoal and lithography, and focussing on the contrast and constant battle between light and dark.  He called these works his ‘noirs’ and continued to create this type of work until he was around 50 years old, creating no more noirs at all after 1900, when he had entered his 60s.

In the 19th century, the Symbolist movement came into full flow and this shows clearly in Redon’s work with his subtle emphasis on the spiritual image behind the physical image.  Whilst Redon was not a Christian, he was born during the time of the French Revolution when the Catholic Church was no longer seen as a legal obligation, allowing other religions such as the Protestant Church and Judaism to begin to thrive and allowed people with minds such as Redon’s, to explore more mythical and supernatural philosophies.  Redon created a great number of works focussing on Jesus Christ, both as a noir and in colour.

Two Trees, 1875

In 1875, when Redon was in his mid-30s, he created the piece Two Trees.  I believe the name for the piece is very fitting as it is literally what you see when first looking at the piece. 

Fig. 4. Two Trees(c.1875)

Upon first briefly seeing Two Trees, I was not very moved by the piece at all; I found it rather bland and would have simply carried on walking if I were on the apparent path in the picture, ignoring what appear to be ‘just another couple of trees’. 

The piece itself is rather timeless; it could have been drawn in a woodland somewhere 400 years ago, in Redon’s time or even yesterday.  A woodland’s age moves much slower than that of other areas of life (i.e. fashion or architecture) which would be more definitive clues as to the era depicted.

The more I looked at the piece, however, the more I seemed to become enlightened as to the mystery and sinister invitation behind the initial ‘normal’ façade.  I began to imagine where the ‘entrance’ between the two trees would take me if I were to be lured into it; would there be goblins and elves waiting for me?  Perhaps a monster or even a parallel universe?  It seemed to whisk me back to my childhood and fairy-tales of such creatures, I became suddenly enthralled by the piece and the magic which was hidden beneath the surface.  I imagined it as a world in which mere mortals (as I had been initially) would simply continue past the gap and not give it a second glance, but those with ‘the sight’ (as I now find myself to have) would be able to find the hidden entrance between the inconspicuous trees.  This excited me and made me feel almost magically powerful myself!  My inner-child was in her element! 

Moving on to the piece’s creation, I think Redon created the piece outside and that he actually was in front of these specific trees physically, however, I do think he played with the contrast between light and dark to emphasise the sense of supernatural and create a more sinister response.  I believe the piece was somewhat planned to have included the layer of paranormal to it and the result is perfect.

The piece was created with charcoal and paper.  Redon’s skill with the charcoal is fantastic to behold.  I really like how he has included what appears to be a little frottage in the piece (in the bark of the trees and the clear dots at the base of the straight tree).  Whether these were intentional or not, I am unsure, but I think they add another layer of texture to the piece.  Other techniques I can see in the piece are lines and marks going in several directions to show the way the form is moving, blending to create the smooth pathway and stippling (mostly within the leaning tree).

Comparison to Redon’s Other Works

I decided to look into other pieces of Redon’s work and tried to choose pieces from different times in his life, but of a similar composition.  I decided on two pieces: Tree and Stars (date unknown, but obviously pre-1900), created in charcoal, and The Barque (1900), created in oil on a canvas.

Fig. 5. Tree and Stars (unknown)

Tree and Stars, at first glance, appears to be a piece showing a lone tree in an open space slightly more overgrown than that of Two Trees (perhaps a marshland?) with several bushes and floating orbs surrounding it during a late-evening or night-time.

Fig. 6. The Barque (c.1900)

The Barque, at first glance, appears to show a tree on the edge of the land, surrounded by a flowerbed, overlooking a body of water (perhaps a lake?) which then fades off into the skyline.  There is a boat in the foreground with two pale, barely visible passengers aboard during the daytime.

My initial observations of the three pieces and the reason I chose them were how they all contain at least one tree – either leaning to the right or stood tall and straight.  I noticed how the straight trees were both located to the right-hand side of the pieces and the lone leaning tree in Tree and Stars was also placed over to the right-hand side.  I tried to fathom some reasoning as to this – perhaps it was a hidden message from Redon?  Personally, I think it may be an indication of his hand dominance belonging to his left side potentially.  I say this as, if you were to actually be the two trees in the image, the tall, straight tree would be the left-hand side and the weaker, leaning tree would be the right-hand side.  I also noticed in Redon’s self-portrait that his left-hand side is proudly displayed in the light, whereas his right-hand side is hidden in the darkness – perhaps another indication as to his dominant side? This got me thinking as to what messages I would like to put across to my viewers – whether directly or indirectly – and what I would like people to know about me and my private life that I would not necessarily always say aloud.

All three images seem to have a clear three-way divide also; Two Trees and Tree and Stars both have a sparse background and foreground as well as a cluttered middle-ground, but The Barque seems to create this divide in its colouring – the background is mainly blue, the middle-ground rather white and the foreground very bright and colourful.  I wondered whether this was an attempt by Redon to include his love of Japanese art and their technique of splitting images three ways perhaps.

Similar to Two Trees, these two pieces seem rather unremarkable upon first viewing them, but hold more intrigue and mystery the more you observe them.  I noticed how Redon has used darkness and light within these pieces in slightly different ways; where Two Trees uses shadow to create the sinister image of an entrance between the trees, Tree and Stars and The Barque appear to focus more on the light to emphasise the magical qualities of the pieces – the ethereal people on the boat and the floating orbs. 

I decided to make a list of all similarities and dissimilarities I noticed between the three pieces and have shown these in the grids below:

Similarities and Dissimilarities

Two Trees Tree and Stars The Barque
Pre-1900   Pre-1900 1900
Two trees: leaning tree (left) and tall, straight tree (right)     One tree: leaning tree (right), no straight tree One tree: no leaning tree, tall, straight tree (right)
Focus drawn centrally to the trees and the dark space between them Focus drawn centrally / right-hand side to the leaning tree   Focus drawn to the right-hand side to the bright and colourful tree
Open expanse to the foreground and background, busy middle-ground   Open expanse to the foreground and background, busy middle-ground Open expanse to the background and slightly to the middle-ground
Daytime – to create a false sense of security and peace in the mystical setting?   Night-time – to create a false sense of eeriness when the stars actually appear so gentle and peaceful?   Sunset? Representing the approaching end of the ethereal couple’s time on this plane?  
Texture created by lines     Texture created by lines Texture created by colours
Bushes but no flowers     Bushes but no flowers Flowers and slight greenery
Two apparent directions: from the bottom left and top right, but no obvious source seen in the piece   One apparent direction, but no apparent source One apparent light source from a setting sun in the background
No supernatural beings or objects visible in the piece, only what is conjured in the mind’s eye   Ethereal floating ‘heads’ which must represent the stars?  One of which appears to be glowing, as informed by the lines moving outward from it in a circle around it.  I think this confirms the suspicion of it being a star.   Ethereal beings on the boat which are not immediately clearly visible when first viewing the piece but become clearer upon closer inspection.  The beings appear to be in conversation with each other and rather closely located given the apparent space in the boat.  One appears to be a male and the other a female, so I believe this represents a married couple perhaps making their way to the next life / plane?  
Monotone and subdued colouring focussing on the contrast between light and dark as opposed to colours.  The darkness between the two trees is, I feel, in competition with the two trees as to the main focal point of the piece. Monotone and subdued colouring throughout, offering little assistance in finding the viewpoint of the tree besides from its physical-being.  The stars, even though in contrast to the darkness, appear somewhat subdued and do not immediately jump out as a main focal point.  This also adds to their intrigue as, as with the Two Trees, humans would not immediately see the mystery of the stars.   Vibrant colours within the forefront with slightly mellower colours in the background.  The figures are very subdued and are clearly not meant to be the first focal point before the vibrant tree. This adds to their intrigue as, as with the Two Trees, humans would not immediately see the magic within the piece.  

Overall, I really like the three pieces.  I am more drawn to Redon’s earlier work, with its darkness and moodiness as opposed to his later almost happier and eerily peaceful works, almost as though Redon had moved along a sort of spectrum throughout his life’s journey.  Whilst I do not know for sure when the Tree and Stars was created, I believe it must have been either around the time of the Two Trees or maybe not too long after it, as it still has the same eeriness, however, it seems less sinister in its outcome, leading me to believe, perhaps, that he created it toward the more peaceful part of his life, if continuing along the train of thought regarding a spectrum.  I think Redon’s work may indicate a potentially troubled childhood and fear of the world – he did, after all, endure a war – moving more towards a calmer sense of being towards the end of his life.  Whilst I do not think his appreciation for all things dark and mysterious ever left him, I think he may have found some inner peace towards the end and that perhaps the two people on the boat were meant to represent him and his wife and how they had come to terms with the mysteries of the world and would welcome the next adventure with open arms.

Moving Forward…

I definitely want to create some pieces with Redon’s work in mind – adding a touch of the sinister and darkness to my own work – and it is definitely something I want to experiment with further down the line in my journey.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Redon, O (1880) Self-Portrait [Oil on canvas] At: Wiki-Art (Accessed on 19 February 2019)

Figure 2. Redon, O (1894-1895) Christ (also known as Head of Christ Wearing a Crown of Thorns) [Drawing – Charcoal]  At: The Athenaeum (Accessed on 19 February 2019)

Figure 3. Redon, O (c.1910) The Crucifixion [Oil on card] At: Bridgeman Education (Accessed on 19 February 2019)

Figure 4. Redon, O (c.1875) Two Trees [Charcoal on paper] At: Bridgeman Education (Accessed on 19 February 2019)

Figure 5. Redon, O (unknown) Tree and Stars [Charcoal] At: Bridgeman Education (Accessed on 19 February 2019)

Figure 6.  Redon, O (c.1900) The Barque [Oil on canvas] At: Bridgeman Education (Accessed on 19 February 2019)

Citation

Wikipedia (unknown) ‘Odilon Redon’ In: Wikipedia.org [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odilon_Redon (Accessed on 20 February 2019)

Odilon-Redon (unknown) ‘Biography of Odilon Redon’ In: Odilon-Redon.org [online] At: https://www.odilon-redon.org/biography.html (Accessed on 20 February 2019)

Encyclopaedia Britannica (22 July 2010) ‘Odilon Redon’ In: Britannica Library [online] In: https://library.eb.co.uk/levels/adult/article/Odilon-Redon/62986 (Accessed on 20 February 2019)