"the most fortuitous of phenomena.“ - the French symbolist painter Odilon Redon

20 April 1840, the French symbolist painter Bertrand-Jean, better known as Odilon Redon, was born in Bordeaux.

“The Artist submits from day to day to the fatal rhythm of the impulses of the universal world which encloses him, continual centre of sensations, always pliant, hypnotized by the marvels of nature which he loves, he scrutinizes. His eyes, like his soul, are in perpetual communion with the most fortuitous of phenomena.“ (Odilon Redon)

Odilon Redon’s “Cyclops” (1914),
Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, Netherlands

It was all about dreams and young Redon was always a bit of an oddity. A sickly, sensitive child suffering from epilepsy, grown up in the rural Gironde, supposed to become an architect and far more interested in music, natural sciences and drawing, drawing, drawing. He failed his architect’s exam twice, was overwhelmed by the works of Courbet, Manet, Pissarro and Corot, then war broke out in 1870, Redon joined the army and stayed in Paris afterwards for good and drew and painted and dreamed. More or less unknown, he achieved an unhoped-for artistic breakthrough, when in 1884 Joris-Karl Huysmans’ decadent cult classic À rebours, the "poisonous French novel" that lead to Dorian Gray’s downfall, featured an eccentric aristocrat who had drawings of Redon in his collection, “inconceivable apparitions in their rough, gold-striped pear-tree wood. … These designs were beyond anything imaginable; they leaped, for the most part, beyond the limits of painting and introduced a fantasy that was unique, the fantasy of a diseased and delirious mind.“

Odilon Redon: "The Crying Spider" (1881)

By then, Redon had already moved away from his “black phase”, charcoal drawings and prints depicting smiling and crying spiders, severed heads, a giant eye that formed the gondola of a hot-air balloon, an egg with a constricted face, wedged in an eggcup and whatnot. Now, along with the Symbolist movement, he created dreamscapes full of Christian and Ancient mythological motives in surroundings full of colour and light, multi-layered and nevertheless dazing, since Redon remained an oddity, even among the Symbolists, anticipating Expressionism and Surrealism and when others dissolved form in favour of colour and colours for geometry in the early years of the 20th century, he imagined Apollo’s Sun Chariot in swirls of light and St Sebastian nailed to a tree, as if the night-and-day residues of the 19th century and its infatuation with unfathomable myths were processed into a dream dreamed apart from Modernity in full bloom already and the looming horrors of the 20th century.

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