CLEVELAND, Ohio – Just in time for Halloween, the Cleveland Museum of Art showcases the extraordinarily bizarre art of Odilon Redon, one of France’s scariest artists of the late 19th century.
A new exhibition examines 53 examples of the artist’s work, which explores dark and imaginary fantasies that contrast dramatically with the colorful, washed-out impressionist landscapes most often associated with French art of the time.
Redon, (1840 – 1916) is an utterly fascinating figure who seemed to stand out from his contemporaries while acting as a recognized leader of the Symbolist movement in France and Belgium, and serving as an essential precursor of 20th century surrealism.
Strongly inspired by the visionary writings of authors such as Gustave Flaubert, Stéphane Mallarmé and Edgar Allan Poe, Redon specialized in dreamlike and hallucinatory images populated by monsters, wizards, winged horses, Wagnerian heroines, Christian angels, Buddhist deities and giant eyeballs that float in the sky like hot air balloons.
Redon specialized for much of his career in “blacks,” a long series of charcoal drawings and lithographs that harnessed the power of black to evoke the mysterious and disturbing worlds that were his strong point.
Examples on display in the exhibit include lithographic prints depicting a haunted house populated by ghostly figures, a dog pierced by something only he can see, and a hand that emerges from the surrounding darkness to place a threatening-looking letter on top of it. a lighted table. in the foreground. The image appears to anticipate Thing, the disembodied hand of The Addams Family, the fictional household created by cartoonist Charles Addams in the 1930s, which went on to inspire popular TV show and movies.
One can also see in Redon’s exhibition a remarkable “black” drawing from the 1870s representing Quasimodo, the main character of Victor Hugo’s novel, “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”, the author of which the artist deeply admired.
Acquired by the museum in 2020, the design depicts Quasimodo on what appears to be a dimly lit balcony, accompanied by a mysterious hooded figure.
Quasimodo’s massive head, which feels as heavy as if carved in stone like that of a gargoyle, twists to one side as he looks up and part his lips as if to speak. The image is melancholy, bizarre, even a little frightening.
The exhibit, “Collecting Dreams: Odilon Redon”, was not specially designed to coincide with the spookiest holiday on the calendar.
Curated by Britany Salsbury, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, the exhibition aims to shed light on a little-known chapter in the history of the museum’s permanent collection.
The museum gained a reputation from the late 1950s to the mid 1980s for taking a distant and unenthusiastic stance towards modern and contemporary art. This is not the case now, as the museum invests heavily in both areas and devotes a great deal of conservation energy and gallery space to them.
But as the Salsbury exhibit demonstrates, the museum, despite its reputation for conservative taste, was very enthusiastic about certain aspects of modern and contemporary art during its early decades. His admiration for Redon is one example.
From 1925 to 1927, the museum acquired no less than 39 of the 65 copies of Redon’s work currently in its collection. The first purchases included three large series of lithographs and a pair of light pastels considered among the artist’s finest works.
A pastel, from 1910, is a portrait of Violette Haymann, the niece of a major French art collector, posing in profile amidst colorful flowers that seem to reflect her inner state of mind. The other is an image of the lyre and the head of the Greek god of music, Orpheus, who, according to myth, continues to produce music after his death.
By acquiring such works in the 1920s, the museum acquired “an international reputation as the most important repository of Redon’s works outside of France,” according to a wall label from the exhibition.
Today he has a lot of company. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art all have Redon holdings comparable to those in Cleveland. And all of them are eclipsed by the Art Institute of Chicago, whose website lists more than 400 works by the artist.
Nevertheless, the new exhibition sheds light on a little-known facet of the museum’s history. Presented in the institution’s Focus Gallery, the exhibition is also an excellent introduction to Redon and his enigmatic and introspective art.
Coming from a wealthy family in Bordeaux, Redon suffered from an illness in his childhood, possibly epilepsy, and was sent by his parents to live with an uncle in a family vineyard. Growing up alone most of the time, he considered himself a “sad and weak child” who “sought the shade,” according to quotes cited on theartstory.org.
Redon only started school when he was 11, when he returned to his biological family. After showing an aptitude for art, he was urged by his father to study architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but he failed the entrance exam.
He then studied in Paris for a time with Antoine-Léon Gérôme, the conservative neoclassical artist who allegedly “tortured” Redon by insisting that he should learn to draw from live models in a studio instead. than to follow his desire to generate images from his own. imagination.
Returning to Bordeaux in 1865, Redon met the famous artist Rodolfe Bresdin, a master of visionary landscapes who encouraged Redon’s unusual artistic trajectory. After serving in the French army during its humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Redon returned to Paris where he found his place as a mature artist and befriended contemporaries including Henri Fantin-Latour and Paul Gauguin.
Above all, Redon caught the attention of novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, who made the artist famous by mentioning his work in his 1884 novel, “Against the grain”, an essential expression of fin-de-siècle cultural decadence.
The book tells the story of a rich recluse, Jean Des Esseintes, who retires to his mansion outside Paris to cure himself of a nervous disorder by devoting himself to sensual pleasures.
Des Esseintes had an aquarium installed in place of a dining room window, had breakfast at 5 pm and experimented with a “mouth organ”, from which he sipped harmonic combinations of liquors. As a jewel-encrusted turtle crawls on its rugs, Des Esseintes gets lost in the works of Redon, the Symbolist Gustave Moreau and Bresdin.
Huysmans’ novel echoes aspects of Redon’s introverted sensibility, which comes through powerfully in the museum’s exhibition.
In addition to shedding light on the history of the museum’s collection, the exhibition follows the institution’s summer exhibition on the Nabis, a group of late 19th-century French painters whose works Redon admired and whose works the leaders, including Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis, were the subject of lithographic portraits of Redon.
Redon’s exhibit also resonates well with another exhibit held earlier this year, “Stories from Storage,” in which the museum drew on its permanent collection to reinterpret rarely-exhibited treasures.
More than anything, the Salsbury exhibition calls for more such exhibitions, and for a major exhibition and book that deeply explores the history of the museum’s collection growth.
The museum published a useful institutional history in 1991 when celebrating its 75th anniversary, but missed the opportunity for something more extensive on its 100th anniversary in 2016.
As Redon’s exhibit shows, there is much more for the museum – and the public – to learn about how the Cleveland Museum of Art became one of America’s most important art museums.
What’s new: “Collecting dreams: Odilon Redon. “
Place: Cleveland Art Museum.
Address: 11150 East Blvd., Cleveland.
When: Until Sunday January 23, 2022.
Admission: To free. Call 216-421-7350 or visit cma.org.