By far, the most difficult Arty-facts to write are the biographical pieces, especially now that all the "easy" ones have been done. There was a time, not so many months ago, when it took maybe fifteen minutes to research an artist in a half-dozen or so art books and another fifteen minutes to pound out a fact-filled, triva-laden, two or three paragraphs for all my culture vulture readers to snack on with their coffee or tea each morning. In fact, there was a time when I could do an Arty-fact mostly from MEMORY. Tonight, longing for the "good old days," I just spent an hour collecting from the Internet, everything (and more) that anyone might ever want to know about Odilon Redon.
Who? Yeah, I'm now reduced to doing artists even I've hardly even heard of. Okay, Redon was born in Paris in 1840. Shortly after his birth, he was shuttled off to the Bordeaux wine country to grow up on an uncle's estate. There he developed into something of an introvert with a keen eye for drawing. His uncle saw to it he learned watercolor and as a teenager, studied with Stanislas Gorlin, the local artist in residence in Bordeaux. From there, he had a couple years learning to paint at the Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris with the academicist, Jean-Leon Gerome, while he studied to pass the entrance exam to become an architect. Much to his father's dismay, he never did. Instead he met Rodolphe Bresdin, a wandering printmaker who introduced the impressionable young artist to etching and lithography. He also taught him the wondrous grace of monochromatic representation in charcoal and ink.
Redon was a contemporary of all the radical Impressionists, and even conspired with them at the infamous Cafe Guerbois to overthrow the art world of their time. But though he displayed with them, he was not one of them. His ink and charcoal-smudged hands never picked up a paint brush again until the mid-1890s when Impressionism was starting to become quite passe. Instead, he looked to contemporary literature for his muse, especially the works of Poe, Clauvaud, Emile Verhaeren, and Jules Destrees. His 1885 lithograph, "The Marsh Flower, a Sad and Human Face." Is typical of his "Noir" works. Redon was relatively unknown until the publication in 1884 of Huysman's "A Rebours," a novel in when the hero, having studied Redon's work, is plunged into a horrific nightmare. This set the tone for Redon's popularity amongst the refined art and literary circles of Paris.
Who would have guessed that, hiding beneath this dark, moody exterior, there loomed an amazing colorist. Once Redon started painting, there were still glimpses of darkness from time to time, but for the most part, he was like a new man, light and color just radiating from his figures and flowers, his glowing still-lifes, and pastel portraits. Friends found even his personality changed. There was still an ethereal quality about his work, but from then until his death in 1916, this academically trained, yet mystical painting force went on to influence the Fauvists with his colors and later, the Surrealists with his unearthly subject matter. Redon was a transitional artist, as much remembered because of his influence as for his own art. And if biographies are difficult to encapsulate, transitional artists, especially one as hard to grasp as Redon, are very nearly impossible. My brain hurts, I think I'll go lie down.