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An eye for the surreal

French artist Odilon Redon looked at a flower, and when it looked back, the door to Modern art swung open.

January 08, 2006|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

New York — WHEN the fin de siecle French Symbolist Odilon Redon was a child, he would often hide in the thick draperies, dark corners or other poorly lighted places of his family's isolated estate in the French countryside. He was "a watcher taking pleasure in silence," he later wrote a friend. "I sought out shadows."

Born in Bordeaux in 1840, just a year after Cezanne, Redon squeezed from a childhood plagued by loneliness and ill health the seeds of a personal and unique vision. Encouraged by a father who would point out to him the strange shapes lurking in clouds, he filtered nature through his vivid imagination to create a body of haunting, haunted work that he called "an art according to myself."

It's also an art that has been rarely exhibited in the U.S. in depth. So when New York's Museum of Modern Art received a gift of more than 100 Redons from the Ian Woodner Family Collection a few years ago, the opportunity arose for a major look at an influential though lesser-known modern artist. On view at MoMA through Jan. 23 is "Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon," an exhibition of more than 130 artworks that span Redon's work in prints, drawings, paintings, watercolors and illustrated books.

The exhibition traces Redon from his early landscape studies through his dark prints to his later, more accessible flower still lifes and other paintings. But the bulk of the exhibition is the lithographs and charcoal drawings he called "noirs."

Often related to works by such writers as Gustave Flaubert, Edgar Allan Poe and others, the "noirs" were as original as they were disturbing. Foreshadowing the Surrealists he would later influence, Redon's eggs and plant stems have eyes; an eyeball floats as a hot-air balloon in one of his best-known noirs, "Eye-Balloon." Cyclops and centaurs appear, as do assorted monsters, smiling spiders, detached heads and floating figures.

"Redon's two-part vision is a combination of observation and imagination, nature and fantasy," says the exhibition's organizer, Jodi Hauptman, an associate curator in MoMA's drawings department. "To draw from nature isn't enough for him. That's not art. You have to take a second step, and for Redon the second step was that leap into the imagination."

An early drawing teacher introduced Redon to the study of nature, and he was also influenced by his friend Armand Clavaud, a botanist who taught him about plant physiology. Although he studied architecture, sculpture and classic painting, he was drawn more to printmaking. He studied with the printmaker Rodolphe Bresdin, and later saw prints as a way of getting wider distribution for his work.

MoMA's Starr Figura, an assistant curator in prints and illustrated books, puts Redon's print output at nearly 30 etchings and 170 lithographs, most in black and white and mostly made between 1878 and 1900 during his "noirs" period. Redon's prints are well represented in the MoMA exhibition, as they are within the museum's collection.

Many of Redon's prints appeared in portfolios, and these portfolios are a highlight of the show. While few exhibitions take the space to include entire portfolios, MoMA shows as many as 23 images on a wall. When the portfolios were created, 19th century collectors didn't frame the prints but rather kept them as portfolios, sometimes even changing the order of the unbound prints to create their own exhibitions. MoMA didn't mat the prints it is showing, says the curator, because "we wanted to give viewers the sense of the sheet."

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Portfolios with a literary link

AMONG the portfolios in this exhibition are Redon's "Homage to Goya" as well as portfolios based on plays and literature. Redon made prints from such Poe stories as "The Masque of the Red Death," for instance, that don't illustrate specific passages but rather evoke the mood of the story. Also on view are lithographs from three Redon portfolios inspired by Flaubert's 1874 novel, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony."

Guiding a visitor through the galleries, Hauptman pauses in front of Redon prints with their images of a head floating out of darkness, monsters and meditation on the beginnings of human life. "I was trying to think about what leads someone to make these things," says the curator, "but I don't think there is one answer.

"There were the writings of the Symbolists and Decadents who turned their backs on the everyday in favor of the unconscious, the workings of the mind and the fantastic. Darwin was in the air. Redon was visiting the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He was going to lectures at the medical school and thinking about osteology, the study of bones, and teratology, the study of monsters and mutants."

Although his themes remained fairly constant, Redon began to change his medium toward the end of the 19th century. He began to add color to some of the noirs, then gave up printmaking for pastels, oil painting and, eventually, watercolors.

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