Redon and His World: Beyond Imagination

Jul. 22(Sun), - Dec. 2(Sun), 2018
Closed on Sep. 27(Thu)

French artist Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was born around the same time as the Impressionist artists and active the late 19th century and early 20th century. Because his paintings depicted a fantasy world of mysterious visions and eerie monsters, he was considered an artist apart whose strange works reflected a confrontation with the lurking ‘internal world’ of his mind.
Recent research has shed new light on Redon. Objective analysis of his notes and letters, as well as review of his art in the context of the contemporary trends, reveals profound influence from the culture around him, including popular culture caricatures in magazines and illustrations in natural science journals, as well as historical masterworks and the art of his time.
This exhibition seeks to dismantle the entrenched myth of Redon as a solitary artist painting dream world fantasy, and to show that Redon explored the diversity of values at the time he lived. Further, comparision with the world of illusion depicted by contemporary artists confirms the enduring significance of Redon’s art.

1. In the Dream: Sources of Redon’s Images

Odilion Redon was born in Bordeaux in southwestern France in 1840. He spent his childhood at Peyre Lebade, a village on the outskirts of the city. When he returned to Bordeaux, he experienced many influential encounters. In his mid-twenties, he became acquainted with painter Rodolphe Bresdin who taught him the techniques and possibilities of printmaking and, moreover, how to appreciate art and the significance of the great masters such as Rembrandt. Under botanist Armand Clavaud, Redon discovered the world of microscopic life. He observed master paintings in museums and sketched landscapes, but he also took interest in contemporary satirical magazines and popular publications. With such an array of source material, Redon produced series of prints expressing his special world of fantasy creatures and strange scenery. The direction of Redon’s art differed diametrically from Monet and the Impressionists who at the time were gaining attention as avant-garde artists capturing the bright colors of the world around them.

Section 2. Water as Life Source: Primal Forms

Redon considered water the source of creation and was drawn to the strange life forms that existed unseen beneath the surface of water. Discoveries at the end of the 19th century in the natural sciences, including advances in the study of oceanography that brought deep-sea creatures to light, were of great interest to him. The fantastical life forms captured the public’s imagination as they were exhibited at expositions and introduced through publications. Primitive looking mollusks and monsters that combined human and fish features appeared in Redon’s print series La Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony). Redon’s imagination also extended to the transformation of water to clouds and air. As a child, Redon had been told by his father that magical and illusionary beings were contained in clouds. He incorporated this idea in his paintings. In his Dante and Beatrice (no. 86), the profiles of the two lovers emerge from a bright cloud.

Section 3. Wings and Balloons: Modernity and Mythology

New inventions of the Industrial Revolution, such as railroads and electric lights, came into practical use in 19th century France. Hot-air balloons proliferated as a means to communicate with the outside world during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 when enemy countries surrounded France. For Redon, this was the realization of the act of flying beyond what had until then been just a dream.

Redon’s renditions of flight were expressed in two themes. One was the representation in prints and drawings of balloons as floating human heads with eyes staring down at the ground from above and symbolizing new visual experiences brought about by modern science. The other theme was the image of a winged person or horse running in the sky. At first, these were based on stories of Greek mythology, linked to the horses of Apollo’s chariot, to Pegasus, and Centaurs. In time, human figures with wings, such as Icarus, angels, and demons were eliminated along with elements of the myths, replaced by figures unrelated to the stories depicted as if drifting in the sky like balloons.

Section 4. Dreams Revealed: Flowers and Eyes

Redon pursued a world of imagination invisible to the human eye, even in viewing actual flowers in full bloom. For Redon, plants that sprouted from seeds to produce robust blossoms existed in a realm somewhere between fantasy and reality.

Redon’s sustained interest in plants began in his teens with lessons from Clavaud in natural science and philosophy. Clavaud devoted his life to research on algae having both plant and animal properties. This greatly influenced Redon’s representations that integrated plant and human forms. His colorful paintings of flowers appealed to an audience different from the enthusiasts of Redon’s prints featuring the bizarre. After the turn of the century, Redon accepted commissions for interior decorations and produced murals and designs for furnishings. Beginning with the Nabis artists, and the trend for Art Nouveau at the start of the 20th century, many artists became involved in interior decoration. Redon explored color and form as he pursued the new styles of decoration.

Section 5. 21st Century Dreams: Redon’s Legacy

The remarkable range of Redon’s bizarre illusionary world becomes understandable in the context of the rapid development of science and the arts in the period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a time when illustrated popular magazines proliferated and brought dramatic developments to visual culture, and when world expositions introduced material culture from around the world to Europe. There was though, at the same time, a pessimistic sense of decadence related to problems of rapidly advancing modernization and capitalism. This was similar to the experience of our present age of hyper-information through the Internet and the spread of fantasy imagery in movies and games. What kinds of illusions are emerging now as we transition to a new age?

This exhibition introduces works by Kawasawa Hitoshi, Ikemura Leiko, Konoike Tomoko – three contemporary artists who draw on the theme of illusion and fantasy. Their works contain a sense of the atmosphere of Redon’s world.


Odilon Redon, The Misshapen Polyp Floated on the Shores, a Sort of Smiling and Hideous Cyclops, Lithograph on paper, 1883, The Museum of Fine Arts, Gifu


Odilon Redon, Icarus, ca.1890, oil on paper mounted on canvas, Pola museum of Art


Odilon Redon, Flower in a Japanese Vase, 1908, oil on canvas, Pola museum of Art