There’s a great moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door to the black-and-white Kansas farmhouse after the twister sets it down and finds a whole Technicolor Land of Oz outside. I can only imagine how breathtaking the color was to audiences in 1939, but I know that I paid great attention when I first saw it as a kid. A similar phenomenon happened in the career of Odilon Redon. Born April 22, 1840, Redon excelled as a draftsman. His father pressured him to become an architect, but Redon longed to draw the fantasies dancing in his head. A fan of Edgar Allen Poe and other authors of the bizarre, Redon drew mind-boggling works such as Eye-Balloon (above, from 1878) almost exclusively in black and white. It was as if the images themselves were so powerful that he couldn’t comprehend them in living color at the same time. Like many hard-to-fathom visionaries, Redon languished in relative obscurity until 1884, when Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel À rebours (Against Nature) featured an aristocrat who collected Redon's drawings. Huysmans descriptions of Redon’s art created an instant demand among connoisseurs of the avant garde. But just as Redon hit the big time in black and white, he decided to branch out into living color.
From the 1890s on, Redon painted some of the most eye-popping pastels and oils of any artist working at the time. Henri Matisse and the Fauves would look to Redon’s use of color as a model for their own art. Redon’s Saint John (above, from 1892) shows just how Redon could achieve breathtakingly saturated blues. Matisse claimed that he found in skies and waters of the south of France the blue he’d been looking for all his life, but Redon’s blues must have come a close second. As amazing as the blue of Saint John appears in reproduction, I’m sure it’s even more powerful in person. I recall seeing some pastels by Redon at the Musee d’Orsay and mentally comparing them to those by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec nearby. Although they were all near contemporaries, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec are much more into gesture than Redon, who builds up his images with a great deal of density. Next to Degas, Redon seems almost ponderous. Degas colors actually seem to move and vibrate, whereas Redon’s colors seem impossibly still, almost as contemplative as Saint John appears to be here.
Whether in black and white or color, Redon’s strange imagery never seems sinister the way that Alfred Kubin’s or Leon Spillaert’s does. Maybe that is because Redon worked mostly before Freud gave form to much of the mental angst at the beginning the twentieth century. After Freud, Kubin and Spillaert could give free reign to their deepest demons. Redon never really gets that dark, even in his early black and white work. When you look at Redon’s Flower Clouds (above, from 1903) you get a warm and fuzzy feeling, something certainly Kubin never gives you. Redon finds himself lumped in with the Symbolists for lack of a better label, but he’s really beyond category. To me, Redon always is about possibility. You see people standing and actually believe you can see them thinking, as with Saint John. With Flower Clouds and other ship-related paintings, you always wish you could know the mariners’ final destination. When European modern art reached American shores in the 1913 Armory Show, Redon, not Matisse or Picasso, had the largest number of works on display. In an exhibition aiming at showing the newest possibilities in art, Redon was the perfect choice.