I’m having a hard time finding concrete evidence of the artwork that first introduced me to Odilon Redon. I was at the Musee de Beaux Arts de Nantes, and was smitten by a painting of…of…well I honestly can’t recall. But it was colorful and magical and mysterious and intriguing enough that I went to the gift shop and tried to buy a print or postcard of it but they didn’t have one. Dommage. About a year ago I found it online, and then neglected to save it. And now, now, I really want to find it again, and I can’t. I think the museum sold the work, as the national catalogue of French government owned art only shows one black and white Redon drawing in the collection of Nantes. So today we will have to make due with a different work, still wonderful, but not the piece I fell in love with as an exchange student. Let’s peek in on Two Young Girls Among Flowers:
If the title didn’t give it away, it is a picture of two young girls among flowers. They are not girls “with” flowers, holding bouquets in their hands or next to a vase, but really they are girls surrounded by floating flowers. I’m not horticulturalist, but I doubt one could tell you what kind of flowers they are. They float in a way that doesn’t make sense, not in the physics way, at least. They exist in a magical ethereal way.
I notice the girl on the right of the picture first. Her eyes are closed, and she is sort of bright. Is that a blue fairy? Um, yes. Yes, I believe it is. It didn’t register that there was a fairy when I saw this in person. It was only after scanning an image and looking at ways to crop it that I realized the blue smudge has wings and an arrow.
Then I see the girl in the bottom left corner, head bowed, eyes closed. Is she kneeling? She almost has a halo around her head, the way the flowers encircle her. She reminds me of old paintings of saints, bent over so they may receive a blessing.
There are bees! Bees! Are they happy bees busily pollinating flowers, or a threat of a sting? Or both? I don’t know, but it seems odd that they would coexist with the peaceful, reverent girls. Bees are reality. They are the ants at your picnic, the mosquitos ruining your evening walk, the fly on your sandwich, the bee in your bonnet. Ahem. This is no longer a mere reverie among fragrant blooms. There is buzzing about. And danger. They are black, and there is a swarm of them! They aren’t perched contentedly on a flower, no sir, they are flying. Will they dive bomb into our ladies, eyes closed, blissfully unaware? Or will they stop short and just visit the flowers and go on producing honey back at the hive? I hope the later.
We didn’t talk about Odilon Redon in the year of art history I took. His work isn’t crazy super famous, like some other paintings we’ve discussed. He does merit mention in a couple of my art history books, and I did encounter him (or rather, his art) that year abroad in Nantes. But that didn’t prepare me for my next chance meeting with his creations. Part of me wants all his works to be flowers and color, but they aren’t. It is uncomfortable to think that the same man who crafted these:
also conjured up these:
On a trip to New York, my husband and I stopped into the Brooklyn Museum while they serendipitously happened to have a collection on display of a wide range of Odilon Redon’s work. I remembered him from Nantes, though I had only seen a dreamy colorful side, not the nighmarish shadowy side, and I was a bit taken aback by the aggressive and dark nature of some of his work. It turns out that I have a hard time with Redon. I wish people were all sunshine and smiles, but they aren’t.
Most of Redon’s early work is dark. He even called these drawings and prints “noirs.” He used a variety of media and techniques to achieve velvety dark images with the desired amount of texture, variation, and definition. All that to say the man knew how to draw. But he shied away from color.
It is unclear why he made the switch. Was he reminiscing as he aged? Was he happier? Had he finally, around age fifty, outgrown his youthful angst? I think I fear that people will become more jaded over time. I really love that Odilon Redon became more flowery. I like that the same artist who depicted hellish dreamscapes later emerged from those dark places to produce blossoming fantasies.
But let’s not forget about the bees.
Is there art you have “lost”? Can you remember how you felt standing in front of it, but can’t recall how it looked?
MOMA has a fancy interactive site from a previous exhibition of Redon’s work.
This article helped me better appreciate the technical mastery Redon had in his earlier work.