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Sight, Sound and Symbols: Odilon Redon’s Visions of Music and Poetry

Odilon Redon, L'Art céleste (The Celestial Art), 1894. Private collection

In Odilon Redon’s L'Art céleste, 1894, a figure gazes down at a sheet of music, lost in thought. In the background an angel hovers, mournfully playing the violin while trailing a banner. This lithograph, together with its ambiguous title, presents a dreamlike world that is synonymous with the French artist’s work. It exemplifies, too, his desire to use art to provoke emotions usually felt through music. “My drawings... place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined," he once said. A new exhibition at the Kröller-Müller Museum will explore the way music and literature – another of his passions – came to shape Redon's career and imagination.

Kröller-Müller Museum. Courtesy of the Kröller-Müller Museum, Photo: Jannes Linders

Odilon Redon was born in Bordeaux in 1840, moving to Paris in the 1870s. He became known first for his black-and-white lithographs, and later for his mysterious pastels and oil paintings. By the time he died in 1916, he had become a leading member of the Symbolist group of poets and artists. Kröller-Müller’s exhibition, Odilon Redon. La littérature et la musique, will bring together 167 works, many drawn from the museum’s outstanding collection of works by the artist.

Guest curator Cornelia Homburg. Photo: Peter Marcus

Redon was surrounded by culture from an early age. “His older brother was a child musical prodigy,” says Cornelia Homburg, the curator of the exhibition. “Redon spoke of there always being music in the house and made this wonderful comment, saying he was ‘born on a wave of sound’.” Growing up, the artist trained in piano and violin, and wrote eloquently on his own and other artists’ work. He developed a fascination with musicians such as Bach, Beethoven and Wagner, and writers including Dante, Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire. “Redon was extremely involved in the writer and musician circles of the time,” says Homburg. “He was extremely well read, not only in literature but also in the latest scientific discoveries – Darwin’s [theory of evolution] allowed Redon to bring another element into his imaginary images.”

Odilon Redon, Pégase (Pegasus), 1895–1900. Private collection

Despite his awareness of contemporary ideas, the stories the artist told were very much his own in their fluidity and ambiguity. “What I find most fascinating is that he had all this knowledge, and yet he shows it very obliquely,” Homburg says. In the exhibition there is the winged horse Pegasus, both a “mythological symbol of poetic inspiration” and a sign of Redon’s “interest in Darwin and the natural world”. There are a variety of severed heads, one reminiscent of St John the Baptist, while another hangs in mid-air with tiny wings. “Here one sees the incredible inventiveness of Redon, how he can use a motif and give it different meanings, while drawing on well-known literary and musical motifs,” Homburg adds.

Odilon Redon, Martyr ou Tête de martyr sur une coupe ou Saint Jean (Martyr, or Head of a Martyr on a Dish, or Saint John), 1877. Courtesy of the Kröller-Müller Museum

Redon is often admired for his use of colour and texture. “He was aware of what it means when you put a certain type of material on a surface,” says Homburg. “And the flowing and ebbing of colour is something that I think he thought of in terms of sound as well – showing his awareness of a really hot issue at the time, synaesthesia.”

Odilon Redon, Le Cyclope (The Cyclops), c.1914. Courtesy of the Kröller-Müller Museum

Redon’s ability to merge various art forms and use imagery to visualise an inner world made him “a hero of the whole Symbolist generation,” says Homburg. He made a series of lithographs with writers such as Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert, shown alongside works the artist produced to accompany his own poems. But underpinning everything is a vision of a world that remains singular, an informed understanding of literature, music and life that Homburg hopes even today will have visitors go through the exhibition and think: “‘Oh my God, look, here it is again!’ only to find it means something completely different.”
Odilon Redon. La littérature et la musique, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands, 2 June – 9 September.

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