Sunday, October 13, 2013

Redon at the Cantor: Unholy Terrors, Sinful Temptations, Gods and Monsters

The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University presents a rare opportunity to view all three lithographic albums that French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon created in response to Gustave Flaubert’s 1874 book The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

The albums include a total of 42 individual compositions, all of which are on view in the exhibition “Inspired by Temptation: Odilon Redon and Saint Anthony."

Odilon Redon's work is not widely known as being influential outside his time. But before most of the surrealists were born, Redon was exploring the dark side of the subconscious.

He was born in Bordeaux in 1840, the second son of a businessman. Because Redon was a sickly child, his parents decided that he should live on the nearby family estate, called Peyrelebade, with a caretaker, while they lived in town. So for long stretches he was on his own, to read, daydream and wander the countryside. For a solitary, introverted child, it was paradise.

Here is the Good Goddess, the Idaean mother of the mountains

 Largely self-taught, he read authors who stirred the darker side of his imagination - Baudelaire, Flaubert, Edgar Allan Poe. He went to Paris to study art but, as was typical of the man, found his most important teacher outside the mainstream Parisian academy. Rodolphe Bresdin (1822-85)is not known today but he and Redon were made for each other.  A late-Romantic visionary, radical Socialist and brilliant printmaker, he believed in the print as a populist medium and specialized in bizarre mages of nature.

From this and his own studies of nature, Redon developed his own style, richly dark imaginative images against white or off-white paper. Eventually he would write "one must respect black. Nothing prostitutes it. It does not please the eye or awaken another sense. It is the agent of the mind even more than the beautiful color of the palette or prism."

His imaginative symbolic world was made for Flaubert's equally convoluted and unreadable novel, "The Temptation of St. Anthony." Begun in 1846, the work accumulated more and more layers of arcane scholarship, transforming the desert retreat of a hermit into a cornucopia of sadism, lust, and further ambivalent pleasures. "I delight in the play of hidden perfidies," Flaubert was to write with evident relish.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, even Flaubert's most receptive friends were numbed by the incoherent procession of historical, mythological and allegorical figures. Three later versions did little to make the cumbersome work more understandable and it was not until 1874 that a final version was published.

Yet it was perfect for Redon. When the French critic Emile Hannequin introduced Redon to Flaubert’s “Temptation of St. Anthony,"  Redon found it “a literary marvel and a mine for me.”

His nocturnal imagination took flight from Flaubert's prose and he created three separate projects based on it and all three are on display at the Cantor- a realm populated by" formidable phantoms, monsters, monads and other creatures born of human perversity,'' explained Hennequin in an 1882 review of Redon.

Redon put it in another way, "I put the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible."

At the Cantor through October

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