Strange-And Wonderful-Odilon Redon at the Cleveland Museum Of Art


How did a fledgling Midwestern art museum end up with one of the world’s most significant collections of works by one of the most avant-garde painters working in France at the turn of the 20e century? This story begins at the 1913 International Modern Art Exhibition, better known as the Armory Show. The show was considered the official introduction of modern art to Americans.

Picasso, Gauguin, Duchamp, Hopper–the “Armory Show” shocked and amazed large crowds, first in New York before going to Chicago and Boston.

Of the hundreds of artists represented, none had more works featured in the historic Armory Show – 74 – than Odilon Redon (1840-1916).

Unfamiliar with Redon, but fascinated by what he saw, was William Milliken, an early curator and future director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

“(Milliken) shared Redon’s name with (Cleveland) philanthropist and former museum administrator Ralph Thrall King, who fell in love with his work and immediately began collecting his drawings and prints”, Britany Salsbury, curator Associate of the Cleveland Museum of Art Prints and Drawings, said. “King was known for his habit of walking up and down Fifth Avenue and buying each gallery’s entire inventory of Redon prints. In doing so, he was able to acquire many complete portfolios of prints from Redon, which is unusual as dealers often broke the series to sell the prints individually.

The history of the CMA with Redon, from the first works of its collection to a print acquired in 2020, are shared in the exhibition “Collecting dreams: Odilon Redon”, to see until January 23, 2022.

Milliken and King will work together on the acquisition of two major pastels from Redon, Orpheus– considered by some historians to be the artist’s best work – and Violet Heymann. This attracted an international press for the museum which opened its doors in 1916. These first acquisitions earned the CMA an international reputation as the most important repository of Redon’s works outside France. The museum continues to enrich its remarkable collection to this day.


The most recent addition to the CMA’s Redon artwork collection, a charcoal drawing titled Quasimodo acquired in 2020, serves as a highlight of the exhibition, enjoying a public presentation for the first time. Even for an artist as enigmatic as Redon – he has been nicknamed “the prince of mysterious dreams” – this image is strange.

Quasimodo belongs to a group of drawings that Redon called “black” for their use of black materials, such as charcoal, and their disturbing mood. Redon studied briefly in Paris before rejecting his conservative training and returning to his native Bordeaux in the south of France. There he spent a decade depicting very original, often bizarre themes executed exclusively in black, ranging from ink lithographs to dense charcoal drawings.

Everything in this series contrasts sharply with the colorful and whimsical pastels for which Redon has become most famous.

“One of the things that seems to have appealed to Redon the most (the charcoal drawing) was his privacy; unlike painting, which often involves more expensive materials and must be exhibited in a gallery, Redon could work privately and independently with his prints and drawings, ”Salsbury said. “He could tackle subjects for which it might be more difficult to find an audience in painting, and he could develop new techniques. He was very innovative in the way he used charcoal – he often combined it with other black materials, rubbed it with a rag, breadcrumbs or even his fingers to blur it, and used an adhesive to secure it. to the surface of the paper so that it can build layers on top of it.

Similar to van Gogh and Cézanne, Redon’s palette would eventually lighten up dramatically in his signature style. Around 1890, Redon’s work took an astonishing turn when he discovered pastel, a powdery material made from pure pigment. For the rest of his life, he created colorful visions drawn from mythology, religion and his social circle.

“I think when he went to pastels he was always looking for the same things in a different material,” Salsbury said. “He was equally experimental in pastel, often layering it down, using a wide range of markings and choosing colored papers that changed the way his colors appeared. His primary interest seems to have always been experimentation.


Andromeda (1912), a special loan from the Arkansas Art Center first exhibited in the United States at the CMA in 1926, also heads the exhibition. It is one of the artist’s most important late paintings and shows the dramatic stylistic turn Redon took from his “blacks”.

All of his work, his imaginative paintings, drawings and engravings that have undermined fantasy, literature and the subconscious, clearly foreshadows the surrealism that awaited just around the artistic corner after Redon’s death in 1916.

Put bluntly, Redon’s work was odd, his career straddling a rapidly evolving art world that saw the invention of Impressionism on the one hand and the invention of abstraction on the one hand. ‘other.

“His art belongs to a movement called Symbolism, which responded to Impressionism, and its focus on subjects drawn from modern city life, turning inward,” Salsbury explained. “Rather than representing the world around them, they tapped into the imagination.”

Which makes the speculative buying of early CMA leaders and supporters all the more courageous in hindsight. Redon’s artwork could easily have been dismissed as simply “bizarre,” with a more conservative collection sought.

Thank goodness for the AMC risk takers. History has validated their choice.

“I think his work has held up after so many years because of its fascinating weirdness. While a lot of his early works have a pretty dark theme, there’s also something fun about it, ”Salsbury said. “We get images of eyes floating in hot air balloons, of crying spiders, of disembodied hands and so many different types of monsters – it’s not something that many people could imagine, much less something that we see in modern art. There is something infinitely interesting about an artist who invents a whole world of his own and brings us into it.


About Carlos V. Mitchell

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