Fantasist de sicle : EXHIBITIONS

Redon's dream-world images still perplex and haunt, yet is that enough?
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The Independent Culture
HE NEVER made the grade as a painter, but Odilon Redon is a phenomenon of late-19th-century French art and holds one's interest throughout his Royal Academy retrospective, nicely installed in the Sackler Galleries. His best work was in pastel, chalk, charcoal and lithography. And perhaps his weird fantasies could not have been expressed in paint. He wanted suggestiveness, and the illusion of deep secrecy was best carried by the chiaro-scuro of darker media on paper rather than canvas.

Redon's secrets are mostly explained by the Parisian culture of the fin de sicle, with its heady mixture of aestheticism, decadence and unorthodox religious fervour. He also had more far-reaching gallic themes. Redon was born in 1840 and grew up in the Gironde in south-western France. He felt an intense nationalist romanticism for the Gironde and the French Basque country at the foot of the Pyrenees. He liked the thought of peasant life and customs, love and brigandage. An early painting is called Roland at Roncevaux (1868-69) and its inspiration is Delacroix. Heroism was not however his real subject. Young Redon was interested in himself: a solitary, brooding romantic, he fancied, without a place in modern and positivist society.

So a self-obsessed young artist. This image was shattered in 1870 by the experience of the Franco-Prussian war, in which he served with some bravery, deliberately choosing an infantryman's role. Some people argue that, in the pessimistic aftermath of France's defeat and humiliation, Redon's personal gloom suddenly became as one with his country's mood. Here, I think, is an underlying message of the exhibition. It calls attention to a Frenchness at the opposite pole of the French art with which we are most familiar. Redon was precisely of the same generation as the Impressionists. Yet Impres-sionism meant nothing to him personally and was, he thought, bad for France at large. It was "bas de plafond", below spiritual values, rejoicing too much in the banal and the everyday.

So he's to be grouped with such painters as Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, his elders by a couple of decades, and with younger symbolist artists, like the members of the Nabi group and Gauguin, all of whom admired him.

Even Picasso thought highly of Redon, and copied him on occasion. In other words he's at the centre of a significant French tradition of anti- naturalist art. Redon still feels to me like a phenomenon. The RA show demonstrates the ways he felt himself to be separate, however many his artistic and also literary friends.

This separateness led to his failure with oil pigment. Parisian painting in the 1870s was frank, let in fresh air and was demo-cratic in ways that Redon thought de-meaning to the purposes of art. Alas, his pastels do not compensate for these virtues of oil. Exploring the nether worlds of dream and the subconscious, Redon wielded his pastel sticks with occasional remarkable effects. He produces an in-tense blue, for instance, that seems to wish to burst from its picture. On occasion he makes a union between bourgeois decoration and an analysis of the soul: I think this could only have been managed with the help of coloured chalks. Nobody, though, could compare Redon's pastels with contemporary work in the medium by Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec - who had a more profound feeling for pastel, even though their subject matter was not profound.

Redon is at his best not when trying to plumb philosophical depths but when he is morose and ruminative. Such a state of mind is easily brought about by reading French romantic poetry all night long, as Redon habitually did. Many of his drawings and lithographs are poetic without precisely illustrating anything. At the same time his fantasies can be tied in with modern thought, for instance Darwin's. Curious that in this respect he resembles Tenniel, Lewis Carroll's illustrator. Strange Flower (Little Sister of the Poor) has a wonderment before the facts of evolution, not to mention the facts of life, that's not unlike Alice's. If a French Through the Looking Glass can be imagined, then Redon should have been its accompanying artist.

I use this comparison to emphasise the other-worldliness that makes Redon such an alien personality. There's massive erudition in the show's catalogue. It aims to leave nothing unexplained. None the less, Redon's character - for me alone, perhaps - is queer and unfathomable. That could be what he wished. He used his mind when he drew but the nature of his mind was to oppose enlightenment. Looking at the fusains and lithographs one wonders at the strange fruits that sprouted from his fertile brain. His flower paintings are so upsetting because he evidently felt that flowers are really rather plain and explicable, and that he could improve on them by the suggestion that they might be something else - as though their bulbs had been transplanted from the Moon. I keep fantasising that Redon himself came from the Moon and I will visit this strange show again to try to bring him to the Earth that I recognise.

! Royal Academy (071-439 7438), to 21 May.