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All but unknown for the first fifty years of his life (a period in which the artist drew near exclusively in black and white), Odilon Redon came to fame with the publication of J.K Huysman’s celebrated novel A rebours in 1884. Typical of its decadent period, the book details the life of a perverse, disenchanted aristocrat who collects Redon’s paintings. He being drawn to them through their strange, amniotic creatures – designs themselves which would later bear influence on Edgar Allan Poe.
In his elder years the formally monomaniacal monochromist experimented widely with colour, heralded for his flower work from as high as Matisse. There is a wide gamut of mythic troubled emotions to be found here, Redon’s imagination as vibrant as his palette.
Breton Village (1890)
There is no real extravagance on display here, yet ‘Breton Village’ is a disquieting, intriguing piece from the off. Amid its gentle hum of colour the world feels slightly apart from itself. A feeling fostered through the distant perspective that Redon employs. The namesake village not only shown squeezed above a tide of shrubbery and below vast, opaque sky – but from an exterior angle too. Through positioning the viewer at the end of the outcrop, Redon gives us no sense of the people to which the structures belong. Rather signalling just the hind slopes of the roofs, a pile of hay heating in a creviced intersection.
Across this all, the sun falls wonderfully, its reflections bright and true. Afore of the settlement the gruff brush is a masterful mix of visible, coarse strokes along with a fluid, dense technique that suggests threshing.
Life, from this angle at least then, seems free and easy. Yet the blistering heat evident would no doubt make labour punishing, so perhaps the sense of desertion is a sign of a sleep. The village is a curious place regardless: the road seemingly a tapering of the wilderness, the red shrub at the close right hand seeming to seethe.
Redon would’ve hated those last three paragraphs. He being the one after all claiming: ‘My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined’. Beyond all the analysis then, perhaps we should find ourselves within the image rather than critiquing outward. And as pretentious as that sounds, it feels possible with the odd invitation Breton Village extends.
Just as the woman holds the disembodied head with the ease of drying washing, the sun behind feels similarly omnipotent. Its wide berth not only containing perfectly the guillotined top within its circle but covering the entirety of the background, doing away with any sense of the outward exterior perspective.
The head itself looks off with a wry, knowing intent. Its stern jaw detailed with an earthly simplicity, contours stern and strong as the holder’s own face is scrawled. With an alarming surety, the head gazes off beyond the image to elsewhere. She is not concerned with the situation, and suggests that neither should you be.
Rather the real marvel here is the palette of Figure, its dry, radiating heat that folds over the image with a wicked hue. Below the duo a crispy bracken falls. Seemingly glowing from within with an aureate display.
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