The secret laws of Odilon Redon



Inspiration to the Nabis, symbolist, forerunner to Surrealism, Odilon REDON (born 1840 in Bordeaux, died 1916 in Paris) explored the subconscious, transforming nature into dreamlike signs, creating pious images reflecting a poetical form of syncretism. A major contributor to “Modern art”, his work achieved recognition during his lifetime. His career began in Paris in the mid-1880s, when he co-founded and presided over the Société des Artistes indépendants (which organized the Salons des Indépendants). In 1894 he organized the first major exhibition at the Durand-Ruel gallery and in 1904, sixty-two of his works were exhibited at the Salon d’Automne. In the following years his work was shown in the United States (several works at the Armory Show in 1913 and then Chicago and Boston). Odilon Redon is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler near Basel (until May 18, 2014). The show retraces his career from early works in charcoal to his highly colorful works in pastels and oils.

Redon learned engraving from Rodolphe BRESDIN in 1865 in Bordeaux. Bresdin introduced him to printmaking and to the works of Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt who both used black to great effect. His major lithographic period lasted from 1870 to 1895, a period in which he also worked avidly in charcoal. Redon illustrated his own texts (Les Yeux Clos, Les Origines) and the fairytale universe of Edgar Allan Pœ. The price of Redon’s original plates soared in 2013 particularly at Christie’s New York sale in October where ten lots largely exceeded their estimates generating results between $220,000 and $1.2 m. The latter represents a spectacular record for Redon. It was the price paid for a lot of 10 prints (La Tentation de Saint Antoine) that was estimated 100 times less, and it represents one of the world’s best-ever results in this medium behind Hokusai and ahead of Rembrandt. In effect, prints represent 62% of Redon’s total auction market (numerically) and 12% of his total auction turnover. Substantial price differences for the same subject are related to the different editions and make the market for his work accessible to smaller budgets. Thus, one third of his works sell for less than $1,300.

The black period
The “black period” was Redon’s first artistic direction with charcoal drawing representing his main technique during this period. Between 1870 and 1889 roughly, Redon engaged in a tenebrous exploration revealing, through darkness, a fantasy world populated by mysterious creatures. These works are rare at auction. Only four were presented during 2013. Two were sold, one for $48,763 (Ophélie) and the other for $190,000 (Visage-Germination, 1888). The estimates for the other two drawings discouraged buyers who preferred to invest in more expensive pastels belonging to the artist’s subsequent period. In 1889, the birth-year of his son, Redon introduced color into his work for the first time, and, three years later, in 1902, his works literally exploded with color. Thereafter, Redon abandoned charcoal and worked in color.

Redon’s return to color (1889/1890) went hand in hand with a very specific subject, that of sleep and dreams, which he often represented through faces with closed eyes. The first manifestation of his color explosion focused on flowers, which for Redon represented a metaphor for painting itself, saying “Art is a flower that blossoms freely, irrespective of any rules”. He began to observe flowers and insects in intricate detail, but Redon’s interest in these subjects clearly extended beyond an interest in nature. Nature represented a pretext to create the signs of a poetic, celestial and dreamlike world. His paintings of bouquets of flowers were an immediate success and generated a certain financial security for the artist, and in 1905 his started to reach a wider audience. Today his bouquets are always his most expensive works, sometimes fetching over $3.5 million. Indeed, his auction record (at that price) is not for an oil-on-canvas, but for a pastel, the artist’s favorite technique (Vase au guerrier japonais, circa 1905, sold at Sotheby’s on February 5, 2008 in London). His record for the same subject in oil stands at $1.5 million excluding fees (Fleurs dans un vase vert, 1910, at Sotheby’s in New York on 5 May 2004). Redon’s transition to color was also marked by the use of increasingly large canvases, especially when tackling mythological and sacred themes. The largest work to have been offered at auction is a bold mythological composition with a vertical momentum measuring 2.4 meters tall (Le Monde des chimères 1903-1904, sold for $1.2 million excluding fees at Sotheby’s on November 16, 1998). However, works by Redon measuring over a meter are still extremely rare. His market mainly consists of small formats (between 30 and 70 cm on average) that easily cross the threshold of $200,000 if they of good quality and represent one of his key subjects. At the recent London sales (February 4, 2014), Christie’s sold a Redon bouquet measuring 65 x 55 cm (Fleurs dans un vase bleu for $622,440 ($ 751,000 including fees).

At the upcoming New York sales there will be two oil paintings by Odilon Redon: Eve dans un paysage (27 x 21.3 cm) at Christie’s on May 7, which could reach $120,000 despite its small format, and Femme ailée (37.1 x 27 cm) carrying an estimate of around $30,000 at Sotheby’s the following day.