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Odilon Redon

"Odilon Redon: Lithographs" at Fitch-Febvrel Gallery and "Selections from the Woodner Family collection" at The Drawing Center
Art in Review, The New York Times, Friday, May 21, 1993, by Holland Cotter

Anyone who knows Odilon Redon (1840–1916) chiefly from his glowing floral pastels will be surprised to encounter the fin-de-siècle decadence that saturates his graphic work. Although this French artist was a contemporary of Monet and Renoir, he viewed the materialist bent of Impressionism with deep ambivalence, espousing instead an art of subjectivity and imagination.

Redon's preference was shared by a strain of 19-century avant-garde literature, and his drawings and prints often illustrated fictional narratives by such writers as Flaubert, Edgar Allen Poe and Edmond Picard. Two shows — one of lithographs at Fitch-Febvrel, the other mostly of charcoal drawings from the Woodner Family Collection at the Drawing Center — explore this body of work, exhibiting individual images and copies of the books themselves.

Both shows have much to offer. The "black" drawings, or "noirs," plunge one immediately into a shadowed, phantasmagoric world. Among them are "Cactus Man" (1881) and "Skeleton Man" (1886), the first a bristling, Goyaesque human head planted in a square pot,the other a skeletal homunculus with an impudent, appraising glance. The hallucinatory side of Redon's work is further demonstrated in lithographs for Flaubert's "Temptation of St. Anthony" (a few of which are also on view at Fitch-Febvrel) with their near-abstraction and sadomasochistic undertones.

Despite much strong work, there are also a number of weak pieces at the Drawing Center, instances when Redon's hand and mind seem to go slack, and an oddly bland sentimentality comes to the fore. But even with these lapses he is an arresting artist. The fantastic, anti-rationalist path he chose anticipates Surrealism. At the same time, his art has a curious retrospective cast, looking back not only to the world of alienated, misunderstood spirits of early Romanticism (one thinks of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) but also to the grotesque, marginal creatures of medieval religious and folk art. It is a rich historical span and one that gives this often brilliant, always idiosyncratic artist his distinctive place in a long European tradition.

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