Please note that in the print catalogue for this sale, this lot appears as number 146T.
Undoubtedly it was Redon's friendship with the painter Emile Bernard and other artists belonging to the Nabis group that encouraged him to participate in the turn-of-the-century decorative arts revival by producing large-scale decorative panels. The artist had only just begun to paint in oil, applying it directly onto unprimed canvas and mixing it with glue-based tempera (distemper), oil and aoline. Redon was thus able to create the effect of a stained surface with little or no impasto, on which the decorative elements seemed to float.
The present work explores the underwater imagery Redon had become increasingly preoccupied with at the time. The aquatic landscape, evoked by the red wave embedded with marine forms which occupies the lower half of the composition, recalls the representation of primordial realms, of sea gardens filled with fern-like forms. Like the clouds Redon loved to watch as a child with his father, the ever-changing forms associated with an underwater landscape provided him with a new vocabulary with which to create "a sense of mystery residing in the double or triple aspect (of things), the inkling of...images within images of forms that are...or will become, according to the state of mind of the beholder" (Odilon Redon, Prince of Dreams, op.cit., p. 312).
In an article of 1907, one of the earliest analyses of Redon's marine subjects, Leblond commented on the present work: 'Layers of a kind of multicolored fluid, which cover one another without losing [the sense of] their watery flow, [seem to] float adrift, carrying along leaves, flowers, starfish and jellyfish, revolving constantly in our eyes like the signs of the Zodiac.' In his view, it was through Redon's 'hybridisation of flowers with other flowers, with improvised and vivid unions of blue and pinks, of poppies and anemones, of nasturtiums and zinnias' that the artist had come to his scintillating evocations of the transparent and pearly ocean depths" (Marius-Ari Leblond, "Le Merveilleux dans la peinture," in La Revue illustrée, Paris, February 20, 1907, p. 157).
In this panel Redon fused elements from underwater life with the image of the winged centauress, one of the artist's favorite themes symbolizing the struggle of the creative spirit with the material world. The centauress is a conflation of Redon's images of centaurs—explored as early as 1875 in works such as Centaure visant les nués—and of Pegasus, the mythological winged horse, both creatures with allegiances to two worlds. The centauress seems to hover on the cusp of a precipice, between the observed and the visionary: this creature usually associated with land and sky is borne by a wave in this composition, her raised arms and wings suggesting imminent ascent. Redon himself elucidated: "My whole originality consists in having made improbably beings live humanly accordingly to the laws of the probable, by putting, as far as possible, the logic of the visible in the service of the invisible" (quoted in Robert Goldwater, Symbolism, New York, 1977, p. 118).
The present work, subtle in its coloration, is typical of Redon's mature style. For the first two decades of his career the artist worked almost exclusively in black and white, but around 1890 he began introducing pastel to enhance some of his previous charcoal drawings with accents of color. Soon he began to use pastel for its own sake, relishing the delicate and radiant harmonies he was able to produce. John Rewald noted how the rediscovery of color not only transformed the mood of Redon's works, but completely changed the range of his subject matter: "Somber visions were succeeded by happier ones... As in the past reality observed usually led to flights into fantasy. When Redon lived near the premises of a horse dealer, he conceived a series of works representing Pegasus... If Redon now often turned to mythology of the Bible for subjects, he did so mostly to provide his compositions with some plausible theme rather than to illustrate any specific episodes of Olympian sages or of the Scriptures. This approach eliminated the necessity for explanatory details or attributes while permitting the artist to place imaginary figures in imaginary settings for the sake of evocative combinations" (John Rewald, Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961, p. 39).
Redon was often asked to explain the meaning of his subject matter, and much as he liked to probe into the sources of his inspiration he found it difficult to answer. He experienced the same difficulties when he was requested to reveal how he actually worked, but in a letter to his friend Mellerio of 1898 he expounded: "For thirty years I have been asked that question, You won't believe how much it embarrasses me; I never replied. What is the use of revealing other things than the result?... However, I can confide in you, if you wish, some particularities of my nature. Thus a sheet of white paper horrifies me. It impresses me disagreeably to the point of making me sterile, of depriving me of the taste for work (except, of course when I propose to represent a real object, for example a study or a portrait). A sheet of paper is so shocking to me that I am forced as soon as it is on the easel, to scrawl on it with charcoal, with a crayon or any other material, and this operation brings it to life. I believe that suggestive art owes much to the stimulus which the material itself exerts on the artist. A truly sensitive artist does not receive the same inspiration from different materials since these impress him differently. This will make you understand that the pre-established concept of which you speak acts only indirectly and relatively. Frequently it is, without doubt, like a departure for the undertaking, a departure which one abandons in due course to follow the charming and unforeseen path of fantasy, that sovereign which suddenly opens up before us magnificent and surprising seductions by which we are subjugated. This fantasy has been my guardian angel. Fantasy is also the messenger of the unconscious, of the very eminent and mysterious personage... who arrives in his own time, according to the moment, the place, even the season... everything is dominated by the precious caprice of that unknown... Nothing in art is achieved by will alone. Everything is done by docilely submitting to the arrival of the unconscious. The analytical spirit must be quick when it appears, but afterwards it is of little importance to remember it, as with each work it proposes a different problem to us" (Odilon Redon, "Letter to A. Mellerio," August 1898, in Lettres d'Odilon Redon, Paris & Brussels, 1923, pp. 33-34).
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