at the Art Institute, through September 18

The Art Institute’s sublime Odilon Redon retrospective, organized somewhat chronologically, represents a kind of spiritual biography. Born in Bordeaux in 1840, Redon felt he had a miserable childhood: he was raised apart from his family until he was 11, probably due to his childhood epilepsy, then considered a sign of defective family genes. Cared for by an elderly uncle, he remembered, according to wall labels and the catalog, a lonely childhood roaming a bleak landscape. The works of his first decades, most of them black-and-white drawings he called “noirs,” were largely given over to darkness, monsters, “primitive” states of being. But by the end of the 1880s, when Redon married and had a son, there was a shift to ecstatic, visionary colors: the gaze downward became a gaze upward, toward the heavens.

Two depictions of lone figures at the beginning and end of the exhibit are signposts of this evolution. The 1865 drawing Child Running in a Landscape shows a small nude boy running, an isolated figure against an almost white ground. Behind him a large hill rises; his arms are raised to cover his eyes. It seems the world is so painful that he simultaneously runs away and blocks out the sight of it.

But as anyone who has covered their eyes in terror knows, it doesn’t work; and many of Redon’s noirs depict the demons of the mind’s eye. Menacing profiles hide in rocks; flowers display strange faces; creatures seem part plant, part animal. In Primitive Being (c. 1875), a nude youth standing in a road bends to touch the severed head of a giant. In Cactus Man (1881), a head with long thorns all over it sprouts from a square box, apparently growing like a plant. The black hairy form of The Smiling Spider (1881) perches atop a gridlike landscape, its toothy grin at once menacing and inviting. Resting on only a few legs, the spider appears to stand on a checkerboard of cultivated fields; if so, it is truly enormous. Yet its ambiguous visage–at once confrontational and cuddly, fierce and cute–evokes contradictory emotions: this scary monster of childhood nightmares is almost humanly friendly as well.

In all three of these preternaturally powerful images, a large, dark, imposing being unlike any seen before dominates a lighter field. While the smiling spider’s power comes in part from the way he seems so utterly out of place, hovering in the sky over the land, the giant’s head in Primitive Being seems to be growing out of the ground. Its neck can’t be seen, and the curved streaks of its hair are like the lighter-toned grasses surrounding the road. Similarly the mottled face of Cactus Man is not unlike the patches of light and dark in the background. What makes these beasts more than cartoons–what makes them works of art–is not only their originality and ambiguity but their relationship to the whole composition.

Redon worked in a time of great scientific ferment. Darwin’s theory of evolution was radically changing humans’ conception of themselves; challenging Christianity’s idea of man divinely created in God’s image, this view placed man firmly within nature, merely one of its products. At the same time scientists were uncovering new life forms (pictures of which were published in La Nature, a French periodical, copies of which are on view in this show) and there was also a fascination with other, more “primitive” societies, though regrettably the French often displayed citizens of such societies in cages. Redon, impressed by these displays, was of the opinion that “primitive” people were fascinating not only in themselves but as lower stages in the evolution toward Europeans.

Yet Redon’s figures are more ambiguous than this undeniably racist view would imply. He was after all a visionary who depicted human shapes springing from the sea, floating in the sky, emerging from rocks. In The Sphinx (1883), a complexly textured work, a rudimentary face is outlined against the sky almost as if emerging from the rock’s edge. It has none of the precise detail of the famous carved sphinxes; Redon’s appears to be almost a natural form. At the center of his vision is a kind of pantheism: all things, from rock to plant to animal to human, are expressions of the same spirit.

Redon’s interest in evolution informs one of the strongest of the noirs, an image he himself favored, Primitive Man (1872). A nude sits, bent knees against his chest and arms wrapped around his legs, his back to a black rocky form. The jagged landscape appears to have little or no life. A bright light shines on the figure from above, illuminating one side of his body in bright patches while the rest is in shadow. The irregular curves of his arms and legs are almost perfectly matched by the outlines of the rocks around him; the near-chiaroscuro on his body is echoed throughout the composition. The figure and rocks have a raw, primal power, and the picture seems strangely alive–as if we were viewing a process, not a static scene. The light from above seems to draw the man’s body toward it, a body that itself seems to be emerging from the land.

Eye-Balloon (1878) reveals the artist’s interest in contemporary technology. A balloon in the shape of an eye, looking upward, carries a severed head in place of a gondola, floating over an almost featureless landscape. In Redon’s time balloons radically altered the view of the landscape by providing an aerial perspective–another stage, perhaps, in man’s evolution upward, toward the light. But the picture has another, deeper significance. For all Redon’s interest in nature, his gaze was mostly directed inward: what makes the earlier images so strong is the impression that these are things not seen before. The giant, disembodied eye given the power of flight announces the primacy of inner vision. The mind, divorced from time and space, is free to roam where it will; the child running in a landscape is no longer running away–he has the freedom to seek out, even to create, the sights he wishes to behold. Across the top of the eye in Eye-Balloon are long, straight dark hairs; eyelashes or the eyebrow perhaps, they not only give the eye a certain organic creepiness but separate it from everything else in the composition. The artist’s eye becomes all.

If some of Redon’s strange creatures seem utterly separate from their surroundings, other compositions are divided into distinct, autonomous areas. In A Drowning (1884), a pale head floats on water; the head seems very large, even though the picture doesn’t clearly indicate scale. The water is rendered in horizontal black streaks, a distant mountain in a more even shade; the sky is finely mottled, reflecting the paper’s texture. A giant sun is almost completely eclipsed by a deep black disk, from which black rays emanate. Each area seems organized according to a different principle; none matches any other. The figure, whose face resembles Redon’s, is perhaps drowning for the same reason the child was running–he cannot make sense of the world. But the chaos of the world he’s drowning in, each part based on its own postulates, is weirdly fascinating, eerily seductive.

At the center of Large Landscape (1881) are two massive tree trunks, both oddly twisted, one bending almost as if to bump into the other. Redon employed a variety of techniques for the trunks alone: some lines run parallel to the length, others run parallel to the ground. In parts of the trunks it appears that the charcoal has been wiped or scraped away–a common technique in Redon’s time, and one he used often, but here he’s scraped so much off the right trunk as to leave only the tan-gold paper below. To the left of the two trees a small branch is modeled by shadows, and at the bottom of the right trunk is a forest of bright flower buds or small leaves, speckled like nothing else in the picture.

Here, and in many other noirs, the varied representational modes evoke different aspects of nature’s processes; built-up and scraped-away areas suggest growth and decay. At the same time, Redon’s willingness to create compositions whose parts require such different kinds of viewing reflects the power the artist now grants his imagination. Like the eye-balloon freed of gravity, he no longer needs to create a unified composition whose parts are arranged to express the relationships between them. Instead of the boy fleeing the landscape, we have separate little worlds, a nonhierarchical inventory of wonders.

Redon’s shift to color beauties from black-and-white horrors may well have been influenced by his happier life, but it’s perhaps just as likely that his greater confidence in the power of his own vision, made explicit in Eye-Balloon, led him away from his brutes: if the eye can truly go anywhere, why not seek out gardens? Of course Redon painted some works in color almost from the beginning–many of the noirs use hints of color–and certain late pictures like The Cyclops (c. 1914) bring back his monsters. Still, his work underwent an extraordinary shift about 1890. Suddenly the pictures explode into color–colors that shine almost fluorescently, colors that recede into modest quietness.

Several paintings of windows show that, at least at times, Redon identified monochrome with physical reality and color with transcendent spiritual experience. In The Window (c. 1907), a church interior is painted in smeared-on splotches of tan, giving the walls a heavy physicality. Filling most of the top and center is a large rose window through which shine the most delicate specks of red, yellow, and blue. While one’s eyes stop at the walls, they seem to pass through these tiny areas of color to a limitless beyond: Redon replaces single, attention-grabbing beasts, which took the viewer out of the quotidian present, with myriad tiny specks of the infinite. At the other extreme is a picture of the same title and year full of individuated objects: from the arch of a Gothic window, in Redon’s words, “an avalanche of flowers and fruits appears mixed with white clouds, about to fall.” This “bouquet” also includes butterflies, animals, indescribable shapes–there’s hardly a repetition, almost everything is one of a kind. We no longer peer through the window toward paradise; it comes flooding toward us.

Similarly Mystical Conversation (c. 1896) creates a nearly chaotic scene, though classical-looking columns, a reference to ancient wisdom, give it a kind of order. Myriad flowers lie at the feet of the two women; the pink clouds and blue sky of the background seem to be reflected in more muted tones in their clothes and skin. The title refers to the genre of “sacred conversation” paintings common in the Renaissance, usually depicting the Virgin and one or more saints. Yet Redon, originally a Catholic, did not follow any one religion. For this painter–who titled one picture that looks a lot like an image of Christ Buddha–spirituality could be found almost everywhere–in a flower, in the light.

Though he was born into comfortable circumstances and after 1875 lived off an inheritance from his father, Redon was fiercely antibourgeois; materialism was inimical, for him, to everything he cared about: the spiritual realms accessible only to the mind’s eye. In this sense his art was opposed to that of the impressionists, with whom he nonetheless exhibited. Their work was optical–they wished to make the experience of looking at nature palpable. Redon’s more radically diverse images elude verbal explication, denying the viewer the feeling of being able to comprehend, let alone touch or possess the subjects. While he himself looked back to Delacroix for inspiration, he was also allied with symbolist writers like Mallarme, who was his friend; and his art later inspired the surrealists.

It is therefore ironic that Redon is best known for his bouquets of brightly colored blossoms, usually arranged in a vase. To cut and arrange flowers for display is a classic act of bourgeois possessiveness: nature tamed, brought indoors, and reduced to pleasing, neatly comprehensible patterns. Nature, in short, turned into a material object. Yet Redon’s flower paintings are a spectacular denial of well-ordered prettiness. Each flower seems as different from the others as possible. In Bouquet in a Persian Vase (c. 1910) the pinks and yellows shine radiantly; a red and pink rose is depicted in irregular lines; deep, iridescent violets seem to draw the surrounding light into them even as they emit a strange, dark glow. The flowers are not arranged by any principle of design but have some of the randomness of nature itself.

Like some of the noirs, and most of the color pictures, this composition is divided into tiny self-sufficient worlds. Each flower takes a different visual form, is another kind of life; each must be seen on different terms. The painting seems a series of images unfolding in time, mirroring natural growth; looking at the picture is like entering a series of separate, parallel worlds. As Redon matured, the composition of his works carried less and less of their meaning.

Around 1900, Redon turned to “decorative” designs–painted screens, tapestries. And in decorative art, repeated patterns give the design its unity. In Panel (c. 1902), a large canvas is covered with small floral designs and patches of color, each–like the flecks of light in the Gothic window–inviting the viewer to enter and live there for a spell. Red Screen (1903), on three large panels, is in Redon’s words his “impression of summer in the mountains. It is a sort of chaos in the peaks, perceived through the amorphous rays of the sun.” One cannot tell sky from ground; a winged Pegasus suggests the whole composition might be sky. A white band runs across the middle of huge swaths of red; tiny abstract circular shapes could be birds or flowers. The effect is of a huge explosion suddenly creating new forms.

In a decorative image the borders don’t really define composition; its patterns could repeat forever, a characteristic usually associated with the reduction of meaning to mannerism. But Redon’s decorative works extend the idea developing in earlier pieces: inner vision as a kind of perpetual, self-generating world. For this he needs to do away with the idea of an organized composition that gives meaning to each of its parts, for this restricts the meaning of each thing and impedes the free flow of the imagination. He seeks instead an Eden in which nothing has a name, all is an ecstasy of indefinable color and form.

In marked contrast to Child Running in a Landscape, the figure in Silence (1911) has her eyes open. Here the face is enclosed in a tan oval, like an old portrait; the eyes look down but are not closed; two fingers are pressed to the mouth, urging silence. While the woman is rendered mostly in shades of tan, outside the oval are splotches of cyan and gray, distributed with the organic irregularity of the colors in Red Screen. Floating in this transformed world, she is simultaneously able to cut herself off from it, listening to inner voices, and look outside the picture toward unseen sights. Since the imagination has transformed the world, it’s finally possible to open one’s eyes. Objects no longer have any fixed identity; imagery is no longer limited and defined by the idea of composition. Instead the viewer is invited to wander through a living garden of almost unbelievable sights.

Virtually every aspect of this exhibit, organized mainly by Art Institute curator Douglas W. Druick, is superb. Darkened rooms with spots on each individual work properly emphasize the delicate separateness of each work. The 184 pieces on view–drawings, prints, paintings, screens, even a chair with a Redon design–well represent his overwhelming achievement. The massive catalog places Redon’s work in the context of his life and of the many intellectual and artistic currents of his age. Every work is reproduced there, the color ones in color, the noirs with a hint of color in duotone.

I especially loved the room, halfway through, that includes catalogs and objects from places like the John G. Shedd Aquarium and the Chicago Academy of Sciences: fish fossils, shellfish, hummingbirds, butterflies. The curators’ point is that Redon was inspired by such sights; a large photo shows the natural history museum in Bordeaux, which had similar objects on display in Redon’s time. But the surrounding artwork also makes the actual conch shell, moths, and hummingbirds seem all the more spectacular; the three puffer fish are like enchanted monsters from the deep. Every form seemed alive with possibility, every shape susceptible to transformation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Gerald Howald, courtesy of Museum of Modern Art.