I went to one of those blockbuster exhibitions yesterday. At the Grand Palais in Paris, it is the first complete retrospective of Odilon Redon’s work in five decades. But I have long admired the Goya-esque blackness of his drawings and prints, and decided it would be worth fighting the crowds for.
Having been caught out before by three hour queues at these mega-shows at the Grand Palais (not that I have ever stayed to queue for that length of time), I booked online in advance for 10am, and reckoned on the day the clocks sprang forward, I would be walking around with room to spare. I was wrong. The line for those without tickets was empty, and the line for those with pre-booked tickets stretched down the steps. By the time I got inside the first room, it was already shoulder to shoulder and two deep, and without my glasses I didn’t stand a chance. I gave up trying to read any of the information material and timelines on the walls, and concentrated instead on shuffling crab-like around the perimeter to see the works.
The first room in these blockbusters is always the same – a packed mass of craning necks and personal space invasions – and it requires gritted teeth and steely determination to see anything at all. I frequently end up running through, missing the early works, and only stopping when I find a section of empty wall in a later room. Early works have a curiosity value, but they’re usually not what I’ve come to gaze at, so I don’t feel too cheated. But in the case of Redon, my eye was caught by tantalising glimpses of imagery right from the start, so there was no avoiding the crowds.
It was worth it. Redon’s strong tonal compositions fuelled by his wild imagination (at a time in the late 19th century when Realism was the dominant trend) are compelling, fascinating and beautiful in a dark, overpowering sort of way. Viewed at a distance, the dark tonality gives many of them an entirely abstract quality which shifts to suggest a figurative image as you move in closer and then shifts again to reveal the real nature of the image only at the very last moment. I realised he achieves this by (unusually) rarely making use of counterchange: a visual technique used by artists where dark contours are set against a light background, and vice versatile. So as in the image above, the profile melts into and forms part of the background, with only the faintest line visible on closer reading to allow the viewer to see a subject. Here, the female profile plays a secondary role to the space occupied by the light itself, suggesting at first sight some other ambiguous slightly other-wordly form.
It was a good job I did look at the earlier work carefully. The later works in the show comprised pastels and oil paintings, and I think these were much less successful. His sure handling of charcoal and confident printmaking was just not equalled in his use of colour. Some works I found garishly cloying. Others simply lacked the compositional strength of his monochromatic explorations. I thought his decorative room panels were particularly insipid.
This is the problem with the great blockbuster retrospective. It’s everything that can be found, whether great, good or indifferent. Redon was a remarkable, innovative and original artist ahead of his time in many ways, and not all the work on show did him justice.
If you should happen to be in Paris and love drawings and lithographs though, it’s still one to go and elbow the crowds to see.