The painter of serenity

When I discovered I shared a birthday with Hitler, I felt impelled to look for an alternative notable figure, born on that day, and found the French painter, Odilon Redon, who was not only a great painter but who was, in the normal domestic sense of the term, by all accounts, a good man!

One of the great 'what ifs' of history is 'what if Hitler had been a more talented painter?' and had been accepted by art school rather than rejected? 'What if' indeed...

In Redon's case, he too suffered rejection, but in his case not being allowed to study architecture, became a gift to the world as the show I went to see today in Basel aptly showed.

Redon said of his work that he sought to make the invisible, visible. The invisible in his case was that of the 'imaginal' (to use Henri Corbin's phrase) - the world that dwells between that of intellectual forms and the sensory world and communicates by way of symbol. It is a world that is actively accessed through imagination and passively received in dream (though there are disciplines that bring the former into the ordering of the latter).

Redon's art underwent a remarkable transformation from the dark, charcoal drawings of his early period to the extraordinarily beautiful coloured paintings (in oil and pastel) of his latter period. It would be too simple to say this was a journey from darkness into light, as many of the former, are graced with great and illuminating peace (and humour), they are not simply a treasury of the grotesque (though there are many examples of those too) but when he enters colour, he does slip across the threshold of another world, one where, even in suffering, a lightening eternity reigns.

Redon does not work out of a singular tradition of sacred art (as say Rouault or David Jones would) however nor does he invent his own mythological language (as Cecil Collins or Remedios Varo would). He takes his conviction that every valid tradition evokes imaginative truth and transforms it after his own particular manner, creating a unique fusion of recognisable mythological and sacred reference and Redon's own sense of abiding serenity.

This can even absorb to itself emergent modern stories of origin as here in his treatment of 'Oannes' - who is the Babylonian 'sea god' who emerges part human, part fish to grant the world an evolving order - and which Redon conceived in part mystical, part Darwinian terms. (His familiarity with Darwin was a deep one, and resonated with his interest as an amateur naturalist, but always ends up transfigured. There is for Redon a guiding, imaginative logic that makes selection never simply natural).

The overwhelming impression of the exhibition is that everything seen aright is serene - eternity's touch is peace - even the places of suffering. This depiction of the Crucifixion exemplifies it - there is sorrow and yet it is surprised by a deep joy. Those that suffer are cared for, most notably in John's leading of Mary, and all are bathed in a colouring of liberation, set in spaciousness. It reminds me of Jean-Yves Leloup's discussion of the paradox of joy abounding where joy is surrendered to take through the pain of others, and transform it. He quotes a priest telling him, shockingly at the time, that Christ's greatest moment of joy is the crucifixion, not because Christ is a pathological masochist but because the self truly surrendered for others, with no thought of itself, is the place of greatest joy.

Christ, according to the Apocryphal Acts of St John, dances us into salvation even onto the cross; and, in Russian, Christ turns to the good thief and tells him not that he will be in paradise but that he is!

Leloup argues that we need new images that do not depict Christ as immersed in suffering rather than in liberating us from it. As the Buddha's smile is not an image of indifference but compassionate recognition, the Christ reality on the cross, suffered, is always suffused with the being of resurrection.

It is here in Redon (and compellingly the two religious figures Redon returns to, over and over, are Christ and the Buddha).

My favourite image of Redon's however is the recurring image of the boat (as above) where usually two figures journey together out into the expanse of consciousness that is water. It is leitmotif that suggests that nothing comes to closure - everything is an 'enterprise' after knowing - symbols break one open to new life, and new symbols, they do not wrap you in any form of dogmatic certainty, and in this venture of holy insecurity there is peace.


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