Apparitions of One Man’s Mind: Redon Strove to Render Dreams

Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, is devoted to the paintings, drawings and prints of an artist who was a contemporary of the Impressionists and, in so many ways, their antithesis. The ethereal and spooky pictures of Redon, who died in 1916 at the age of 76, were inspired by the inner workings of the mind, not the actualities of light.

Culled exclusively from the museum’s holdings, each piece a gift of the Ian Woodner Collection, this smartly appointed show is more a celebration of a benefactor’s generosity than a definitive accounting of the oeuvre. The basic trajectory of Redon’s development is touched upon—from the early forays in landscape to the nightmarish, Goya-inspired drawings and prints, to the gentle flurries of oil and pastel that characterize the late mythological fantasies—but not, as it turns out, to his benefit.

You begin to question, in fact, whether an exhaustive overview of Redon’s art would be necessary—or welcome. For every Eye-Balloon (1878), Roger and Angelica (c. 1910) or The Centaur (c. 1895-1900)—that is to say, for every picture that makes something aesthetically compelling out of the apparitions flitting through the cobwebs of one man’s imagination—there are seven or eight pieces that are hermetic and clumsy or precious and silly.

An artist might find his own dreams infinitely fascinating; the challenge lies in eliciting a comparable fascination from others. (Try telling someone else about a recent dream you’ve had and count the seconds until his eyes begin to glaze over.) Too often Redon’s visions fail us, if not him. If anything, Beyond the Visible points up how circumscribed the human imagination can be—or, rather, how humdrum and pointless its products are when not heightened by a concomitant invention in craft.

In Redon’s hands, a chunk of charcoal, a lithographer’s crayon or oil paint was never a direct conduit from the unconscious mind. Notwithstanding a certain fluency, the expressive potential of each medium was muffled, rendered tepid and hesitant. Oils, in particular, became a stubborn and, at times, woefully greasy substance all but incapable of metaphorical flight. Material means were, more often than not, an impediment to Redon’s unfettered mental rush. Who can believe the dream if its embodiment is a burden on the artist’s capabilities?

Redon’s efforts in pastel deny this complaint magnificently. In them, an uncanny fluidity of touch brings to fruition the wildest workings of his imagination. Even then, it’s worth noting that the two finest pastels are dedicated to subjects that were right in front of Redon’s eyes. Woman with Flower Corsage (1912) and Vase of Flowers (c. 1912-14) evince an ease that is far more true and ravishing than the majority of Redon’s essays into unearthly realms. Here is one artist who would have been better off taking in the world around him than in devising worlds in which he, and only he, was a welcome participant.

Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon is at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, until Jan. 23.

Point Taken

Redon’s work in charcoal has long been championed by admirers as a gauge of his significance as a draftsman. My opinion—that he was expert and elegant in the medium, but nothing more—is in the minority, but not for long.

Or so I’d like to think after visiting Clouet to Seurat: French Drawings from the British Museum, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Toward the close of this stunning parade of almost 100 drawings, you’ll find Redon’s Christ Crowned with Thorns (1895) just a few feet away from two studies for La Grande Jatte (both 1884) by the Pointillist painter Georges Seurat.

Sticklers might cavil that there is, if not a world of difference, then difference enough between charcoal and conté crayon. Yet comparing the Redon charcoal and the Seurat studies in crayon only serves to highlight the distinction between proficiency and mastery, striving and attainment. Christ Crowned with Thorns, though certainly not negligible, is a struggle; the artist’s hand is constantly guiding events. Seurat’s studies, in contrast, are as natural, inevitable and necessary as breathing. Drawing, for Seurat, is a process in which the artist yields authority while bringing resolution to the inherently vexing marriage between artistic vision and material means.

It’s an impossible feat if you stop and think about it. Redon did; Seurat didn’t. That’s why he entrances while Redon merely diverts. There’s much more to French Drawings, but Seurat alone is enough to warrant a trip to the Met.

Clouet to Seurat: French Drawings from the British Museum is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Jan. 29.

Coping Mechanisms

If Beyond the Visible only intermittently gives life to the darkest corners of the imagination, Obsessive Drawing, an exhibition of contemporary art at the American Folk Art Museum, makes all too real the furthest reaches of desire. Each of the five featured artists engage in a “mind-bending process” wherein a “self-developed system for survival” aids in the negotiation of a world of “mindless distraction.”

As far as coping mechanisms go, pencil and paper pose less of a danger to the artist—and, for that matter, the rest of us—than drugs, alcohol, or a fascination with firearms or little girls. Better that Charles Benefiel should invent a “dumb language” as a defense against conformity, or Chris Hipkiss illustrate elaborately choreographed fantasies about war, menstruation and rocket ships, than to have to worry about how their preoccupations might translate into action in the public sphere.

In other words, relief (mingled with a somewhat unseemly fascination) trumps aesthetic pleasure as a response to the disquietingly private worlds on view. The exception is Hiroyuki Doi, whose pencil conjures up pulsing, craggy forms from accumulations of painstakingly delineated circles. His drawings admit to a world—and an audience—that exists outside the boundaries of his own psyche.

Mr. Doi’s art merits further investigation; the rest of it you’ll want to keep at arm’s length. It’s worth remembering, after all, that obsession is inherently unhealthy, that it’s a hindrance to experience. This is at once a measure of the exhibition’s primary strength—and its defining liability.

Obsessive Drawing is at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, until March 19.