It’s a Small World: Odilon Redon and the Nabi Artists
Crossing Paths in Post-Impressionist France
By Britany Salsbury, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings
Anyone who has visited Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900, now in its last few days, may be tempted to draw connections to CMA’s upcoming exhibition Collecting Dreams: Odilon Redon.
At first glance, one might easily think that these two exhibitions have very little, if anything, in common.
Odilon Redon was known as “the prince of mysterious dreams” for his enigmatic and imaginative paintings, drawings, and prints that mined fantasy, literature, and the subconscious. The Cleveland Museum of Art was among the earliest American museums to collect pieces by this groundbreaking 19th-century French artist.
Redon’s prints and drawings feature bizarre, imagined creatures, for example in Quasimodo.
On the other hand, Nabi artists preferred intimate scenes shared with friends and family, a recurring theme in the Private Lives exhibition.
Despite such dramatic differences, these artists not only worked in the same place at the same time, they actually knew and admired each other. Delving deeper into connections between the seemingly opposite artworks on view in the museum’s galleries is a fascinating chance to experience one of the greatest turning points in modern art. Together, the work of Redon and the Nabis reveals the virtually endless range of creative possibilities available to artists in late 19th-century Paris.
There is no better resource for understanding the relationship between Redon and the Nabis than a painting by Maurice Denis, a member of the Nabi brotherhood from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Titled Homage to Cézanne, the group portrait depicts Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard (three of the four artists showcased in Private Lives; Félix Vallotton is notably absent) alongside a group of their friends and colleagues, which includes Redon. Everyone turns to the far left to face Redon, who is slightly older than the others; he appears with a dense beard and balding head and holding a pair of glasses. Although the painting was made in 1900, the year the Nabi artists began to drift apart, the members of the group deeply admired Redon for breaking from the conservative training they all shared to instead explore, in Denis’s words, “a state of soul . . . depth of emotion . . . [and] an interior vision.” The idea of expressing themselves through their art may seem natural today but felt absolutely radical to these young artists, who had been instructed to represent — as realistically as possible — only what they saw before them.
This admiration was mutual, as one of the prints in Collecting Dreams clearly shows. Two years after Denis’s painting, Redon commemorated his friendship with Bonnard through a printed portrait.
The spare lithograph shows Bonnard in profile, looking forward as if deep in thought. Redon used repetitive sketchy marks and let the white tone of the paper show through clearly, becoming part of the image. Bonnard’s profile fades delicately, emphasizing the interiority and dreaminess in both artists’ work. The medium used for the print links the two on an even deeper level — both Bonnard and Redon were passionate about lithography, a relatively new technique that was seen as being too commercial before they started to experiment with it.
In a connection that is less obvious while contemplating the artworks in the CMA’s galleries, Redon and the Nabis were also part of the same professional circles surrounding art making and selling in Paris during the 1890s. Both worked with master printer Auguste Clot, who helped them translate into lithography the exact effects that they desired from their designs. Well known for his mastery of the notoriously complicated process of color lithography — which he flaunted in Vuillard’s portfolio Landscapes and Interiors — Clot was also responsible for the fine detail of Redon’s 1904 printed portrait of art critic Roger Marx.
Such prints were usually published, marketed, and sold by Ambroise Vollard, an influential collector, publisher, and dealer who championed avant-garde art around the turn of the 19th century. Vollard owned artworks by Redon, Denis, Bonnard, Vuillard, and Vallotton and exhibited them in his gallery.
He promoted printmaking as an affordable way to build a sophisticated collection of contemporary art and published works as seemingly unrelated as Redon’s series The Apocalypse of Saint John and Bonnard’s The Little Laundress.
Vollard’s involvement is but one connection that reveals what a small world Paris was in the 1890s: an art scene just like one that we can find in cities today, consisting of artists, galleries, and an enthusiastic public interested in visiting museums and galleries.