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Text by Deanna MacDonald


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Odilon Redon: The Buddha - 1906

Paris, Musée d’Orsay

Considering this rich colourful Buddha, it is almost impossible to imagine that Redon’s early work was only in black. In the 1870s he began working in charcoal and then lithography, gaining fame among the Parisian literary avant-garde by creating shadowy, unsettling illustrations for fantastical books by the likes of Baudelaire and Poe. ‘Black’, Redon wrote, ‘is the most important colour; nothing can prostitute it’.

This unusual stance seems even more remarkable when you consider that Redon was the same generation as the Impressionists and even exhibited with them in the their final exhibition in 1886. But while his contemporaries were creating images of the modern world in pastel hues, the young Redon’s fertile imagination created his Noirs (as he called them), scenes of dark imaginary worlds and bizarre creatures. But around 1890 Redon turned to colour. He once said: ‘In art, everything happens through docile submission to the unconscious’. And clearly his 50-year-old unconscious had discovered pastels and oil paint.

The Buddha is among the most beautiful of Redon’s late colour works. In a canvas awash in textured, nuanced hues, a Buddhist figure stands in colourful robes in an otherworldly setting. With an aura of mystery and gravitas, he holds a staff in one hand and raises the other in a gesture somewhere between a Buddhist sign calling for intellectual discussion and a Christian blessing. His eyes are closed, suggesting a deep inner world. Composed of blurred lines and shaded colour, the image seems immaterial, on the verge of vanishing. The shimmering sky and earth are composed of moody blotches of blues, yellow and shadows with only a barren tree and leafy plant seeming to have at least partial solidity.

The subject is a reflection of Redon’s and the Nabis’ interest in Japan and religion. Since 1854 when Japan opened to the West after years of isolation, the European art world had been fascinated with Japanese art, particularly prints, from which it found inspiration in both technique and subject. Redon’s works often have an intense, though ambiguous, spirituality: ‘My drawings inspire and cannot be defined’, said Redon, ‘like music they transport us in to the ambiguous world of the indeterminate’.

The serene lyricism of his late colour works like this one were in stark contrast to his Noirs, but Redon’s fundamental aesthetic had not changed. His images were still about transforming reality into dream, striving towards a visual experience of something internal. Redon wrote: ‘I have created an art after my own heart. I have created it with my eyes open to the wonders of the visible world’. Fellow artists, including the Nabis and Fauves, applauded his innovations and Maurice Denis admiringly wrote; ‘[Redon] is the origin of all aesthetic innovation and revivals, all the revolutions in taste we have subsequently witnessed’.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Contemporary Works

1906 Gustav Klimt: Farm Garden with Sunflowers, Vienna, Belvedere

1906 Walter Richard Sickert: La Hollandaise, London, Tate

1906 Henri Matisse: View of Collioure, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum


Further Paintings of Interest


Pierre Bonnard

Dining Room in the Country

Pierre Bonnard

Vision after the Sermon

Paul Gauguin