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Images by Two of France's Most Original Artists on View at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Odilon Redon, Centaur, 1895–1900. Pastel on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Laurence K. Marshall. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MA.- Two of the most imaginative artists of the 19th to 20th century, whose fantastical depictions of dense landscapes and brooding figures illustrate the broader reaches of reality, are showcased in Two Masters of Fantasy: Bresdin and Redon, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). On view through January 16, 2012, the exhibition presents 43 works—22 by teacher Rodolphe Bresdin (1822–1885) and 21 by his student Odilon Redon (1840–1916), assembled primarily from the Museum’s holdings, with select loans from private collectors. Included are black and white lithographs, etchings, and charcoal drawings, as well as a watercolor and pastel. A highlight of the exhibition in the Clementine Brown Gallery is the MFA’s recent acquisition, the dramatic drawing Tears (Les Pleurs) (1878) by Odilon Redon.

“No excuse is needed to exhibit fascinating, imaginative artists such as the little known Bresdin or the influential Redon. Both are brilliant printmakers, whose works will be seen together for the first time at the Museum,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “But one of the principal reasons for the exhibition is the opportunity to show our major acquisition Tears (Les Pleurs), one of the noirs, the large-scale charcoal drawings of the 1870s that made Redon’s reputation.”

Rodolphe Bresdin, the eccentric French artist, was a self-taught printmaker and draughtsman who was inspired by early 19thcentury Romantic book illustration. Although Bresdin, an “artist’s artist,” received modest recognition in his lifetime, he had a strong influence on his pupil Odilon Redon, the French artist who began his studies with the master in 1865. Bresdin’s prints and drawings are distinctive for their dense imagery of the natural world, executed in vibrant black and white. His claustrophobic landscapes are jungle-like, threatening to overwhelm those who enter. While most of his works are small—almost miniature—in scale, Bresdin’s masterpiece The Good Samaritan (1861) is one of his larger prints, measuring approximately 22 by 17 inches. It depicts an incident in which an Algerian came to the aid of a Christian victim during the civil war of 1860 in Syria, reflecting the parable about the Good Samaritan. Also on view in Two Masters of Fantasy are the highly detailed drawing Mountain Landscape with Army in a Rocky Gorge (1865) and the etching Branches (about 1880), which reflect Bresdin’s interest in the untamed wilderness. In addition, a case in the exhibition displays two versions of The Bather and Time (1856), an image of a woman bather observed by a skeleton holding a scythe and hourglass, drawn in black ink on tracing paper, and its corresponding lithograph made the following year. Nearby, a pedestal features a pairing of Bresdin’s etching Rocky Landscape (1880), and the copper plate that it was printed from—a plate from an earlier work that he scraped down and reused because of his poverty.

“Bresdin and Redon are two of the most inventive graphic artists of all time, who also happen to be teacher and pupil. Bresdin’s concept of the overwhelming power of nature’s intricate web is unequalled, and Redon’s drawings and lithographs prove that black can sometimes be the most expressive color in the artist’s palette,” said Clifford Ackley, Chair, Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, and Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Curator of Prints and Drawings. Ackley organized Two Masters of Fantasy with guest curator Sue Welsh Reed. The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of their colleague David P. Becker, who was the MFA’s Pamela and Peter Voss Curator of Prints and Drawings and an internationally recognized expert on Bresdin.

Drawing inspiration from Bresdin in both imagery and technique, Rendon’s early landscape Fear (1866) evokes “The Erl-King,” the heartbreaking poem by Goethe about a father riding on horseback whose young child dies in his arms. Redon’s subsequent, more surreal works led him to become a founding father of modern art and one of the greatest figures of the Symbolist movement (which emphasized literary themes and dreamlike personal visions). The artist’s hallucinatory images of the subconscious and the dream world also later influenced the Surrealists in the 1930s and many contemporary artists.

In the 1870s, Redon began his renowned series of dark and velvety charcoal fantasie —noirs (blacks). Included among them is the MFA’s acquisition, Tears (Les Pleurs), a major charcoal drawing of a floating head that weeps into the “sea of tears” below. Measuring approximately 17 x 14 inches, it is one of the works that helped to establish Redon as a master of blackness—in subject, tone, and medium. Several of his haunting fantasy heads are on view in the exhibition, such as Parsifal (1892), Lumière (Light) (1893), La Bretonne (1895), and Head of a Child with Flowers (1897). Also included in the exhibition is Le Liseur (The Reader) (1892), a touching lithograph of Redon’s master and friend, Bresdin, who had died seven years prior. This imaginary portrait of the aged artist, which pays tribute to the etchings of Rembrandt, shows him seated in a darkened room, his face illuminated by light from a nearby window.

Some works by Redon are wildly inventive, such as the representation of a Cyclops he created in 1883 as part of his Origins series, which explored evolutionary theory as propounded by Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking The Origin of Species (1859). Others plumb the subconscious, such as The eye, like a strange balloon (1882), a fanciful vision of a floating eyeball drifting up in the air like a hot-air balloon. It was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s French translations of the works of Edgar Allen Poe, the American writer of fantasy and the macabre who was admired by the Symbolists.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Redon moved away from the dark depths of his noirs, returning to color and light. Some of these later works are luminous, iridescent pastels with mythological themes, including Centaur (1895–1900), which is on view in the exhibition. It is one of three color pieces highlighted in Two Masters of Fantasy. Another is Saint Sebastian (1910–15), part of a series of watercolors depicting the Christian martyr that Redon made late in his career.

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