Bertrand-Jean (Odilon) Redon (1840-1916)
Paris, about 1904
Oil on canvas
This vividly coloured work is one of Redon’s rare studies after an Old Master painting. It is based on the harrowingly realistic Crucifixion of 1526, by the German artist Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528), now in Karlsruhe, which depicts Mary and St John the Evangelist standing at the foot of the cross mourning Christ. The horror and pain depicted in Grünewald’s painting impressed the Symbolist writer J.-K. Huysmans to such an extent that he described it in his novel La Bas of 1891 in the following words:
‘Christ hung there, a formidable figure, on his cross, a half-trimmed branch fastened to an upright and bending like a bow under the weight of his body…this blood-splattered tear-stained Calvary.’
Redon, who was born and largely trained in Bordeaux, became a leading figure in the Symbolist movement, which reacted against realism and naturalism in the arts. His friends included Symbolist writers such as Stéphane Mallarmé, while the young progressive painters Bonnard and Vuillard (whose work is shown nearby) admired his bizarre, mystical works. Although a contemporary of the Impressionists, Redon was uninterested in their objective responses to visible subject matter and concentrated instead on the subconscious. He created a vast body of charcoal drawings, many of them depicting fantastic, imaginary beings. Although he had considered black ‘the prince of colours’, in the 1890s he started working in colour – and in around 1904 was inspired to paint this unforgettable image, his own version of Grunewald’s Crucifixion.
Here he remains faithful to the composition of the original, with Mary and John on either side of the cross, but the gruesome realism of torn and bleeding flesh and livid skin tones is gone. Instead, Christ’s agony is evoked by the overwhelming use of a blood-red background, in which Mary and John hover insubstantially like ghosts. This entirely original use of non-descriptive colour contributed not only to the avant-garde ‘Fauvist’ movement of the early 20th century, but also to Expressionism, and underlies Redon’s importance as a precursor of modern art movements.
Purchased 1981 (Inv. No. 81.1)