The universe is the book which we read incessantly, the unique source, the means.
(To myself : notes on life, art and artists / by Odilon Redon ; translated from the French by Mira Jacob and Jeanne L. Wasserman. New York : George Braziller , 1986. )
Odilon Redon (1840-1916), who is known for his exploration of fantastic themes, was a dedicated reader who loved books. He wrote the following of the wonders of reading:
Reading is an admirable resource for the cultivation of spirit because it modifies us, perfects us. It allows this speechless and tranquil colloquy with the great spirit, the great man who has bequeathed to us his thoughts.
The intellectual mentor of Redon’s youth who determined his passion for reading was Armand Clavaud (1828-90), a self-taught botanist whom Redon met at about the age of seventeen. Clavaud introduced the young Redon to a wide range of books, from literature by Edgar Allen Poe and Baudelaire to the latest scientific writings on evolution and other subjects, the philosophical writings of Spinoza, and books on Indian philosophy. Works by Redon in our museum’s collection such as his works on the subject of the Buddha and illustrations Redon contributed to a collection of poems (unpublished) by Mallarmé, a poet who was his contemporary, give us glimpses of the artist’s rich reading experience and his interactions with literary figures.
Redon also, however, wrote the following about the act of reading:
But it is no less true that reading alone is not sufficient to form a complete spirit able to function with sanity and strength. The eye is also indispensable for the absorption of the elements which nourish our soul, and whoever has not developed in a certain measure the faculty of seeing, of seeing correctly and truly, will possess on an incomplete understanding.
While praising reading, Redon also asserted the importance of seeing the real world rather than shutting oneself away in the world that exists only on paper. Indeed, he scrutinized the scenes and objects around him as carefully as he would read a book. To Redon, “The universe is the book which we read incessantly.” In that statement we can discern the influence of Clavaud, who always had a microscope at his side, as he attempted to decipher the mysteries in the universe of plants.
Clauvad took his own life one winter day when Redon was fifty. In the following year, 1891, the grieving Redon published Dreams (In the memory of my friend Armand Clavaud), a collection of six series of lithographs. The final plate, Day, depicts a window and the contrast between the dark interior and the light-filled exterior. The microorganism-like floating matter drifting about in the room and the tree outside call to mind Clavaud, the botanist. One imagines a day on which the two men sat together by a window, books in hand, talking with each other. This print communicates the deep affection that Redon felt for Clavaud, with whom he shared intimate moments of reading, at a time when Redon felt stranded and had yet to find his way as an artist.
※The quotations of Redon’s words are all from To Myself: Notes on Life, Art and Artists, by Odilon Redon; translated from the French by Mira Jacob and Jeanne L. Wasserman. New York: George Braziller, 1986.