Drawings of the sublime, darkly tangled in nature

Masters Bresdin, Redon in MFA show

'The Reader' by Odilon Redon is a print made of his teacher and friend Rodolphe Bresdin. "The Reader" by Odilon Redon is a print made of his teacher and friend Rodolphe Bresdin.
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / August 21, 2011

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We like to stress what was “modern’’ - what somehow anticipated our own era - about great artists of earlier epochs. But isn’t there something narcissistic about the habit?

Far from pointing the way forward to us, Rodolphe Bresdin was one of those mysterious figures who ultimately remind you how rich, perturbing, and strangely unapproachable the art of the past can be.

This, in turn, gives looking at his work a thrilling aspect, as when turning the corner of a familiar street into a narrow alley overflowing with the most unexpected and exotic flora.

Bresdin and his student, the better known but equally mysterious Odilon Redon, are the subject of a small exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts that hums with visionary intensity. The show is situated along one of the museum’s main, ground-level thoroughfares, which feels apt: Its haunting oddity stands as an antidote, if not a rebuke, to the modern museum’s obsession with accessibility and maximum illumination.

It’s not that there’s anything arcane or off-putting about the show, which was organized by Clifford Ackley, the MFA’s longtime curator of prints and drawings. But much of it is dark, inky, and - in Bresdin’s case - drenched in detail.

Bresdin was born in 1822. He left home to become an artist and live as a bohemian in Paris while still a teenager. Working primarily as a draftsman and printmaker, he was essentially self-taught. He moved around a great deal, remaining mired in poverty and thwarted by ill health for much of his life.

He moved in literary circles - he knew Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, and Jules Champfleury - and his life seemed sufficiently romantic to make him the basis for Champfleury’s first novel, “Chien-Caillou,’’ about a poor and eccentric artist. (The title, adapted from a character in James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,’’ was actually Bresdin’s nickname.)

Both the literary connections and the preference for drawing and printmaking over painting in oils were things Bresdin shared with Redon, his friend and student.

Redon’s early fame owed much to a mention in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s influential decadent novel, “A Rebours,’’ or “Against Nature.’’ Much of his best work came from illustrating works by his favorite writers, from Goethe to Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire, and Gustave Flaubert.

And yet Bresdin’s work looks very different to Redon’s. Bresdin made about 150 prints. The majority of them are intensively detailed lithographs. At first they can seem to have as much in common with Dutch printmaking (a clear influence) and with the linear fantasias of the Renaissance as with anything of Bresdin’s own time - although there are obvious links to be made with the work of contemporary illustrators such as Gustave Doré.

Bresdin favored religious subjects, as well as sublime landscapes and battle scenes. But his depictions of thick foliage were particularly masterful. In his most famous print, “The Good Samaritan,’’ a large-scale lithograph exhibited to much acclaim at the Salon of 1861, the central figures are framed by trees, vines, and gnarled branches, both dead and alive, charging the scene with drama.

Bresdin was commissioned to produce a frontispiece and illustrations to go with a book of fables by Hippolyte de Thierry-Faletans. The author proved hard to please, and the commission backfired. But Bresdin’s proposed frontispiece and another illustration he submitted, “The Butterfly and the Pond,’’ are both on view here, and they are exquisite.

Here was an artist who clearly adored nature, and saw it as a portal to intense symbolic and spiritual realms.

Death and decay, for Bresdin, were in league with the teeming profusion of natural life. He gave the idea brilliant form in a lithograph called “The Comedy of Death,’’ which shows several slumped figures amid monstrously shaped trees strewn with skeletons and owls, and, in the background, the figure of Christ gesturing back toward the distant heavens.

Even amid signs of spurting growth in Bresdin’s images, we sense a threat to the order and integrity of human life, a potential smothering or snuffing out that is connected to that great, shattering category of 19th-century sensibilities, the sublime.

But in Bresdin’s work - and even more in Redon’s - the sublime is always sneaking off into more private, more intimately psychological categories of experience. Grandeur takes a back seat to something stranger, knottier, and harder to parse.

The strongest connection between the two artists can be found in “The Reader,’’ which shows the profile of Bresdin, with whom Redon began studying in 1865.

Unlike Bresdin, Redon tended to suppress detail in favor of singular, centered images and striking disparities of scale. His images can feel dredged up from a terrifying unconscious, then washed, burnished and made radiant by his wondrous way with shades of black. His titles are often as evocative as the images themselves: “The Auricular Cell,’’ “The misshapen polyp floated on the shores, a sort of smiling and hideous Cyclops,’’ “There was perhaps a first vision attempted in the flower.’’

The other wonderful thing about seeing this show at the MFA is that it sheds light on some of Boston’s own most interesting 20th-century artists. I’m thinking of certain Boston Expressionists, who - shunning more predictable influences - struck out on their own, taking inspiration from visionaries such as Bresdin and Redon.

One thinks especially of the late Hyman Bloom, who still awaits a proper retrospective at the MFA (there’s no question he deserves it), and of Steven Trefonides, a marvelous painter and draftsman who, like Redon, also works in pastels, achieving stunningly evocative effects.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


At: Museum of Fine Arts, through Jan. 16, 2012. 617-267-9300,