Copenhagen's first retrospective of French symbolist painter Odilon Redon debuted at the Glyptotek museum filled with things that cannot be explained - a world imagined.

The mind of an artist

The way the museum titled the show, “Into the Dream,” and pitched it - “a unique opportunity to be captured” - you might expect to be drawn into some fairyland of rainbows and bubbles. And given that the real world these days swirls in turmoil, an escape into some castle in the air far removed from reality would hit the spot right about now.

Don’t miss on the latest updates Follow the Book Channel

Spoiler alert. There's no pause that refreshes here. Redon's fantasy life is often dark and even nightmarish.

What's in a name?

Consider Redon's Head of a Martyr, a disembodied head inexplicably plopped in a bowl, or his lithographic series The Raven that pays homage to Edgar Allen Poe whose bad dreams held sway over Redon.

The poet's influence accounts for Redon's depiction of a dark bird looming at the edge of an open window, not unlike Hitchcock‘s chiller The Birds. But when it comes to Redon, contradictions abound. For example, given that he titled his work, like "Head of a Martyr" and "The Raven," it's surprising to read in his Lettres de Odilon Redon (1900), that he disparaged picture titles: “The designation of my drawings by a title is often superfluous. A title is justified only when it is vague and even aims confusedly at the equivocal.”

Frozen in fear

And since Redon's picture-making lands on the scary side, it's equally unexpected to learn what he feared the most because it's nowhere to be seen in his work. As he told art critic Andre Mellerio in 1862, “I have a horror of a white sheet of paper. It creates such a disagreeable impression that it makes me sterile, even ridding me of my taste for work...A sheet of paper so shocks me that as soon as it is on the easel, I am forced to scrawl on it with charcoal or pencil, or anything else, and this process gives it life.”

In and out of reality

And here comes another contradiction.

In Redon's journal “To Myself” (“A Soi-meme”), he described his creative process, saying that as a “sustenance” he would begin painting an object realistically, down to the smallest detail, which would leave him with “an unsatiated thirst.” So the next day, he would let his imagination run with the same object that he so carefully rendered to feel “reassured and appeased.” It's notable that he had to get real before he could allow his imagination free rein.

As the world turns

That last contradiction may have had something to do with his early years when he sought to be an architect and couldn't pass the entrance exam at the Beaux-Arts. His younger brother Gaston, who was accepted at the school, went on to become an architect of the Louvre. Is it any wonder that Odilon turned to fantasy? And it turned out, it was a good thing he was able to act out his frustration at his easel. Hitler couldn't get into art school, either, and look what he ended up doing.