The motif of the present work is based on a contemporary Japanese vase (fig. 1) depicting a wild-haired demon in a lavish costume on one side, and a samurai warrior on the other, both characters probably taken from a scene from a Japanese noh or kabuki play. According to Alec Wildenstein, such vases were available at Parisian markets in abundance around the turn of the century, however in his compositions Redon transformed it into a special piece through his poetic magic. Vase au guerrier japonais belongs to a group of two pastels and one oil painting (fig. 2) on the subject of flowers in a vase with a Japanese motif, which Redon executed in the first decade of the twentieth century. During this time, he was working primarily in pastels, occasionally using his pastel compositions as a point of departure for oil paintings, few of which remain.
The theme of floral still-life preoccupied Redon throughout his career, but it was in the last two decades of his life that they dominated his oeuvre. He had first explored this subject in the 1860s, but soon turned his attention to the developing Symbolist movement, creating his 'noir' series of drawings and mystical compositions. Having returned to the genre of still-life at the turn of the century, Redon retained the ethereal quality of his previous work. As Richard Hobbs explained: '"These fragile scented beings, admirable prodigies of light", as he later described them, were providing him with a motif through which to develop the joyful and spiritual transformation of natural forms that is characteristic of so many of his colour works [...] He associated flowers with a delicate but fundamental kind of artistic expression. [...] Flowers were becoming a theme of primary importance to Redon, both as motifs for experimentation with colour and as the expression of a personal lyricism' (R. Hobbs, Odilon Redon, London, 1977, p. 139).
Vase au guerrier japonais reflects Redon's ability to create lively compositions using contrasting colours and shapes. Although his bouquet is comprised of many kinds of flowers of varying sizes and forms, the overall effect is one of coherence and harmony. Like his contemporary Paul Gauguin, Redon imbued his works with a spiritual quality, declaring: 'He who believes that the aim of art is to reproduce nature will paint nothing lasting: for nature is alive, but she has no intelligence. In a work of art, thought must complement and replace life; otherwise you will only see a physical work that has no soul' (quoted in ibid., p. 152). This attitude is combined with a modernist approach to composition, in which the subject of the vase of flowers is set against a neutral background, a style largely influenced by Japanese prints (fig. 3). As in the Japanese woodblocks and screens which became popular in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, Redon used the dynamic of positive and negative spaces, patches of bold pigment and strong outlines in order to maximise the impact of his subject.
In this pastel, the bouquet explodes from the vase into a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes, echoing the wild hair and costume of the Japanese figure. Whilst in most of his flower paintings Redon focused primarily on the bouquet itself, in the present work he paid equal attention to the depiction of the flowers and of the vase. Throughout his career, Redon used a variety of vases, jugs and pitchers, probably acquired at markets in Paris, and used them repeatedly in several compositions. In painting them, he often attempted to harmonise the colours of the vase with those of the flowers, as beautifully exemplified by the present work, and others such as Le Vase étrusque (fig. 4). Starting from actual objects arranged in his studio, he transformed them here into a spiritual composition that appears to bridge the gap between the traditional genre of still-life painting, and Redon's earlier, more mystical 'noir' works. The exotic figure on the vase further adds to the magical quality of the present work.
Pastel and traces of crayon on paper laid down on board
(probably) Winterthur, Kunstverein, Odilon Redon, 1919, no. 254 (titled Fleurs exotiques)
90.5 by 71.5cm. 35 5/8 by 28 1/8 in.
Apollo, London, September 1970, illustrated p. 73
Burlington Magazine, London, September 1970, P. III, illustrated
'Conseils aux acheteurs', in Connaissance des Arts, Paris, December 1970, fig. 1, illustrated p. 135
Marina & Guy Ducrey, La Galerie Paul Vallotton, Lausanne, 1988, illustrated p. 60
Douglas W. Druick et al., Odilon Redon (exhibition catalogue), The Art Institute of Chicago, 1994, fig. 18, illustrated p. 273 (as dating from circa 1906)
Alec Wildenstein, Odilon Redon, Catalogue Raisonné, Paris, 1996, vol. III, no. 1524, illustrated p. 112
Jos Hessel, Paris
Paul Vallotton, Lausanne
Hans Mettler, St. Gallen (acquired from the above in July 1923. Sale: Christie's, London, 2nd July 1979, lot 7)
Doris Duke, New Jersey (purchased at the above sale)
The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (sale: Christie's, New York, 4th May 2004, lot 8)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner