Executed in 1905-08, Vase au guerrier japonais marks the perfect marriage between the still life genre and the atmosphere of mystery and mysticism with which Odilon Redon's work is so redolent. In this important pastel, which was shown in his one man exhibition at the Galerie Druet in 1908, Redon has managed to add his own unique, idiosyncratic perspective to the floral still life, revealing his pivotal influence upon Symbolism. This is more than a mere still life of flowers: it is a form of dream, and at the same time is a wonderful pretext for Redon to indulge his blossoming passion for colour. As Gabriel Mourey wrote about the exhibition in which Vase au guerrier japonais was shown in Paris, Redon's flowers 'explode in violent and audacious colours that form the strangest and most pleasant harmonies' (G. Mourey, quoted in M. Stevens, 'Redon's Artistic and Critical Position', pp. 281-304, D. Druick (ed.), Odilon Redon, exh.cat., Chicago, Amsterdam & London, 1994, p. 297). Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Vase au guerrier japonais, be it in the gentle haze of the background with the mirage-like, shimmering presence of two smaller vases, in the abundant flowers, or in the decoration of the titular vase itself.
Vase au guerrier japonais is one of a very small group within his pictures of flowers in vases which shows this specific vessel; he also created another pastel, which was sold for almost $4,000,000 by Christie's as part of the estate of the famous heiress Doris Duke, the monies benefiting her charitable foundation. As had recently become Redon's occasional habit, he then created an oil based on that work; it is a telling insight into the mind and working methods of the artist that that picture, which is now in the POLA Museum of Art in Japan, used its pastel origins only as an inspiration and in fact differs a great deal from its progenitor.
That one of the works related to Vase au guerrier japonais now resides in Japan is indeed apt: for the vase appears to show a demon (rather than a warrior, although one is illustrated on the reverse). These characters may be from Momijigari, a play performed in both Kabuki and Noh and originally written several centuries earlier by the Japanese actor and playwright Kanze Nobomitsu (interestingly, Momijigari was the source of one of the earliest Japanese films, directed by Tsunekichi Shibata in 1897, thus predating this picture). The spirit of Japan and of the woodcuts that were to be of such an influence to Van Gogh, the Nabis and various other artists at the end of the Nineteenth Century can be felt in Vase au guerrier japonais, in the rich colours and the deliberately asymmetrical flower arrangement, perhaps revealing a loose awareness of ikebana.
Looking at Vase au guerrier japonais, it is clear that Redon was creating more than a still life. He was tapping into his sense of the fantastical, into a range of influences, and into himself. Discussing his approach towards still life subjects, Redon explained:
'I have often, as an exercise and as sustenance, painted before an object down to the smallest accidents of its... appearance; but [that] left me sad and dissatisfied. The next day [when] I let the other source, that of imagination, run through the recollection of the forms, I was reassured and appeased' (Redon, quoted in G. Groom, 'The Late Work', pp. 305-52, D. Druick (ed.), Odilon Redon, exh.cat., Chicago, Amsterdam & London, 1994, p. 320).
This, then, is far from being a strict depiction of the scene in front of him. While the various elements, especially the flowers, reveal a great deal of observational skill, the atmosphere remains imbued with a similar sense of otherness, an atmosphere of great lyrical mystery, that is clearly linked to his figurative and narrative pastels. It is telling that, around the time that Vase au guerrier japonais was executed, Redon wrote to his friend and patron André Bonger about a sister work, that 'the vase of flowers, the one that Mme Bonger thinks of as a vision... I do not know of anything that has given me greater pleasure than such an appreciation of simple flowers in their vase breathing the air' (Redon, quoted in M. Stevens, 'Redon's Artistic and Critical Position', pp. 281-304, loc. cit., 1994, p. 294).
Compared to the strange, nightmarish quality of Redon's earlier fantastical works, especially his Noirs, the flowers speak of an unfettered sense of joy and wonder, an indulgence and even immersion in nature. Redon's passion for life itself is on bold and many-hued display. Some critics at the time detected this shift, even equating it to Dante's journeys in the various circles of Hell; in comparison, they felt that flower pictures such as Vase au guerrier japonais marked an entrance into Paradise. This was in part due to Redon's change in palette. While during the earlier part of his career he had increasingly used colour to add an accent to his works here and there, it was only towards the end of the Nineteenth Century that he had really begun to use it for entire works. And no subject provides a pretext for the use and indeed exploration of colour more than the floral still life. In some of his earlier works on the subject, for instance his decorative panels, the flowers had an almost abstract quality as they were scattered across the surface.
Here, they are presented as a more contained though intensely vibrant and vivacious cornucopia, bursting with colour like fireworks; the focus on colour is emphatically clear from the fact that what could have been empty space in the lower right- and left-hand sections has been filled with spectral, distant vases, allowing more flowers to enter the composition. Redon's enthusiasm for flowers, and for colour in general, is clear from his own words: only a few years after he had created Vase au guerrier japonais, he said, 'If the art of an artist is the song of his life, a solemn or sad melody, I must have hit a happy note in colour' (Redon, quoted in ibid., p. 288). Indeed, Redon felt that his long-lasting foray into the world of colour had been incredibly beneficial to his abilities as an artist; only a year after his Druet exhibition, he wrote, 'I like my art more and more. And I believe, you will agree yourself, that I have made progress in colour' (Redon, quoted in ibid., p. 288).
The flower pictures met with great approval from many of his critics and collectors. In 1907, he had said that in Paris, 'at the moment everyone is gripped by my flowers' (Redon, quoted in ibid., p. 291). This success arrived at the perfect moment for Redon. Following the sale of his family's manor in the Médoc in 1897, he had been saddled with debts, not least through his brother's mismanagement of the estate. While he had managed to lessen these debts by demanding a reinspection of his brother's financial activities before the forced sale, he nonetheless still had some financial dues, and the success of his floral pictures in particular helped to allay that, bringing him some new-found stability and security. Interestingly, he was careful not to overexpose himself, and managed the timings of his sales and exhibitions carefully. For instance, in 1908, the year Vase au guerrier japonais was shown at the Galerie Druet, he participated in only two exhibitions, the other being the first Salon de la Toison d'Or in Moscow. Vase au guerrier japonais therefore provides an insight into Redon's own careful handle on his market strategy as well as the enchanting world of fantasy and mystery of which his floral still life pastels are such a perfect expression.