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The Lithographic Album

À Gustave Flaubert

The format in which the prints were issued also bears great significance. A number of prints, such as the Profil de Lumière remained individual, stand-alone works. On the other hand, lithographic albums offered Redon a new way to present his work. They appealed to the literary tastes of his circle and introduced new layers of complex meaning and ambiguity.

Prints from two of Redon's early albums, Hommage à Goya and La Nuit, dated 1885 and 1886, respectively, are on display in the exhibition and the complete albums can be viewed in the online Gallery. The albums were the invention of the artist, who used the format to produce sets of images based around a vague theme. This allowed him great scope to experiment with his imagery. He also manipulated the format of albums, using literary titles and mysterious captions, to help promote his work and produce an artistic response to the literary interests of the Symbolists.

The majority of the lithographs in the exhibition come from the second and third of the three albums that Redon based on Gustave Flaubert's highly regarded novel, La Tentation de Saint-Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony). The story tells of the hermit saint's temptation by the Devil whilst in the Egyptian desert. Saint Anthony's manifold visions of ancient gods, manifestations of the seven deadly sins, monsters and heretics, among others, were, according to Redon, a 'mine' for him. These albums, dated 1889 and 1896, were in no way the result of collaboration, as the novel was first published in 1874 and Flaubert had died in 1880. Equally, these prints cannot be called illustrations as Redon does not pictorially recreate the narrative. Even the brief extracts from the novel that Redon printed as captions under the images were suggestive and heightened the emotiveness of the works, rather than placing them in the narrative. Instead, Redon produced a pictorial response to Flaubert's text that expanded and developed his lithographic output and refined the symbolic and emotive light of what Redon called his 'noirs'.

Redon only printed his works in small editions, which helped to promote their status as art works. In addition to being generally for sale, usually through the publisher, he entered them into the Salons of the avant-garde artists in Paris and Belgium. Many prints went to friends from the Symbolist milieu of artists and writers, as well as critics and patrons. Significantly, Redon signed his lithographs in a numbers of ways. The plates of the second Saint Anthony album (À Gustave Flaubert) had Redon's signature printed as part of the image, identifying them as autonomous art works that could be sold or exhibited individually. The third album bore signatures, often in inventive (see Et partout ce sont des Colonnes de basalte and Des peuples divers) and conspicuous (see Je suis toujours la grande Isis! and Dans l'ombre) places. These were all added in graphite. Usually, if prints were signed by hand, the signature was added afterwards in the margin outside the picture. Perhaps Redon felt this gave a more personal touch, and the variance made each print undoubtedly unique.