(France 1822 – 14 Jan 1885)
17.9 x 22.4 cm platemark; 23.5 x 31.0 cm mount
Bresdin was an isolated and solitary figure who swam against the prevailing artistic currents of his generation. During his lifetime very little of his work was understood or appreciated outside of a limited literary coterie. His art is essentially a discovery of the 20th century and is now justly celebrated for its rare vision and technical wizardry. Bresdin loved to revel in intricacy and obscurity, spinning distinctive dreamlike images; his scenes are more accurately landscapes of the mind than observations of any physical place. Painting never beckoned him: he was self-taught and restricted himself exclusively to drawing and printmaking, which he did with obsessive graphic concentration and an impulse for intense miniaturisation (some prints are scarcely larger than postage stamps), yet his art is capable of exuding huge imaginative power.
Bresdin’s picturesque character brought him to the attention of several contemporary writers. The first was Jules Champfleury, the champion of Realism who was soon to become Courbet’s eulogist. His short story, Chien-Caillou, published in 1845, is a portrait of an impoverished bohemian artist based directly on Bresdin. The name ‘Chien-Caillou’ was in fact a Frenchified corruption of ‘Chingachgook’ – the name of the Indian hero from James Fenimore Cooper’s The last of the Mohicans, which Bresdin had adopted for himself. The sobriquet remained with him and he used it to sign some of his prints.
The admiration of such writers as Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier and Stéphane Mallarmé assured Bresdin’s reputation in the face of neglect, even antipathy, towards his art. Henri Béraldi, in his great inventory of 19th-century etchers and lithographers issued between 1885 and 1892, claimed that Bresdin’s fame depended less on his art than on his ‘reputation for being utterly destitute’, and described the eight prints (Bresdin made more than 150) listed in his catalogue as ‘extravagantly bad’, ‘always strange’ and ‘absolutely mad!’.
Writing in 1861 the critic Théophile Thoré saw evidence in Bresdin’s work of ‘rare and extremely personal invention’, yet admittedly it was the idiosyncratic talent of the outsider that struck him most: ‘A collector able to assemble the works of Bresdin’, he observed, ‘would have the most curious portfolio of our time’.
Yet such qualities held special appeal for the decadent imaginations of fin-de-siècle writers such as Robert de Montesquiou – who published a short monograph, L’inextricable graveur: Rodolphe Bresdin, in 1913 – and Joris-Karl Huysmans, who imagined Bresdin as ‘a vague Albert Dürer [with] a brain clouded with opium’. In the latter’s novel, À Rebours (1884), the anti-hero decorates his residence with artworks by Bresdin, Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon to stimulate his jaded senses.
Bresdin’s life was marked by an insatiable yearning for somewhere better. He lived like a nomad, frequently in self-imposed isolation, moving back and forth with his family from Paris, Toulouse and Bordeaux. Inspired by his reading of Cooper, he harboured thoughts of sailing to America where he might live simply by farming the land. His dream of exile to an idyllic world uncorrupted by modern civilisation eventually materialised when he embarked for Canada in 1873. But he returned to Paris four years later, disillusioned and more helpless than ever. Afterwards he abandoned his family and retreated to Sèvres, where he lived out his final years in an attic.
The Flight into Egypt was a subject dear to Bresdin, one that he depicted in at least four other prints. One wonders what relevance – if any – to his own predicament the artist felt with that of the Holy Family, forced into exile to escape persecution. This lithograph, one of Bresdin’s masterpieces, shows the sacred fugitives resting beside a stream with a fortified town, presumably Bethlehem, far behind them.
Bresdin’s gnome-sized travellers are part of the miniature life of the primeval forest in which they find themselves, like the beasts hidden in the lower right corner of the print. The landscape as a whole, and its individual features, are too contrived ever to have been observed from nature: the bare branches sprawl decoratively over the page like Gothic tracery and the gushing torrent sweeps upwards to meet the clouds.
Odilon Redon, whom Bresdin taught in Bordeaux in 1865, remarked in his autobiography that his master:
… never worked from nature because he was unable to do so. I once saw him trying to make a sketch of a horse stopped in front of his window. He started with the ear and finally the head ended up larger than the entire body. It was the most childish impossibility to formulate what he saw in front of him. But when he worked on tiny details, his memory was sufficient.
Arsene Bonafous-Murat, Rodolphe Bresdin 1822-1885, 1992, (illus.). no.11
Maxime Preaud, Rodolph Bresdin 1822-1885: Robinson graveur, 2000, (illus.). no.45
Dirk van Gelder, Rodolphe Bresdin: catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre gravé, 1976, (illus.). no.85
Rodolphe Bresdin 1822-1885, Arsene Bonafous-Murat, Paris, 1992–1992
European prints and drawings 1500-1900, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 30 Aug 2014–02 Nov 2014