Dubbed the prince of dreams by his contemporaries Odilon Redon was well-recognized during his lifetime despite the fact that he started his artistic career rather late. His works are connected to the ideas of dreams, nightmares, deep fears, and hidden desires. In many ways, he was a precursor to Surrealism who started exploring the dark corners of the subconscious well before the Surrealist movement took shape. Below are 10 works by Redon that you should know.
1. Odilon Redon’s Rise to Fame: Des Esseintes
Odilon Redon’s oeuvre is usually divided into two visually distinct periods: the black period, when he was working mainly with black and white lithographs called noirs, and the color period, when he adopted pastels and paint. Although Redon was studying art and sculpture in the 1860s, his career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. He was drafted and returned a year later, continuing to work on lithographs and charcoal drawings.
Despite his extensive work, he remained mostly unnoticed until the publication of a decadent novel A Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans in 1884. Huysmans’ character, a young spoiled aristocrat Des Esseintes, disappointed in life, spends his days in a mansion as a complete recluse. One of his few activities consists of contemplating his art collection, which includes a painting by Gustave Moreau and a series of Redon’s lithographs. The novel’s success brought great public attention to Redon. Perhaps out of gratitude, in 1888 Redon designed a cover for the new edition of the novel.
2. Homage to the Author: To Edgar Poe
Redon’s dark and monstrous creations were frequently compared to the works of Francisco de Goya. Indeed, he took inspiration from him, publishing a series of lithographs titled Homage to Goya. Yet the artist had a lot more creators he was influenced by. One of these was the famous American writer Edgar Allan Poe, best known for macabre poetry and short stories. Floating heads and eyes were popular motifs for Odilon Redon, reappearing in his works in various shapes and forms over the years. The series of lithographs dedicated to Poe was not a direct illustration of his texts, but Redon nevertheless managed to translate his impression from literary to visual language. As art historian Marina van Zuylen explained it, Redon and Poe shared at least one common trait, yearning for rules of composition while portraying creatures that were unruly and decomposing.
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3. Reimagining Mythology: The Siren
Sirens, creatures known from Greek mythology, were traditionally known as half-women half birds, who lured sailors into traps with their ethereal beauty and magical voices. However, Redon’s siren is nowhere close to that image. A being emerging from deep waters has a human face mounted on a disproportionate torso covered in sharp spikes, with a serpent-like tail instead of legs.
This image is far off from the traditional way of depicting sirens, but it does bear a strong resemblance to hybrids found in medieval manuscripts. Medieval artists frequently depicted weird creatures that make no biological sense. These monsters were either a result of incorrect descriptions since artists who were illustrating bestiaries in most cases had never seen the animals they were depicting, or complex symbolic messages coded into body parts of various animals and beings combined together.
4. From Disgust to Empathy: The Crying Spider
Spiders are a common motif in Odilon Redon’s work. Perhaps, they can be understood as a variation of the floating head symbol. Although spiders rarely evoke positive associations, Redon’s version of the unpleasant being is not as disgusting as it may appear at first glance. The Crying Spider is profoundly sad, weeping with so much sorrow that it is hard to be repulsed by it. Instead, the being evokes compassion, as if it is showing the face of sadness and pain hidden deep inside every human soul. Redon’s monsters were not meant to be terrifying. They can be interpreted as projections of human subconsciousness, suppressed feelings, or hidden emotional urges.
5. Harnessing Nature: Caliban
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Caliban is a half-human half-monster. Enslaved by the magician Prospero, Caliban represented the forces of nature. It also signifies the possibility of these forces being under the control of humanity. In Redon’s time, this image was connected to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the gradual change and evolution of beings. Just like those spiders and floating eyes, Caliban did not occur only once in Redon’s oeuvre. Other artists usually painted Caliban as a deformed anthropomorphic fawn-like being. Odilon Redon saw him in a different light. His Caliban looks more like a plant than an animal. Just like nature itself, Shakespeare’s and Redon’s Caliban are neither inherently good nor bad.
6. Family Portrait: Woman with Child
In the 1890s Odilon Redon moved from using only the black and white palette and started implementing colors. Many art historians link Redon’s extensive use of bright colors in his later period to the artist’s Creole heritage. Both his mother and wife were French Creoles, the former being born in Louisiana, and the latter in Ile Bourbon, now known as Reunion. Redon’s wife Camille and son Arï were frequently featured as characters in his paintings. Apart from the regular portraits, he frequently depicted his wife as a Christian saint or a glowing otherworldly being. The couple’s son, Arï Redon grew up to be an artist as well, but not as successful as his father.
7. Odilon Redon and the Spiritual: Buddha
Like many artists of the time, Redon was deeply interested in spiritual and occult practices. He was fascinated by Theosophy and the essential unity of all religion’s basic principles. At the same time, theosophists relied heavily on the concepts from Eastern religions, Buddhism in particular. Figures of Buddha surrounded by flowers appeared in Redon’s works frequently at the beginning of the twentieth century. Sometimes these figures implemented Christian iconography as well.
8. The Lamenting Artist: Ophelia
The Shakespearean heroine Ophelia was a very personal subject matter. In 1888, Redon’s close friend Emile Hennequin drowned while on vacation with the artist. Redon personally witnessed this tragedy and was so struck by it that in the following years he produced dozens of images of Ophelia, the ethereal woman floating among flowers, either dead or dreaming. In the original play written by Shakespeare, the cause of Ophelia’s death was left unclear. She either committed suicide or accidentally fell into the river, her heavy dress pulling her deeper. Although Hennequin’s death was clearly an accident, Odilon’s turn to such imagery was perhaps a coping mechanism and a way to live through the loss of his friend. The image of Ophelia was quite popular among the artists of Redon’s time, yet his approach to the subject was augmented by a personal tragedy.
9. On Love and Gentle Monsters: The Cyclops
In one of his widely known paintings, Redon reimagined the Greek myth of a one-eyed giant Polyphemus who falls in love with the naiad called Galatea. According to ancient Greek sources, Polyphelus was represented as a bloodthirsty man-eating monster. In Homer’s text, for instance, Polyphemus was blinded by Odysseus for trying to eat the crew of his ship. However, just like in the case of the siren discussed above, Redon’s Polyphemus is drastically different from the original myth.
His Cyclops is not a violent horrifying beast but a gentle giant, longing for love and affection, observing his loved one from a distance. He may frighten the unprepared viewer, but not because the artist intended it to do so. Redon’s monsters are creations of the human mind and the subconscious, things often dark and abnormal, but rarely threatening or aggressive.
10. Odilon Redon’s Turn to Decoration
In 1853, Japan opened its borders for trade and diplomatic connections, ending the isolation that lasted for more than 200 years. Soon, artifacts, artworks, and legends, brought by people from countless expeditions, flooded Europe. These events gave birth to the trend called Japonism which was making Europeans obsessed with Japanese culture. The woodblock prints in the ukiyo-e technique were particularly popular. In general, the line, color, and composition seen in Japanese art all served as a great inspiration to French artists like Redon. In the 1900s, Redon turned to decorative art, creating panels as well as folding screens, directly inspired by Japanese culture. The idea was to make high forms of art such as painting and sculpture as important as decorative applied art.