Progression of Art
Guardian Spirit of the Waters
A large head held aloft by wings floats above a tranquil sea, gazing upon a small sailboat with enormously expressive eyes. Seagulls flit through the air and skim the water's surface, while the water stretches out toward the distant horizon. A delicate halo surrounds the head, giving the strange creature a benevolent, divine aura despite its brutish features. With its realistic depiction of dreamlike imagery, The Guardian Spirit of the Waters anticipates 20th-century Surrealism.
When the artist's father, Bernard Redon, was a young man, he travelled from France to Louisiana in order to try and recoup the family's lost wealth. While there, he met and married Redon's mother. On their later return to France, Odile was pregnant with Odilon, who was subsequently born in Bordeaux. The artist often regretted that he was not born at sea, "a place without a country on an abyss," which he perhaps felt would have better corresponded to the origins of his visionary sensibility, This work could thus be seen as representing a kind of alternative birth for Redon, signifying his awakening artistic consciousness.
The drawing is typical of Redon's noirs, in which he manipulated the charcoal medium in order to achieve a rich array of tones and textures. The artist employed wiping, stumping, incising and added touches of chalk on cream-colored treated paper, and often allowed untouched areas of the sheet to shine through for highlights.
Charcoal and chalk on paper - Art Institute of Chicago
A man's head emerges from a flowerpot, his neck rising upward like the stalk of a strange hybrid plant. Delicate thorns cover his skin and head, giving him a cactus-like appearance while also conjuring Christ's crown of thorns, or other similar martyrs. With large dull eyes, a flattened nose, and wide lips, the head has an expression that is both observant and indifferent. The vase is decorated with an image of an Amazon slaying a man, referring to the Greek myth of women warriors whose conflation of feminine and masculine traits echoes the conflation of human and plant forms in the drawing.
The drawing may be related to an exhibition Redon saw in Paris in 1881 featuring the inhabitants of the Tierra del Fuego. The native South Americans on display, which Redon described as "haughty, cruel and grotesque," had a profound if complicated impact on the artist: on the one hand he admired the purity and simplicity of the so-called "primitive" people, while on the other he recognized in them the fearsome barbarity of man's origins. Growing out of a square planter - a symbol of Western culture and containment - Redon's hybrid man-plant can thus be understood as an attempt to reconcile the two poles of human existence, nature and culture, wild and civilized.
Charcoal on paper - Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon Moves Towards Infinity
An eyeball has morphed into a strange balloon, its gaze directed toward the heavens as it rises above the horizon. Instead of a basket containing passengers, the balloon carries a severed head on a platter, much like that of St. John the Baptist in the Biblical story of Salome. In the lower left, the fronds of a palm-like plant can be seen, and the sky is full of thick clouds.
Severed heads appear with great frequency in Symbolist art and literature, whether in stories of Salome or in more mysterious images such as this one. The head or eyeball dissociated from the physical body is a symbol for freedom from the constraints of everyday life, and the attainment of a higher plane of consciousness. As scholar and curator Jodi Hauptman writes, "floating up 'towards infinity', let loose from the limitations of body and mind, Redon's eyes are free to really see, beyond reality, beyond nature, beyond the visible."
This work was included in Redon's portfolio of six lithographs, To Edgar Poe, and is the most famous image from the series. The prints were not meant as illustrations of Poe's poems, but rather as "correspondences," to use Redon's term. A similarly evocative approach characterizes the poetry of Mallarmé and other Symbolists, who believed suggestion, rather than description, to be the highest goal of art. Meanwhile, the print's giant eyeball prefigures the extreme close-up of the sliced oculus in Luis Bunuel's Surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou.
Lithograph - Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
The Smiling Spider
A strange smiling spider with ten legs is the subject of Redon's lithograph. The spider's round fuzzy body has a human face, with snub nose and a wide smiling mouth that reveals a row of tiny teeth. The creature tilts slightly to one side on its spindly legs, as if it had just descended from the ceiling via a silken thread. The gridded pattern on the floor gives a sense of three-dimensional space, but the realism of the setting only enhances the surprising effect of the subject (who has seen such a spider on their kitchen's tiled floor?). Redon based his print upon an earlier charcoal drawing, but the lithographic medium (which uses greasy ink or crayon applied directly to a smooth stone) was equally well-suited to the artist's exploration of the color black.
Redon was fascinated with the natural sciences, and, with the encouragement of his friend, the botanist Armand Clavaud, he studied anatomy, osteology, and microscopic life. He also frequented Paris's Museum of Natural History, which included exhibits of biological abnormalities, and attended lectures at the École de medicine. Indeed many of his "monsters" were based on observation, but were transformed by the artist's imagination. It is the recognition of our humanity in these strange hybrid creatures - the goofy, toothy grin on a fuzzy spider - that makes them so appealing and repellant at the same time.
Lithograph - The Baltimore Museum of Art
This painting depicts a figure with closed eyes, bare shoulders and a tight helmet of dark hair, seeming to rise out of the sea. The motif of closed eyes appealed to Redon, for whom the symbol evoked mystery, dream, meditation, and the interior life. At the same time, closed eyes can also connote death, which for the Symbolists represented the ultimate escape from the real world and the earth-bound limitations of conscious life.
Closed Eyes marked a turning point in Redon's career, when he began to embrace color for the first time in his art. Indeed, Redon based the painting upon an earlier charcoal drawing of the same subject. Here, though, the palette is still quite subtle. Redon employed thin washes of oil paint to give a translucent, ethereal effect, while the pale tones and three-quarter-length composition evoke Italian Renaissance marble portrait busts.
Closed Eyes has become something of a Symbolist icon (it was the first work by Redon to be acquired by a major French museum, in 1904), and most likely depicts Redon's wife, Camille Falte. Yet the ambiguousness of the figure's gender must be acknowledged, and is yet another signifier of the depicted detachment from the material world. The androgyne was a very popular subject for the Symbolists because of its association with the spiritual realm, and its inherently hybrid nature (Leonardo's images of St. John often portray him in a decidedly feminine manner, for instance). Finally, the ethereal surrounding space adds to the sense of the infinite, and the overall effect of the work is one of serene calm.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay
Baronne de Domecy
This is one of several portraits that Redon painted of the wife of his friend and patron, the Baron de Domecy. Here he portrays the sitter amidst an abstract floral background. Her face and head have been drawn in a precise and realistic manner, using delicate strokes of graphite to define her features. The tan paper ground has been allowed to stand in for her skin, and its muted tones accord with her serious, withdrawn expression, as if she is lost in her own thoughts. In contrast to her monochromatic face, the Baronne's vivid red blouse suggests a more passionate soul than her reserved demeanor would indicate. Likewise, the profusion of floral motifs - which appear more decorative than real - gives the setting a dreamlike appearance, perhaps symbolizing her vivid interior life.
Pastel and graphite - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Bouquet of Flowers
The many floral still lifes that Redon created at the end of his career are among his most popular and recognizable works, and have been widely reproduced. Here, a variety of brightly colored flowers, delicately drawn in pastel, burst out of a decorative blue vase, which has been set against an abstract background rendered in rust, ocher, violet and pink tones. The vase, which is also decorated with a floral motif, seems to float in the space, rather than resting on any obvious surface. Several small butterflies hover around the bouquet.
Redon's pastel still lifes seem familiar, yet simultaneously evoke the heightened images of eidetic, or photographic, memory. Redon described his flowers as being "at the confluence of two riverbanks, that of representation and that of memory." Indeed, the glowing colors and indeterminate setting help situate the bouquet within the realms of inner vision. Rather than a mere element of home decor, the flowers appear like an apparition, a marvelous figment of a fevered imagination.
Pastel on paper - Metropolitan Museum of Art
In 1910 Redon agreed to decorate the library of the country estate of his friend and patron, Gustave Fayet, an artist who had bought the medieval abbey in 1908 with the intention of restoring it. Given complete freedom on the project, Redon created two large panels, Day and Night, for the two walls, and a smaller panel over the doorway. Day, depicting four horses in homage to Delacroix's ceiling decorations for the Louvre (the Apollo Gallery) in a setting of golden hues and flowers, expresses the gaiety Redon associated with color. In the panels Redon retrospectively contemplates his own oeuvre, as Day evokes his color period and Night looks back upon his "noirs."
In Night, several figures occupy a landscape, with dark trees silhouetted against a golden light beneath a dark blue sky, floating winged heads, and profusions of plants and flowers and hovering butterflies. Madeline Fayet, the wife of Gustave, and her daughter Simone are depicted as two veiled women. The profiles of Gustave Fayet, his sons Leon and Antoine, and Camille Redon, are depicted to the right of the tree. Several musicians also appear, including Robert Schumann, the composer Déodat de Séverac, and pianist Ricardo Viñes.
By including musicians, Redon pays homage to the influence of music upon his own work. A violinist who sometimes performed publicly, Redon said, "music is a nocturnal art, the art of the dream." Night is itself dream-like, and the depiction of the figures in darker colors suggests that they inhabit the nocturnal world of sleep and reverie. The butterflies, as Redon said, were meant to be creatures of light that appeared out of the "chrysalis of the dark." While Redon acknowledges his noirs in the shadowy figures, the surrounding golden light mitigates the darkness, so that the scene evokes a kind of peaceful and imaginative paradise.
Tempera on panel - Abbaye de Frontfroide
Polyphemus, the mythical one-eyed monster from Homer's Odyssey, peers out from behind a rocky hilltop while the captive nymph Galatea sleeps in her grotto, surrounded by flowers.
Redon often depicted scenes from classical mythology in his later pastels and paintings, and he must have been familiar with Ovid's version of the Polyphemus story. In his painting, as in the poem, the Cyclops falls in love with the sea nymph. However, he would also have been aware of Gustave Moreau's acclaimed works that depicted the story tragically in the 1880s.
Redon seems to contrast the elements to which the two figures belong, with the Cyclops rising out of the hard, rocky earth, and the nymph cradled within the sea grotto and its abundant, feminine flora. With his large, soft expressive eye that evokes the "dreaming head" of Symbolism, Polyphemus is not the man-eating monster of Homer's Odyssey, but rather a gentle, even whimsical, creature. Unlike Moreau, Redon does not treat the subject tragically or depict thwarted desire. Galatea's body curled to the side, her face sleeping partially hidden by her overreaching arm, suggests privacy, a turning to the inner world of dreams. And, rather than contemplating the nude nymph as she sleeps, Polyphemus tilts his head and looks toward the viewer with an almost inquisitive gaze. The result is to make the viewer, whose gaze is initially drawn to the nymph's form, aware of being watched by a giant who gently guards this inner vision.
Stylistically, the painting can be seen as a synthesis of Redon's work up to this point in his career, as it combines his early interest in oil painting with the color palette of his pastel period, along with an image of a "monster" that could have been taken from one of his noirs.
Oil on cardboard mounted on panel - Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo Netherlands