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The Symbolist -pg 4                                            

Part III: An artist in the movement

“Most of the artists in my generation assuredly looked at the stove pipe.  And they saw only it.  They did not render all the things that the mirage of our own essence  is able to give the wall [behind it]. ” – Odilon Redon[64]

Symbolists themes included love, fear, anguish, and death.

Redon’s goal was to recreate in his art the sense of mystery that he found in nature. Many of his noirs reference biology and nature and he put to good use the knowledge of plant life that he gained from Armand Clavaud.  Author Jodi Hauptman writes that Redon often visited the National Museum of Natural History  in France and that many of his creatures are based on things he saw there on display.[65] In her book, Mallarmé, Manet, and Redon, Penny Florence analyzes works from Redon’s lithographic series, Les Origines. She considers the dialog between  fantasy, reality, and science in Redon’s art and examines Il y a eût peut-être une vision première essayée dans la fleur, plate two in the series.  Une vision première essayée dans la fleur contains a strange eye-like form that references plants or vegetation.  Of the print Florence writes, “if the image is read as a flower, this darker area receeds behind the lightest of the concentric circles and reverses the question-mark shapes which direct the movement of the spectator’s eye…but if the shaded area is read as a head, the figure-ground relation changes so that the eye and the dark hair appear on the same plane in relation to the picture surface…on the experimental level it induces uncertainty and anxiety.”[66]  Redon’s goal was mystery, but his tool was tension.

   The goal of the Symbolists was to create art that came from the
       artists’ inner self and spoke to the viewer’s heart and soul.

Redon’s art was truly a part of himself.  From the earliest ages he lived with his fantastical creatures in his own imagination.  Though Redon did not feel that his art needed to be analyzed or mean anything, I would argue that the way in which he depicted his creatures, and displayed their emotions, and the situations in which he chose to place them, were in some ways a representation of self – a representation of his emotional and psychological well-being. I will elaborate on this statement in a few examples.

       In the drawing, The, a male form with wide, strangely set hips and shoulders is depicted.  He stands at a window in a contrapposto pose, facing the viewer. His head his bowed and his expression is somber, even mournful. What appears to be the side of a dark, monstrous face peeks out from behind the man’s head.  Upon closer examination, the drawing reads as if the man and this strange creature are attached at the hip and shoulder and the two have turned so that the creature is hidden and the man looks disproportioned.  The man’s right hand (or the creature’s left) has reached around to the man’s chest and pushed its hand through the skin near the heart. Some of the man’s facial features are similar to those of Redon; both have a long, angular nose and a strong forehead. The drawing was completed in 1887,[67] not long after the death of Redon’s son.  Did Redon intend for this to be a representation of himself? Perhaps the creature mutilating the man represents guilt or even the death of his son.  Another possibility could be that a part of this man has died or has changed for the worse in some way, represented by the suggestion of the monster lurking behind the man,  and what is left of this man will be forever affected by this strange being because they are [physically, in the drawing] connected.

The lithograph, Tree, is carefully and delicately rendered.  By utilizing light contour lines and soft values, Redon his given the tree a dreamy, weightless quality.  However, Redon’s placement of the tree feels haphazard. The tree’s branches stretch up to the heavens  only to be cut off abruptly by the picture plane.  The trunk of the tree, seemingly rootless, floats in mid air.  Redon completed this print in 1892[68] during a time when he was dealing with a religious crisis brought on by emotional stress.  Perhaps Redon, like the tree, felt uprooted or experienced a loss of connection with the world during his spiritual crisis. Or, because Redon felt isolated since his childhood, perhaps the rootless tree represents the roots to family that Redon felt he never had.  Yet another possibility, perhaps this tree represented France at the turn of the century.  Paris had lost many of her historical roots through Haussmann’s modernization project and though she was trying to grow and blossom again she was still held back by social and political contrast. 

    Symbolism sought to escape from reality.

Redon focused his attention on the mysterious and the unknown.  His works embraced themes of fear, anguish, resignition, and horror. Redon worked from his imagination and created a world of strange creatures entirely unto themselves. The fact that Redon allowed his monsters to display emotions creates tension between the world of fantasy and the real world, perhaps mimicking much like the tension in French society. His works might remind the viewer that while there is an escape from reality, reality will still interfere with the fantasy. His message was that  one can best escape from the realities of the modern world through his or her imagination.


“J’ai fait un art selon moi seul.
  Je l’ai fait avec les yeux ouverts sur les merveilles du monde visible” (I made an art according to myself alone.  I made it with open eyes on the marvels of the visible world.)  - Odilon Redon

As an artist in the Symbolist movement, Redon was influenced by both the experiences of his childhood and the society in which he lived.  His work reflected the ideas of the Symbolist movement and were well-suited to the times in which he lived.  He brought imagination to the foreground of his work and evoked various emotions  through his use of contrast, tension, and a non-traditional approach.

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Important! Footnotes:

[64] Mathieu, Symbolist, 50.
Hauptman, Beyond the Visible, 26.
Penny Florence,  Mallarmé, Manet, and Redon: Visual and Aural Signs and the_Generation of Meaning  (Cambridge: University Press, 1986) 66, 69.
Hauptman, Beyond the Visible 133.
Ibid. 154.

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