Somewhere in the uncanny space between playfulness and tragic mourning, we find the works of Odilon Redon. How, you might ask yourself, is such a combination of adjectives even possible? If you look at Redon’s works, you will see the strange mingling of sentiments for yourself! The feeling of the work often changes with the medium. Redon is most famous for his noirs (the dark lithographic works), which will be the subject of today’s post, but I encourage you to do a quick google search of him! He often worked in blacks because he thought it was the most important of all the colors, but it is obvious that he had an eye for color, too. His pastel works feature vibrant colors and shifting shapes. The scenes are even more fantastical, often more lighter in subject matter, too. The seem to harken to their own primeval garden of Eden.
Redon’s noirs, however, display a darker origin of humanity. His creatures are the work of an active imagination, often mangling and mixing the human form to give uncanny (and uncomfortable results). One of my favorites is the dual spider lithographs. It’s easy to love the toothy grin on the simpleton spider, featured on the left. He has 10 legs, as if to further defy nature, and seems to live a carefree existence. He has large, cute eyes (did i really just say that about a spider?), and he almost floats (notice how his legs aren’t even touching anything), like a little furry orb.
For once in my life I wouldn’t mind being friends with a spider. His counterpart, featured with pensive mourning human head is downright pitiable. Confronting his human head (hair styled and all) on a spider’s body adds the element of mournfulness, this spider seems to lament his quasi-human condition, or the human laments his fall from humanity. Spiders, as you may know, have a particular meaning in symbolic artwork, a meaning that Redon elaborates in these two lithographs. The “intellectual” spider stands heavy on the ground, his bulbous body weighing down his thin, hairy legs. He’s crying out of big pitiable eyes because he loathes his own existence: he spins to eat and eats to have the silk to spin. Caught in his carnivorous web (literally!), are the smaller helpless bugs that he has to feast upon daily to feed his most basic existence. This spider, or human, lives depressed and disgusted at the waste and depravity of his own existence. The “simpleton” spider is condemned to the same condition, but he does not notice, he is only content at his own full belly. Redon, an artist forever pondering the power of the imagination, contemplated the burden of intellect as well.
Odilon Redon has many other disembodied heads that appear in partially human form. Sometimes they’re wistful and imaginative, other times they beckon to the desperate condition of humanity. Each, however, displays Redon’s powerful imagination. I will leave you, my beloved readers, with a collection of some of my favorites among Redon’s disembodied heads. While the spider has a particular meaning, I think that Redon’s works are most fun when you know nothing about the subject matter. His images provoke the imagination at an intuitive level, and it’s easy to dream about our eyes acting as floating balloons as they gaze into the sky, dreaming creatures in the shifting clouds of the sky. Redon once said, “My originality consists in putting the logic of the visible to the service of the invisible.” Take him at his word! Peer through his shadows to try to find what’s hidden, it’s there that he always embeds the most important details and symbols!