Odilon Redon | The temptation of Saint-Anthony

“true art lies in a reality that is felt.” Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon (1840-1916), an individualist who believed in the superiority of the imagination over observation of nature, rejected the Realism and Impressionism of his contemporaries in favor of a more personal artistic vision. After a discouraging experience studying academic painting in Paris, he returned to his hometown of Bordeaux, where he began making etchings in 1864. Later, returning to Paris, he was encouraged by a fellow artist to try lithography and was introduced to Lemercier, a renowned Parisian workshop. He soon discovered that the unique qualities of this technique enabled him to achieve infinite gradations of tone, fine-line drawing, and rich depictions of light and dark. Also, through the possibility of editioning, he found a vehicle for broadly distributing the intimate imagery of his drawings. Source

He was greatly inspired by such authors as Edgar Allan Poe and Gustave Flaubert, whose unusual sensibilities were well suited to the artist’s own. Redon was so moved by Flaubert’s 1874 prose poem The Temptation of Saint Anthony that he created three separate projects based on it.Source

“Thus death is only an illusion, a veil, masking betimes the continuity of life.” 

Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of St. Antony
Everywhere Eyeballs are Aflame

“Here is the nightmare transported into art,” J. K. Huysmans wrote of Odilon Redon’s work in 1881. “Plunged into a macabre milieu, imagine somnambulistic figures, twisted with fear, having a vague kinship with those of Gustave Moreau, and perhaps you will have an idea of the bizarre talent of this singular artist.” Redon had been working in lithography since around 1870, developing a singular style that anticipated both the decadent symbolism of the late nineteenth century and the modernism of the early twentieth. Redon’s milieu borrowed largely from the gothic folktales of his childhood, to which he borrowed a pictorial vocabulary from an unlikely place: the grotesque cartoons of political satire, with its half-politician half-animal hybrids, its exaggerated facial features and deformities, and the tone of decadent depravity. This Redon adapted to his darker subject matters, creating, in his Origins series and his noirs, which depict a nightmare landscape where spiders have human eyes and flowers have faces. Source

Redon had been working for over a decade when the third and final version of Flaubert’s Temptation was finally published; “It is a literary marvel and a mine for me,” he wrote of the book, in which he saw an endless litany of bizarre figures and distorted creatures that he could adapt as inspiration. Their work formed a natural kinship; as Stephen F. Eisenman comments, “Like Flaubert, Redon saw himself as unique, an accident, a monster, and all the more remarkable an artist for these very reasons.” Redon began producing a series of plates based on the Temptation, work which finally unlocked the strangeness and decadent symbolism that Flaubert had dreamt of but which he could never quite evoke on the page.Source

Death: “My Irony Surpasses All Others”

In perhaps the most striking and well-known example, Redon took Flaubert’s image of death, rendered by the author in a bare bones description (“It is a death’s head with a crown of roses. It rises above a woman’s torso, pearly white. Beneath this, a shroud with dots of gold acts as a sort of tail—the whole body undulates, as might a gigantic worm lifting upright.”), and renders a figure of terrible beauty. All of Flaubert’s components are there, from the roses above to the “sort of tail” below, but Redon’s composition has turned them into something else entirely: the skull is half-obscured in darkness, turned away in either longing or disgust, while her body emerges out of pure blackness. The sense of both endlessness and motion conveyed by the tail spiraling out below her, and the garland of roses streaming out from her head, goes well beyond Flaubert’s original writing—Stephen Mallarmé would later write to Redon, “I am stupefied by your Death… I do not believe any artist has ever made, or poet dreamed, an image so absolute!”Source

Other images are far stranger, following Flaubert down the rabbit hole of a world where bodies and shapes are free of any seemingly natural order. Redon’s mastery at using light and shadow, particularly in his use of the pure black that lithography offered, properly evoked the sense of mystery and despair that Flaubert had intended but could never quite create. Redon’s bestiary offers a richer manifestation than Flaubert’s blueprint, particularly his sphinx and chimera, or the half-ostrich, half-ape figure that accompanies Flaubert’s line “There must be, somewhere, primordial figures whose bodies are nothing but their images.” And then there is Oannes, rendered by Redon as a pensive face mounted on a body that swirls up from the darkness.Source

Hantise (Obsession)

But while these figures may have seemed strange, beyond the ken of nature, Redon was as inspired by the recent work of Darwin and Cuvier as he was of by medieval bestiaries. Increasingly vigorous taxonomists and scientific explorers were reporting back an increasingly bizarre litany of animals far stranger than those dreamed up by the human imagination. “Science recognizes no monsters,” says Jules in Sentimental Education; which is to say, that in science an artist could find ample inspiration for the monstrous. Just as Flaubert’s work represents a mind rigorously compiling monstrosities of the library, Redon’s work reflects a mind gleefully intermixing images from religion and science, allowing monsters whose bodies are nothing but their images. As Eisenman writes, his images for the Temptation read like “anagrams,” inviting “the viewer to create order out of the apparent chaos.”Source

“Ascend skyward forever and forever,–yet thou wilt not attain the summit. Descend below the earth for billions of billions of centuries: never wilt thou reach the bottom. For there is no summit, there is no bottom; there is no Above, no Below – there is no end.” 

Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of St. Antony
Les Origines — Plate 2 (There was perhaps a first vision attempted in the flower)

Sources and more

Leave a Reply