Odilon Redon Against Nature


Odilon Redon, The Crying Spider, charcoal on paper, 49.5 cm (19.5 in) x 37.5 cm (14.8 in), 1881, private collection, Netherlands

In the 1870’s, Odilon Redon worked mostly in charcoal and lithography, creating visionary works that he called “noirs”.

Though he had published an album of lithographs, titled Dans le Rêve, in 1879, it was not until Joris-Karl Huysmans published his book, À rebours or Against Nature, in 1884 that he received larger notoriety. In the book, an aristocratic art collector named Jean Des Esseintes is fascinated by Redon’s work:

…Des Esseintes had a special weakness for the other frames adorning the room.
They were signed: Odilon Redon.

They enclosed inconceivable apparitions in their rough, gold-striped pear-tree wood. A head of a Merovingian style, resting against a bowl, a bearded man, at once resembling a Buddhist priest and an orator at a public reunion, touching the ball of a gigantic cannon with his fingers; a frightful spider revealing a human face in its body. The charcoal drawings went even farther into dream terrors. Here, an enormous die in which a sad eye winked; there, dry and arid landscapes, dusty plains, shifting ground, volcanic upheavals catching rebellious clouds, stagnant and livid skies. Sometimes the subjects even seemed to have borrowed from the cacodemons of science, reverting to prehistoric times. A monstrous plant on the rocks, queer blocks everywhere, glacial mud, figures whose simian shapes, heavy jaws, beetling eyebrows, retreating foreheads and flat skulls, recalled the ancestral heads of the first quaternary periods, when inarticulate man still devoured fruits and seeds, and was still contemporaneous with the mammoth, the rhinoceros and the big bear. These designs were beyond anything imaginable; they leaped, for the most part, beyond the limits of painting and introduced a fantasy that was unique, the fantasy of a diseased and delirious mind.

And, indeed, certain of these faces, with their monstrous, insane eyes, certain of these swollen, deformed bodies resembling carafes, induced in Des Esseintes recollections of typhoid, memories of feverish nights and of the shocking visions of his infancy which persisted and would not be suppressed.

Odilon Redon, Butterflies, oil on canvas, 739 mm (29.09 in) x 549 mm (21.61 in), circa 1910, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Odilon Redon, Butterflies, oil on canvas, 739 mm (29.09 in) x 549 mm (21.61 in), circa 1910, Museum of Modern Art, New York

By the late nineteenth century Redon had switched to oils and pastels, and in 1913 he was featured in the New York Armory Show. Both he and Joris-Karl Huysmans became important figures in the history of symbolist art and literature.