The Black Unconscious: Odilon Redon’s Lithographs of St. Anthony

Redon_Plate 13_...And eyes that without heads were floating like mollusks

Plate 13 “…And eyes that without heads were floating like mollusks”

I think of dreamy, smudged pinks and blues when I think of the work of Odilon Redon, the 19th century French Symbolist artist. However, a recurring concern of the artist was the temptation of St. Anthony by the devil, as told in a popular contemporary book by Gustave Flaubert, which Redon rendered in lithograph three times over the course of his life. Flaubert wrote an imaginative version of the saint’s story featuring mythical beasts, different religious traditions, and a mystical journey. “The Nightmare Transported into Art: Odilon Redon’s St. Anthony,” a recently closed exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, displayed a complete set of Redon’s 1896 series of prints. Redon’s imaginative lithographs often imaged unusual or unimportant narrative moments. For example, although impossible sea creatures are not prominent in the tale, the artist enjoyed the opportunity to give them form, as in Plate 13 (above).

OdilonRedon_Plate 18_AnthonyWhat is the point of all of this

Plate 18 “Anthony: What is the point of all of this? The Devil: There is no point.”

These lithographs embrace their black and white nature to great but mysterious effect, so that, even with captions taken from Flaubert’s book, they require interpretation from the viewer. Despite my initial idea of the artist, Redon had a strong preference for black. The artist wrote that:

Black is the most essential color. …Black should be respected. Nothing prostitutes it. It does not please the eye and does not awaken sensuality. It is the agent of the spirit much more than the splendid color of the palette or of the prism.

In fact, in lithographs, etchings, and charcoal drawings, Redon used only black in his work from 1870 until 1895. This obvious contrast to the concurrent work of the Impressionists, with their preference for sparkling color and rejection of black even in shadows, suggests the commitment of Redon to a hidden, interior world rather than the material one that the Impressionists strove to document.

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