Sacral Sensuality In Works Of French Symbolist Odilon Redon
16 mei 2022 
31 min. read

Sacral Sensuality In Works Of French Symbolist Odilon Redon

"My drawings inspire and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined" (Wikipedia.org). These words belong to one of our favorite painters, a precursor to dadaism and surrealism, Odilon Redon. His works, praised by Andre Breton, range from dark and depressive nightmares to colorful visions of gods and heroes. The fact that Redon owned his success to the fictional aristocrat Jean des Esseintes, who collects his paintings in the novel by Karl Huysmans, suits the artist perfectly. His late images are also known for the Japanese influence, manifested in the usage of the folding screens painting style.

 Odilon Redon portrait

Fig. 1. Odilon Redon, 1880 (Wikipedia.org)

 Odilon Redon Buddha

Fig. 2. Buddha (Wikipedia.org)

 odilon redon Buddha Walking Among The Flowers

Fig. 3. Buddha Walking Among The Flowers, 1905 (wikiart.org)

 odilon redon Decorative Panel

Fig. 4. Decorative Panel (wikiart.org)

 odilon redon Underwater Vision

Fig. 5. Underwater Vision, 1910 (wikiart.org)

 odilon redon Lady Of The Flowers

Fig. 6. Lady Of The Flowers (wikiart.org)

 odilon redon Ophelia Among The Flowers

Fig. 7. Ophelia Among The Flowers, 1905 (wikiart.org)

 odilon redon The Death Of Ophelia

Fig. 8. The Death Of Ophelia, 1905 (wikiart.org)

Odilon originated from a wealthy family of a slave-trader. He showed his talent at an early age. Being ten years old, he won a drawing prize at school. His father wanted him to be an architect, but Odilon failed the exams at Paris' École des Beaux-Arts. Instead of Odilon, his brother Gaston would successfully fulfill the parent's wish. After the failure, Redon decided to take up sculpting but was recruited to military service during the Franco-Prussian war. When the war ended, the artist settled in Paris and started working in charcoal and lithography. His drawings "ushered in a very special type of the fantastic, one born of sickness and delirium," as described in the novel written by Huysmans. 

 odilon redon The Crying Spider

Fig. 9. The Crying Spider, 1881 (wikiart.org)

 odilon redon Cactus Man

Fig. 10. Cactus Man, 1882 (wikiart.org)

 odilon redon Guardian Spirit of the Waters

Fig. 11.  Guardian Spirit of the Waters, 1878 (Wikipedia.org)

 odilon redon Caliban

Fig. 12. Caliban (Wikipedia.org)

 odilon redon The Eye Like A Strange Balloon Goes To Infinity

Fig. 13. The Eye Like A Strange Balloon Goes To Infinity, 1882 (wikiart.org)

 odilon redon Woman With Flowers

Fig. 14. Woman With Flowers, 1903 (wikiart.org) 

 odilon redon Initiation To Study

Fig. 15. Initiation To Study, 1905 (wikiart.org)

Both the lithograph noirs and colorful fractals of the 1900s evoke the feeling of a narcotic trip and embody the symbolist aspiration for non-mimetic art acquiring features of music. Human figures placed in bursts of color look like they're glued to the background in the modernist collage manner or painted right on the wall. The choice of colors and shapes may also remind you of the old icons. Redon is fairly regarded as a predecessor of avant-garde art not only because of his vivid visual musicality but also due to his ability to draw unexpected parallels like in his famous depiction of the eye-balloon that could be freely attributed, for instance, to Roland Topor. Like for any gifted artist, it wasn't enough for Redon just to imitate reality, so he invented his own visual language. As the artist said himself, "I have often, as an exercise and as a sustenance, painted before an object down to the smallest accidents of its visual appearance; but the day left me sad and with an unsatiated thirst. The next day I let the other source run, that of imagination, through the recollection of the forms and I was then reassured and appeased" (Wikipedia). 

odilon redon The Birth Of Venus 

Fig. 16. The Birth Of Venus, 1912 (wikiart.org)

 odilon redon The Birth Of Venus 2

Fig. 17. The Birth Of Venus 2, 1912 (wikiart.org)

There are some recurring motifs in Redon's art, such as the figures of Ophelia or Buddha. The deity of love also reappears in the works of the artist. Redon produced several variations of the birth of Venus. Two of them belong to the best representations of this theme in world culture, we suppose. These two are Venus standing and lying with a shell in the background. The shape and color of the shells, together with the pink figure of the goddess, make the whole composition look similar to female genitalia. Moreover, as mentioned in the article on the platform DesignIsPlay, the shell looks like a nimbus or an almond-shaped aureole in the icons of Mary or Christ. According to the myth, Venus was born from the mixture of blood and semen of Uranus' severed phallus. In the painting of Redon, Venus emerges from a vulva-shaped shell, which may conceptually remind you of "The Origin Of The World" Courbet's oeuvre. Curiously, Redon created an iconic image that combines the figure of the goddess with an object it represents as the sign of Venus is used to define the female gender. Let's mention that the resemblance of an almond-like nimbus to the vulva was also exploited in the tradition of Shunga. For instance, in Utagawa Yoshikazu's piece, the figure of Buddha is depicted with an erected penis and a vulva instead of a nimbus above his head. 

 odilon redon painting

Fig. 18. Left: Detail from the 13th century Byzantine manuscript in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (the juxtaposition is taken from designisplay.com).

 Utagawa Yoshikazu “Shunjō iro no irekomi

Fig. 19. Utagawa Yoshikazu “Shunjō iro no irekomi” series, 1849 (“Shunga. Explicit Art Of Japan”, 2016, p. 314).


Here’re other amazing examples of Redon’s sensuality:

 odilon redon The Birth Of Venus

Fig. 20. The Birth Of Venus, 1912 (wikiart.org)

 The Birth Of Venus Odilon Redon

Fig. 21. The Birth Of Venus (sammlung.staedelmuseum.de)

 The Birth Of Venus

Fig. 22. The Birth Of Venus (posterlounge.no)

 The Birth Of Venus Painting Odilon Redon

Fig. 23. The Birth Of Venus, 1912 (wikiart.org)

 Pandora Odilon Redon

Fig. 24. Pandora (wikiart.org)

 Androme Odilon Redonda

Fig. 25. Andromeda (wikiart.org) with a phallic arch in the background 

 odilon redon The Cyclops,

Fig. 26. The Cyclops, 1914 (wikiart.org). The Giant Polyphemus and the nymph Galatea with whom he fell in unrequited love.

 Odilon Redon Nude woman on the rocks   

Fig. 27. Nude woman on the rocks (wikiart.org)

 Odilon Redon Woman and a Centaur Struggling

Fig. 28. Woman and a Centaur Struggling (wikiart.org)

 Leda and the Swan Odilon Redon

Fig. 29. Leda and the Swan (wikiart.org)

 Odilon Redon Temptation

Fig. 30. Temptation (wikiart.org)

 Odilon Redon Nude Woman On a Chariot

Fig. 31. Nude Woman On a Chariot (wikiart.org)

 Odilon Redon Aurora

Fig. 32. Aurora (wikiart.org)

 Odilon Redon Bathers

Fig. 33. Bathers, 1904 (wikiart.org)

 Odilon Redon Closed Eyes

Fig. 34. Closed Eyes (wikiart.org)

 Odilon Redon Eve

Fig. 35. Eve, 1904 (wikiart.org)

Odilon Redon Spring

Fig.36. 'Spring ', 1910 

Click HERE for the mythological eros and modern decay in the paintings of Franz von Stuck....!!

Sources: Wikipedia.org; wikiart.org; http://designisplay.com/odile-redons-the-birth-of-venus/; K. Danelya, A. Pushakova. Shunga. Explicit Art Of Japan. 2016


About the author
Darya is a philologist who lives and works in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. She is specialized in Russian literature.
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