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Odilon Redon: I am still the great Isis! (1896)

Odilon Redon (1840-1916) is surely deserving of the description given him by Karl Joris Huysmans: "the Prince of Dreams." Redon's famous series of lithographs representing themes from Gustave Flaubert's The Temptation of St. Anthony are not only masterpieces of visionary and dreamlike symbolism, but also display Redon's accomplished techniques of shadow, line, and texture. Throughout this series, Redon takes motifs from the literary world and imbues them with an autonomous existence centering around the suggestion of meaning. The merging of art and literature, so valued by the Symbolist theorists with whom Redon associated, bring to life his fantastic and often chilling interpretations of Flaubert's work.

Redon produced three different series of lithographs, in 1888, 1889, and 1896, covering topics from The Temptation of St. Anthony. The sixteenth drawing in the third series, bearing the caption "I am still the great Isis," is alternately and appropriately entitled "Mother and Child Engulfed by Death." A female nude, an infant clutching around her waist, stands with her back to the viewer and is enfolded by cascading threads of darkness from an indeterminate, off-canvas source, while a small demonic figure in the lower right seems to turn away from the woman, raising its arms in an ambiguous gesture -- perhaps fleeing in horror from the scene of death, or, conversely, rejoicing at the vanquishing of life. The effect produced by this figure, as well as by the sinuous, hair-like waves of darkness, is not only morbidly disturbing, but mysterious as well. The viewer is at once intrigued and repelled by the scene portrayed, and is forced to consider several questions, not only about the nature of the demonic figure, but also about the woman herself: is she approaching this undulating darkness of her own accord, or is hers an unwilling departure? Is the bright white light which she faces a sign of hope for the end of her journey, or is it merely the living world which she is abandoning? And perhaps most importantly, what is the relationship of the woman to the child around her waist? Clearly she is attempting to protect or shield the infant in some way, and this corresponds to Redon's original title of the piece, referencing the Egyptian goddess Isis, whose son Horus was injured in a fight with Thoth, the Ibis-god -- for indeed, the demonic figure could be seen as having a birdlike physique.

In addition to the ambiguity of the event portrayed, the composition of the work is enigmatic. Redon, usually so intent on showing eyes in his works, has turned the woman away from the viewer, and the only eyes to be seen are the dark, hollow sockets of the little demon, who adds a surreal, ghoulish, and even theatrical element to the otherwise painfully stern image. The posture of the woman prevents the viewer from determining her emotional state, and focuses attention on the child, with whom the viewer can, by virtue of its proximity and foregrounding, more easily establish a form of contact; we are thus inclined to feel sympathy and concern for the child. At the same time, however, Redon has surrounded the child with wispy flows of blackness, very nearly eclipsing the infant's contours and disintegrating it into both the woman and the darkness surrounding them, thereby preventing any real identification of or with the human figures. The swelling curtain of this darkness appears to sweep down upon the canvas from the upper edge, much like a giant hand reaching down to seize the pair, but also recalling the form of a weeping willow, symbolizing death and despair. Redon's use of charcoal shading is striking, as always: the rough texture produced by his brush-like application leaves the work with a sketchy, indeterminate quality which corresponds perfectly to the mysterious and dreamy nature of the scene. A certain depth is implied by the placement of the figures, but again it could be illusory: the woman appears to stand well in front of the bright light she faces, but it is unclear whether any forward (or backward) motion is involved.

Redon's frequent adaptation of literary works, as is the case for The Temptation of St. Anthony series, is indicative of his aesthetic: as Fred Leeman notes, Symbolist and syncretist theories played an important role for the artist: since the image, for a Symbolist such as Redon, "no longer served a strictly mimetic function," the key to the artistic endeavor became the "suggestion" of meaning, not direct representation. [1] Redon thus portrays a scene open to many different interpretations -- an ambiguous moment, but one which takes its inspiration from Flaubert's text. It is by no means an illustration to the story, but rather a personal interpretation and a "correspondence," in Baudelaire's terms, which strives to provide the suggestion of a spiritual and mysterious event. The ambiguity inherent to Redon's work is reflective, then, of the world of dreams he attempts to symbolize.


(1)  Fred Leeman, "Odilon Redon: The Image and the Text," in Odilon Redon, Prince of Dreams, ed. Douglas W. Druick et al. (New York: Abrams, 1994), p. 175. [return to text]

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1997 for Art History 452 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Odilon Redon: I am still the great Isis! (1896)" Website Article. 30 October 1997. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/452redonan.html>.