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

Odilon Redon's 1896 lithograph entitled "I am still the great Isis," from the third series of prints based on Flaubert's Temptation of St. Anthony, is a prime example not only of Redon's graphic style, but of his relationship to the Symbolist movement and its imagery as well. Adapting a scene from Flaubert's work, which was already admired by many Symbolist authors for its mystical and visionary quality, Redon portrays Isis with her child as they are both engulfed by waves of darkness and death. In so doing he exemplifies the Symbolist fascination with dreamlike and nightmarish scenes, and, perhaps more importantly, focuses on the suggestion of a meaning which goes beyond the confines of the image itself.

The relationship of Redon's lithograph to Flaubert's novel is indicative of the artist's desire to provide not an illustration, but rather a "correspondence" to the text. The exact scene depicted in Redon's work does, in fact, occur during Anthony's visions of the gods and goddesses of antiquity, who recount the stories of their glory and attempt to lure Anthony away from his Christian faith. Isis appears, Flaubert writes, in a great desert, and cries out her words with her face lifted toward the heavens: "She retains in her hand the lower part of a long black veil that hides all her face; supporting with her left arm a little child to whom she is giving suck." [1] Although this describes the essence of Redon's drawing as well, the small figure in the lower corner of the picture deviates curiously from the text. Is it Anthony himself, who at the end of Isis' speech, cries out, "extending his arms as to support her" [2] -- or does it have a deeper, less literal function, representing perhaps the reaction of the viewer or the artist himself?

The Temptation of St. Anthony is somewhat unusual when seen in relation to the rest of Flaubert's oeuvre, departing as it does from the Naturalist tradition. As such, we can understand why the novelist and critic J.K. Huysmans, who also developed his Symbolist-decadent style out of his youthful Naturalism, admired both Flaubert's text and, importantly, Redon's prints as well. One of the first critics to discuss Redon, Huysmans wrote in 1882 of Redon's visionary and dreamlike images: "with him, we enjoy losing our footing and drifting in a dream world." [3] The world of dreams was to become significant in nearly all of Huysmans' writings, and Redon would come to play an important part as well. Huysmans' famous immortalization of Redon in A Rebours (1884), where the hero des Esseintes surveys his collection of Redon's images and feels plunged into "the horrors of a nightmare dream," [4] did, to a certain extent, set the tone for the public reception of Redon's work. Although Huysmans never discusses the "Isis" image in particular, many of statements are applicable to it, and his correspondence with Redon shows that the artist was most certainly aware of and receptive to Huysmans' critiques.

The nightmarish quality that seems to pervade so much of Redon's and Huysmans' work had, meanwhile, reached a further extreme in the writings of Isidore Ducasse, the Comte de Lautréamont. His 1868 novel Maldoror was published in many later editions which included lithographs by Redon; appropriately so, for the story of Maldoror is one of surreal imagery and dreams of death and decay. Redon is, of course, not mentioned in the text -- nor could he be, since his first works were not exhibited until several years later -- but the story of Maldoror, focusing as it does on the tortured life and untimely death of a strange child, seems particularly reminiscent of several of Redon's works, including the "Isis" plate.

In fact, the imagery of death, and in particular the untimely death of children and innocents, played an important role for the Symbolists, and can be seen as the unifying factor when discussing Flaubert, Huysmans, Lautréamont, and Redon. Be it Isis' child Harpocrates, the gilded turtle and strange flowers of des Esseintes, or Maldoror himself, innocent lives are frequently cut short in these works. Also significant is the ambiguous portrayal of women, as both apostates and saviors, which is common in these and other works of the time. The suggested forms and imagery of Redon's work, then, show him to be both influenced by and influential for the literary figures of his time, and are a testament to the fascination which his works continue to exert.

Selected Bibliography:

Eisenman, Stephen. The Temptation of St. Redon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Flaubert, Gustave. The Temptation of St. Anthony. Trans. Lafcadio Hearn. New York: Modern Library, 1928.
Gott, Ted. "Silent Messengers: Odilon Redon's Dedicated Lithographs." Print Collector's Newsletter 19 (July/Aug 1988): 92-101.
Huysmans, Joris Karl. Against the Grain (A Rebours). New York: Dover, 1969.
Kahn, Annette. J.K. Huysmans: Novelist, Poet, and Art Critic. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.
Lautréamont, Comte de (Isidore Ducasse). Maldoror and the Complete Works. Trans. Alexis Lykiard. Cambridge: Exact Change, 1994.
Redon, Ari. Lettres à Odilon Redon. Paris: J. Corti, 1960.
Redon, Odilon. Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams. Ed. Douglas W. Druick et al. New York: Abrams, 1994.
Sandström, Sven. Le Monde imaginaire d'Odilon Redon. Lund: Gleerup, 1955.


(1)  Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of St. Anthony (New York: Modern Library, 1928), p. 197. [return to text]
(2)  Flaubert, p. 201. [return to text]
(3)  Annette Kahn, J.K. Huysmans: Novelist, Poet, and Art Critic (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987), p. 105. [return to text]
(4)  J.K. Huysmans, Against the Grain (New York: Dover, 1969), p. 60. [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. "Prospectus: Odilon Redon's I am still the great Isis! (1896)" Website Article. 7 November 1997. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/452redonprop.html>.