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The universe is a book that we read
incessantly, the ultimate source,
the means…”
Redon Odilon. Redon : Notes on Life, Art and Artists.

Throughout his life, Odilon Redon was interested in the evolution of the human spirit. He searched for ways of finding harmony between nature and imagination. Redon was not satisfied with the theory of Darwinism that denied the importance of the spirit and imagination in the world; he was always trying to reconcile the discoveries of the mind with the victories of the spirit. As Jerome Viola points out in his article “Redon, Darwin and the Ascent of Man”, Redon had always stressed the importance of man’s interior life and art as “…the means of increasing man’s spiritual awareness…”. He saw the world as a continuum which extended to “psychic or psychological aspects of life as well as to the material aspect”.
Redon pursued his preoccupation with the growth of consciousness and the unity of life in his 1886 album of lithographs “Les Origines”. In the final lithograph of the series: And Man appeared, questioning the earth from which he emerged and which attracted him, he made his way towards somber lightness (Image 1: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/79355?search_no=4&index=7), the artist delves into the core of man’s spiritual being.
Odilon Redon’s early intellectual and artistic development was influenced by one of his first teachers Rodolphe Bresdin. It was through him that Redon had discovered a lithograph that became an
indispensable vehicle for translation of his dreams to paper. For Bresdin, philosophical and spiritual dimensions could be communicated in black and white. The profound influences of Bresdin’s ideas can be seen not only in Redon’s works, but also in his writings. As he stated in his diary To Myself:
…all my art is limited to the single resources of light and darkness
and owes much also to the effects of the abstract line, this agent of a deep source operating directly on the spirit.
The philosophical ideas of Rodolphe Bresdin, his incessant attention to nature, had shaped Redon’s views and validated the artist’s own fascination with nature that was prominent from his childhood. As Stephen F. Eisenmann points out in his book
“The Temptation of Saint Redon" for Bresdin:-
…every part and particle of nature, regardless of its imperfection or its inferior location on the chain of being has its own logic and significance and makes its own ineluctbl claims on our attention.
For Redon, even though he always gave the utmost importance to the world of spirit, nature was an equal partner in the process of evolution. The contrast between the thickly crosshatched lines of the background of the lithograph, and thin lines that barely touch the paper’s surface in the middle ground and foreground as well as the use of chiaroscuro in “And Man appeared…” (see Image 1), shows the strong influence of Rodolphe Bresdin’s works such as The Good Samaritan (Image 2: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Good_Samaritan_(Le_bon_samaritain)_-_Rodolphe_Bresdin.jpg) where the horsemen is entangled in a web of flowers and trees with the dangers lurking on his way symbolized by thickly crosshatched lines in the foreground while the forces of the spiritual enlightenment are personified by thin lines of the middle ground and especially background and a strong chiaroscuro.
Another person who had a pivotal influence on the development of Odilon Redon’s view of evolution was his lifelong friend Armand Clavaud. It was he who stimulated the young artist’s interest in the ideas of Baudelaire and Romanticism. Later, he became an important biologist, who shared with his friend a deep interest in anatomy as well as in the microscopic creatures that would appear later throughout Redon’s art, as in the first plate of the Origines series When life was awakening in the depth of obscure matter. The artist saw them as the representation of the first stages of evolution (fig. 3 http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/79344?search_no=6&index=4). Furthermore, it was Clavaud who introduced Redon to the theories of Darwin that had just become known at the end of the 1860s and would be very important in the development of Redon’s ideas on evolution.
As Douglas Druick argues in “Odilon Redon: prince of dreams”, for Clavaud, there were two orders of intellectual activity: lower- thinking demanded by everyday life and higher-thinking where the “humble thinker had a more spiritualized perception of nature, than that demanded by everyday life, while unconscious abstraction-- superior reason and imagination which, and in that he agreed with Baudelaire, was the queen of the facilities. These ideas, as well as efforts by Clavaud to reconcile Romanticism and modern science, were very close to Odilon Redon’s ideas on evolution. Still, he found it difficult to share Clavaud’s optimism in the potential in science for the spiritual progress, nor could he view present as irreconcilable with the past. For Redon, progress was something that took us father away from the ideal of spirituality and spontaneity.
In our lithograph (Image 1), a man, emerging from his earthly origins, recoils from the blinding light of reason and hesitates between going forward and returning to his primitive state. He moves, but the sense of doubt is on his face. The right hand is covering the eyes while the left hand is crossed over the man’s chest as if defending him from the onslaught of future misery.
The deep interest in human spirit; the search for harmony between man and nature - this was the quest that occupied Odilon Redon since his early years. In the artist’s early oeuvre, the trends that led to the creation of the Origines series are strongly pronounced.
In the lithograph The eternal silence of the infinite space frightens me (1870, fig. 4: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/odilon-redon/the-eternal-silence-of-these-infinite-spaces-frightens-me), the naked figure is pitted against a vast landscape.
As with the lithograph from Origines, the reference to Adam being chased from Eden is evidenced in the muscularity of man in both lithographs, which is unusual for Redon.
Nevertheless, there is a sharp contrast between the two lithographs. While in the earlier work, a man is immobile, transfixed by the enormity of the space and misery surrounding him; in our lithograph the man is hesitantly moving towards the light. No one chases him out of his cave or nudges him forward except his own newborn spirit that is striding toward the light of reason.
The same preoccupation with the spiritual plight of man and the search for the reconciliation between man and nature can be seen throughout Redon’s writings. In his early critical article, written for the Bordeaux newspaper La Gironde in the summer of 1868, Redon expounded his view on art and spiritual evolution. Redon’s idea of “felt” vs. “seen” echoes the ideas of Delacroix and Baudelaire. “The impression transmitted to the artist by nature is the most important thing for him to translate”. Because the modern culture has yet to produce superior art, one is nostalgic for the great productions of the past. While acknowledging his debt to Bresdin, Redon praises Corot as the artistic model for the balance between the nature and imagination that he was seeking . The realistic rendering of the figure of the man in the lithograph in contrast to his ambiguous surroundings brings us back to the search of a harmony between nature and imagination that occupied Redon’s mind throughout his life.
In an unpublished early novella Fakir, the same questions trouble the hero. Fakir regrets that human evolution had not privileged the spiritual growth. He is horrified at the spiritual bareness of Darwinism. For Redon “The good and the beautiful are in heaven science is on earth; it creeps”. Thus, an artist reaffirms his belief in the primacy of spiritual being that is being excluded from Darwin’s philosophy. Fakir - mystic, artist and child embraces innocence and enlightenment, past and present. A man of science does not part with the world of his illusions. The harmony between Nature and imagination is achieved.
The discoveries of Darwin deeply troubled Redon, while at the same time they strongly influenced his outlook on evolution. For Darwin, nature, like human history moved in a unique and irreversible temporal direction.
At the same time, man was unquestionably a part of the natural order. The future was to be modeled by the epic achievement of the past. These ideas greatly influenced Redon’s outlook on evolution, but there was something that deeply troubled him in Darwinism especially in the way it was interpreted by the scientists of that time.
First at all, he did not have much faith in the irreversibility of progress.
For him, every evolutionary step was followed or accompanied by a step
backward1. Lack of scientific knowledge was not something that Redon usually decried. On the contrary, for him, the primitive man had much ability to use his intuition while awareness brought the torment and silence of still unanswered questions. The man in our lithograph, with his blackened eyes and an arm covering the mouth could be rendered blind and mute in retaliation for his questions about his origins.
But there was a much deeper problem. Darwin’s man had no spiritual dimension, and for Redon, the evolution of the spirit was the most important step in the evolution of mankind. As he wrote in his diary:
"I will never extol a school that… limits himself to pure reality, without taking into account the past.
The spiritual side of man being overlooked, Darwinism degenerated into positivism which was repugnant to Redon. Evolution without the simultaneous growth of the spirit, without ideal, made no sense to him.
“All exteriors reveal a soul, they explain it, and they prove it”.
In our lithograph, the man is the pinnacle of evolution. Still, his spirit is troubled. He lost his innocence and now is filled with existential fear. His future is unknown, but the road to the light of knowledge, the spiritual evolution had begun.
Redon gave primary importance to the spiritual evolution; he disdained materialism and stressed the importance of the world of ideal, imagination dream. As Maryanne Stvens argues in her article: Redon and the transformation of the Symbolist aesthetic, association between Redon’s work and thoughts and the contemporary search for the profound truth is what permitted his name to be readily associated with the “symbolists et deformateurs”, whom Charles Morice defined in his article covering the inaugural exhibition in Brussels in March 1894 for the “La Revue Encyclopedique” as:
those artists who are, more than anything else, knowledgeable, so knowledgeable that they elicit from the nature the secret of her fecundity, in order to give birth to their own dreams.
The distaste for positivism in any shape or form, the insistence on primacy of the spiritual over the material, the understanding of the power of suggestion and allegory -- al of these canons of symbolism were close to Redon’s heart.
Baudelaire’s theory of correspondences between the accidents in nature and art that had been embraced by Symbolist movement was dear to Redon from his early years of studying with Rodolphe Bresdin and the close friendship with Armand Clavaud.
In the final lithograph of the “Origines” series, allegory and the power of
suggestion are clearly the main tools through which the main idea of the work is achieved. The man stumbling toward the light represents mankind itself in its quest for harmony and truth. The man’s hesitation and fears represent the dichotomy of the human nature. Even though the light of reason beckons us, we are afraid of it and where it can lead us: our deepest convictions could be shattered. Still, we move forwards, ever so slowly.
The symbolist writers, artists and critics revered Redon as one of the precursors of their movement. From the earliest works by Hennequin and Huismans, to the writings of Andre Gide, Redon was admired for his explorations into the world of dreams and ideas. As Maurice Denis wrote in his contribution to the Homage to Redon that was published in 1912 in La Vie:
It was the thoughts of Redon that…determined in a spiritual sense
the evolution of art in 1890. He is at the beginning of all aesthetic
innovations or renovations, of all the revolutions in taste that we have
experienced since.
Nevertheless, there were deep problems in the Symbolist aesthetic with which Redon could not reconcile himself. Symbolist writers, especially in the beginning of the movement, paid utmost attention to the spiritual quest, to the representation of an idea over reality. For them, reality by itself held no value whatsoever. As Gustave Kahn proclaimed in his manifesto, they accepted the use of objcts only “in so far as they could serve as the means throughout which abstract ideas and hence the ‘truth’ could be conveyed completely”.
One example of the treatment of nature as just a vehicle for enhancing the mystical mood of the painting is a famous painting by one of the important artists and writers of French Symbolism Lucien Levi-Dhurmer (1865-1953) The silence (image 6: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in focus/search/commentaire/commentaire_id/le-silence-20532.

. Here, the whole attention is concentrated on the figure that overpowers the picture plain. The barely visible seascape in the background is completely abstracted. Its only role is to enhance a contemplative mood of the work. Thus, reality is practically obliterated from the painting.
This complete disregard for nature was impossible for Redon who was
acutely aware of the balance within the creative process between the close observation of nature and the world of imagination. He could not hide his face neither from the reality of nature nor from the scientific discoveries of his time.
The search for a medium between being faithful to nature while at the same time, concerning himself with the spiritual questions that haunted man from the beginning of time and giving a free reign to his imagination preoccupied Redon throughout his life. In his notes, an artist tried to describe his method:
My system is to copy directly from nature by reproducing with great
attention objcts in external nature… I then need to create, to allow
myself to move from the representation to the imaginary…
From these origins come my real inventions.
Even though the landscape does not play a primary role in our lithograph,
parts of it (the structure of the mountains) are meticulously drawn from nature. A spiritual struggle is played in a real landscape. Nature itself is part of the allegory, suggesting the vastness of the unknown. The Earth itself can be seen as the representation of the Platonic cave, out of which the man appears covering his eyes from the blinding light. Still, all of these allegorical interpretations do not diminish the attention that an artist given to the realistic representation of the nature itself.
The search for harmony between nature and imagination, between science and spirituality, was a lifelong quest for Redon. While not being able to reconcile himself to the social Darwinism, that denied the spiritual part of man, he could not turn his back to the discoveries of science. Throughout his life Redon attempted to reconcile these warring ideas and to find a way to pursue the spiritual, while turning completely away the scientific progress. For Redon, man and the world around him are in constant dialogue, an ideal outcome of which would be a harmony between man and nature in the highest unity of things.

1 Eisenmann, p. 171.

Works Cited:

Jullian Philippe: “Lévy-Dhurmer: A Symbolist painter of the Belle Epoque,” Realities, 1973, pp.42-49
Redon Odilon. Redon: Notes on Life, Art and Artists.
Translated by Mira Jacob and Jeanne L. Wasserman.
New York: George Braziller, 1986.

Redon Odilon. Odilon Redon: prince of dreams, 1840-1916
Douglas Druick ... [et al.]. [Chicago] : Art Institute of Chicago ; Amsterdam : Van Gogh Museum ; London : Royal Academy of Arts ; New York : H.N. Abrams, 1994.

Redon Odilon The graphic works of Odilon Redon
With an introduction by Alfred Werner
Mineola, New York, Dover Publications, INC., 2005.

Eisenman, Stephen. The Temptation of Saint Redon: biography, ideology,
and style in the Noirs of Odilon Redon.

Chicago : University of Chicago Press, c1992.

Viola, Jerome. “Redon, Darwin and the Ascent of Man.”
Marsyus 11 (1962-64): 42-57.

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