Odilon de Redon and Edgar Allen Poe

Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916.)

Underwater Vision [Vision sous-marine]. (c. 1910)

Oil on canvas, 36 1/2 x 29″ (93.3 x 74.3 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Jan. 28, 2008

This morning, Peter told me about the French painter Odilon de Redon, so we visited the online exhibition at MOMA http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/2005/redon/redon.html

Although I loved his paintings, this exhibition is primarily lithographs in three themed categories, metamorphosis, Monsters and Tales. I believe he is popularly known for vases of flowers, but here we see his Surrealist visions such as the smiling spider and the hot air balloon drawn as an eye. Gauguin said that in Redon’s work, “dreams become reality because of the believability he gives them.” Redon draws from studies of nature then imagines alternate visions of hyper-reality from there.

Redon was a scholar, and I can see that intellectualism in his interest in Darwin and The Origin of the Species. His anatomical and botanical details are precise, even when imaginary.

Image to the left, “Smiling Spider”; yes, there is a wolf-spider smile down in the terrifying darkness…

“Caught between description and dream, the observed and the imagined, Odilon Redon’s (French, 1840–1916) work transformed the natural world into dark visions and bizarre fantasies. Delving into the imagination, Redon created a universe of hybrid creatures, offered his own interpretations of literary, biblical, and mythological subjects, and presented the environment in a singular way: we see grinning disembodied teeth, smiling spiders, winged chariots, unfamiliar plant life.” (quote from the online exhibition at MOMA)

The “grinning, disembodied teeth” refers to a wonderfully strange litho of teeth looming out of a library shelf–the reference is to an Edgar Allen Poe quote:

“The shutting of a door disturbed me, and, looking up, I found that my cousin had departed from the chamber. But from the disordered chamber of my brain, had not, alas! departed, and would not be driven away, the white and ghastly spectrum of the teeth.

Not a speck on their surface – not a shade on their enamel – not an indenture in their edges – but what that period of her smile had sufficed to brand in upon my memory. I saw them now even more unequivocally than I beheld them then. The teeth! – the teeth! – they were here, and there, and everywhere, and visibly and palpably before me; long, narrow, and excessively white, with the pale lips writhing about them, as in the very moment of their first terrible development.

Then came the full fury of my monomania, and I struggled in vain against its strange and irresistible influence. In the multiplied objects of the external world I had no thoughts but for the teeth. For these I longed with a phrenzied desire.

All other matters and all different interests became absorbed in their single contemplation. They – they alone were present to the mental eye, and they, in their sole individuality, became the essence of my mental life. I held them in every light. I turned them in every attitude. I surveyed their characteristics. I dwelt upon their peculiarities. I pondered upon their conformation. I mused upon the alteration in their nature. I shuddered as I assigned to them in imagination a sensitive and sentient power, and even when unassisted by the lips, a capability of moral expression.”

That is from a longer perhaps we could call it a creative nonfiction piece called “Bernice.” You can read the whole deliciously over-wrought piece online, here:

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