Dark luminosity: that’s what for me the Symbolist artist Odilon Redon (1840-1916) does so well. Black and white lithography was an early technique used by Redon to produce what he termed his ‘noirs’; the expressive power of chiaroscuro, of strong contrasts between darkness and light in the lithographs, allowed the kind of illusiveness and mystery he sought in his art. His first 10 lithographs, Dans le Rève (In the Dream), were published in 1879 but garnered little public attention. A series of fantastical images that occupy a lonely region between the real and the imaginary, they are consistent with Redon’s pictorial world more broadly – a world of floating heads, mythic figures, shadowy beings, ghosts, cyclops, fallen angels, composite creatures. In Germination (Plate 2 of Dans le Rève, see image above), a disembodied pale head, eyes downcast in introspection, is set within a large black nimbus. The head floats in an indeterminate, nocturnal space; beneath hover (germinate?) a sequence of ever-smaller heads, the first with wide-staring eyes, the others more skull-like with empty eye-sockets; and around the heads drift smaller white spheres – perhaps seed-heads or star-forms. The mood of the lithograph is melancholy, but it carries a strange luminosity too. The artwork is hard to interpret, although it brings to my mind, among other things, the gestation of thoughts and feelings in a space that is dark and mysterious.
Redon was part of the Symbolist movement which rejected naturalistic art and placed more emphasis on the reality of the imagination. His originality as an artist lay in the way his works suggest meaning without being specific. The use of symbolism had been important in art for several centuries, but Redon’s innovation lay in his ability to create symbolic forms that exist in their own right without any clear or definable associations. His symbols embody a mystery which diffuses through the painting. The works evoke particular subjective states – an intense emotion, a mystical sensibility, a dream fragment – but do so without one being fully aware of what this is. He described his artworks as intending to ‘arouse in the imagination [of the viewer] any number of fantasies whose meaning will be broad or limited according to his sensitivity.’ Redon’s lithographs, such as Germination, attest to his singular vision, which is both equivocal and eloquent, dark and luminous.