From 1870 to 1890, Odilon Redon, a leading artist of the French symbolist movement, created predominantly black artworks. More than any color of the prism, he found black to be the most effective mean of expressing his feelings and the realm of his imagination. Redon named this group of drawings and lithographs his noirs—French for “blacks.” The title appears in the Getty Museum exhibition Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints, which features several of Redon’s dark drawings.
Redon’s fascination with darkness was accompanied by a powerful attraction to the world of the indeterminate, the phantoms of insomnia, and the monstrous dreams and obscure fantasies usually rendered invisible by daylight. The artist’s choice of tools and techniques was fundamental to representing this mysterious world of shadows, sometimes even more important than the subject itself. In Apparition (ca. 1880–90), the floating black charcoal is an essential part of the oneiric subject; it rains down in heavy deposits in front of a mysterious bearded man.
Around the 1890s, Redon created even more compelling, powerful images by adding pastel highlights to long-since completed charcoal drawings. This shift from darkness to light was not a radical change, but resulted from a gradual, almost organic process. For in fact pastel is made of a material similar to charcoal—it resembles a powder and has both a tactile and an evanescent quality.
Head within an Aureole (ca. 1895–95), which was recently acquired by the Getty Museum, is a superb example of Redon’s transition to color. The head of a man is surrounded by an aureole—a lustrous cloud—rendered in delicate strokes of powdery charcoal, which radiates outward from the circular center. The dots of blue pastel elicit an iridescent luminosity, and the intensity of colors gives the man a mystical, spiritual appearance.
The man could be identified as Christ, whose image frequently appeared in Redon’s artworks between 1895 and 1900, during which time the artist turned to spiritual subjects and depicted Buddhist and Christian themes. The faintly drawn pedestal, barely visible under the pink pastel layered over charcoal, could be the support of a monstrance, a vessel used to exhibit holy objects. Pink pastel, a color frequently associated with dreams, encircles the nimbus in Head within an Aureole, making it float in a glowing, visionary space. Is this the weightless iris of an eye—a common image in Redon’s dream world—whose pupil is the conduit into the inner mysteries of the soul?
Hybrid Creatures and Meanings
There are strong resemblances between Head within an Aureole and Germination (ca. 1890–96), a drawing in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In Germination, a head with a radiant halo seems to sprout from a column or trunk. Redon’s figures are often such hybrid creatures, oscillating between human beings, animals, and plants, with melancholy, grotesque faces. The artist mixed natural and spiritual elements in his drawings, balancing enigmatic subject matter with refined colors.
Redon’s artworks do not lend themselves to singular interpretations. By his own admission, a title “is not justified unless it is vague, indeterminate, and aspiring, even confusedly equivocal.” He added, “My drawings inspire and do not define themselves. They determine nothing. They place us, just as music does, in the ambiguous world of the indeterminate.” Redon lets our imaginations roam free to find meanings in his drawings according to our own sensitivities and inclinations. Noir: The Romance of Black offers viewers the opportunity to encounter Redon’s mystical realm firsthand in front of these dark yet luminescent visions.
Learn more about Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints: See the exhibition at the Getty Center, West Pavilion, through May 15, 2016, and read the accompanying book from Getty Publications.