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Odilon Redon, 1840-1916

The Eye

Description:Read An Essay On This Drawing

The Eye (Vision) was executed during a crucial period in Redon's career, one in which he became increasingly confident as an artist and determined to make a name for himself. He had revolted against his academic training in the 1860s, had found a kindred soul and crucial artistic mentor in the reclusive printmaker and draftsman Rodolphe Bresdin, and had begun to frequent influential Parisian intellectual circles. In the process, he had developed a powerful vision of a poetic, "invisible" reality, which he communicated by rendering recognizable forms in often jarring, yet evocative, juxtapositions.

Redon had also begun to exploit the medium of charcoal as a way to exorcise these visions, dreams, and memories. Charcoal particularly suited Redon for both its great tonal range and the richness of its black, which he described in a 1913 lecture as "the most essential color. . . . One must respect black. Nothing prostitutes it."1 He always referred to his charcoal drawings as his "noirs." Previously having been relegated solely to artists' studios for sketching or underdrawing, charcoal was also attaining more prominence at this time as a worthy medium for public exhibition.2

During the late 1870s, as the body of his works in charcoal was growing, Redon also realized the potential of lithography to translate the qualities of his "noirs" into a print medium, thus circulating his designs to a wider audience. He issued his first portfolio of ten lithographs, Dans le rêve, in 1879.3 The preponderance of images of floating heads and eyeballs (eight out of the ten) is striking. Particularly intriguing is the print entitled Vision, showing a glowing eyeball hovering in a grand architectural space, an object of awe and perhaps worship for a couple below. A favored motif for Redon, the eye and sight itself are obvious stand-ins for his own vision, and the floating eyeball especially has been seen as a symbol for the artist's "free-floating soul."4 He made this explicit in his well-known Eye-Balloon (Museum of Modern Art, New York), an 1878 charcoal portraying a hovering eyeball as a balloon with a platform suspended below, on which rests a severed head.5

The Baltimore drawing was almost certainly included in Redon's first one-man exhibition in May 1881, sponsored by the progressive journal La vie moderne, which had recently shown Manet, Monet, and Renoir, among others. The show consisted of at least twenty charcoals and perhaps the print series Dans le rêve, and two incisive reviews of it marked the beginning appreciation of Redon's modern philosophy.6 The Baltimore drawing can be identified as the drawing entitled Vision, referred to by one observer as a "great magnetic eye."7 In contrast to Eye-Balloonand the lithograph Vision, it has no hint of a setting, apart from a vaguely indicated dark sky. Although apparently meant to be a singular presence in its own right, established by its frame of lank black hair, the circular facial fragment could also be construed as a voyeur's eye seen through a peephole.8 This ambivalent and vaguely unresolved quality is consistent with Redon's usual working method, whereby he began his charcoals by laying a middle tone from which he then could both rub and scrape highlights and build up progressively darker areas, removing and changing forms as he worked.9

Of all the mysterious and intensely personal images of isolated eyes found in Redon's works, the Baltimore drawing is one of the most implacable and resistant to interpretation. Recently, it has been subjected to a deeply psychological interpretation as a painful symbol of absence and castration, referring to his childhood abandonment.10 Probably acquired from the artist himself by the influential Paris dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard, who had published a number of Redon's prints and albums during the 1890s, The Eye (Vision) was purchased for Baltimore by the curator Victor Carlson to fill a gap in the collection for the period prior to "classic" modernism (represented so well in The Cone Collection) and Surrealism, whose artists obviously looked to Redon as an important precursor. DPhilippe Bordes

1. O. Redon, A Soi-Même - Journal (1867-1915): Notes sur la vie l'art et les artistes (Paris, 1922), 119. From its organic origins, the medium of charcoal also carried a mystical connection for Redon's own spiritual leanings. (D. Druick et al., Odilon Redon - Prince of Dreams, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, Van Gogh Museum, and Royal Academy of Arts [Chicago, Amsterdam, and London, 1994], 110-11).

2. See V. Jirat-Wasiutynski, "The Charcoal Drawings of Odilon Redon," in Drawing: Masters and Methods, Raphael to Redon, ed. D. Dethloff (London, 1992), 145-47; and H. K. Stratis, "Beneath the Surface - Redon's Methods and Materials," in Druick et al. 1994, 355-58.

3. Redon's use of the word "rêve" was significant both as a literal "dream" and an aesthetic "ideal" (ibid., 121).

4. Ibid., 113. It has even been related biographically to one of Redon's own eyes, which at times appeared to wander. Interestingly, Redon had confided observations about his use of the "isolated eye" imagery to his early biographer André Mellerio, but later forebade their inclusion in the latter's 1913 monograph (ibid., 20, 114).

5. For his use of balloon imagery, see V. Jirat-Wasiutynski, "The Balloon as Metaphor in the Early Work of Odilon Redon," Artibus et historiae 25 (1992): 195 - 206; and Druick et al. 1994, 111-17.

6. See ibid., 128-34, for a discussion of this exhibition and excerpts from the reviews by Jules Boissé and Amédée Pigeon.

7. Ibid., 133, referring to a poem, "En sortant de l'exposition de La vie moderne," by Maurice Montégut.

8. Other portrayals of this device are an 1883 charcoal entitled The Tell-Tale Heart (ibid., 183, fig. 101) and the 1882 lithograph At the Horizon, the Angel of Certitudes, from the series To Edgar Poe (A. Mellerio, Odilon Redon [Paris, 1913], 94, cat. 41). Another common motif was a face seen looking inward through a window.

9. For an analysis of Redon's charcoal technique, see Jirat-Wasiutynski 1992, 145-58; and Stratis, in Druick et al. 1994, 358-63. On his exploitation of pentimenti and improvisation, see ibid., 111. As with others of this period, the Baltimore drawing contains touches of color pastel, trying for values that Redon later found he could achieve solely with different varieties of black media.

10. R. Michel, La peinture comme crime, ou la part maudite de la modernité, exh. cat., Musée du Louvre (Paris, 2001), 155-69.

Medium: Various charcoals with incising, stumping, and traces of pastel on cream, medium-weight, moderately textured wove paper altered to golden tone
Dimensions: Sheet: 420 x 369 mm. (16 9/16 x 14 1/2 in.)
Date: ca. 1880-1885
Category: fantastic
Subject: Eye Symbolist Vision
Alternate Title: L'oeil Vision
Inscriptions and Markings: RECTO: LR, (chalk), 'Odilon Redon'.
Exhibition History: Doreen Bolger, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 'Haunting Visions of Poe; Illustrations by Manet, Matisse & Gauguin,' Sept. 17, 2003-Jan. 11, 2004. R?gis Michel, Mus?e du Louvre, Paris, 'La peinture comme crime', Oct. 19-Jan 14, 2002, cat. no. 108, p. 361; ill. p. 155 and cover. Douglas Druick, Art Institute of Chicago, 'Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams 1840-1916', June 25-Sept. 18, 1994, pp. 133 and 439, no. 61; circulated to Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Oct. 20, 1994-Jan. 15, 1995; Royal Academy of Arts, London, Feb. 22-May 21, 1995. The Baltimore Museum of Art, 'As Artists See Us: Drawings from the Museum Collection', May 14-Aug. 11, 1991. The Baltimore Museum of Art, 'Master Drawings by French Artists in the Museum's Collection', May 14-July 23, 1989. Victor Carlson and Carol Hynning Smith, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 'Master Drawings and Watercolors of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries', Aug. 1979-Aug. 1980, p. 70, no. 28, ill. p. 71; circulated by the American Federation of Arts. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 'Rousseau, Redon and Fantasy', May-Sept. 1968, p. 4. Paul Rosenberg and Co., New York, '19th and 20th Century French Drawings and Watercolors', Feb. 4-March 2, 1963, no. 26.
Bibliography: Paul Carter, 'Second Sight: Looking Back as Colonial Vision', Australian Art Journal, 13 (1996); p. 22, 35; no. 7c. Foirades/Fizzles: Echo and Allusion in the Art of Jasper Johns, Los Angeles: University of California (Wight Art Gallery), 1987, p. 131, fig. 17. A. Werner, 'Odilon Redon', Art and Artists, 6:4 (July 1971), p. 15. Max Kozloff, Jasper Johns, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1968, plate 108. 'Accessions Report', The Baltimore Museum of Art News 28:1-2 (1967), ill. p. 52. 'La Chronique des Arts', Gazette des Beaux Arts 1176 (February 1967), p. 103, no. 366.
Provenance: BMA by purchase, 1966; Paul Rosenberg, New York, ca. 1963; Ambroise Vollard (1867-1939), Paris, ca. 1900.
Collection: The Baltimore Museum of Art
Credit Line: The Baltimore Museum of Art: Nelson and Juanita Greif Gutman Fund
Object Number: BMA 1966.29