|Nightmarish Suggestion: Odilon Redon's "I am still the great Isis!"|
Odilon Redon (1840-1916) is surely deserving of the description given him by Karl Joris Huysmans: "the Prince of Dreams." Redon's famous series of lithographs representing themes from Gustave Flaubert's The Temptation of St. Anthony are not only masterpieces of visionary and dreamlike symbolism, but also display Redon's accomplished techniques of shadow, line, and texture. Throughout this series, Redon takes motifs from the literary world and imbues them with an autonomous existence centering around the suggestion of meaning. The merging of art and literature, so valued by the Symbolist theorists with whom Redon associated, brings to life his fantastic and often chilling interpretations of Flaubert's work.|
In choosing to display scenes, or more appropriately "correspondences" of Flaubert's novel, Redon allies himself with a number of important literary figures. Most important of these is Karl-Joris Huysmans, who became a close friend and influence on Redon. Huysmans' numerous discussions of Redon's work, both in fiction and in his critical reviews of exhibitions, show how closely allied the two figures were: both focused on dream imagery, death, and ambiguity. This fascination is also reflected in the works of Isidore Ducasse, the Comte de Lautréamont; although Lautréamont's work can not be proven to have been an influence on Redon, there are striking similarities between his novel Maldoror (which appeared in several editions with plates by Redon) and the nightmarish images of death and depravity for which Redon is famous.
Redon's 1896 lithograph entitled "I am still the great Isis," from the third series of prints based on Flaubert's Temptation of St. Anthony, is a prime example not only of Redon's graphic style, but of his relationship to the Symbolist movement and its imagery as well. Adapting a scene from Flaubert's work, which was already admired by many Symbolist authors for its mystical and visionary quality, Redon portrays Isis with her child as they are both engulfed by waves of darkness and death. In so doing he exemplifies the Symbolist fascination with dreamlike and nightmarish scenes, and, perhaps more importantly, focuses on the suggestion of a meaning which goes beyond the confines of the image itself.
Redon had, in fact, produced three different series of lithographs, in 1888, 1889, and 1896, covering topics from The Temptation of St. Anthony. "I am still the great Isis" is the sixteenth drawing in the third series, and is alternately and appropriately entitled "Mother and Child Engulfed by Death." A female nude, an infant clutching around her waist, stands facing the viewer and is enfolded by cascading threads of darkness from an indeterminate, off-canvas source, while a small demonic figure in the lower right seems to turn away from the woman, raising its arms in an ambiguous gesture -- perhaps fleeing in horror from the scene of death, or, conversely, rejoicing at the vanquishing of life. The effect produced by this figure, as well as by the sinuous, hair-like waves of darkness, is not only morbidly disturbing, but mysterious as well.
If unfamiliar with Flaubert's text, the viewer may be somewhat puzzled by Redon's imagery, which is at once intriguing and repelling. The composition raises several questions, not only about the nature of the demonic figure, but also about the woman herself: is she approaching this undulating darkness of her own accord, or is hers an unwilling departure? Is the bright white light which overtakes her a sign of hope for the end of her journey, or is it merely the living world which she is abandoning? And perhaps most importantly, what is the relationship of the woman to the child around her waist? Clearly she is attempting to protect or shield the infant in some way, and this corresponds to Redon's original title of the piece, referencing the Egyptian goddess Isis, whose son Harpocrates was injured in a fight with Thoth, the Ibis-god -- for indeed, the demonic figure could be seen as having a birdlike physique.
These questions can be at least partially answered by examining Flaubert's novel. Although Redon designated his lithographs as "correspondences" rather than illustrations to Flaubert's text, the exact scene depicted in Redon's work does occur in Flaubert, during Anthony's visions of the gods and goddesses of antiquity, who recount the stories of their glory and attempt to lure Anthony away from his Christian faith. Isis appears, Flaubert writes, in a great desert, and cries out her words with her face lifted toward the heavens: "She retains in her hand the lower part of a long black veil that hides all her face; supporting with her left arm a little child to whom she is giving suck."  The child is indeed identified in the text as Harpocrates. After bewailing the loss of Osiris, her husband, and recounting the history of her great reign, Isis explains that the child was fathered by the ghost of Osiris-- she thus hopes to rebuild their empire with his child, on whom she rests all her hope. Suddenly, however, she realizes that the child has died, whereupon she utters a cry "so piercing, funereal, heart-rending, that Anthony answers it with another cry, extending his arms as if to support her." 
Although this scene describes the essence of Redon's drawing as well, the small figure in the lower corner of the picture deviates curiously from the text and remains ambiguous. Is it Anthony himself, who cries out at the end of Isis' speech? Or is it the creature described as "a great ape," who "crouches down in the sand beside" Isis?  Or does the figure, perhaps, have a deeper, less literal function, representing perhaps the reaction of the viewer or the artist himself to Isis' loss?
In addition to the ambiguity of the event portrayed, the composition of the lithograph is rather enigmatic. Redon, who was often so intent on showing eyes in his works, has covered the woman's face in a great wash of darkness, and the only eyes to be seen are the dark, hollow sockets of the little demon, who adds a surreal, ghoulish, and even theatrical element to the otherwise painfully stern image. The posture of the woman prevents the viewer from determining her emotional state, and focuses attention on the child, with whom the viewer can, by virtue of its proximity and foregrounding, more easily establish a form of contact; we are thus inclined to feel sympathy and concern for Harpocrates. At the same time, however, Redon has surrounded the child with wispy flows of blackness, very nearly eclipsing the infant's contours and disintegrating it into both the woman and the darkness surrounding them, thereby preventing any real identification of or with the human figures. The swelling curtain of this darkness appears to sweep down upon the canvas from the upper edge, much like a giant hand reaching down to seize the pair, but also recalling the form of a weeping willow, symbolizing death and despair. Redon's use of charcoal shading is striking, as always: the rough texture produced by his brush-like application leaves the work with a sketchy, indeterminate quality which corresponds perfectly to the mysterious and dreamy nature of the scene. A certain depth is implied by the placement of the figures, but again it could be illusory: Isis appears to stand well in front of the bright light she faces, but it is unclear whether any forward (or backward) motion is involved. Overall the viewer is left with a sense of disturbance, even confusion, arising both from the emotional content as well as from the ambiguity of the portrayal.
The Temptation of St. Anthony is somewhat unusual when seen in relation to the rest of Flaubert's oeuvre, departing as it does from his otherwise strict observance of the Naturalist tradition. As such, we can understand why the novelist and critic J.K. Huysmans, who also developed his Symbolist-decadent style out of a youthful Naturalism, admired both Flaubert's text and, importantly, Redon's prints as well. One of the first critics to discuss Redon, Huysmans wrote in 1882 of Redon's visionary and dreamlike images: "with him, we enjoy losing our footing and drifting in a dream world."  The world of dreams was to become significant in nearly all of Huysmans' writings, and Redon would come to play an important part as well. Huysmans' famous immortalization of Redon in A Rebours (1884), where the hero Des Esseintes surveys his collection of Redon's images and feels plunged into "the horrors of a nightmare dream,"  did, to a certain extent, set the tone for the public reception of Redon's work. Although Huysmans never discusses the "Isis" image in particular, many of statements are applicable to it, and his correspondence with Redon shows that the artist was most certainly aware of and receptive to Huysmans' critiques.
Huysmans had found some success with his early writings which, although Naturalist in form and content, nonetheless displayed the author's passion and energy. In his journal articles and his correspondence with Emile Zola, Huysmans began to criticize certain Naturalistic tendencies, and also expressed repeatedly his heartfelt admiration, almost obsession, with Catholicism and religious imagery. After the groundbreaking appearance of A Rebours in 1883, Zola rejected Huysmans' newfound style, although the two continued their literary correspondence.
In addition to his novels -- most notably A Rebours, Là-Bas, and En Route -- Huysmans was noted for his art criticism. His various newspaper and journal reviews of contemporary exhibitions, first collected in book form for L'Art Moderne (1883), are founded on the critical tradition of Zola and the Brothers Goncourt; he is often more interested in the subject matter and character of the works he discusses than in an explication of their formal qualities. These reviews were generally well-received by Huysmans' contemporaries such as Mallarmé, Fénéon, and Monet. In L'Art Moderne there occurs a very short discussion of Redon's first exhibition of 1882, in which Huysmans describes the nightmarish dream world of the artist's works: "if you blend, in macabre surroundings, somnambulistic figures vaguely related to those of Gustave Moreau, with an element of fear, you will perhaps form an idea of the bizarre talent of this singular artist."  A more detailed exposition of Redon's style came with the publication of Huysmans' Certains (1889), in which general qualities and characteristics of many modern artists -- Redon, Moreau, Raffaelli, Degas, and other -- are discussed.
The publication of A Rebours in 1884, however, immortalized both Redon and Moreau for a large part of the French reading public. This work, considered by many a "celebration of burnt-out aristocratic depravity,"  features a detailed description of the hero Des Esseintes' gallery of images by the two artists. Huysmans praises above all the nightmarish quality of Redon's work, and uses this imagery to symbolize a growing fear and hatred of the modern world. This interest in the subconscious, mystical, and above all dreamlike marked the completion of Huysmans' move away from Naturalism to his own style of Symbolism and syncretism.
Huysmans does not, of course, discuss the "Isis" plate in A Rebours -- nor could he have, since it was not produced until 1896 -- but his more general descriptions of Redon's work in the novel are surprisingly applicable even to later works. Des Esseintes revels in the image of a landscape "wreathed with wild clouds under a livid, stagnant sky,"  recalling the immense black cloud which presses around Isis; so too does the contrasting "radiant figure that, amid these frenzied designs, rose calm and serene ... in an attitude of depression and despondency" seem particularly prophetic.  Redon's typical demonic and inhuman figures -- like the small demon in "Isis" -- are highly praised in A Rebours; their shapes, Huysmans writes, are "exaggerated out of all measure or distorted as if seen refracted through water," and evoke "recollections of typhoid fever" in Des Esseintes. 
This last comparison is particularly noteworthy, I believe, not only for its mirroring of the deformed demon in "Isis," but also because Huysmans, like Redon, often combines the image of woman with that of disease, death, or decay. The eighth chapter of A Rebours includes a fantastic nightmare scene in which Des Esseintes dreams of a mysterious liaison with a woman, only to be chased down by an "ambiguous, sexless figure," the embodiment of the Pox, or syphilis:
Like Isis, crying out at the moment of death, the woman is overcome with grief and fear, and the strange creature overpowers her; at the end of the nightmare the woman in fact becomes the disease in the form of a morbid, decaying flower, and Des Esseintes awakens in terror. Similarly, in Redon's image, the strange demonic figure who so puzzles the viewer does indeed have a somewhat malevolent appearance, and is perhaps a skeleton-like embodiment of Death, come to rejoice in the taking of Harpocrates.
In other works -- reviews and articles which describe Redon's stylistic character -- Huysmans makes references to images which mirror those in the "Isis" plate. In one noir drawing, he writes, "a white fairy-like figure sprang up, like a lily, into a black sky" ; in another he describes "an enigmatic figure, haughty and doleful, a figure that rose out of shadowy depths pierced here and there by shafts of light."  The contrast of light and dark, so common in Redon's noirs, is particularly noteworthy in "Isis," and was in fact highly praised and encouraged by Huysmans.
Not surprisingly, Huysmans exerted a certain influence on Redon, both artistically and intellectually. After commending the artist's work in several publications, Huysmans wrote to Redon and initiated a lasting friendship. It was partially Huysmans, one critic explains, who -- while researching Satanism for his novel Là-Bas -- brought Redon into contact with the Decadent Symbolist circles in Paris, groups peopled with "open transvestites, would-be sorcerors, and jaded morphine addicts."  Redon's first Temptation of St. Anthony series was sent to Huysmans as a gift; interestingly, Huysmans was not all that pleased with the work, and in private letters expressed his preference for the fantastic figures, exotic creatures, and mysterious landscapes which Redon's other noirs portrayed so stunningly. In short, Huysmans found the first Anthony series to be clear-cut "illustrations" of Flaubert's text, and encouraged Redon toward a more ambiguous stance, toward open-ended works with only a suggested interpretation behind them.
The nightmarish quality that seems to pervade so much of Redon's and Huysmans' work had, meanwhile, reached a further extreme in the writings of Isidore Ducasse, the Comte de Lautréamont. His 1868 novel Maldoror was published in many later editions which included lithographs by Redon; appropriately so, for the story of Maldoror is one of surreal imagery and dreams of death and decay. Redon is, of course, not mentioned in the text -- nor could he be, since his first works were not exhibited until several years later -- but the story of Maldoror, focusing as it does on the tortured life and untimely death of a strange child, seems particularly reminiscent of several of Redon's works, including the "Isis" plate; in parts it is also astonishingly reminiscent of the Isis scene in Flaubert's novel as well. The child Maldoror, feeling poorly and sensing the approach of death, complains to his mother:
Like Flaubert's scene and Huysmans nightmare, anguished cries signal the coming of death; in this case merely the death of Maldoror's childhood. He lives on for a short while, but his fate is decidedly unhappy: morose and languid, he begins to fantasize. Nightmarish visions soon dominate the text: in one, Maldoror appears as a giant octopus with "eight monstrous tentacles," any one of which "could easily have spanned the circumference of a planet."  Other images, even stranger, focus increasingly on death, decay, and sexual perversion.
Lautréamont's work, usually described as a prose poem, is at times nearly impenetrable with allusions, surreal descriptions, and non-linear, possibly imagined occurrences. As such, the book became a model for the later Surrealists -- but it also reflects a certain fascination with Decadent and Symbolist themes and imagery, so indicative of the era. It is thus appropriate that many versions of Maldoror were published in editions including lithographs by Redon. I have been unable to determine whether the "Isis" plate was among them, or even whether Redon himself was involved in their selection, but it is nonetheless intriguing and enlightening to consider the similarities between the two works: Harpocrates, like Maldoror, is of doubtful parentage -- Maldoror curses his father, saying that he was "born evil" and doomed to a life of perversion, while Harpocrates, son of the ghost of Osiris, is doomed from the outset to a brief, failed existence. The demonic figure in the plate is, as we have seen, ambiguous and uninterpretable, like Maldoror and his many visions and acquaintances. Finally, just as the cloud of darkness sweeping down over Isis is pierced by a bright white light, in Maldoror's death scene, a white archangel appears in an attempt to redeem him: hidden in a black crevice, the angel draws "the whole of his body from the bottom of the dark opening [and] shows himself, radiant."  Certainly the contrast of light and dark as indicative of death and salvation is a time-honored tradition; many of Redon's works, however, and in particular the "Isis" plate, make use of this imagery in a fashion strikingly similar to Maldoror.
In fact, the imagery of death, and in particular the untimely death of children and innocents, played an extremely important role for the Symbolists and Decadents, and can be seen as the unifying factor when discussing Flaubert, Huysmans, Lautréamont, and Redon. Be it Isis' child Harpocrates, the gilded turtle and strange flowers of Des Esseintes, or Maldoror himself, innocent young lives are frequently cut short in these works. Also significant is the ambiguous portrayal of women, as both apostates and saviors, or connected to the moment and cause of death, which is common in these and other works of the time. In accordance with Symbolist and syncretist theories, which, as Fred Leeman notes, held that the image "no longer served a strictly mimetic function," the key to the artistic endeavor became the "suggestion" of meaning, not direct representation.  Huysmans, Lautreamont and Redon all attempt to "suggest" their meanings; Redon, in offering a "correspondence" to a textual moment, does so perhaps most vividly, symbolizing a world of dreams with ambiguity and mysticism. Through his use of imagery, his merging of literature and art, and his suggestion of meaning, Redon shows himself to be both influenced by and influential for the literary figures of his time.
Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1997 for Art History 452 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Nightmarish Suggestion: Odilon Redon's 'I am still the great Isis!'." Website Article. 30 November 1997. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/452redon.html>.