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Odilon Redon’s Dark Musings on Evolution

How could anyone step on a spider with a cute monkey face?
The Spider (with primate face) (source)

Imagine you are Adam or Eve in the Garden of Eden in a state of blissfully ignorant grace. You reach for the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. As you take a bite your world is rocked by a traumatic paradigm shift. To your horror, the fruit you are eating is now looking back at you…

…or the sleep of reason produces monsters and you are related to them by common ancestors.

I’ve been a fan of Odilon Redon‘s colorful paintings and pastels since my art student days. I was aware that he did some black and whites on paper but those don’t have the lighthearted charisma of his polychrome works. Still, one of his monochrome pieces started to nag at me while I was designing a vase. I had a picture of it…somewhere…in my library, but a long search for it came up with nothing. I couldn’t even find an image of it on the

I hit two used book shops half hoping to luck into a rare Redon monograph with an image of the exact print that was haunting me. I found some other nice art books in the first shop but no monograph. The second shop also didn’t have a monograph but I did find a book that claimed to be about art inspired by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  Endless Forms: Charles Darwin Natural Science and the Visual Arts had a seductive dust cover featuring an illustration of an exquisite long brown feather with magnificent spots and coloration. It was an art exhibition catalogue from 2009 full of essays. The exhibition was a massive collaboration between the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Yale Center for British Art in honor of the 150th anniversary of publishing of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. I had to have it to read and for display.

Settled in on the sofa with my new book 45 minutes later, I was stunned to find a whole-page, high-resolution detail of the Redon black and white image I was looking for in the prologue. A flurry of excited thoughts finally coalesced into puzzlement, “What is this symbolist art work doing in a book about Darwin and art?” I couldn’t see a connection between what I knew of Redon’s work and Darwin. Redon was known for being a symbolist. He made heavy use of allegory, myth, and dream symbolism in his work which skewed far towards the visionary, mystical, and perhaps a whisper of the occult. His body of black and white works is heavy, oppressive and reminiscent at times of Goya. When he wasn’t feeling very symbolist he also made some very sweet, airy, and decorative florals. Artistically he
was both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but, I couldn’t conceive of how this artist’s work could have anything to do with evolutionary theory.

...but it was prematurely snuffed out so the trait didn't propagate.
There Was Perhaps a First Vision Attempted in the Flower, 1883 (source)
All Manner of Frightful Creatures Arise, 1888 (source)

This is also the time when I realized why I wasn’t able to find this image online. I had been searching for a charcoal or a pastel drawing. The piece was a lithograph as, it turns out, were most of his black and white output. It’s name in English is There Was Perhaps a First Vision Attempted in the Flower, 1883. The title was no help in discovering why it was included in the book but it was from an album of lithographs called “Les Origines.” That was a clue but seemed like a stretch.

The salient essay was in the middle of the book but I decided to take the time to enjoy the book as a whole and slake my curiosity in due course as the material was presented. One essay discusses Darwin’s lack of interest in art beyond portraits of his friends and family. The rest of the essays begin to pick apart how the influence of the ideas found within On the Origin of Species begins to affect culture as a whole as evidenced by the art. Through the art of the time we can see how people are internalizing or rejecting Darwin’s newly-proposed earthshaking facts of life.

This is where Odilon Redon comes in. It turns out–like many artists reading this blog–that Redon was a huge science buff. One of his best friends was a botanist named Armand Clavaud who introduced him to both cutting edge ideas in science as well as the scientists themselves. Redon attended many scientific lectures, debates, and salons where On the Origin of Species was all the rage. Great thinkers of the time had started giving the concepts within their own spin.

The Misshapen Polyp Floating on the Shores from "Les Origines", 1883
The Misshapen Polyp Floating on the Shores from “Les Origines”, 1883

Redon was especially influenced by one of those thinkers, Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel gets due props for being a prolific and influential naturalist. That said, he put forward some popular but wrong ideas. I haven’t researched Haeckel’s spiritual spin on evolution as influenced by German romanticism, but the horrors of history lead me to assume they were dangerous. Spiritualism and romanticism are right up a symbolist’s alley, however, so I can see how Redon might have been partly attracted to this sentiment.

I also haven’t noticed anything that smacks of racism so it’s possible that unless it is hidden under some symbolism that I missed, Redon didn’t indulge in any artistic flights of superiority. In fact, I find the exact opposite in Redon. I find an artist who is emotionally struggling with an overwhelming sense of equality and empathy with all lifeforms. I don’t even see any hints of humanity as the pinnacle of evolution let alone God’s creation. In fact, Redon imbues the tiniest and most vulnerable buds and embryonic creatures with anthropomorphic features equating all life with our own. This is the purview of mystics not racists.

One of Haeckel's Embryo Charts (source)
One of Haeckel’s Embryo Charts (source)

Another thread of Haeckel’s research was in comparative embryology. He was the one responsible for “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” which was well-received at the time but is now largely discredited. The theory was argued most memorably by Haeckel by pointing out how similar embryos of different species were at early stages and how closely related species continued to look similar longer. Redon must have loved those charts. He populated a
many of his works with embryonic creatures and shapes.

As a scientist, Haeckel got a lot of heat for filling in missing links and allegedly making things up. Some of the creatures in his famous and still influential Art Forms of Nature are magnificent fantasy. He was accused of fabricating some of his embryo studies to force his “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” argument. As an artist, however, Redon had the freedom to speculate to his heart’s content over what manner of chimeras and beasties blinked in and out of existence over the millenia.

There are some themes that run through his evolution-inspired pieces. First, there is a sense of vulnerability. No one gets out alive. An organism that fights to survive one day will perish the next. This may be why we are reminded of Goya when looking at Redon’s noirs. Man’s inhumanity to man is replaced by a futile and temporary survival of the fittest and the scythe of natural selection. I already mentioned how he makes even the lowliest or abhorrent organism a kindred spirit. He gives almost every creature and sprout an eye or a humanoid face. Humanity is confronted with the fact that it plays a part in the ensemble cast of a perpetual tragedy. It’s a pessimism that’s absurdly illustrated with cheeky monkey spiders, maiden-faced flower buds, sciapod with a human face, and primordial embryo creatures with anthropoid visages. I encourage you to click the images in this post to check out the higher resolution images.

There Were Struggles and Vain Victories, plate 6 of 8 from "Les Origines", 1883
There Were Struggles and Vain Victories, from “Les Origines”, 1883 (source)
Larvae So Bloodless, So Hideous, 1886
Larvae So Bloodless, So Hideous, 1886 (source)
Sciapode, 1892
Sciapode, 1892 (source)
The Impotent Wing Did Not Lift the Animal Into That Black Space from "Les Origines", 1883
The Impotent Wing Did Not Lift the Animal Into That Black Space from “Les Origines”, 1883
Redon had issues with the quality of craftsmanship from the lithographic printers.
Menu of a Dinner for French Lithographers, April 1, 1887
This one is unusual. It doesn't have a face or an eye.
Les Betes de la Mer Rondes Commes Outres, 1896 (source)
And that Eyes without Heads Were Floating Like Mollusks, 1896
And that Eyes without Heads Were Floating Like Mollusks, 1896 (source)



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