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Odilon Redon: the Symbolist 
by Laken Bridges
Part I: Symbolism: philosophies and participants

“Nature is more substantial than human beings themselves.” – Odilon Redon[1]

In order to understand Redon and the Symbolist Movement, it is important to examine the historical setting.  Symbolism (1860s-1880s) was an artistic and literary movement[2] that sprung from a time in French history that was characterized by turbulence and uncertainty.  As France entered the nineteenth century, the country was still reeling from the effects of the French Revolution.  The French government was unstable during much of 1800s and changes in political leaders were frequent.  During the reign of Napoleon III, Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann was commissioned to renovate Paris in 1853.  Streets were widened in an attempt to prevent rioters from building barricades in the narrow streets.  Although urban improvements were appealing to the bourgeoisie who enjoyed walking along the tree-lined streets to display their wealth, other citizens were distraught over the historic buildings that were destroyed during the modernization process.  According to historian Robert Herbert, as Paris was physically destroyed, Parisians became more socially disconnected from each other.[3]  Tension and unrest was a prevailing part of everyday life.  According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, “the Symbolists sought escape from reality, expressing their personal dreams and visions through color, form, and composition.”[4] 

The word Symbolism was first taken as an identifying term by Symbolist writers such as Charles Baudelaire but the term quickly spread to the visual art world.[5]  Symbolism developed as an opposition to Realism and represented a return to the personal expression of the Romantic Movement. While Realists embraced the idea that “the essence of things is present before us and that it is our business to explore its forms and its laws,”[6] Symbolists countered that art should come from within and it should express one’s thoughts and emotions.[7]

Not only did the Symbolists reject Realism, they rejected materialism as well.[8]  In their eyes society was becoming more and more corrupt.[9]  It is not difficult to understand why Symbolists wanted to remove themselves from traditional practices and create a new, fresh art. These artists shied away from traditional use of color and sought instead to use it in a more arbitrary fashion.[10] 

Symbolists were quite diverse; they drew their inspiration from multiple sources[11] and their art was not defined by a particular style nor categorized by particular characteristics.[12]  The link between Symbolists was what they created: art that spoke, as author Pierre-Louis Mathieu writes, “to the viewer’s heart, his soul”[13] The most common themes in symbolist art include “love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire.”[14]  In addition to Odilon Redon, artists Gustave Moreau, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Ferdinand Hodler, Edvard Munch, and Paul Gauguin[15] as well as writers Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Gustave Flaubert were also connected to Symbolism.[16]

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Important! Footnotes:

[1] Scott Koterbay,  Lecture Notes,  History of Modern Art  (Ball Hall, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN,  Fall 2007)[2] Ibid.
Robert Schwartz, “Mapping Paris.”  2001.  Mount Holyoke College.  
November 24, 2007

[4] The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  2000-2007.  November 24, 2007.
[5] Pierre-Louis Mathieu,  The Symbolist Generation  (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1990) 8.
Michael Gibson,  The Symbolists  (New York: Harry Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1988) 11.
H.H. Arnason,  History of Modern Art  (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003) 56.
Arnason, Modern Art, 55.
Koterbay, Lecture
Philippe Jullian,  The Symbolists  (New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 1973) 13.
Mathieu, Symbolist, 22.
Mathieu, Symbolist, 23.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Koterbay, Lecture
Mathieu, Symbolist, 20.

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