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guardian spirit of the waters (1878), redon

Artist: Odilon Redon

Technique: Charcoal and chalk on paper (Various charcoals, with

touches of black chalk, stumping, erasing, incising, and subtractive

sponge work, heightened with traces of white chalk, on cream wove

paper altered to a golden tone)

Dimensions: 46.6 × 37.6 cm

Date: 1878

Location of creation:

Current Location: Art Institute of Chicago, USA

Movements: Symbolism

Theme: Symbolic painting

Subject: Enormous head in the sky looking over a small sailing boat

on the sea.

drawing summary

This simple and clean composition of soft smudges and scratchy lines, depicts some kind of deity, a large winged head, involved in a soft halo, gazing upon a small vessel, gently sailing over the calm and dense sea.

general description

Drawing shows a giant floating winged head, at the left, above the ocean, where a sailing boat navigates on the right encircled by birds.

As the title suggests, the image depicts the guardian spirit of waters, encircled by a hinted aura or halo shape, watching over the small boat that sails away in the sea.

Belonging to a series of drawings and lithographs pursuing the wicked, twisted and evil corners of the mind, often inspired in fantasies, dreams, psychiatry and the evolutionary theories of Darwin, these symbolic works were the precursors of the Surrealist movement.

This was not a commissioned work, it is a personal artistic pursuit of matters of the mind.

content analysis

Emotion of Surreal: It makes the viewer question what he is seeing. Is it a dream? Is it a hallucination? Why did the artist portray this subject like this.

Gentle Feeling: The calmness of the sea combined with the expressive bugged eyed gentle giant, communicates a tender feeling of something harmless.

Guardian Spirit: This floating being can be considered as holy, by the faint halo that conveys its divine aura. Despite the giant and crude looking head, the tiny wings that support it, barely, contribute to the divinity of this creature.

Water: A symbol of purity, fertility and life, it also bears in itself the motion and power of cleansing transformation, adding to the artist’s desire of an alternative birth.

Sailing boat: Symbolic of security and refuge, it is linked to the journey of life and to the spiritual realm as the means of transportation through it.

Seagulls (water birds): These birds are often associated with change. They are symbolic of  communication, community/family and freedom. This might translate the desire of Redon to break himself from the boxes of artistic movements (which he did not assert to be part of) and to communicate his own unique artistic vision.

The Colour Black: The artist takes advantage of this sterile colour of power and authority, a colour that demands respect, according to his words, to intensify the fantastical aspect of the composition.

Personal Desire: The artist was born in Bordeaux, following a trip of his parents from America. Redon wished he was born at sea, as it would better explain the origin of his artistic sensibility. This composition may represent an alternative birth, in a no-man’s land, symbolizing the birth of his artistic vision and sensibility.

The composition is structured following the simple rule of thirds, where features like the eye socket is aligned with the the corner of the mouth (following the vertical line at the left), and the sea is set at the same distance from the bottom edge as the the line of the hair is from the upper edge. The composition is also balanced by the big head above, slightly to the left, and the sea below with the boat at the right.

Shape: Emphasised circular motions, in the head, the hair, the eyes, the nose and the halo.

Line and Surface: The different textures suggested by the differing line treatment, for example in the eyelashes each line is distinctively employed, and in the hair and wings, where the lines are scratched in a crisscross pattern. Here the line is mostly used to define the particular elements of the composition, smudging and blurring most of the shades (primarily in the sea and in the beard).

Colour: The artist only used black in the composition, the variations of tonality is exclusively given by the quantity of the material that is left on the paper. The lightest value in the composition is the paper itself, while the darkest show a higher presence of charcoal.

Rhythm: The composition becomes dynamic through the repetitive circular motions that echo through the composition, specifically around the head. The crisscross pattern in the hair and the succession of horizontal lines in the water, also convey a rhythmic quality to the image.

Light: The image possesses a strong contrast of light and dark, which helps to dramatise the subject, and most of the composition is very light, for the exception of the sea below.

Drawing and Lithography: Redon worked closely with charcoal drawings and lithographs in black, for the speed of the process, capturing the artist’s vision in a quicker manner, and for its reproducibility into lithograph versions, which retain the same sketchiness and immediacy of the charcoal drawings.

Imagination: Redon relied on his imagination and searched for inspiration in his dreams. This source of inspiration proved to be crucial in his creative process, giving life to his own creatures.

Use of the Colour Black: The artist chose to work only with black in these compositions. For Redon, the black was the only colour that imposed respect, and devoid of any sensual qualities, as he wanted his bizarre creatures to be just that, devoid of any additional content.

Creation of Hybrid Monsters: The artist combined the natural with the fantastical in order to explore his imagination (fantasies and dreams). These bizarre looking hybrids of humans and either animals or plants, were a result of scientific observations in the Paris Natural History Museum, of the artist’s fascination for the microscopic world of living things, of reflections on the theory of evolution of Darwin, and of Redon’s prolific imagination.

Redon’s noirs: The drawings and lithographs in black of Redon’s creatures (or “black things”), paved the path to surrealism. The wicked and twisted monsters, like this smiling spider, are the children of evil and the macabre.

Precursor of Surrealism: These symbolic works that merged the natural and the fantastic, resulting in bizarre ‘monsters’, paved the grounds for Surrealists, as they often quoted his works in some way.

related works

Artist: Odilon Redon
Title: The Spider
Date: 1903
Medium: Charcoal and black pastel on paper
Size: 49.9 x 35 cm
Location: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, USA

Artist: Odilon Redon
Title: Perversity
Date: 1891
Medium: Etching
Size: 16 x 12.7 cm (composition); 32.9 x 25.5 cm (sheet)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

Artist: Odilon Redon
Title: The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon Moves Towards Infinity
Date: 1878
Medium: Charcoal and chalk on coloured paper
Size: 42.2 x 33.3 cm
Location: MoMA, New York, USA

Artist: Odilon Redon
Title: The Smiling Spider
Date: 1887
Medium: Lithograph
Size: 27.9 x 24.1 cm (composition)
Location: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA

Artist: Odilon Redon
Title: The Crying Spider
Date: 1881
Medium: Charcoal on paper
Size: 49.5 x 37.5 cm
Location: Private collection, Holland