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perversity (1891), redon

Artist: Odilon Redon

Technique: Etching

Dimensions: 16 x 12.7 cm (image); 32.9 x 25.5 cm (sheet)

Date: 1891

Current Location: The MET Museum, New York, USA

Movements: Symbolism

Theme: Symbolic painting

Subject: Portrait of a person, from the back, twisting her head

towards us.

drawing summary

This work combines the intensity of the colour black to dramatize the subject, an incarnation of perversity and evil, the devil itself, as it is wearing a dark halo. The pitch black background and the structure of the composition point out key points to better understand what the depicted figure really is, and what it represents.

general description

The image shows a person on its back, with an elongated neck, twisting her head towards the viewer. The person with a bear shoulder, appears to have a halo around the head, and is set in a dark black room.

The image depicts not only the personification of perversity, as the title suggests, but also the devil itself. The twisted and wicked expression and pose, and the combination of the unholy element, as is the dark halo, and the sensual pose with a bear shoulder, contributes to the concept.

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 Perversion and Terror: Also indicated in the title, this feeling is mostly conveyed in the twisted head on a freakishly elongated neck, looking directly at us with a wicked expression, in a completely dark room. This almost makes the viewer see himself inside a horror movie, where evil can come to life.

The Black Halo as an Unholy Symbol: Unlike the divine aspect of the halo, a symbol often associated with bliss, the sacred and light (in angels and saints), here, the profanation of this holy symbol is representative of something else entirely. The dark atmosphere and the dark halo connects to the fallen angel, as it is something used to represent the devil itself. The black halo is a symbol of evil.

Personification of Perversity: The representation of the devil as the ultimate embodiment of evil and perversion, is consistent with the portrayal of the figure, with a twisted head, elongated neck, the bear shoulder, and the deceiving expression in the eye and intangible smile. The representation is also connected to the devil’s daughter.

Ambiguity: The human figure in image is very much androginous. This quality, of something that can’t be defined as either feminine or masculine, is very much associated with the ability of evil to transform and disguise itself, becoming what the eye wishes to see.

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 macabre quality of the composition. This colour is often linked to witchcraft, black magic, violence, darkness and, obviously, evil. The black paint opposes to the white paper, reinforcing its negative role, not only in compositional terms, but also in symbolic terms.

The composition centres the subject perfectly and strictly follows the rule of thirds to emphasise the main midpoints – the halo, the eye, the mouth, and the shoulder.

Shape:  The human form and shapes are twisted, elongated and distorted.

Line and Surface: The different textures suggested by the differing line treatment, for example in the halo, where the line seems to be scratched in a web, in the hair, each line is softly employed, and in the dress, the block of lines creates a blurred and soft surface (the same for the background).

Colour: The artist only used black in the composition, the variations of tonality is exclusively given by the line work, which means it’s not diluted. The white in the composition is the paper itself.

Light: The image possesses a strong contrast of light and dark, which helps to dramatise the subject. The profile, the neck and shoulder are well lit, contrasting with the shadows on the hair, halo and dress, against a pitch black room.

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.

Redon’s Noirs: The drawings and lithographs in black of Redon’s creatures (or “black things”), paved the path to surrealism. In this specific case, the subject is apparently a person and not a creature, but represents a perversion of the mind and the total extension of evil (devil), almost like the other creatures were its children, children of the macabre, the twisted and the wicked.

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 Crying Spider
Date: 1881
Medium: Charcoal on paper
Size: 49.5 x 37.5 cm
Location: Private collection, Holland

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: Guardian Spirit of the Waters
Date: 1888
Medium: Charcoal and chalk on paper
Size: 46.6 x 37.6 cm
Location: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 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 Spider
Date: 1903
Medium: Charcoal and black pastel on paper
Size: 49.9 x 35 cm
Location: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, USA