The 9th plate of Odilon Redon’s portfolio Dans Le Rêve takes place in a night sky. A balloon which appears to be a human head carries a smaller creature with wings (with a human-like face) over the skyline of a city or town. Small circles of white are scattered about, giving a feeling of a dark night full of stars. Those circular shapes are echoed by a large black orb which dominates the sky- perhaps night itself depicted as a negative sun or a black moon.
When interrogating the title of this piece- Sad Ascent (Triste Montée)- the viewer puts the question to the piece, what is sad about this ascent? The sadness is most likely found in the head/balloon that is floating. It stares down as it drifts, suggesting a feeling of aimlessness. The viewer is perhaps reminded of the feeling of walking through the streets on a dark evening, head down and lost in thought. There is a suggestion of unhappy inward reflection despite the eponymous ascent. It is not a triumphant ascent, such as one finds in the works of past generations of European painters like Tiepolo (see below, Tiepolo’s Glorification of the Barbaro Family, ca. 1750 A.D.). This is cemented by the tilt of the ascendant head towards the ground with a face bearing little pride or joy.
The theme of night and melancholy is a familiar one in the European graphic arts/printmaking tradition. One of Europe’s most famous works of graphic arts by Albrecht Dürer (an artist Redon’s friend Rodolphe Bresdin owed much to) articulates the theme of night, isolation, and melancholy masterfully (see below, Albrecht Dürer’s Melancolia I, 1514 A.D.). In Melancolia I, Dürer explores the idea that inspiration and the German conception of “Genius”- as Göthe would expand on, the idea that man is a wellspring of creative power, especially when adequately combined with work or effort- can be inherently isolating and agitate the artist/thinker. Particularly, unused or under-employed skills and gifts are a potential source of great distress to the artist as he seeks the ideal marriage of form and notion. Note the discarded tools lying about the subject in Dürer’s piece in disarray.
Once again, Redon repeats the theme of a disembodied head in Sad Ascent. Redon never hesitated to take the focal point of his interrogation out of its larger whole. It is important to recall that Redon was deeply fascinated by Biology, Marine Biology in particular, and accumulated a great deal of knowledge and experience in the subject throughout his life. Though Redon’s theme of removing interesting subjects from their whole- in this case a head from its body, as he does in 7 or arguably 8 of the pieces in Dans Le Rêve– is not solely a reference or related overtly to the practice of dissection, the potential link is worth exploring. In fact, Sad Ascent does contain a reference to the uncanny appeal of Biology and the intrigue of queer, mysterious beings in the strange ball with wings and a face being lifted by the head/balloon.
A head removed from its body is left with little but thought. At this stage of Redon’s creative life, creative thought occasionally tended to carry a melancholic flavor. He remarked upon this later in life in his reflections on what he called his Noirs- graphic, black and white works on paper, such as the Dans Le Rêve portfolio. Though Redon would later embrace the exuberant and ecstatic side of creative inspiration in his works on the themes of The Birth of Venus, The Buddha, Orpheus, The Chariot of Apollo, etc., Sad Ascent deftly explores the fretful and isolating tendency that thoughts in the dead of night can take on. The mind can drift aimlessly beyond its roots (in this piece, perhaps the city below), bringing to life and bearing all sorts of strange and unfamiliar chimera (the curious head staring up at the balloon). That dynamic is where the sadness lies in Redon’s 9th plate of Dans Le Rêve.