Odilon Redon is known as a prolific and influential artist in the Symbolist movement in visual arts that arose in opposition to the Realists and the Impressionists of the Fin De Siecle (Turn of the 20th Century). He is rarely discussed remote from broader Symbolist tendencies- all texts that I have encountered on Redon have given mention of his involvement in the movement. Perhaps this is due to his virtuosity and skill, which few have questioned, that lends implied validity to the broader movement. It is also likely that Redon managed to pull together many of the disparate threads of the movement into one body of work which was compelled by a continuity of spirit and approach, which is not true of all of the Symbolists.
It is no simple task to define “Symbolism” as it represented such a breadth of technique, approach, and purpose that the idiosyncrasies of the participating artists often seem dissimilar to those who seek to demarcate the movement. Some of the Symbolists employed relentless comedy and jest, such as the Belgian artists James Ensor and Felicien Rops. Others were known for their intense sincerity that occasionally invited criticism as “self-indulgent” and “naïve,” like Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Jean Delville. Redon’s contribution to and place in the world of art centers around his response via illustration to a given “symbol” or “idea,” and this could be said of the broader body of works that could be called “Symbolist.”
Over the span of Redon’s career, he addressed many such symbols and a few of them he revisited many times. There are many renderings of The Birth of Venus, The Sphinx, Silence, Roger and Angelica, etc. This commends the implied breadth of possible meanings to any one of these symbolic images, and tells us something of the Symbolist impulse itself. He became known for his illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe, his vibrantly colorful depictions of allegories and mythology, his invention of new metaphors and allegories, his portraits, and even a number of still life paintings executed in pastel. Though his repertoire was intensely varied and broad, one thing that characterizes Redon’s work is the play between subtlety and observational rendering versus bold, purposeful abstraction which conveys meaning and interpretation of the theme at hand. An example that demonstrates this quality is the various images of Apollo with his chariot: the horses often display a convincing structure of musculature, shading, and hue while surrounded by wide ranges of expression in color and form of clouds, insects, landscapes, and even Apollo himself that many have described as “fanciful,” “visionary,” and “lyrical.” In any case, all of the elements present in Redon’s works are symbolic.
In L’homme Primitif (Le Chasseur), that is Primitive Man (The Hunter), Redon reaches beyond the realm of civilization that often preoccupies him. Subjects of Redon are often placed on a continuum of relationship to civilization, whether that be creative of civilization (images of the Virgin Mary, Apollo, Venus, etc.), naïve of civilization (depictions of fallen angels, Satan, the cyclops Polyphemus), or seeking to withdraw from it (Closed Eyes, The Young Buddha, and a number of Centaur images might be interpreted as such). Man is shown here as naked of the garb of wisdom as seen in his renderings of St. Sebastian, The Crown, Beatrix, etc., where the robes of civilization are connected with the elegancies of the mind (piety, genius, lyricism, inspiration, etc.). In particular, those compositions such as The Crown that feature Greco Roman style of dress evoke a majesty of thought and character.
Redon’s Primitive Man walks upright with his head held straight. This contrasts the bow of the head- slight or pronounced- seen in such works as Teresa de Avila, Parsifal, St. John, to name a few of a great many, where the downward tilt of the head is associated with lyrical pensiveness and introspection. The reflection that is often the true subject of many of Redon’s images is not the purpose of Primitive Man.
The composition of Primitive Man is striking for the intense contrast of man- utterly black from head to toe and displaying scant contrast besides his definition against negative space- versus the florid environment he navigates. The faces of the rocks he passes are illuminated by light and shadowed in lilac, the sky is bright yellow transitioning to a surprising shade of light aqua-green. This suggests that our subject (man) is uniquely unified and monolithic. He is compelled forward, fully integrated by a singularness that could be interpreted as will. Man’s will to survive by the humble and uncertain means of the hunt gives him harmony of purpose, as dark as that may cast him against his surroundings.
As sparse as the composition is, the inclusion of an arrow at the heels of the man is significant. It underscores the parenthetical title of the piece- The Hunter. The subject is not merely a man at liberty. He has a reason to be where he is and a task to complete. He walks past the arrow, suggesting he has perhaps hit his mark and is approaching his wounded prey out of the frame of the image. Maybe he has a great distance to cover and is preoccupied by his trajectory. For some reason he has not stopped to pick up his instrument, and this suggests once again that it is the meeting of will and purpose that is really being examined in this composition.
To conclude that this image of Redon’s later oeuvre is a step outside of his typical modes would be fair. Some of the elements of compositions of spiritual paragons such as Percival (the famous Grail Knight), Christ, and the Buddha are present in this image- namely, the emotive quality of a saturated sky and the illustration of rocks and hills with whites and purples- but their subtleties and nuances are not. The rawness and air of confrontation is unique to Primitive Man. Perhaps this composition is unfinished, merely a study, as some critics have suggested. This shouldn’t detract from the provocative symbolism of this piece even if it is true: Redon explores the starkness of man put to a purpose against the abundance of life and color that surrounds him with such a direct and bold hand, this piece will always be remarkable.