In this pastel, Redon uses a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes to create an otherworldly aura which steeps the work in symbolic meaning. Like his contemporary Paul Gauguin, Redon imbued his works with a spiritual quality, declaring: “He who believes that the aim of art is to reproduce nature will paint nothing lasting: for nature is alive, but she has no intelligence. In a work of art, thought must complement and replace life; otherwise you will only see a physical work that has no soul” (quoted in Richard Hobbs, Odilon Redon, London, 1977, p. 152).
The figure itself verges on androgyny, resisting common assumptions made with depictions of fertility. As explained by Redon scholar Dario Gamboni, this work is “without clearly determinable gender, yet tending toward the female, with regular but hard features, framed by a veil or hair and a collar, slightly inclined and with eyes either closed or gazing downward, it resists identification but conveys at the same time the impression of a superior spiritual being that is sufficient unto itself and may even feel sympathy for normal humanity. Since the appearance in 1886 of Light Profile, a lithograph based on a charcoal drawing entitled The Fairy and executed four years earlier, Redon’s fame was based in part on precisely such figures” (Dario Gamboni in As in a Dream, Odilon Redon (exhibition catalogue), Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2007, pp. 126-27). The archway, in this case created by interlacing branches, symbolizes threshold between the terrestrial and the celestial.
Redon proved to be an inspiration for many younger artists, including the Nabis group, Henri Matisse and even Marcel Duchamp. Richard Hobbs discusses the interest in Redon shown by the Nabis: “What the Nabis actually so admired in Redon was not only the technical quality of his works but also his ability to suggest the mysterious and the spiritual. Pierre Bonnard later summed this up succinctly: 'What strikes me most in his work is the coming together of two almost opposite qualities: very pure plastic substance and very mysterious expression. Our whole generation is under his charm and benefits from his advice'" (Richard Hobbs, ibid., p. 84). After his revolutionary showing of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 at the 1913 Armory Show (where 38 of Redon’s works were also exhibited), Marcel Duchamp was asked whether his art or that of his contemporaries was derived from the legacy of Cézanne. He replied, "I am sure that most of my friends would say so and I know that [Cézanne] is a great man. Nevertheless, if I am to tell what my own point of departure has been, I should say that it was the art of Odilon Redon” (quoted in John Rewald, “Odilon Redon,” in Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Modern Art, New York & Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1961-62, p. 44).
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