Great Art: Fear by Odilon Redon (Interpretation and Analysis)

Source: Art Institute of Chicago

French painter Odilon Redon was the leader of his own particular artistic revolution. His work was far ahead of its time, so much so that his art would inspire and inform the work of Surrealist painters and other modern art movements years after Redon’s death.

Redon was aligned with the Symbolist movement, which centered on the idea of seeking a higher truth through art. Unlike previous generations of artists who sought truth through realism, Symbolist artists reacted against the increasing industrialization and standardization of the modern world. Instead, they used their own powers of imagination, dreams, and visions to explore the artist’s personal experience of reality.

Redon’s paintings and drawings are wildly creative and inventive, utilizing a unique and easily recognizable visual style. His early work is particularly innovative; as a young artist, Redon created a series of noirs, drawings and lithographs executed in shades of black. These pieces tend to be dark, bizarre, and melancholic with otherworldly or supernatural themes.

Fear is one of Redon’s most famous noirs. The print depicts a desolate and rocky landscape under a bleak, rocky sky. A rider on a white horse gallops across the windswept scene. The rider holds a child in his arms, protecting him from an invisible threat. There is a sense of doom that hovers over the piece; it is fear that propels the figures across the landscape.

There is something supernatural at work in fear. To me, it calls to mind the mythical mare, the demonic incubus that lends its name to the modern word nightmare. However, according to my research, some art historians have linked the image to a particular narrative: Der Erlkönig, a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The poem describes a sick child who believes he’s being attacked by elves who are trying to carry him off. While the child’s father tries to persuade him otherwise, the boy eventually dies, leaving the end of the poem up for interpretation.

Color is crucial to understanding the Fear. Redon worked in shades of black for the majority of his career, although he did turn to creating brightly colored paintings later in life. He described his choice to use black for his noirs (which, of course, means black) in the following words:

“One must respect black, nothing prostitutes it. It does not please the eye and it awakens no sensuality. It is the agent of the mind far more than the most beautiful color to the palette or prism.”

For Redon, the color black was the best and purest way to contain his internal vision to viewers. It captured the subject in its most unadulterated form. And, in the case of Fear, black captures the feeling of impending death and disaster that subsumes the piece.

In my opinion, Fear is a deeply affecting piece. It is genuinely unsettling, creating real feelings of fear and discomfort in the viewer. For that reason, I think it is an authentically frightening piece of art, perfect for the Halloween season.