Spooky Art: The Smiling Spider by Odilon Redon (Interpretation and Analysis)
French painter Odilon Redon was a revolutionary artist. Or, perhaps it’s better to say that he 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.
So, what makes his work so revolutionary? 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.
The Smiling Spider is one of Redon’s most famous noirs. As the title suggests, the piece is a lithograph of a grinning spider with a humanoid face. Its ten legs are sprawled across the page, making it seem almost like the spider is dancing. There is a faint suggestion of a floor and wall, giving some sense of three dimensional space; although the spider is the true focus of this piece. The piece is called The Smiling Spider to distinguish it from The Crying Spider, a similar lithograph that depicts a humanoid spider with tears rolling down its face.
While The Smiling Spider is an entertaining and charming piece of art, its precise meaning and interpretation have been a subject of speculation for art historians and critics for many years. All of the noirs are mysterious. This is because their composition and meaning were specific and personal to Redon himself.
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 himself was deeply interested in the world of science and natural history as well as the burgeoning study of psychiatry and dreams. He was particularly fascinated by invisible world revealed by the microscope, a relatively new invention in Redon’s time. In The Smiling Spider, Redon combines his interest in science with the dream world of his own imagination. The result is something that combines the fantastic and the realistic, a key feature of the noirs.
Color is also crucial to understanding The Smiling Spider and the other noirs. 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 passion for the color 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.
The Smiling Spider can be seen as a reflection of all these ideas and themes. The monstrous spider is a combination of scientific reality and fantasy synthesized through the artist’s imagination. The result is an image that is stranger and more expressive than anything produced by one of these factors alone. Also, The Smiling Spider is kind of cute in my opinion.