Since his mysterious and premature death Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) has been a figure of legend, portrayed by many as a tormented romantic, as a result the real Poe has arguably been lost in his own celebrity. Best known for his dark gothic short stories and hauntingly lyrical poems, like ‘the Raven’ Poe is regarded by many as the inventor of the detective story and a major inspiration for the science fiction genre. With his vividly imaginative and disturbingly bloody tales it is inevitable that this visionary writer would attract artists wishing to push boundaries.
One such artist was the unique painter, lithographer and illustrator Odilon Redon (1814-1916) Redon painted a variety of subjects, some of which were traditional in nature, such as still life’s, portraits and paintings of Greek mythology. Despite this, his work was often unconventional and exploded with colour, executed with a quick expressive handling of the brush, due to this his paintings were often saturated with a dream like atmosphere that vastly contrasted with the impressionists and their devotion to light and realism. One wonderful example of this is his painting Chariot of Apollo (Figure. 1) here we can see the sun God Apollo glowing with intense light as he rides on his chariot across a brilliant blue sky. Unlike many typical depictions of Greco Roman mythology, seen in the works of Old Masters, Apollo is in not a heroic and relatable human figure, but is symbolically represented as a fiery ball of light.
In addition to Redon’s joyously expressive and bright paintings he was also a skilled lithographer who at some moments in his career harnessed this ability to create dark images which evoked monstrous creatures and reflections of his own inner fantasies and psyche. This is best represented through his early series Noirs where we can see his evident fascination with the scientific world and his own exploration of the psychiatry of dreams. The Crying Spider (figure. 2) is an unsettling and nightmarishly pitiful creation, which perhaps best summarises the depth and originality of his work.
Many parallels can be drawn between Poe and Redon, particularly in terms of the tone of their work, and how innovative they were in their fields. For example like Poe, Redon also influenced generations of artists after him, and particularly left an impression on the Symbolist movement and the Nabis who were drawn to the bright colours of his later career. It is the darkness of his lithographs however which made him so perfectly qualified to illustrate Poe’s stories.
The titles of this series are all invented by Redon but in the style of Poe, as well as this each illustration does not illustrate a particular scene from a story but aims to capture the mood of the text in one all-encompassing image.
The most iconic lithograph in this series is The Eye like a Strange Balloon mounts towards Infinity (figure. 3) which depicts the unsettling image of a giant eye floating in a bleak landscape, it’s cargo, a conscious severed head. Imagine witnessing this image in a time when the public and members of the art world were accustomed to the work of Monet and Renoir? Instead of gazing upon lush landscapes or scenes of merry young ladies dancing we are challenged with a provocative picture that stirs up emotion and unease in the viewer.
Edgar Allan Poe and the visual interpretation of his work by Odilon Redon found popularity at a very specific period in French History. Arguably they would remain in obscurity if they had appeared at any other period.
Fin de Siecle is a saying which refers to the end of the nineteenth century and is often used in association with Parisian society during the later decades of the 1800s. There was a mood of unrest and a desire for change and progress, and to break away from the decadent romanticism of the early century. Poe became a hero of this pessimistic movement particularly following Baudelaire’s translation of this stories in 1865. The art world also saw a rise in symbolism and a more personal imaginative response to art, as the concept of ‘art for arts sake’ became a more prevalent idea.
In conclusion these wonderfully strange illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories represent a specific period in French History, and capture the dark mood of the latter part of the nineteenth century. In addition to this we can see the innovation which sprung from this time and the radical break from realism and traditional depictions of mythology and narrative, portraying something provocative and fantastical.