‘Deux Arbres (Two trees)’, 1875:
In this drawing the darkest spot is just in the center of the picture. It absorbs all the attention of the viewer. There is a small path leading towards this black hole. At the beginning it is bright light, slowly fading into the dark black background. Lights spots are accompanying the view along the path as a guidance. Big tree trunks, only the lower half, marked with smooth fine lines following the contour of the tree. There is bright direct light on the right tree – just to contrast the black besides. It seems as one is looking into the sun and everything else automatically is getting dark. To the left more fine details are drawn in mid tone. Along with the big trunks – the left tree seems to invite the viewer to enter the back hole – the darkness is very much in contrast to the fine rendering of the other objects. This all together gives an impression of mystic nearly spiritual atmosphere. Redon is using the charcoal in all it’s aspects to express a deep emotional stillness. The golden colored paper surface suports this vibrating notion even more.
This year I went to the exhibition about Odilon Redon in Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland (see reference), an outstanding show about Redon’s life and work. Here I found impressive and emotional charcoal drawings, Odilon Redon called them the ‘Noirs’ (Blacks).
‘Le Forcat (The Convict)‘ 1881:
What strikes here are the black solid bars that are splitting the person into compartments. This seems quite brutal compared with the fine line drawing of the person (look at the clear outlines of the hand and the foot) as well as for the wooden construction of the cell (in mid tone values). Also here the black attracts the attention of the viewer. You get absorbed by it – and there is just another black hole to the left of the head. The empty look of the convict and the empty space at the lower left side emphasizes the mood of loneliness. But together with a mystic and nearly contemplative atmosphere. The imagination is triggered through the contrasting elements of empty spaces, black areas, fine line marks and the empty view.
‘Christ‘ 1896: Collection Klaus and Erika Hegewisch, Hamburg Kunsthalle
Another drawing that strikes me with such a clarity and simplicity is ‘Christ’. This drawing is even more empty in space. The black again is in the center of the drawing and attracts the attention. In contrast the fine line marks of the face. The black charcoal marks in the middle seem to leak, to fade into the background, the empty space. The light wash of the volatile charcoal marks at the left side supports this feeling. The serene look of Christ is going to the center point of the crown of thorns and the very light outline of the face pushes for the mystic and spiritual atmosphere in this drawing. As in the drawing ‘Le Forcat’ the view goes to the empty golden space. The golden color of the surface in both drawings is supporting the perception of light and enlightment.
Conclusion and reflection
The very dark black as a strong contrast to direct light and highlight values can be used not only for deep cast shadows, but also to create a certain atmosphere, e.g. mystic, spiritual and imaginative. Especially fine line marks in mid tone areas that support the perception of form and three dimensional objects give the dark black area a special meaning. It seems as if there is hidden something, not visible. One key concept of Symbolism is ‘to render the invisible visible’. This kind of leaving and blocking out supports and triggers imagination and spirituality. This let the viewer resting on the pictures, to contemplate the deeper meaning.
But also large spaces in light, only slightly rendered with fine marks or washes add to this atmosphere. This is even more emphasized by the golden tone of the paper surface as O. Redon did, simulating light.
I find that the picture ‘Les Flambeaux noirs (black torches)‘ 1888/89 ( http://www.aml-cfwb.be/catalogues/general/titres/88487) depicts quite well the nature of charcoal. Charcoal is a volatile medium, it can break easily, pulverize.
Here O. Redon is using this to create a special atmosphere. This drawing characterize nicely how medium, expression, toning, and atmosphere work together – enabled by the artist.
All images (besides ‘Two Trees’) in: Bouvier, Raphael (2014) ‘Odilon Redon’, Fondation Beyeler Catalogue of exhibition: 2 Feb – 18 May 2014, Ostfildern: Hatje-Cantz, pp.37, 47, 53