Odilon Redon, The Buddha, 1906-07
35.43 x 28.74 in.
Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was a French Symbolist artist who worked in painting, printmaking, and drawing. A major tenet of Symbolism was the belief that art should communicate truths that cannot be described literally, and can only be faithfully represented with symbolic imagery or poetry. Redon's work follows this ideal, in that he used his art to explore his own inner self and portray what he felt. His work is filled with bright, airy colors, that represent both his own inner truth and the world's. He often applied his technique to an unrealistic rendering of natural elements (Flower Clouds) or to portraits. Redon also showed in interest in Classical myth; The Cyclops is probably his most famous work, and he created several views of Apollo in his chariot. The Buddha is of course inspired by Redon's interest in Eastern culture. He was very influenced by Japonism, as well as by both Hinduism and Buddhism. This painting is a beautiful depiction of Redon's synthesis of Buddhist ideas. Made with pastels on paper, the piece is simultaneously magnificently simple and stunningly intricate. Redon portrays the Buddha in a natural setting, surrounded by the miraculous forms of plants and earth. The extreme serenity that Redon shows in Buddha's expression is quite moving; his robe is quite noticeably not made of natural colors or shapes, but this actually serves to unite Buddha further with the natural world. The shapes of the different plants are extremely compelling and the intense blue coloration of the sky is remarkable. However, the tree is the most fascinating natural element of the scene, and serves as a visual and thematic balance for the Buddha. The tree trunk is quite well shaped, with the branches curving and twisting around each other. At first the tree looks dead, with only bare branches remaining. However, the mass of yellow at the top of the painting is in fact the tree's foliage; the branches it connects to just stretch out of the frame. At the same time, these leaves and yellow flowers suggest the sun, filling the sky with its light, and they also suggest the light of the Buddha. Redon portrays the tree as the life giving force, perhaps alluding to the Bodhi Tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment. The spiritual unity of this painting is quite powerful and greatly enhances its beauty.