Although he participated in the last Impressionist exhibition, held in Paris in 1886, Odilon Redon was linked more closely with the poets, writers, and painters known as the Symbolists. These artists distinguished themselves from their Realist and Impressionist predecessors by seeking subjects in the realm of the imagination rather than in the physical world. Disillusioned by the materialism he saw in contemporary society, Redon experimented with a range of religious iconography in search of symbols that, as he put it, "still move the hearts of an innumerable part of mankind." The subject of this pastel for example is drawn from a Hindu tale. Sita is the devoted and beautiful wife of King Rama, hero of the Hindu epic The Ramayana and one of the myriad incarnations of the god Vishnu. In a fit of jealousy, Ravana, the lecherous ruler of Lanka, kidnaps Sita. While flying through the air in the course of her abduction, Sita manages to remove her dress and jewels, which she hurls down to earth to provide her husband with clues to her fate.
Sita is one of many noirs, or charcoal drawings, that Redon transformed through the addition of colored pastels. The original charcoal and aged paper are evident now only in the ovoid shape at the upper left, possibly a representation of the cosmic egg of Hiranyagarbha, from which, according to Hindu tradition, the universe was born. Redon wrote the following description of this work in his personal papers: "Her head in profile, surrounded by a golden-green radiance, against a blue sky, stardust falling, a shower of gold, a sort of undersea mountain below." These words—and the image itself—conflate air and water, ascent and descent, natural and artificial light, thus compelling the viewer to abandon objective reality and share in the artist’s mysterious vision.
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