I recently visited the Prints and Drawings department of Indiana University’s Eskenazi Museum of Art to examine works on paper by some of the luminaries of Symbolist art: James Ensor, Paul Gauguin, Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, Odilon Redon. Symbolist art emerged in Paris during the 1880s with the objective of ‘expressing the inexpressible’ – thoughts, feelings, dreams – intangible things, things they thought the Impressionists ignored. I saw some pretty fantastic, even frightening, images – a desperate hand plunging through a plate glass window in an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve a glove stolen by a thieving pterodactyl, a red haired femme fatale whose unblinking green-eyes suggest demonic possession, a spooky forest where sprites and demons menace.
A desire to communicate an entirely new range of possibilities that extended beyond the five senses motivated Symbolist artists to experiment. They sought to convey psycho-emotional-spiritual truths with materials that up to that point had mainly been used to describe the tangible world, including worlds – heaven and hell – in whose existence people believed but hadn’t yet experienced.
Printmaking offered artists infinite options beyond the limitations of oil and canvas. One could draw, carve, or scratch, on metal, stone, or wood, and new types of paper and printing technologies offered a profusion of expressive possibilities.
Redon’s whisper-delicate portrait of Beatrice, was the most reticent, introspective, and arresting of the prints I examined. He suggested without describing, shifting the responsibility of imbuing the image with meaning to the viewer. The Symbolists were the first to share with viewers the interpretation of their images. They recognized that no two human lives are identical and that the way individuals understand the world is the complex product of lived lives, the aggregate of past experiences viewed from the perspectives of unique individuals.
Beatrice, an ordinary girl who lived an ordinary if short life (she died at 25) in thirteenth-century Florence, appears as mysterious as she has always been. Dante Alighieri, the poet who immortalized her and the first to write in his native Italian (rather than Latin), described his infatuation with this neighbor girl he met twice in his autobiography, La Vita Nuova (The New Life). Since then, and especially in the nineteenth century, artists and writers have been infatuated by Dante’s infatuation.
How to capture that profound feeling of pure and unrequited love of someone we do not know? Redon’s title is important, essential really, because it guides the viewer’s thoughts. What Redon avoided specifying visually by omitting a telling setting or costumes, he indicated textually. What is most astonishing, even revolutionary, about this image is that Redon created it without drawing a single line. Drawing is the foundation of art making. It is the first thing one learns. It strengthens one’s connection with the material world, a goal contrary to Redon’s intention. By creating Beatrice only with a series of pale washes, Redon suggests but doesn’t dictate. This is a kind of spiritual portrait, an image of her soul, perhaps. She appears featureless, bald, apparently, with a hint of a laurel wreath on her head, a phantom.
But it’s the intrusion of blue leaves at upper right that animates the otherwise listless image. They seem an afterthought but serve an essential function. They point towards her, her face, in the direction of bowed head. They intensify the colors of the vaporous fields of pink, yellow, and grey. Divinity is in the details at least as often as the devil.
As is so often the case, it’s the spontaneous impulse that suggests itself as almost an afterthought that winds up being the most important. I applied that lesson almost immediately. After I left, I passed a row of students, heads bowed toward their laptops. One glanced up as I walked by. She wore a beautiful fisherman knit sweater, a kind of sweater I hadn’t seen in years. I paused.
“That’s a beautiful sweater,” I complimented.
“Thank you,” she replied, as a smile that evidenced both pride and happiness formed. “My nana knit it.”
“You have a talented nana!” I said, and I could almost feel the vibrations of pleasure emanating from her as I continued on my way.
Small gestures, thoughtful gestures, are often the most meaningful ones.