In the grand narrative of art history Odilon Redon stands as an influential artist, stylistically grouped with the 19th-century symbolists, and typically judged as a bridge between impressionism and proto-surrealism. But I think it does disservice to Redon to pigeonhole him when he really stands in an esoteric category of his own. This iconic “Eye-Balloon” is emblematic of the fantastical imagery, both whimsical and dark, that defines Redon’s oeuvre. The balloon looks unsettling, like something out of an Edward Gorey or Alfred Kubin illustration, with its tendril-like eyelashes and strings like spider legs supporting a gondola that looks like a saucer with a skull on top (Salome’s platter perhaps?) By now the eyeball monster has become a cliché (want to make a surrealist piece? Easy, just put an eyeball where it normally wouldn’t go, and presto!) but this cyclops-esque creature would have been unprecedented for its time. While this image does seem strange, there’s nothing explicitly macabre about it. In fact it feels just as playful as it does grotesque. For Redon, these highly symbolic images were designed to elicit more than a childlike imagination. They were too allegorical in nature be construed as mere surrealist strategies for tapping into the unconscious. The sky, for instance, represents freedom, and we see the monstrous eye peering upwards into the heavens, away from the barren landscape. Since hot air balloons were all the craze in 19th-century France, we can imagine for Redon, they represented a universal human desire for freedom from the bounds of earth.
“My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined” – Odilon Redon
In 1878, artist Odilon Redon created ‘Eye-Balloon’ with charcoal and chalk on a piece of colored paper. The focus of this fascinating drawing centers on a hot air balloon that is ascending into the sky against a dreary grey background. Depicted on the balloon is the odd image of a bulging eye looking up at its destination, the limitless sky. The numerous long eyelashes on the exterior of the balloon have a touchable texture that adds to the drawing’s weirdness. Puffs of cloud are directed upward, as though in a race against the balloon. The foreground is a harmonic blend of blacks that define the horizon, separating earth and sky.
While Odilon Redon felt that his art works were not meant to be defined, one cannot help but attempt to understand the obvious symbolism that lies within ‘Eye-Balloon’. Was this drawing a reflection of Redon’s wish to discover a sense of the spiritual? Or, is it a simple representation of the artist’s ambition to succeed? Undoubtedly, every viewer perceives the image differently, and conceives a personal interpretation. The essence of the drawing is most prominently dream like, a nonsensical nightmare that slowly spreads itself across the entirety of the paper.
Review on Odilon Redon
In response to Redon’s different and unique approach to art, Michael Gibson states the following in his book entitled “Symbolism”: “Standing outside trends and movements, Odilon Redon, a native of Bordeaux, produced a rich and enigmatic corpus: 'Like music', he declared, 'my drawings transport us to the ambiguous world of the indeterminate.' In contrast with Goya's monsters and Kubin's nightmare visions, his work is imbued with a melancholy passivity. While origins of this disposition must be sought in the artist's experience, the overall effect is entirely consistent with the moods of Symbolism: nocturnal, autumnal, and lunar rather than solar.” – Michael Gibson, “Symbolism”
‘Eye-Balloon’ is located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, USA.