There’s something of the classroom doodle to the charcoal sketches Odilon Redon called his ‘noirs.’ Weird monsters, spiders, hot air balloons, but check it out man, the balloon is actually an eyeball. These creatures are given no context or background, floating in a dark void or propped against featureless walls. And yet Redon’s surreal visions capture our imagination because each one captures an incredibly relatable emotion.
Redon drew The Crying Spider in 1881 when he was 41 years old. A dedicated but unsung artist for the previous decade, Redon worked in almost exclusively in charcoal, switching occasionally to lithography to reproduce his drawings in albums. His 1879 album Dans le Rêve, In The Dream, had won him minor acclaim but at the time of the Spider he was still largely unknown.
The spider itself is a perfect example of the contrasting feelings Redon’s work invokes—a pendulous, hairy body crouches under eleven spindly legs, each rendered quickly and with little detail. Emerging from the unsettling thorax is a human face. It’s a disquieting juxtaposition that could be used to shock or disgust, but Redon’s sensitive, detailed rendered of the face invites sympathy instead. A broad nose, wide almond eyes looking upward, and a wreath of dark bristle-brush hair. It is not a face contorted with rage or pain, and the single tear on its cheek is one of gentle sadness.
Redon drew monsters, but they are monsters that feel deeply, and while they float most often alone, viewed together they invite us into a surprisingly quiet, sweet-natured dreamworld that’s difficult to leave, and impossible to forget. Redon described this world as his own retreat, saying:
“I have often, as an exercise and as a sustenance, painted before an object down to the smallest accidents of its visual appearance; but the day left me sad and with an unsatiated thirst. The next day I let the other source run, that of imagination, through the recollection of the forms and I was then reassured and appeased.”
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Reed Enger, "The Crying Spider," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 09, 2016; last modified July 07, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/odilon-redon/the-crying-spider/.