It's unusual to see a painting or a print by Odilon Redon within a permanent museum collection, especially one outside of France or New York. So when I encountered “Oannes et le Sphinx” a few years ago, I was really excited. For me, Redon's work has always been a window into the logic of dreams and the mystery of the subconscious. While I love and admire contemporary painting, my heart always returns to Redon and other Symbolists of the mid to late 1800's. (His work is in my personal top 5 artists of all time.) Redon's prints and paintings portray a symbolic world where figures are obscured, oftentimes by a thick cloud of what appears to be atmospheric haze. As if emerging from another world or the dense clouds of a deep sleep, his figures reveal themselves and disappear. They point inward. They refer to the unknowable, that which escapes representation, even when they seemingly illustrate a myth or a poem.
Specifically, “Oannes et le Sphinx” hangs in the museum above a Munch, and I wish it could be hung alone, in a much larger space, where one could get up close to it. It requires you to be near to it. Its size makes you lean in. Its power is not in overwhelming the viewer, but rather in seducing you with inscrutable, strange, somewhat awkward little marvelous creatures. The soft pastel and earth tones are the palette of Redon's visions. In this piece, the Sphinx rises up with butterfly wings, and with a head that reminds me of the visage of John the Baptist, as seen in so many portrayals of the story of Salome. Oannes, the fish/man/god is below, in the low left corner, barely visible. I don't understand this painting completely, and because of that I am rewarded with a lot to ponder. I am fascinated.