Dark and light: an outlook

Odilon Redon, who was born in 1840, belonged to the same generation as Monet, Renoir, and most of the Impressionists, but his artistic ideals could not have been more different; he felt that Impressionism was only a form of naturalism, and as such failed to attend to the inner experiences that meant so much to him. Redon, whose preoccupations were to be found in the world of the imagination, found little to interest him in the style of the Impressionists, with its insistence on the use of colour as a means of expressing the values of natural light, and in conscious opposition to their extroversion he turned inward, to the poetry of night, and to its representation in ''chiaroscuro,'' the deep contrast of black and white.

From childhood onward, Redon was inclined to contemplative states of dreaminess and anxiety, which semed to hold strange pleasures for him. ''As a child,'' he wrote, ''I sought out the shadows . . . and I remember taking a deep and unusual joy in hiding under the curtains and in the dark corners of the house.''

In this lithograph so similar in tone to his charcoal drawings, Redon has turned his gaze outward. He chose to depict a window, which, like eyes, are a means through which one views things outside oneself, a veil through which objective reality is screened. However, it is not really the windows that have the fundamental attraction, it is the light they admit that draws us to them. It is a truism, but worth repeating, that one has to do little in order to perceive the light; one has merely to allow it free passage, and to ensure that there are no impediments to its progress. The light is free, expansive; it is companionable, instant in its warmth and greeting. What is more enthralling, more thrilling and pure, than to watch the morning sun stretch over the horizon, or to open the curtains in a dark room, and to see the moist leaves of a tree dappled with the sun's rays?

At a glance, that experience would appear to be the essence of this print. The room is dark, as dark as night, and through the delicately proportioned window one sees the slender, strong trunk of a young tree which seems to hasten upward, toward the source of the light. One notices, too, that Redon has positioned the tree almost unnaturally close to the window in order to increase the contrast - and tension - between the velvety stillness of the room and the vertical movement of the tree outside, with its climbing arabesque of soft leaves. There is also, however, a peculiar sense of mystery about the print, an ambiguous unease inherent in the relationship between the darkness and light, as though the light were willfully keeping itself from the room. The tender frustration of the spirit of this print is very much to be expected, for ''Day'' is one of a series of six lithographs called ''Dreams,'' the theme of which is the quest for an elusive sense of hope. Redon, taking steps outside himself, is still bound by caution.

The set of lithographs was dedicated to Armand Clavaud, a botanist and one of Redon's earliest patrons, who was crucial to the artist's development as he led the young man to a close study of the beauties of nature as well as to the literature of Baudelaire, Flaubert, Poe, and Shakespeare. From these wells Redon drew immeasurable inspiration. The artist sent a set of the lithographs to another of his friends and admirers, Mallarme, that great poet and lover of the oblique, the mysterious, and the subtle. On their receipt, Mallarme wrote to Redon: ''You wave the plumage of Dream and Night in our silence. Everything in this album fascinates me, but first and foremost that it is your personal vision , the issues of your Dreams alone.''

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