Art to make you shudder - and smile

French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon's charcoal image of a smiling spider (he also drew a rather maudlin weeping spider) is certainly memorable, but is it terrifying?

Redon was an antirealism artist. He felt much at odds with the Impressionists, for instance, whose art had more to do with the outer than the inner eye. The crepuscular, shadowy realm of the imagination, with its suggestiveness and its summoning up of enigmas, mysteries, and grotesqueries was his beat.

His art concentrates on the world of dreams - but not always nightmarish ones.

Horror in art often teeters on the edge of absurdity. It is a measure of Redon's awareness of this that he made use of the preposterous - rather than falling victim to it.

He turned the absurdity of dreams into a potent irony. His smiling spider's rapacious leer and dramatic, close-up scale contrive to make her simultaneously malevolent and hilarious. We shudder, and we chuckle.

This is not to suggest that Redon was not a perfectly serious artist.

He was rightly compared to Edgar Allan Poe and Goya. But there is a softness at Redon's center that Goya didn't show. It manifests itself sometimes as a kind of sentimentality or slightly religiose sweetness.

He was a mixture.

A reviewer of an exhibition of Redon's dark drawings in 1882, Emile Hennequinn, described the artist's work as "bizarre; it concerns the majestic, the refined, the subtle, the perverse, the angelic...."

Like Leonardo da Vinci, Redon was fascinated by monsters and the monstrous. He was also inspired by the scientific discoveries of his time, by the hitherto unseen weirdnesses revealed under the microscope.

In the catalog for the major, scholarly exhibition of Redon's work in 1994-'95, Douglas Druick and Peter Kort Zegers wrote of the smiling spider: "Placed on the sheet in a manner that recalls the mise en page of natural history illustrations, and sporting two more legs than would be entomologically accurate, ... Redon's 'Smiling Spider' is at once engaging and repellent."

But these authors also talk of this picture of an endearingly petrifying insect-of-the-imagination as having a "spirit of gentle humor."

Personally, I think she is just looking for a good home.

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