Art Thoughts, Week 42 -- Redon & Color

St. George and the Dragon, Odilon Redon (French, 1840—1916), date unknown, oil on paperboard, BF2093.

Color has the potential to be revolutionary. Because of its central role in much artwork, that is where it’s stereotypically ascribed the most power, but it is also evident in logos, flags; etcetera. On flags, for instance, color becomes emblematic and symbolic, standing in for wide national sentiments, emotions; even monuments: think of Moscow’s Red Square; the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. Odilon Redon realized color’s power. Being associated with the Symbolists, his subject matter is the most obviously symbolical tool. But Redon just as effectively used color, and it becomes significantly more universal in its influence than pure symbols. In fact, it greatly augments the subject matter. In St. George and the Dragon, Redon has utilized a strongly assertive palette of brash primaries – red; yellow; blue – to portray an apocalyptic version of the Christian myth of St. George slaying a dragon. But this is not just any depiction; this is a revolutionary one, and is so not only for the manner of its portrayal, but certainly also because of its colors.

Primary colors are named that because they are the three colors which firstly, cannot be reduced any further; and secondly, are the colors which are the source of all other colors (as in primal). They are therefore basic, bold and assertive. They are hard to ignore, and even harder to deny. And with a basic coloring often comes base emotion. This can consist of childhood in its raw essence on the one hand, and nationalism and militant rallying on the other – both call back the basic universality of human nature. Our tendency, moreover, is to romanticize each pole of our nature, but each has its dark side as well. And primary coloring pulls no reality punches. It sarcastically accentuates our baser tendencies that we’d often like to forget. Muted pastels; earth tones; neutrals: these are nuanced and subtle in their emoting: primaries, however, are uncompromising and may be irascible or bellicose.

The subject matter painted in these primaries, of St. George and the Dragon, is also basic and bellicose. St. George is spearing a dragon, the symbol of ancient evil and anti-humanity, and is struggling utterly alone on this beach, where a brutal day is blazing out in sunset. One is reminded, casting forward to the cultural future, of Camus’ Meursault on the hot sand in The Stranger, uncontrollably shooting an Arab, and of Charlton Heston’s George Taylor in Planet of the Apes, wandering desperately upon a beached and buried Statue of Liberty, and then wailing in the realization of despair and loneliness. Both scenes are full of the ennui and hopelessness particular to naturalistic and nihilistic thought, and the drastic measures we occasionally must gather to deal with these assumed realities. And so it is with the Redon painting: though he is utterly alone – and we may of course question the purposefulness of the action – St. George nonetheless kills the dragon. But what is the meaning of this intense struggle? What lies after this action, if it is successful? Will it be the “realistic” resignation of Meursault, or the despondent fatalism of Heston? We do not receive an answer; we only bask in this incendiary tableau; this present reality painted in bold, unforgiving color; sarcastic nearly to the point of being meaningless. This painting is a question; not an answer. In this case, we may find some solace in this: the current absence of answers at least allows for their theoretical existence.

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