The Triumph of Light over Darkness
Odilon Redon (1840–1916) was active at the same time as the Impressionists, for whom he felt great sympathy but whom he nonetheless never joined. He preferred to remain within the Symbolist movement, ultimately closer to his conception of life and art. In that regard, this Flight into Egypt, painted in 1903, bears witness to the mysterious and dreamlike quality of his artistic creations. In the foreground, a sun shines in the night. At the heart of this starburst is the Child Jesus enthroned in the arms of Mary, seated on a donkey. With his little outstretched hand, the Source of this stellar light points out the way forward to his father Joseph. And it is this same light that engenders the color clothing the figures. For Redon, color was a primordial, elemental reality—a physical remnant of the earthly paradise. It was, in a manner of speaking, the fossil-like evidence of Creation, when all was “very good.” And now, this light born of Light reanimates and projects color onto the Tree of Life, which will provide the wood of the cross. Upon it leans the dead wood of our felled humanity—it too is already bathed in colors projected by the light. The sap of life will restore all its paradisiacal hue. In the background, even the ramparts of the town of Bethlehem begin to appear from the darkness.
As we contemplate this canvas, we too emerge from the threatening shadows that once gave rise to Herod’s blackness of soul. We understand that we too are promised, as it were, to get our color back. But this Flight into Egypt should not be read only as a mystical work. Redon refused to be labeled a spiritualist painter. He argued that the spirituality of a work of art does not emanate from the artist, but is a fundamental dimension of nature itself. And in nature, as represented by the painter, the spiritual is that part of reality we are unable to perceive. Thus, for the artist, all art consists in representing the visible in such a way as to reveal that invisible dimension within.
Pierre-Marie Dumont
The Flight into Egypt, Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Orsay Museum, Paris, France. © RMN-GP (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.