The mystery of Odilon Redon’s aquatic creatures

Many unique items are stored within the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection, like this little creature:

Menu of a Dinner for French Lithographers, April 1, 1887” by Odilon Redon

Yes, this is an item in the collection. Very quirky. What is this? Some sort of aquatic creature. Looks like a tadpole, with hair. With those eyes, he looks like a cousin of Nimo.

Making it even quirkier is the title, “Menu of a Dinner for French Lithographers“. Someone was going to eat this little creature?

But then you seeOdilon Redon as the artist, and that explains it all. French symbolist painter, precursor to both Dadaism and Surrealism. Yeah, that says he’s strange.

The Art Institute of Chicago has 425 works by Redon, including these artworks with eyes. Maybe these artworks will give some insight into our tadpole friend.

And that Eyes without Heads Were Floating Like Mollusks, plate 13 of 24, 1896

Fishy-looking creatures? Yup.
Weird little eyes? Yup.
Perhaps our tadpole friend is a mollusk? Wikipedia has an entire list of edible molluscs.


Saint Anthony: “Somewhere there must be primordial shapes whose bodies are only images, plate 4 of 6, 1889

I don’t know where this quote is coming from. A google search doesn’t show this quote apart from this print.

Redon is saying that the primordial shapes’ body is only an image? I’m not quite following. Maybe there’s other Redon artwork with funky eyeballs that will shed some light.


Guardian Spirit of the Waters, 1878

Redon certainly like the mystery of the ocean.


Untitled Trial Lithograph, 1900

Woooookay. Here’s a person crawling out of a mollusk. Getting stranger by the moment.


Gnome, plate six from In Dreams, 1879

Sure, let’s put a floating gnome-head above an ocean.


Strange Flower (Little Sister of the Poor), 1880

More floating heads.


The Egg, 1885

No way. Humpty Dumpty! And legit, not a joke. This literally probably is a rendering of Humpty Dumpty. Wikipedia says about Humpty Dumpty:

Humpty Dumpty was popularised in the United States on Broadway by actor George L. Fox in the pantomime musical Humpty Dumpty.[2] The show ran from 1868 to 1869, for a total of 483 performances, becoming the longest-running Broadway show until it was surpassed in 1881 by Hazel Kirke.[3]

This print was made 16 years after Humpty Dumpty hit it big on Broadway.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Fitting that Redon with his mystery symbolism would use Humpty Dumpty. A character who falls, breaks into pieces, and cannot be reassembled. Perhaps like the meaning of Redon’s artwork. Shattered pieces that we try to assemble to find meaning, but ultimately fruitless.

In the meantime, let’s enjoy some googly eyes on things in public.

More pics on my 2003 blog post when I used to put googly eyes on things. What would Odilon Redon have done if he had googly eyes in his time?

I’m sorry, Redon. But I think I like your artwork more with the googly eyes.

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