Odilon Redon’s Head of Perseus belongs to the best early painted works of heads cuts – flying, hanged, unexpected, in the ether or in water – that are the emblematic key of his oeuvre and can be assigned their places within an entire series of Redon figures. Actually, the present Head of Perseus is one of the very first manifestations of Redon’s use of this powerful element of fantasy. Around 1875, the year in which it was likely painted, Redon considered himself to have found the poetic centre and force of his art. In 1874, the artist’s father passed away and, although painful, this event enlivened the artist’s creative drive. Redon explained: “Originality comes in its own good time, not ours, it produces fruit that has no season; it would even seem that its late arrival ensures its longevity. After much torment and uncertainty, mine appeared around 1875, sometime after the death of my father” (quoted in Douglas Druick and Peter Zegers, “Taking Wing, 1870-1878”, in Odilon Redon 1870-1916, Chicago, 1994, p. 85). From as early as 1875 with Primitive being, to 1881 with Head of Orpheus on Water, to 1885 with the series of lithographs Hommage to Goya, and on to the various version of Les Yeux Clos, Redon’s fame was in part based on precisely such beheaded figures.
The subject harks back to the traditional representation of Saint John the Baptist, who was beheaded at the wish of Salomé. The Greek hero Perseus, however, was not a victim of such a cruel fate. His most celebrated feat was the beheading of Medusa, one of the three Gorgons. In joining the two narratives, Redon appears to transform Perseus’s glorious destiny into that of tragedy – that of the victim of a femme-fatale. Though a merge of two stories taken from Classical mythology and the New Testament, Redon brought together two different iconographies into a new disturbingly provocative and surprising Head of Perseus. Redon placed the beautiful head whose noble profile is battled in cold light, on a ceremonial cup. Perseus appears distracted and absorbed in some remote thoughts, as thought to proclaim the independence of its intellect from the physical encumbrance of his body.
As it is often the case in Redon’s work, there is a total absence of narrative; it is left to the viewer to imagine, to him is left ultimately an important role in the reading of the work. The artist wrote in August 1898 to André Mellerio the following comment on this: “Fantasy is also the messenger of the ‘unconscious’, of the very eminent and mysterious personage […] who arrives in his own time according to the moment, the place, even the season. This should enlighten you and make you understand how difficult it is to answer the ‘why’ and the ‘how’, since in the fatal crucible in which the work of art is wrought, everything is dominated by the precious caprice of that unknown […] nothing in art is achieved by will alone. Everything is done by docilely submitting to the arrival of the ‘unconscious’” (Lettres d’Odilon Redon 1878-1916, Brussels, 1923, pp. 108-09).
Among the first works by Redon, Head of Perseus set a disturbing fusion of the two dominant pictorial traditions of the 19th c. – Classicism and Romanticism. It plays with and subverts both the heroic tradition of Classical painting and the nightmarish fantasy of much 19th c. Romanticism. That fusion set a Symbolist tradition in painting – at the late 19th c. – that sought to undermine the apparent rationality behind these two entrenched tendencies by evoking deliberately irrational imagery that spoke powerfully to the unconscious mind. Paintings such as Head of Perseus were to have a major influence on the later Surrealists.
It is worth mentioning the provenance. Head of Perseus was bought in 1948 in Paris by Jacques Ulmann, by the time a young but very serious collector of Surrealism works. He was praised for his acute aesthetic judgment and exquisite taste. At the end of his life, the collection was not that huge but the quality of works was outstanding, among the best and large Max Ernst, Miro, Tanguy, etc. Redon might then be considered as something apart in the collection, but he has several works by the artist, as he considered Redon in a way a precursor of the Surrealism.