La Maison hantée: Redon’s Identity as an Artist-cum-Spiritist Medium in Occult Circles
by Xiaoli Pan
A haunted house, an ancient crime, a rationalist skeptic—British politician and writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s (1803–1873) short story La Maison hantée (The Haunted and the Haunters; Or, The House and the Brain, 1859) is the perfect textual source for Odilon Redon’s lithographic accompaniment printed during a period when the artist was working with occult circles in Paris.1 The artist Odilon Redon (1840–1916) is perhaps best known for his avant-garde Symbolist drawings and lithographs in the late-nineteenth century.2 Because there is no authoritative way to approach Redon, I shall focus on his career from the mid-1880s to 1890s after the artist had achieved recognition on the heels of his mention in French novelist and art critic J. K. Huysmans’s 1884 novel À rebours (Against Nature). This is the period when Redon was pulled into the ambit of the occult and mystical circles in Paris, and his art became noticeably more Spiritist. Spiritism was a Victorian-era movement that believed in reincarnation and communication with the dead via spiritual “mediums.”3 At this point in his career as a professional printmaker, Redon shied away from producing illustrative prints. However, his friend-patron, René Philipon (1869–1936), commissioned Redon to illustrate his translation of the text for French occultist Journal L’Initiation in 1896.4 Illustrating the story, retitled in French as La Maison hantée, enabled Redon to articulate a new position for himself as artist. I shall argue that Redon uses the language of Victorian Spiritism, such as macabre tone, automatic writing, and Spirit photography in his lithographic series La Maison hantée. While working in these occult circles, Redon refashions his identity as artist-cum-medium vis-à-vis the late Bulwer-Lytton’s narrative, the French translation of which the artist illustrates using lithography.5
In this preliminary study of an important phase in Redon’s work, Bulwer-Lytton’s original novella is interpreted at its most basic level as a horror-mystery story. However, Redon’s choice of scenes from the novella shifts the story from a Victorian gothic tale to a Lovecraftian world of horrors with an emphasis on sensations of fear and dread.6 The artist’s illustrations—rather than reflecting the action-filled narrative of La Maison hantée—instead picture scenes focused on sensory fear and unknowable horror, common themes in Spiritism and Decadentism.7 Redon’s lithographs encapsulate Spiritism’s hyper-focus on the sensorium, an interest shared with the Decadent literary movement. Frequently associated with Symbolism, the Decadent movement’s literary bend towards excess and artifice was espoused in works by authors such as nineteenth-century American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe and J. K. Huysman. Artists who ascribed to these cultural movements believed spirits could be discerned through a variety of senses, such as sound, touch, or sight; frozen scenes filled with anticipation or vague horror amplify this effect, such as Redon’s “I Saw a Flash of Light, Large and Pale” (fig. 1). The subtitle of the original English edition of the text, “Or, The House and the Brain,” implies a metaphor of Bulwer-Lytton’s own mind being haunted by his characters. Nearly forty years later, the lithographer playfully continues this metaphor through evoking the British haunting his own creative mind. Here, the artist emphasizes the visual and proprioceptive senses of the ghost narrative, facilitating the viewers’ access to the story as if he were a Spiritist “medium.” His choices override his role as an illustrator commissioned by Parisian occult circles and instead focus on horror and dread. Thus, Redon reifies his place as an artist.
Bulwer-Lytton’s novella begins when a skeptical, rational-minded narrator who does not believe in ghosts spends a night in a haunted house to disprove the idea of spirits. However, he ends up encountering spirits that become more and more insistent in their presence. Eventually, he discovers a cache of secret letters in the attic detailing the murder of a child and its concomitant curse that haunts the house. The final denouement is the uncovering of a secret chamber filled with occult paraphernalia; the narrator destroys the room and exorcizes the house of its spirits. In the lithographic series, La Maison hantée, that accompanies the text, Redon presents a different narrative version through his reordering and visual reframing of the tale, and subsequently asserts his own narrative authority over the text.
Redon’s first print in the book, “Below, I saw the Vaporous Contours of a Human Form,” shows the ghostly contour of a seated woman under a looming vaporous presence (fig. 2). Unlike the novella’s text, the print portfolio opens with a scene that happens near the end of the plot. By introducing the scene in the beginning of the portfolio, the mystery of the plot is disrupted, and Redon’s mediation reveals the spirit’s identity. The textual narrative is restructured so the identity of the woman as murderess is revealed in the first print, in contrast to Bulwer-Lytton’s text where it happens near the end. Redon’s calling forth of the scene at this point becomes a thematic reorientation of the novella whereby the eerie presence of the spirits themselves are the focus, not simply a plot point.
In Redon’s “Hand of Flesh and Blood”, a soft and ghostly hand touching some letters on a table augurs the arrival of the “hideous larvae” (figs. 3 and 4). Ghostly hands were often dematerialized and portent of things to come. In this print, Redon uses the transfer crayon to firmly draw in the outline of the hand and fingers. The figural emphasis and grisaille shadowing of the hands suggest the soft tactility of the hand lifting the papers, which evokes a sense of calm and gentleness; this is utterly transmogrified into a harsh and savage sensation with the following “Larvae” folio. Additionally, while the hand is written about in the novella as a solid “hand of flesh of blood,”—even the caption of Redon’s print reaffirms this—Redon’s depiction of “solid flesh” into transparent ephemera heightens the anxiety triggered by the opaquely-rendered demonic larvae. Chronologically, the apparition of the murderess appears right after the ghostly hands. But Redon skips over the revelation of the murderer’s identity and instead subjects the viewer to the onslaught of demonic forms that happen only after the murderer’s identity is revealed. The choice in pairing the ghostly hands and the demonic larvae is again a re-orientation of the narrative to instead focus on sensations. The ethereal hands succeeded by the terrifying larval results in a mood adjustment from the calm to the frenetic. The larvae come to life through the explosively dynamic marks that constitute their form. By using aggressive lines, layering, and freestyle drawing, Redon draws attention to the larvae as the apex and fruition of the sensation of dread that has been accumulating throughout the folio pages. The hand visually “points” the way forward to the next scene.
It is not through image sequencing alone that Redon claims an identity as a medium and visually communicates the fear and dread of the scene. Within the framework of Spiritism, Redon’s printmaking praxis can also be seen as an ability that comes from within. Unlike the indirect process of drawing onto a lithographic stone, which was then reversed when printed, Redon drew directly on transfer paper, which was printed “as it appears.”9 Like automatic writing in Spiritism, the artist acts as amanuensis for the spirit driving his work, though he is ultimately the one responsible for its coming into being.10 Examples of this are the aggressive sgraffito (scratching) found all over his prints. In “Hand of Flesh and Blood…,” Redon compulsively adds the sgraffito that gives the print a heightened import. The otherwise oppressive darkness of the print is relieved by both bold and fine sgraffito lines which emphasize the unnatural nature of the ghostly hands. This “automatic drawing” leaves the imprint of the maker upon the print. Redon’s erratic sgraffito also delineates the form of a spirit in “I saw a Flash of Light, Large and Pale” (fig. 1). Close examination shows that the amorphous “spirit” is scratched out in all different directions as if it were charcoal scraped from the paper.
This aggressive scratching in Redon’s work also connects the viewer directly to the artist’s working process. Despite his reputation for producing lithographs, Redon was notorious for disliking the lithographic stone. Calling it “cantankerous and peevish,” Redon much preferred the medium of charcoal which he deemed more “direct” and “sincere” than the lithographic stone. When the popularization of transfer paper in the mid-nineteenth century allowed the artist to draw first upon paper before transferring the drawing to the lithography stone, Redon was exceptionally able to connect with the medium of printmaking through expressive mark making. Transfer lithographs were a much more immediate way of graphic expression and captured the texture of the paper in ways that the lithographic stone could not.
One of the most visually evocative sources for La Maison hantée was the incorporation of effects used in Spirit Photography. Spirit Photography was the Victorian practice of capturing purported “spirits” through the fraudulent practice of double exposure photographs.11 For example, Redon uses ghostly transparency reminiscent of Spirit photographs in his “Hand” print. This is in contrast with the text in which the hand is described to be solid as if “it was a hand of flesh and blood.” The dissolution or manifestation of extremities is a common feature in the photographic practices of Spiritism, where either the extremities such as hands and feet dissolve into the background, or their ghostly transparency is emphasized through their contact with something solid.12 Similarly, in Redon’s print, it is against the physical opacity of the letters as a backdrop that the transparency of the hand is revealed. This connects to the Spiritist precept that it is only through contact with the living that the dead can come to life. The ephemeral transparency of ghostly bodies against darker solid bodies was a visual rhetoric Redon adopted to give his spirits agentic life. Redon calls these spirits to life and gives them a platform to be seen in a world where they would otherwise go unnoticed.
Finally, in “Flash of Light,” Redon refers to the indirect presence of a different type of spirit altogether. This is comparable to the photographs of Spiritist photographer John Watt Beattie (1859–1930), who installed a camera to a table, and, through the movement of the table, was able to capture spirit “anomalies.”13 Beattie did not claim to capture spirits themselves, but rather the flashes of light and abstract light forms that he believed indicated the presence of a spirit. Similarly, although Redon’s abstract indication of light is meant to invoke a spirit, it functions similarly to a photographic print as a “witness” to spiritual activity present. Both spirit photography and lithography required a “spiritual medium” or facilitator to bring forth the spirits. Spirit photographers frequently acted out as the medium as if in a séance. Similarly, the lithographic print requires the mediation of the artist (Redon) and his employee, Auguste Clot (1858-1936). The collaborative nature of both men bringing forth the spirits in the series recalls the communal effort of a photographic séance such as Beattie’s. However, the product of Redon and Clot’s séance is delivered through the completely different medium of lithography, making Redon one of few artists to treat lithographic printmaking as spontaneous and a site for the resurrection of spirits.
In analyzing the lithographic series, La Maison hantée, I have discerned the various Spiritist ideas Redon drew from and reconfigured for his purposes. By examining these slivers of Redon’s work, I argue that this was an important period in his professional career when he was making the transition from commercial illustrator to esteemed artist and was developing his interest in themes of the occult. This portfolio would be one of his last lithographic albums before he turned to charcoal and oil as his primary media. In these lithographs for Philipon’s French translation of Bulwer-Lytton’s novella, Redon explored his own identity and capabilities as a creative artist and “medium.”
Xiaoli Pan is a second-year PhD student studying medieval art at Case Western Reserve University. Her major interests are medieval and early modern medical and anatomical imagery, images of disease as representations of bioethics, the aged body, and sculptural bodies in medieval art.
1. Originally Bulwer-Lytton’s story was published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1859. It was then published in book form in Volume X of Tales from Blackwood (1860). René Philipon, who was a French occultist, translated the story for the Occult journal L’Initiation in 1896, and he commissioned Redon to make the series of prints to accompany the translation. Philipon was a patron and close friend of Redon’s, and it is primarily through figures like Philipon that Redon was connected to the Occult circles in Paris at that time. By 1893 Redon had moved away from the Symbolist movement and was taking commissions and displaying his art within the occult circles—usually affluent, aristocratic patrons. The story was again published in 1864 by Routledge where Bulwer-Lytton shortened the ending. Given that the closing plate of the print series ends with the portrait of one of the murderers, Philipon was probably working from the short version of the story. See Mark Knight, “‘The Haunted and the Haunters’: Bulwer Lytton’s Philosophical Ghost Story,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 28, no. 3 (2006): 245–255.
2. Douglas W. Druick, et.al., Odilon Redon, Prince of Dreams: 1840–1916 (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1994), 198.
3. Lynda Nead, The Haunted Gallery: Painting, Photography, Film c. 1900 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 82.
4. Andre Mellerio, Odilon Redon (New York: Da Capo Press, 1968), 118.
5. Even though it was commissioned by members of the Parisian occult, Redon himself was not an occultist. Rather, he moved in these circles because they were part of his patronage circle. Although Philipon’s choice in selecting and translating the text would show how Bulwer-Lytton’s text connects with the Parisian occult, that is outside the scope of this essay. Rather, Redon was working from Philipon’s translation exclusively, and Philipon gave him carte blanche to interpret the text visually. I cannot say that Redon was influenced by occult ideas, except that this was the context and space in which he was working. Redon was instead using the earlier visual vocabulary of spiritism in this print series.
6. The Bulwer-Lytton text and French translation are the same, however for the purposes of this paper I shall refer to Philipon’s translation as the “Bulwer-Lytton text.” A full analysis of Bulwer-Lytton’s text and its placement within the genre of nineteenth-century gothic literature is beyond the scope of this essay.
7. Mark Knight has persuasively cited the complexity of Bulwer-Lytton’s text in his 2006 article “’The Haunted and the Haunters’: Bulwer Lytton’s Philosophical Ghost Story,” especially in dealing with themes of materialism versus idealism, mesmerism, and the relationship between the supernatural and science that were prevalent during the Victorian period. While Redon would have been aware of these readings, a letter to his friend Andre Bonger during the time he was making the print series indicates that Redon was more concerned with the feelings of vague horror the novel imparted, writing; “Like you, the Haunted House gave me the shivers. I wonder if such an effect, so direct, so sustained, so intense, does not exceed the limits and boundary of purely literary art? Perhaps [Philipon] overestimated my art when he asked me to try and do something with this text-can I capture the nature, even by analogy, of this [type of] terror?” Ted Gott, The Enchanted Stone: The Graphic Worlds of Odilon Redon (Melbourne, Victoria: National Gallery of Victoria, 1990), 18.
8. Martyn Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography (London: The British Library, 2006), 30. Jodi Hauptman, Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005), 23.
9. Gott, The Enchanted Stone, 130.
10. John Harvey, Photography and Spirit (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), 107.
11. Tom Gunning, “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theater, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny” in Cinematic Ghosts: Haunting and Spectrality from Silent Cinema to the Digital Era (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 17–38.
12. An example would be William Mumler’s famous photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the hands of Abraham Lincoln on her shoulders.
13. Chéroux Clément, et.al., The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 32.