Homage to Goya: The Marsh Flower, a Sad Human Head

Odilon Redon, Homage to Goya: The Marsh Flower, a Sad Human Head, 1885, printed by Lemercier & Cie. Lithograph on China paper laid on wove paper; image: 27.5 x 20.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of The Print Club of Cleveland 1927.344.2

Brought up near Bordeaux, the French Symbolist Odilon Redon made many drawings from life in the marshy areas of the adjacent Landes. He became a close friend of the botanist Armand Clavaud, who admired Darwin, and researched Landes algae that ‘exhibited both plant and animal properties’.[1] As such, these appeared to speak of the origins of human existence.[2]Where Clavaud published a meticulous flora of the Gironde region, however, Redon became fascinated by imaginary worlds. ‘My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined’, he wrote. ‘They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined’.[3] Marsh Flower, one of a set of six lithographs he made in homage to the Spanish painter Goya, thus presents perhaps the ultimate ‘ambiguous realm’: a wetland, where river, sea and land merge. If the fantastical, human-faced Marsh Flower growing in this alludes to Clavaud’s interests, the flower’s sad expression surely responds to the frequent association in folklore of marshes and malevolent beings – and through this, perhaps, to Goya’s famous series of works, the Disasters of Waretchings (1810-20). Redon must have identified strongly with the latter, having himself fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, when France had been defeated by Germany, and hence presumably the picture’s title of ‘Homage to Goya’. 

At the same time, the way the Marsh Flower radiates light amid the dark surely celebrates the generative role of bogs and marshy places in myth and legend: the ‘Tellurian swamp’, for example, from which the goddess Hygieia emerged in classical antiquity, or the primeval swamp before it, that the 19th-century antiquarian Johann Jakob Bachofen had called ‘the prototype of all earthly life’.[4] It is as though, even as it weeps, the Marsh Flower presciently shines its light on an environment – a wetland – that can benefit the world today, by helping to mitigate climate change.

The marsh marigold or kingcup, Caltha palustris, which this image perhaps reinvents, is found commonly in wet habitats such as wet meadows, fens, bogs and other wetlands. 

Caltha palustris by tj.blackwell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Clare A.P. Willsdon and Nicki J. Whitehouse

[1] Heather Lemonedes, ‘Bits of Rainbows: Odilon Redon’s Vase of Flowers and the Power of Environment, Cleveland Museum of Art Magazine, 2016, at https://www.clevelandart.org/magazine/cleveland-art-januaryfebruary-2016/bite-rainbows (accessed 7.9.21)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Odilon Redon, A Soi-Même, in Elizabeth Gilmore Holt, From the Classicists to the Impressionists: Art and Architecture in the Nineteenth Century. A Documentary History of Art, New York, 1966, Vol. III, p.495.

[4] J. J. Bachofen, An Essay on Ancient Mortuary Symbolism, 1859, quoted in Stuart McLean, ‘Black Goo: forceful encounters with matter in Europe’s muddy regions’, Cultural Anthropology, 2011, Vol. 26, Issue 4, p. 593.