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The Buddha
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Odilon Redon depicts the Buddha meditating in a mystical landscape, becoming one with nature.

In the Buddhist belief system, time is cyclical. The state of the world continues to get worse and worse until the teachings of the Buddha of that cycle fade out completely. Then, the cycle renews and the Buddha returns to teach the ways of Buddhism. The Kaliyuga is the worst time, the bottom of the cycle, before the new Buddha emerges. Maybe the year 2020 is our Kaliyuga . . . Hopefully we will begin a new cycle soon. The most recent Buddha, born under the name Siddhartha, was said to have achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. This is how Redon depicts him, seated peacefully in the lotus position. Maybe if you stare at the painting long enough, you can reach enlightenment, too. The artist’s enthusiasm for the fantastic and mystical realms reveal his pantheistic interests. In another painting, Redon depicts the Buddha side by side with Jesus, pointing towards his religious syncretism. You can bet that if Redon had a car, he would have a “coexist” bumper sticker.

Redon aimed to make art part of everyday life, rather than something to be viewed exclusively in a formal environment like an art gallery or museum. The Buddha was intended to be integrated into an interior space, countersunk into a wall. The matte painting gives it a quality reminiscent of the frescoes of the Renaissance which were often used as decorative elements in cathedrals. Many Medieval and Renaissance depictions of Christ are gilded (covered with gold leaf), and Redon surrounds the Buddha with golden light that radiates from his body, erupting the landscape with abstracted vegetation, which draws a similarity between the two religious figures. However, since the painting was created for a casual space rather than a cathedral, Redon ties the spiritual world with the physical.  

The Symbolist movement explored the depth of knowledge beyond the material world. While at first Redon focused primarily on Western traditions, he became interested in eastern spirituality. One of the first European artists to depict the Buddha, his first depiction of the Buddha shows him as a dark spirit, surrounded by shadows. Redon began to depict him frequently, later characterizing the Buddha as a peaceful presence. Instead of pursuing realism or impressionism like his contemporaries, Redon chose to expand his practice into the spiritual realm. The golden background and mystical garden give the painting a dreamlike quality, drawing the viewer into the spirit realm to witness the moment of Buddha reaching enlightenment.

Sources

Sources

  1. Badiner, Allan Hunt, and Alex Grey. Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics. Santa Fe, NM: Synergetic Press, 2015.
  2. Brown, Robert L. “Sanchi Buddhism.” Art of India and Southeast Asia. Lecture. University of California, Los Angeles, 2017.
  3. Montgomery, Harper, and Sarah Suzuki. “Odilon Redon. Intelligence Was Mine! I Became the Buddha (L'Intelligence Fût à Moi! Je Devins Le Buddha) from The Temptation of Saint Anthony (La Tentation De Saint-Antoine). 1896: MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art, n.
  4. Mooney, Jane Roberts. "Capturing the Urphaenomen: Odilon Redon, Goethe, and the Morphology of the Symbol." Order No. 3156183, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2004. https://search.proquest.com/docview/305169058?accountid=14512.
  5. “The Buddha Odilon Redon, 1904.” Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0465N1996.
  6. Yoder, Abigail Eileen. “Decoration and Symbolism in the Late Works of Odilon Redon.” Iowa Research Online. Dissertation, University of Iowa, 2013. https://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6779&context=etd.