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L’infiniment Petit and Monstrous Social Anxieties: Envisioning Disease in Fin de Siècle Culture Through the Eyes of Odilon Redon

Written by Elena Lin
Edited by Catherine LaMendola

i. Introduction

Post-war trauma, social instability, epidemic diseases, and scientific discourses characterized the end of the nineteenth century in France; an era fraught with social unrest. A preoccupation with infectious disease and physiognomic pathology in the literary and visual arts reflected the social anxieties of the time. As Edgar Allan Poe writes:

“No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal – the redness and the horror of blood… The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.”[1]

Figure 1. Young Venetian Woman, Aged 23, Depicted Before and After Contracting Cholera. Artist unknown. c. 1831. Coloured stipple engraving. Dimensions unidentified. Wellcome Library Collection, London, England.

For authors, national and international alike, the visceral details of blood and bodily decline resulting from disease are deeply entwined in the motif of social exclusion. The description reflects an inability to discern and address the true cause of ailment, and powerlessness over the instantaneous onset of death serves as a further source of trepidation. With the emergence of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease in 1857, social understandings of the contagion began to shift – and with the shift came a different mode of visualizing pathogens. Using cholera as a case study, this essay will first explore the manner by which epidemic-associated social anxieties drove the desire to conflate disease with the body, morality, and the inorganic circumstances of an urbanizing society in pre-Pasteurian visual culture. I will then consider the works of Odilon Redon, a French artist who antithesized this phenomenon through his differing choice of media, inclusion of humanized features, and embrace of ambiguity. Through his noirs, Redon ultimately isolated the pathogenic agent from its misconceived social causes, and consequently engendered social anxiety that was external to an individual’s being.

Figure 2. Cholera in Paris.François-Nicolas Chifflart. 1865. Etching with drypoint on laid paper. 22.7 × 31.3 cm (image); 23.9 × 31.9 cm (sheet). National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA.

ii. Cholera and Pre-Pasteurian Europe
Cholera, with the etymology of the Greek term cholē or “bile” and cholēdra or “gutter,” was historically understood as an imbalance in body humours that brought about the vulgar expulsion of fluids.[2] Images such as Young Venetian Woman, Aged 23, Depicted Before and After Contracting Cholera (fig. 1) exemplify the pre-Pasteurian understanding of the “choleric” physiognomy. In the French sociocultural context, the notable physician Philippe Hecquet had purportedly popularized the idea of the “moral/mental contagion” in 1733.[3] The term disquietingly premised that human character as well as mental illness could be transmitted through physical contact.[4] Along with the theory of the miasma – which identified noxious air as the etiological cause of infections – the concepts of morality and disease were conflated as one. Moral and mental decline were read through physical pathology, and reciprocally, physical pathology was read as moral and mental decline as a result of the shared infectious properties. Thereby, in Young Venetian Woman, the woman’s pristinely white countenance pre-infection not only indicated good health but also signified moral purity.[5] Accordingly, the blue-grey lustre of the sunken, ghoulish face post-infection not only represented the medical conditions of hypoxemia and dehydration; it was also an indication of moral impropriety. The deranged strands of hair that frame the face further augment the embodiment of deterioration in an individual’s appearance. Contemporaneous descriptors of cholera indeed drew upon visualizations of such confronting, psychotic characteristics: “The physiognomy of the cholera patient is very striking… The upper lip is drawn up exposing the upper teeth… The eyelids are neither quite closed nor quite open…”[6] In light of these nineteenth-century sociocultural praxis, disease was fundamentally inseparable from the diseased, and the physiognomies of the victims personified social anxieties of the time.

Figure 3. A London Board of Health Hunting After Cases Like Cholera. Robert Seymour. 1832. Coloured lithograph. 15 × 20 cm. Wellcome Library Collection, London, England.

Cholera struck France in the devastating epidemics of 1832 and 1849.[7] The epidemics extended the stigmatization of physical characteristics into the societal sphere; anxieties regarding urbanization and poverty were pervasive. Street names such as rue de la Mortellerie became synonymous with the French word mort for “death.”[8] A common theme that emerged among the “personal letters and diaries of bourgeois Parisians” were descriptions of “the horrifying spectacle of close relatives turning into living corpses and of bodies piling up in the streets. Few failed to remark upon what one historian has called ‘the inability of the city to absorb its dead.’”[9] Implicit in the overcrowding of the dead with the living was the rapidity at which cholera claimed its hosts. Within five hours after the presentation of symptoms, the diseased became bedridden and on the brink of death.[10] The fast progression of the disease inevitably echoed the accelerated pace of modern life – and inescapably – the social anxieties associated with modernity. The etching Cholera in Paris (fig. 2) appositely reflects this apprehension of the urbanized disease. Naked bodies, unclear whether living or dead, indecorously writhe amongst one another and sweep across the Parisian skyline in a turbulent, frothing manner. Heaping figures evoke imagery of the overcrowded streets of nineteenth-century Paris, where one was confronted with bodily discharges and polluted haze.[11] Beyond the immediate affect reified by the subject, there is yet a formal consonance attained from juxtaposing the quiet, desolate cityscape and the babel above. The preposition in the title of Cholera “in” Paris connotes the idea of a perceptible niche for which diseases reside within society. Epidemiological studies of cholera further the conception of this notion. While cholera cases peaked amongst the poor, the well-off were indiscriminately affected during the cholera epidemics.[12] Louis-René Villermé, a French physician-sociologist, concluded from these observations that “Society itself… had become an etiological agent.”[13] Whether associated with environmental or nutritional causes, the pre-Pasteurian society and the urbanized way of life were tantamount to the contagion itself, a concept that is analogous to the aforementioned conflation of the body and disease.

Figure 4. And All Manner of Frightful Creatures Arise. Odilon Redon. 1888. Plate VIII from The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Lithograph on chine appliqué. 31.4 × 22.6 cm (image); 43.3 × 31.4 cm (sheet). The Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, USA.

British hygienists had already begun to pursue public health measures before their French counterparts; their successful efforts were later indebted to John Snow’s studies on the origins of cholera in London.[14] The hygienists’ actions support the understanding that disease was not necessarily intrinsic to the state of being, but rather an entity that could be addressed medically. Nevertheless, satirical illustrations arose in light of their cause. A London Board of Health Hunting after Cases like Cholera (fig. 3) shows a group of well-dressed yet behaviourally animalistic health officials sniffing around for cholera. “Positively we must find something; it won’t do to lose our Twenty guineas a day,” asserts one figure in the lithograph. The satire ridiculed not only the half-hearted and futile efforts of the health officials to find the cause of cholera, but also their urgency to discern an agent apart from the filth of the London streets. Ultimately, the case study of cholera in Europe brings forward the prevailing thought that disease was intrinsic to morality as well as the framework of society; it was a worldview that was in accordance with the pre-microbial understanding of disease.

iii. Odilon Redon, noirs, and the Pasteurian Revolution
While artists continued to draw upon themes that surrounded the intrinsic nature of disease, Odilon Redon began to explore a cause that was extrinsic to the state of being. Noirs was an epithet he had given his black and white lithographs and charcoal drawings, citing the expressive quality of the monochrome.[15]

“[The medium] offered me a better means of expression, remained with me. This lacklustre material, which has no inherent beauty, was a great help with my explorations of chiaroscuro and the invisible. It is a medium deprecated and neglected by artists. It should be said, however, that the charcoal leaves no room for lightness; it is full of gravity and one can only use it successfully in the same spirit. Nothing that does not stimulate the mind can produce worthwhile results in charcoal. It is on the verge of something unpleasant, something ugly.”[16]

Figure 5. Germination. Odilon Redon. 1879. Plate II from In the Dream (Dans le rêve). Lithograph on chine appliqué. 27.1 × 19.5 cm (image); 53.2 × 37 cm (sheet). Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.

Arthur Symons, a writer of the same period, agreed with Redon’s intentions without reservation. Symons deemed Redon “a creator of nightmares…[and that] he begets upon horror and mystery a new a strange kind of beauty, which astonishes, which terrifies.”[17] Although Redon’s noirs were not universally admired, “monstrosities” was a significant term his contemporaries recurrently used to denote his subjects. And All Manner of Frightful Creatures Arise (fig. 4) epitomizes the idea of the indiscernible creature as a living monstrosity. The anthropomorphic creature is isolated in a shadowy space and consequently departs from the conflated representations of disease in art (figs. 1-2). Just a few years prior to Redon’s noirs, Pasteur championed the germ theory of disease that argued for microbes as the independent, organic cause of disease. Redon had closely followed Pasteur’s work in microbiology and eventually sent him a set of prints that were in turn praised by the scientist.[18] This mutual exchange shows a direct link between Redon’s representations and the interpretation that his creatures are animated beings distinct from pathological physiognomy, personal amorality, and the urbanized society. Notably, Redon’s use of the transfer lithography technique mimicked the autonomous replication of microbes; it had given him the “power of multiplication” that was so feared in the spread of disease.[19]

Figure 6. Must there not be an Invisible World? Odilon Redon. 1887. Plate VI from Edmond Picard’s The Jurer (Le Juré). Lithograph in black on thin cream Japanese paper. 22.2 × 16.9 cm (image); 32.1 × 24.6 cm (sheet). The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, USA.

Redon exploited social anxieties associated with the newly-discovered monstrosities of disease by embracing ambiguity in his works. In Germination (fig. 5), faces with obscure expressions emerge from an indeterminate space. The contrast between light and dark of the page oscillate the viewer’s vision between seeing and unseeing, respectively. Must there not be an Invisible World? (fig. 6) similarly captures the dichotomy of the visible and the invisible. The two lithographs complement one another through both their forms and names: the former suggests the birth of contagions, while the latter introduces the realm of the unseen in which contagions dwell. Although the titles range from one-word to sentence-long descriptors, both are arguably never fully explicit in their function. Redon himself vocally rejected straightforward labels, and instead utilized them only as “‘la clé d’ouverture’ (the key to open [artworks]).”[20] The deliberate concealment of meaning contrasts with the clear depiction of disease in Young Venetian Woman, and thereby contradicts the social desire to read pathology into physical form. Ambiguity necessitates uncertainty, and uncertainty predicates an unpredictability that brought about a new source of anxiety regarding pathogenesis. Redon’s departure from a confined, conventional mode of representation led to a novel exploration of the subjective experience.

Figure 7. Phantom. Odilon Redon. 1885. Charcoal on paper. Dimensions unidentified. Housing institution unknown. Photo: Larson, “Odilon Redon and the Pasteurian Revolution,” 507.

A compelling reflection of societal apprehension by Redon’s noirs is found in his preoccupation with postwar insecurities. The Franco-Prussian War raged from 1870 to 1871 and concluded with a crippling defeat for the French.[21] Having the idea of an “invading” pathogen – as personified through Redon’s anthropomorphic forms – was analogous to the invading troops that brought forward prevalent ideas of national decline and degeneration. “We have been struck by the invisible scourges,” John Tyndall writes, “we have fallen into ambushes…”[22] Another echoes: “the danger of the microbe await[s] us… this unknown enemy.”[23] Many other writers of the period used similar language to describe the germinal cause for disease, illustrating the prevalence of this metaphor and hence the prevalence of the associated anxieties. The subtitle of Redon’s charcoal drawing Phantom (fig. 7) illustrates the foreign invasion of one’s body: “This is what we are breathing, microscopic animal and vegetal matter in the air.”[24] The image itself is of a disturbing filament studded with one eye, swarming into the viewer’s dimensional space. The powerlessness over invisible, extrinsic, and especially such primordial forms of life subverts man’s status in the world as understood from the Eurocentric worldview. Art historian Barbara Larson further argues that Darwinian ideas of the survival of the fittest and natural selection only augmented the theory of degeneration and the condemned fate of humankind.[25] The autonomy of pathogenic form could likewise be read as the power to transcend social boundaries and infect an individual of any social class.[26] While epidemiological studies from pre-Pasteurian times have hinted at the fundamentally indiscriminate nature of the contagion, the effect becomes more pronounced when illustrated here by Redon. Indeed, at the exhibition of Redon’s noirs, “many visitors became hostile.”[27] It was a reaction that perhaps attested to both the public’s conservative understanding of art and, more importantly, the deep psychological fears the noirs extracted through their unique disposition.

iv. Conclusion
The fin de siècle culture of France was layered with discourses concerning the cause of disease. Through a nuanced exploration of pre-Pasteurian artwork and Redon’s Pasteurian noirs, I have argued that the social anxieties of the two eras were fundamentally distinct: the former resulting from intrinsic factors and the latter extrinsic. Redon, in careful consideration of literary, scientific, and social themes, included humanized features and motifs of ambiguity in his representation of pathogenic agents. The artist’s choice of media and subject matter inescapably illustrated a new source of social anxiety that paved the way into the twentieth century.

[1] Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” (Philadelphia: Graham’s Magazine, 1842), 257-259.
[2] Antonis A. Kousoulis, “Etymology of Cholera,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 18, no. 3 (2012), 540.
[3] Peta Mitchell, Contagious Metaphor (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), 1.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Alison Bashford and Claire Hooker, Contagion: Historical and Cultural Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 61-62.
[6] Adolph Lippe, “Cholera” (Homeopathic Medical College of Pennsylvania, 1865), 12-13.
[7] Catherine Jean Kudlick, Cholera in Post-Revolutionary Paris: A Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 176.
[8] Ibid, 2.
[9] Ibid, 3.
[10] Vincent J. Knapp, Disease and Its Impact on Modern European History (Lewiston, NY, USA: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989), 122.
[11] Charles Henri Lecouturier wrote in1849: “one is reluctant to venture into this vast maze, in which a million beings jostle one another, where the air, vitiated by unhealthy effluvia, rising in a poisonous cloud, almost obscures the sun.” Quoted in: David S. Barnes, The Making of a Social Disease: Tuberculosis in Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
[12] Kudlick, Cholera in Post-Revolutionary Paris, 15.
[13] William Coleman, Death Is a Social Disease: Public Health and Political Economy in Early Industrial France (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982), 179.
[14] Richard Barnett, The Sick Rose, or, Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014), 130-135.
[15] Margret Stuffmann, Max Hollein, and Markus Bernauer, Odilon Redon: As in a Dream (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2007), 43.
[16] Emphasis mine. Ibid.
[17] Arthur Symons, Colour Studies in Paris (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1918), 253.
[18] Barbara Larson, “Odilon Redon and the Pasteurian Revolution: Health, Illness, and Le Monde Invisible,” Science in Context 17, no. 4 (2004): 503-24.
[19] Stephen Eisenman, The Temptation of Saint Redon: Biography, Ideology, and Style in the Noirs of Odilon Redon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 88.
[20] Stuffmann, Hollein, and Bernauer, As in a Dream, 87.
[21] Rachel Chrastil, Organizing for War: France, 1870-1914 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010), 1.
[22] Emphasis mine. As quoted in: Barbara Larson, The Dark Side of Nature: Science, Society, and the Fantastic in the Work of Odilon Redon (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 86.
[23] Emphasis mine. as quoted in: Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), 35.
[24] Larson, “Odilon Redon and the Pasteurian Revolution,” 506.
[25]Larson, The Dark Side of Nature, 32.
[26] Ibid, 89-90.
[27] Ted Gott, The Enchanted Stone: The Graphic Worlds of Odilon Redon (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1990), 73.

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