Answering the Question: What is Art?

Odilon Redon, Mystery, c. 1910. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 21 3/8 inches. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired by 1925.

What I love about What is Art?, one of the classes offered this semester by the Phillips’s Center for the Study of Modern Art, is the opportunity it provides to form a real connection with the artwork I see every day, yet so often find myself contemplating only in passing. During our second gathering, Director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art Klaus Ottmann took our class of about 20 to one of these works – Odilon Redon’s Mystery. While I’ve always found this painting intriguing (and perhaps a little haunting), I was amazed at the fresh eyes with which I observed it after taking in my classmates’ perspectives.

The class syllabus warned that we would leave with more questions than we came in with, and it wasn’t an exaggeration. In the full hour that we spent in front of Mystery, questions were raised from the broadest to most minute topics. Is this person a male or a female? Portrait or self-portrait? What is that bright green spot in the top right corner? Is there something hidden in those flowers? One classmate saw a self-portrait of the artist holding not flowers, but his painter’s palette in his left hand. Another read the contrast in hand and face color as an indication that this is a portrait of a man holding a mask to his face.

While some saw the brightness and pop of the colorful flowers in deep contrast to the muted palette of the rest of the piece, others  saw echoes of the drabness in the background manifested in the drooping and dying flowers of the foreground.

My own thoughts fixated around the stark contrast in styles between the foreground and background; it looks almost as if one artist created a somewhat dreary portrait and a completely separate artist came along and added the flowers later.

The hour of observation went quickly, and I left vowing to return. What are some of your own impressions?

Amy Wike, Publicity and Marketing Coordinator

7 thoughts on “Answering the Question: What is Art?

  1. This is great, Amy, thanks for sharing. “Slow looking” exercises like these consistently lead to new discoveries, even in works you’ve seen hundreds of times before – so glad you’re enjoying the class!

  2. I wrote this poem in response to “Mystery” in 1987. I am delighted to see that I am not alone in considering this painting worthy of deep contemplation.

    Improvisation: “Mystery”

    the mystery before
    you made visible
    in pastel
    flowers on a table
    edging into light
    that washes up
    to your shoulder.

  3. Hi guys! Im tryin to do a copy of this work for my Adv. Painting class. Does anyone know what techniques he used for this painting? My professor mentioned he might have used the drybrush method to apply the paint for the background. Can you all help me find out his tricks? Id really appreciate any good feedback. Thanks!

    • Interesting question! I’ll send your question to my colleagues in the curatorial and conservation departments; I can’t guarantee that they’ll have the information you’re looking for, but if schedules allow, hopefully I can gain some insight into Redon’s technique that might be useful for you!

    • Update: The painting is currently on loan in Korea as part of a traveling exhibition, so even though our conservation team took an interest in your question, they had a tough time scoping out details. Conservation Assistant Caroline Hoover responded with the following:
      “Since the painting is in Korea, I looked at a high res picture of the work. It does appear Redon used a dry brush technique in the background. I can’t get much more specific with the painting not here, but can confirm the dry brush technique.”
      Hope this is helpful, and thanks for reaching out!

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