“Le rêve est l’aquarium de la nuit”

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Le Musée-Aquarium d’Arcachon a été construit en 1866. La même année Victor Hugo publiait Les Travailleurs de la Mer dans lequel il écrivait : « Le rêve est l’aquarium de la nuit. »

Toujours la même année, à Bordeaux, Odilon Redon commençait à se faire un nom. En 1880, il viendra chercher son inspiration dans ce même Musée-Aquarium d’Arcachon.

Du 27 janvier 2007 au 29 avril 2007, le Schirn Kunsthalle de Francfort a consacré à ce grand artiste bordelais, Odilon Redon, une somptueuse exposition. Intitulée : As in a Dream Odilon Redon, elle a été à l’origine d’un luxueux catalogue de plus de 330 pages. L’édition originale était bien sûr en langue allemande. Une seconde édition, cette fois traduite en anglais, lui a succédé.

Main hall of the Aquarium Arcachon.

Main hall of the Aquarium Arcachon.

“For Redon the lithograph the “peoples of the sea” served as a catalyst for ideas. The image of the submarine night, in which phosphorescent animal bodies form the only source of light, changed in the late 1890s into chromatic “aquarium pictures” (Redon) initially executed in pastel and later painted in tempera or oil. These images, whose main subject matter is an iridescent, magical ocean, are not only a reflection of Michelet’s transfiguration of the sea-bottom as a protean paradise. They are based on the experience of “living images” in an aquarium. Redon was a spellbound visitor of the aquarium in Arcachon, which opened in 1866. (27)

“Beginning in the 1860s, France was overtaken by the aquarium craze. (28) In his epic dedicated to the bottom of the sea, Les Travailleurs de la Mer (Workers of the Sea) from 1866, Victor Hugo bears witness to the allure of the cave-like installations and the undulating play of color of the deep-sea flora and fauna behind glass. His protagonist Gilliat, “Homme de Songe” (Dreamer), (29) sees the “inner most of the ocean” through a large plate of glass. (30) His ruminations about the phenomenon of day dreaming, in which the “sleeper-with closed eyes but not completely unconscious” sees “growth and decay in confusing proximity”;  “this drifting of forms in the dark, the total mystery that we call the dream but which is nothing more than a means of approaching an invisible reality” culminates in the conclusion : “The dream is the aquarium of the night.”(31)”

Ursula Harter, The Secret of Embryonic Life – from the Water Drop to the Micro-ocean, in Margret Stuffmann & Max Hollein, As in a Dream Odilon Redon, Hatje Cantz, 2007, p. 91-92.

27 On the aquarium as a metaphor for creation and dream in Redon, see Leblond 1907, pp. 156ff. On the sensation caused by the aquarium at the Paris World Fair of 1878, see Tsutatani 2002, p. 199. On Redon’s fascination with the underwater world of the aquarium, see Groom 1994, pp. 313f., and Harter 2002, pp. 105-09.

28 On the aquarium as a new shrine see Harter 2002, pp. 92-104.

29 Hugo 1980, p. 117.

30 For his underwater scene Hugo consulted the description of the Aquarium du Collège de France in the Gazette de Guernsey from November 16, 1861.

31 Hugo 1980, pp. 119f.

Aquarium at the World Fair in Paris, 1867, woodcut, from : L'Illustration, XXV, n° 1286, 1867, p. 245.

Aquarium at the World Fair in Paris, 1867, woodcut, from : L'Illustration, XXV, n° 1286, 1867, p. 245.

Aquarium in The Trocadero Park at the World Fair in Paris, 1878, woodcut, from : L'Illustration, LXXI, n° 1842, 1878, p. 392.

Aquarium in The Trocadero Park at the World Fair in Paris, 1878, woodcut, from : L'Illustration, LXXI, n° 1842, 1878, p. 392.

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