WRITING TRIGGERS. I tend to use music to trigger my writing, but increasingly I’m using art. After studying art history, I’m looking back over my art writing and finding artists and artworks that trigger my fiction writing imagination.
One such artist is Odilon Redon, and his work The Incense Burner.
Odilon Redon 1840- 1916
One of the best things about travelling is stumbling over incredible works of art that you have never seen and artists you’ve never heard, in places you would least expect.
Visiting the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice in summer 2014, was one such moment, within the exhibition For Your Eyes Only, an incredible selection of the personal art collection of the Dreyfus- Best family, from Basel.
One of the pieces displayed there was a small charcoal by Odilon Redon, The Incense Burner, 1885-1890
Redon was a French-born symbolist, with a knack for charcoal and lithography. With interests in Hinduism and Buddhism, these religions influenced his works deeply and focused his work on the esoteric and mystical.
Redon’s work examines the interior self and the psyche with rich metaphysical themes. The Incense Burner brings these themes to the fore and shows why he became known as the ‘Prince of Dreams’ among his Impressionist peers.
Within the piece we see a winged head floating beside some kind of sorcery bowl. Redon’s original title for this piece was Mauvvais Espirit, indicating some sort of incantation.
The darkness of the charcoal against the brown paper establishes an ominous tone for the viewer. This sense is further formed by the winged head and his furrowed brow, slightly sinister upward glance and flat nostril nose. The face is sombre, yet the expression is not maleficent, this scene is eerie but not scary.
There is no doubt Redon creates a compelling dream-like state, almost a fever dream with smokey tendrils suggesting the winged head conjured the surrounding mists. But maybe he is just a passing observer. There are four smaller ‘puffs’ surrounding him, that could be interpreted as other creatures soon to appear from the mists, two of which have small dots that could be the beginning of eyes, however, Redon doesn’t allow us to render this vision as just a dream. By placing a solid dish on a solid surface the real-world attributes are right there in front of us and force us to accept that it has a place in this world. We have to address the unease that follows this realisation.
Redon is sometimes criticised for repetitive motifs, yet this particular winged creature does not reappear in other works, although there is Gnome- 1879, which has a similar winged head, but is a much more benevolent creature, albeit still glancing upwards on the same kind of trajectory of our winged creature.
Some suggest this spirit figure of the Incense Burner is the god of sleep, Hypnos, who is a good-natured spirit. We can see in some of his other more well-known pieces, where Redon focus on a face in space, like this piece Christ- 1887,
or these bodyless figurers The Egg -1885 (left) and Head of Matyr-1877 (right)
The use of the charcoal on brown and grey paper, the tight lines of large eyes and close up faces create an uneasiness in the viewer, but the mildness of the overall expressions lends itself to a sense of intrigue rather than fear.
For me, these pieces symbolise the imagination, and seeing them makes me want to write about magical figures and mystical experiences. The dark hues take my imagination to an eerie place, and I’m intrigued at where the thoughts may lead.
The incense burner is such a tangible object in a real-world, but in whose house does it sit? Who would own and an item that looks so otherworldly? Was it found in an antique shop and absent-mindedly placed on a table, only to come to life in the dead of life with the spirit creature emerging from within?
Or is it an ancient piece, handed down with its secrets, over generations?
Who is the sprite itself? Where does it come from, how does it manifest in this real world, and who are those emerging eyes in the background?
Does this scene promise only kindness, and mystical imaginings, or are the two projections from the sprites head suggestive of a more formidable encounter? There are no definite answers here, but there are plenty of stories to be created from the possibilities.