The Incense Burner 1885-18890
Odilon Redon ( (1840-1916)
One of the best things about being a travelling art historian is stumbling over incredible works art that you have never seen or heard of before in places you would least expect it.
Visiting the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice this summer created one such moment, within the recent 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 an interest in Hinduism , Buddhism and over time ,these religions influenced his works very deeply with a focus on the esoteric and mystical.
Redon’s work focuses on the interior self ,the psyche, with rich metaphysical,themes. The Incense Burner brings these themes to the fore and show 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 sets an ominous tone for the viewer, this tone further reflected in the winged heads almost furrowed brown, the slightly sinister upward glance and flat nostril nose – the face reads 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 making us wonder if the winged head conjured these mists surrounding the bowl, or perhaps came from within it. Msybe he is just a passing observer.There are four smaller ‘puffs’, that could be interpreted as other creatures about to also appear from the mists, two of which, have small dots that could be the beginning of eyes, however, Redon doesn’t allow us to excuse 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 this place is of this world. We have to address the unease that follows this realisation.
Redon is sometimes criticised for his repetitive motifs, yet this particular winged creature does not reappear in other works in exaclty the same way, although there is this piece, Gnome- 1879 ,which has a similar winged head, and 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 in fact 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 does tend to take a similar approach of focusing on the face, 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 or grey paper, and the tight lines of large eyes, and close up faces create a slight uneasiness for the viewer, but the mildness of the overall expressions lends itself to an overriding sense of intrigue rather than fear.
These works are distinctive and hypnotic pieces ,and certainly compel us to think a little more deeply about the art.