22 December 2011


When I first saw Michale Schuyt's photograph of the Jantar Mantar, a celestial observatory built at Jaipur, India in the 18th century, I was reminded of Georgia O'Keefe's Ladder To The Moon.  With its seemingly random placement of stone stairways  the observatory looked like a collection of movable gateways waiting for the planes to land.  It looked surreal, rather than what it was, the embodiment of scientifically calculated star-watching posts.   In fact, stairways to the stars

When Karl Marx wrote "everything that is solid melts into air"  he wasn't thinking  about stairs but he could have been.  A stairway is a structure built to solve the problem of ascending and descending in space, something the human body is not well equipped to do.  I think of Marcel Duchamp's scandalous 1913 painting Nude Descending A Staircase and then its 1952 recreation by the photographer Eliot Elisofon.  Once you get past the initial recognition of the joke, you notice how awkward the real moving person appears.

In terms of physics, a staircase is a lever or a treadmill. that multiplies energy.   While Superman can leap tall buildings in a single leap, the rest of us can only reach such heights with a sustained expenditure of energy.  The aunt of Frenchman Jacques-Henri Lartigue seems to have mastered the "leap" decades before Superman.

Oskar Schlemmer's Bauhaus Stairway  displays the co-ordinate geometry of Descartes in action.  Just as the mathematics of multiple variables is encapsulated in Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola's design  of a stairway with a curvilinear sluice way running down its center. at Villa Lante in Bagnaia.  The effortless cascading water is a contrast with the energy required to walk up the stairs. 

When the gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler wanted to measure the intelligence of chimpanzees during World War I, he built a staircase.  Then he placed a bunch of bananas at the top and waited to see what the chimps would do.  

According to Aristotle, the stairway represented the divine order of the universe.  In their metaphysical ambition to link heaven and earth, the early Mesopotamians melded the stairway and the spiral when they created their legendary ziggurat. The  double helix staircase at Chateau de Chambord,  its design attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, is a puzzle ( how can you see another person on the stairs but not meet them face to face?).

Clerics and all manner of royal personages have deployed stairways in  grandiose ceremonies and  buildings.  The same impulse appears in modern popular songs with such titles as Stairway To The Stars, Stairway To Paradise, and Stairway To Heaven.   Aspects of worship or pilgrimage are often associated with climbing, as in a Jacob's Ladder.

A stairway implies the magic and mystery of the transitory,  the idea of ascending toward the invisible with all its attendant symbolism.  A spiral or helix stairway could be energy frozen in time and space, like freezing water.  The seven white stairs and the seven millstones of Sevres combine layers of symbolism in marmoreal tranquility.
A neglected stairway is a melancholy sight, its disrepair suggesting better times have gone by.  Moss sets into the cracks as ivy curls around the trees in Valenciennes's  watercolor.  Even the light seems to be in retreat.

A century after Valenicennes, a grand staircase at Parc de Sceaux near Paris, as photographed by the recent immigrant Andre Kertesz, is the image of desertion.  No footsteps have disturbed the wind-blown leaves from their resting places, no broom or rake has tidied them.  A stairway, and a grand one at that, it commands respect for human ingenuity as it reminds us of the flux at the heart of existence.

1. Georgia O'Keeffe - Ladder To The Moon, 1958, Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC.
2. Eliot Elisofon - time-lapse photograph of Marcel Duchamp descending a staircase - NYC, 1952, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
3. Jacques-Henri Lartigue - My Aunt, 1906, Association des Amis de J.-H. Lartigue, Paris.
4. Oskar Schlemmer - Bauhaus Stiarway, 1932,  Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
5.  Carlo Ponti -  Palazzo Contarini della Scala, c. 1850s, National Galleries of Scotland.
6. Kokkei Shinbun Sha, publisher - Worshipers Going To the Oku No In From Ehagati Sekai, 1907, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
7. Bernard de Jongghe - The Seven White Stairs And The Seven Millstones, 1990, Cite de la ceramique, Sevres.
8. Pierre Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819) -   A Cobblestone Stairway Covered With Moss, undated, Louvre Museum, Paris.
9. Andre Kertesz -  Le parc de  Sceaux in Autumn, 1926, Mediatheque, Paris.

17 December 2011

Crossing The Bridge To Abstraction And Back: Janet Fish

"There are no such things as still lives." - Erica Jong, from Fruits & Vegetables, New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston: 1970

Definitely not in the paintings of Janet Fish.    For almost half a century, Fish (b. 1933) has executed compositions of extreme complexity while at the same time using even the brightest colors to create illusions of transparency.  Equally dazzling displays of glass and shrink wrap suggest the comfort of an artist who encountered Pop Art early on.  The works in her first solo exhibition in 1971 sold out before the show opened.  Even people who don't recognize the artist's name have seen her iconic images of canned fruits and massed bottles of Smirnoff vodka or Kraft dressing.

 Fish has said that she turned to the painting of still life as a bridge between representation and abstraction.   When she was a student at the Yale School of Art in the early 1960s, abstract expressionism was a weighty orthodoxy, enforced by New York critics and difficult for young artists to ignore.  Representation was considered old-fashioned, abstraction equaled progress, and the arts post-war were about progress just as  much as business was.  "Progress is our most important product" was the official motto of General Electric, after all.  Fish recalls that "I told a cold look at the product - all hot air and mirrors - it didn't mean anything to me.  It was a set of rules."

Luckily for Fish, one of her first mentors was Alex Katz,  who painted the way he wanted to and encouraged Fish to find her own way, too.  Unable to get an academic position after graduation because of her gender,  Fish moved to New York City where she existed on a series of odd jobs to support her painting.  "My mother had as much influence on my career as any of my instructors did - probably more," Fish told a reporter in 1982, alluding to her determination. 

 "To alter the color is to change the feeling," according to Fish, so her turn to more delicate, abstemious use of color suggests  new interests.  For an artist whose work is described as distinctly American, her use of objects from Japan is notable.   In Dragon Kite the plate, the bag and the tablecloth are covered with scripts that are part of the composition while maintaining their discrete existences   Like Orange Pink Green  and other  recent works, color is still important although it is used sparingly.
For Fish, whose early training was dominated by academic arguments, it may be perverse to suggest that her newer paintings bring to mind an argument from the 19th century academies of Europe, but here it is.  Is drawing primary or does a painting need color to be successful?  The best answer is that there is no answer, a Zen koan.   Maybe this is the message of the Dragon Kite.

Quotes are from the essay Janet Fish by Judith Stein, D. C. Moore Gallery: 1998.
Images by Janet Fish, from the D.C. Moore Gallery in NYC unless otherwise noted.
1. Dragon Kite, 2007.
2. herb Tea, Smith College Museum of Art,  Northampton, MA.
3. Dishes from Japan, 2003. 
4. Orange Pink Green, 2003.

17 November 2011

Wanda Wulz And Trieste

Surrealism is a male domain, or so men have told us, and the outright misogyny  of many of its well known images obscures the surrealist woman.  Hidden in plain sight you could say, with a nod to the rapidly unfolding science of the mind.  Even so, one image and one untethered name keeps popping up: a catwoman and Wanda Wulz.  This is the tale of  my search for the woman behind  Cat Woman and where it has taken me.

For more than a century the Wulz family ran the preeminent photography studio in Trieste.  Founded in 1860 by Giuseppe Wulz who specialized in documentary  images, Fotografia Wulz became known for its portraiture under his son Carlo (1874-1928).  Carlo had two daughters, Marion and Wanda (1903-1984), both  free spirits with a camera.

If  strange convergences and surprises from the subconscious are elements of surrealism then the Wulz family, Wanda especially, were early and exuberant practitioners.  Even father Carlo must have found some playful sense lacking in  his portraits of the bourgeoisie; just look at the infant Wanda in a green-grocer's basket.
Close in age, Marion and Wanda remained  close into adulthood, part of the family business that supported their creative autonomy.  They would have been hard pressed to find another setting so congenial.   Although individuals took these pictures it must surely be more accurate to call them collaborations.  From Marion we have images of Wanda as aviator and as a one-woman jazz band.

The Wulz studio became a meeting place for the artists and writers of Trieste in the 1920s, drawn no doubt by the two fiercely talented and attractive Wulz sisters.  The writer Italo Svevo was one, along with young painters including Giuseppe Garzolini, Alfredo Tominz, Umberto Verduta, and their wealthy neighbor Piero Fragiacomo.
There was another member of the Wulz family:  Pippo-the-cat.  He was often  Marion's subject  but he  was Wanda's cat.     Looking at Wanda's self-portrait and The Cat Without Me and then Cat-woman we find no familiar sentimental mimicking of personalities between pet and person, but a simpatico of claws. 

"The last breath of civilization expires on this coast where barbarism starts," wrote the French diplomat Chateaubriand, not very diplomatically, in 1806.  He was not pleased to be posted so far from  Paris.  
Exactly one hundred years later when the Irish writer James Joyce came to teach at the Berlitz School of Languages there, he eked out time to write A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  NeverthelessJoyce considered his fourteen years in Trieste a time of misery, averring that its isolation ate his liver. While there he also tutored a talented local writer, Italo Svevo.  There are those who believe this was the best thing Joyce ever did for literature. 

But there were others who came to stay.   Dante wrote parts of The Divine Comedy there and six centuries later the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke composed his Duino Elegies (1922) during visits to Castle Duino. located  Originally a Roman watchtower, then expanded in medieval times, the castle belonged to Rilke’s friend Princess Marie von Thurm-und-Taxis Hohenlohe.  Local lore claims that Rilke was inspired by disembodied voices he heard calling to him as he walked the windy cliffs overlooking the city..  And no less tortured a soul than the painter Egon Schiele made frequent stays in Trieste to escape the claustrophobia he felt in Vienna..

Trieste first appears in the pages when of history when the Romans annexed it.  During the heyday of their empire, the nearby Venetians raided Trieste regularly, too, causing the beleaguered city to seek protection from the Hapsburgs.  Yet when Garibaldi's newly united Italy stopped a few miles short of  the city, its citizens were seized with a melancholy strain of nationalism, known as irredentism.  United by a secret deal among the Allies following World War I, the people of Trieste provided a safe haven to Jewish refugees from throughout Europe during the 1930s.  And Trieste has long been a favorite place of exile for deposed royalty.  

Connected to the rest of Italy by a narrow strip land along the Adriatic coast, Trieste is closer in spirit to its Balkan neighbors than to the Mediterranean world.  Further isolated by the Alps hemming it in on the north and subjected ti dry winds sweeping down off the escarpment, Trieste is often covered with a layer of dust, like furniture left in an untended room.  With its mixture of Italian, Slavic, and Germanic influences, Trieste could be both cosmopolitan and backward. 

Multiple personalities are grist for psychiatry and Trieste adopted psychoanalysis with the zeal of a convert, notwithstanding Sigmund Freud's professional failure there as a young man.  In Silvia Bonucci's novel  A Voice In Time (2005)  the emotional claustrophobia  of the period 1900-1940 is dramatized through the decline of the Levi family.  Closer in spirit  and in time to Fotografia Wulz is Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno (1923), the diary of the repetitive compulsions of an old man, written down at the urging of his psychiatrist.  Like Zeno Cosini, with his mistresses and his inabaility to quit smoking, Trieste may appear outwardly unappealing but it is also lovable.

For further reading: La Trieste dei Wulz: 1860-1980 by P. Costantini, et al, Fratelli Alinari, Firenze.
Images: unless otherwise noted, all images are from the collection of the Alinari Archives, Museum of Photography, Florence.
1. Wanda Wulz - Cat Woman, 1932.
2. Wanda Wulz - Self-Portrait, c.1932.
3. Wanda Wulz - The Cat Without Me, 1932.
4. Carlo Wulz - title attributed: Baby Wanda In A Basket, c. 1904.
5. Marion Wulz - Jass-band, 1920.
6. Carlo Wulz - Portrait of Marion, 1927. 
7. Daniel Boudinet - Villa Fragiacomo In Trieste, Mediatehque, Paris.
8. Piero Fragiacomo -  Marina con barcho, Galleria Tommaso Marcato, Milan.
9. Egon Schiele - The Harbor at Trieste, 1907, Neue Galerie Am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz.
10. Ugi Fiumani - The Golden Hour, c. 1900-1930, Museo Revoltella, Trieste.
11.. Wanda Wulz - Three Hats, 1935.

08 November 2011

California: Paradise Without People

If nothing else united them,  Spanish explorers from the 16th century, 19th century gold prospectors,  and modern real estate speculators all shared the dream of California as  a paradise without people. No matter that the state took its name from the myth of a land peopled by black Amazons ruled by Queen Califa. 

Recently, in Landscapeland we looked at California through an art historical lens.  Another way to view  the California landscape is through the eyes of its inhabitants, absent from these sublime images,  and their conflicting aims.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, for example,  was founded by real estate developers in 1903 and  promoted as a colony for artists and writers.  After the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 Carmel and the entire Monterey Peninsula became the relocation destination for photographers, musicians, and theater people, too.

Industrialization in general scarcely  interested California artists  and the Southern Pacific Railroad in particular  was anathema to them, dramatically expressed in Frank Norris's best-selling novel The Octopus (1901) in a scene where a steam locomotive plows mercilessly through a flock of grazing sheep.   Businessmen promoted the state as agricultural cornucopia, which it was, through commercial art.   And "serious" artists like Granville Redmond chafed at demands  to produce fields of flowers.  You can see what Redmond was getting at if you compare his majestic California Poppy Fields with the recently auctioned Marsh Under Golden Skies

In  Our Italy (1891) essayist  Charles Dudley Warner was early to name some obvious similarities between the Golden State and the Mediterranean.  One can see his point in the work of local artists, including Arthur and Lucia Kleinhans Mathews.   Gottardo Piazzoni  's The Land  (at top)  evokes beginnings both Biblical and of the classical Greek and Roman varieties.
 When Leopold Hugo photographed the rock formation called the 'Gates of Night', cinematic was not yet an adjective and Hollywood was a sleepy village with a single trolley line.  Something about the swooping, jagged Pacific coastline was just waiting for the motion picture industry to arrive from the east coast.  California was ready for its close-up.
Landscapeland was posted here 0ctober 18, 2011.
1. Gottardo  Piazzoni - The Land, 1915,  Berkeley Art Collection, CA.
2.Armin Hansen - Carmel Countryside at Night, undated, private collection, California.
3. Guy Rose - Carmel Dunes, 1918, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
4, Granville Redmond - California Poppy Field, 1926, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 
5. Granville Redmond - Marsh Under Golden Skies, no date, Bonham's & Butterfield's, Los Angeles/
6. Lucia Kleinhans Mathews -  Landscape with Tree, 1908, Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco.
7. Leopold Hugo - Gates of Night, before 1906, San Diego Historical Society, La Jolla.
8. Anne M. Bremer (1868-1923)  - The Highlands - early 20th century, Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco.

05 November 2011

Face To Face

"...viewing a human face sets off a unique reaction in the human brain. This chemical reaction, not unlike addiction, occurs when we see a face or expression that pleases us, giving us a feeling of well-being. From infancy through old age, we are responsive to human features, sometimes with ambivalence, but always with meaning. " - anonymous collector

A.C., as I think of him (and his wife) are the anonymous benefactors who made possible a jewel-like  exhibition of portraits of all sorts at the Herbert Johnson Museum at Cornell University.  A small gallery suited the fifteen works, lending an intimacy to the experience even when, as is probably the case with a first century bust of Ptolemy of Mauretania, the intention was ceremonial.   Works of human revelation and contemplation, rather than formality and each one intended for the attentive viewer.

Four paintings by the German artist Max  Beckmann (1884-1950) are the centerpiece of the exhibition and suggest the qualities the collectors look for . A contemplative image of the artist's second wife Quappi, one of his friend the Alsatian engraver Sabine Hackenscmidt, and the two reproduced here.  A fiercely thoughtful gaze aimed straight at the viewer belies the height of his successful career, and hints  at the middle-aged Beckmann's attempt to understand the mystical aspects of life.  The Oyster-Eaters provides a challenge of another sort.  Quappi Beckmann lifts the oyster to her lips as Sabine Hackenschmidt looks on, eyebrow arched enigmatically.  A white-jacketed waiter stands behind.  What is last-noticed is an ominous gray face looming in the background that seems to represent all that came after the pinnacle of 1926 for these people.  The Nazis removed Beckmann from teaching and his works from museums, only to abuse them in displays of "Degenerate Art."   Years of living in poverty in Amsterdam efr the Beckmanns ended only when World War II ended.

This version of Incense by Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921)  was made ss a present for  his niece Gilberte Freson on the occasion of  her marriage in 1917.  The better known version  from 1898, which is at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris .  A more intimate and personal vision, a close-up rendered against a neutral background, the priestess seems younger and more approachable - fitting for a wedding gift.

Balthus (1908-2001) often created images of young girls that are erotically charged.  Not so his Portrait of Rosabianca Skira, daughter of the renowned art published Albert Skira.  Balthus, the son of a Russian Jew,  fled the Nazi occupation of France during World War II for neutral Switzerland.  There Skira gave him employment on his new magazine Labyrinth.  The border painted around  the picture suggests a window sill, the  girl's arm  resting there.  She looks toward her future, which neither of us can see, with apparent calm, or perhaps the privacy of adolescence.

As with Balthus, so with Egon Schiele (1890-1918), it is the expressive faces that have joined this collection: Schiele's patron Karl Otten, Chief Inspector Benesh, and his frequent model Poldi, absorbed in thought.  Only in his clenched Self-Portrait does Schiele express the torment that we think of when we think of his work.  The arms, held tightly to his sides, are as expressive of emotion as the sound we imagine we hear coming from his mouth.

Face to Face, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca, NY. , August 6 - October 30, 2011.
1. Max Beckmann - Self-portrait, 1926
2. Max Beckmann - The Oyster Eaters, 1943.
3. Fernand Khnopff - Incense, 1917. 
4. Balthus - Portrait of Rosabianca Skira, 1949.
5. Egon Schiele - Poldi, 1914
6. Egon Schiele - Self-portrait, 1910.

29 October 2011

Vilhelm Hammershoi: A Landscape Close To Abstraction

Although he achieved his first successes with unconventional portraits, the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916)  brought an equally fresh perspective to landscape.  What is, in fact, a barn built into the ground becomes through the artist's vision an abstraction of angles andf light.

Three remarkable images, all executed during the summer of 1883,  form a suite that makes a vivid impression of an austere rural aesthetic discovered in situ.  Bright light becomes compatible with mystery when buildings and even entire vistas are cropped.  Thanks to the introduction of photography eccentric cropping became a popular tool for painters at the turn of the last century and Hammerstein seems to be an early experimenter.

Our view of the farmhouse is what one might see from close up.  Then again, looking at The Farm we need time to orient ourselves to the angle of vision Hammershoi sets before us.  We know that we have seen something that looks like this before but what?   With these paintings Hammershoi refutes the idea that landscapes are conventional or unthinking entertainment.  They do not easily let the viewer go.

1. Landscape with a Barn, 1883, private collection, Denmark.
2. Farmhouse, 1833, Nordisk Galerie, Paris.
3. The Farm, 1883, private collection, Denmark.

24 October 2011

In Vienna. The Glasgow School

How  the group of artists known as the Glasgow School became the talk of the Eighth Secession is also a story of Josef Hoffmann.   The Viennese architect produced  the exhibitions of the Vienna Secession in its early years and, although we may not realize it, he invented the "designed" exhibition. What better way to show the work of a group of artists than through a multi-media installation?

The Glasgow School had designed several  stylish tearooms, spaces where women could socialize in public.  Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald,  Charles Rennie Mackintosh,  and Herbert McNair , two sisters and their  husbands, were known collectively as 'The Four.'   The Mackintoshs were the leaders, Margaret specialized in painting and glass art; Charles was an architect.

 Several times Josef Hoffmann had visited England to study the Arts & Crafts  design and it was his invitation that brought the Glasgow group to Vienna.  The tearoom installation at the Eighth Secession used furniture designs from their Argyle Street Tearoom, including the Mackintosh 'rose' high-backed chair.  Critics and the public agreed in their praise of its airy charms  and, as happened with Fernand Khnopff's work  in 1898, local museums and collectors bought.  Interestingly, The Seven Princesses - after Maurice Maeterlinck now in the Museum of Applied Culture, Vienna predates Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh's masterly  Mysterious Garden (Scottish National Gallery).

Critics are still debating how much the visiting Scots influenced Viennese modernism but by 1900 the curvilinear style had become  like the child who doesn't realize how tired she is and keeps on running around until she drops.  The salutary effects of applied geometry were ready to make things new again.  This time to be mixed with elements of  medieval revival and recently discovered  Japanese arts of the floating world.

1.Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh - frieze for Argyle Street tearoom, c.1898, Hunterian Gallery, University of Glasgow.
2. unidentified photographer - tearoom installation, 1900, Vienna, Hunterian Gallery, University of Glasgow.
3. Charles Rennie Mackintosh - chair, c.1898, Hunterian Gallery, University of Glasgow.
4. Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh - Junirose, 1898, Osterreisches Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
5. Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh - The Seven Princesses - after Maurice Maerterlinck, 1906, Museum of Applied Culture, Vienna.
6. Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh - The White Rose and the Red Rose, 1902, Waerendorfer Collection, Vienna.
7. Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh -    Deustche Kunst und Dekoration - cover, May 1902, Heidelberg University Digital Library.

22 October 2011

In Vienna. Fernand Khnopff

The last time we looked at Fernand Khnopff's In Fosset. Still Waters, (January 31, 2011) I mentioned the impact the painting made when it was shown at the Vienna Secession in 1898.    Another Khnopff landscape, In Fosset. Under The Trees has had an even longer half-life.  Gustav Klimt made several under the influence of its stylized vertical tree trunks, notably Birch Forest. Buchenwald I (1901, Dresden Gemmaldegalerie) and the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch was obsessed by them.   Philippe Roberts-Jones, like Khnopff a Belgian, was the first to point out  the similarity between Khnopff's forest and Rene Magritte's Leader of the Pack (1955),  dominated by an impossibly large, nut-collecting squirrel.  

Comparing Magritte's work with another Symbolist, William Degouve de Nuncques (March 2008), illustrates that the Surrealists shared the Symbolist knack for making pictures out of ideas.  The ideas in Fernand Khnopff's paintings were often presented like Zen Koans, in a form inaccessible to the rational mind. Paradoxically, this held true even when, as he often did, Khnopff created and named his images for the works of writers he admired.

Khnopff's work was the star of the first Viennese Secession in March, 1898, and included mixed-media sculptures like the Head of a Young Englishwoman which was bought by Adolphe Stoclet,  a Belgian engineer  in Vienna to supervise some railroad construction.  Stoclet, who came from an artistic family, (he was a nephew of painter Alfred Stevens) met architect Josef Hoffmann on the trip.   Today Stoclet is remembered for  commissioning Hoffmann to design his new home in Brussels - the Palais Stoclet.
Another Khnopff sculpture, Vivien, stayed in Vienna, bought by the Belvedere Galerie.  It depicts a character who is a thief of hearts,  embodying  two of the artist's preoccupations - Anglophilia and femmes fatales.  Lilie Mauqet, who modeled for Diffidence, was one of three sisters from Glasgow whose Pre-Raphaelite looks appealed strongly to Khnopff.   He  rearranged the branches on his family tree to give greater prominence to the English in his background.

 Listening to Flowers was already familiar to German-speaking audiences; it had been published in the journal Pan in 1895.  Inspired by a  Stephane Mallarme poem, the picture was an early example of another type of mixed-media work by Khnopff -  a combination of pastel and photography.  Khnopff was certainly a pioneer in this type of mixing, taking  a keen interest in the new medium and purchasing photographic paraphernalia for various experiments. at home  Some of the artist's friends were surprised after his death, when these items were found in his studio; the artist was accustomed to keeping his own counsel. 
Public attacks on his work at the beginning of his career probably only reinforced Khnopff's reticence.  In 1885, he illustrated the cover of a novel The Supreme Vice.  Khnopff knew its author, Sar Josephin Pelaldon, through their shared interest in Rosicrucianism.  Peladon was a controversial character who  dabbled in occultism and alchemy, and claimed to be the reincarnation of an ancient Babylonian king.  Unfortunately for Khnopff, his cover outraged Rose Caron, an opera singer whose portrait he had recently painted.  She claimed, whether sincerely or for publicity's sake,  that Khnopff had used her image in making it.  The young artist was so upset that he ripped the original pastel up and threw it at her feet.  The Belgian press was thrilled to promote the scandal.
Three years later, another Peladon work Istar was the occasion for one of Khnopff's most disturbing works.  The image shows a woman with her arms raised (possibly bound?) above her head.  Meanwhile, serpent-like vegetation binds her legs and claws at her genitals. 
 The Viennese magazine Ver Sacrum devoted its issue of December 1898 to honor Khnopff's work. All the works illustrated here were included among the twenty-one that Khnopff chose for the Vienna exhibition.

“we who seem to desire one another, my sister, we recognize each other. 
Yes, you are my sister since you recite softly the hymns of the unreal that I chant at the top of my voice.  Yes, you are my sister, because you have not hearkened to the mortal stammerers of love and the gross jolts of women…
Sisterhood, incest, virtue or sin, assumption or fall, whatever shall be the fate of our love, new born that it may raise over us a mystical aurora…
Be my sister…If incest one day comes to join our mouths, we will have at least made the effort of a grand fate, and we will have fought, before our downfall, against the earth and instinctive force…” - excerpt from Istar.

Attempts to understand Khnopff's intentions are always incomplete.  When Khnopff was interviewed in Vienna by Ludwig Hevesi in March, 1898, he complained that "everyone classified me as a Symbolist, they claimed to find a hidden meaning behind everything I made."  A disingenuous comment from an unreliable narrator.  From Charles Baudelaire, a poet admired by Khnopff, these lines that serve to get at the fascination Khnopff's work continues to exert.

" We cannot but arrive at this truth that everything is hieroglyphic...Well, what is a poet - I take this word in its widest sense - if not a translator, a decipherer?"

What does With Verhaeren. An Angel  look like from this perspective?  There is an angel who passes for feminine, a Wagnerian figure with strong features and a tragic expression.  She controls with one hand a sphinx with a massive head and an ecstatic expression.  Interpretation is a risky business.

In Fernand Khnopff, the Viennese found much to admire.  His quixotic mixing of sacred  imagery,  symbolic decadence, and uneasy attraction to modernity was just what their new movement in art was looking for.  For Khnopff the triumph must have been especially sweet:  his family had been raised to the aristocracy by the Emperor in 1621.

1. In Fosset. Still Water, 1894, Osterreisches Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
2. In Fosset. Under the Trees, 1894, Belgian Royal Museum of Art, Brussels.
3. cover of Ver Sacrum, December 1898, Heidelberg University Digital Archive.
4. Head of a Young Woman, 1898, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
5. Vivien, 1896, Osterreisches Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
6. Diffidence, 1893, private collection, Belgium.
7. Listening to Flowers,  1892, private collection, Belgium.
8. After Josephin Peladon. The Supreme Vice, 1885, private collection, Belgium.
9. Istar, 1888, private collection, Belgium.
10. Soltiude, 18981, Belgian Royal Museum of Fine Art, Brussels.
11. With Verhaeren. An Angel, c.1898, Belgian Royal Museum of Art, Brussels.