31 January 2011

Still Waters

"(A) mirror of the soul, and the depths that are divined below the surface join forces with the world above in a shared secret: neither the depths of the water nor those of the soul are ever to be plumbed." — Andrea Domesle

Fernand Khnopff's Still Water. Fosset   was shown at the First Vienna Secession in 1898. At the urging of Gustave Klimt, it was purchased by the Belvedere Museum  A panoramic view and an unusually large work for Khnopff, it depicts mostly unseen trees and a bright strip of sky visible only as mirrored in  water. Surely, it owes its brooding quality as much to Khnopff's eccentric cropping of the image as it does to its muted colors.   The sixteen year-old Khnopff had made his first sketches from nature in 1874, at his family’s summer home in Fosset, a hamlet in the Ardennes of eastern Belgium.  “Pas voir du ciel” he wrote on one, meaning roughly 'do not show the sky'.   In later years Khnopff always insisted that he had his reasons for the shapes of his image though, as mystification was one of his strategies, he offered no explanations.

The impression this painting made on its early viewers cannot be overestimated.  In short order Gustave Klimt painted Still Pond (1899 - Leopold Museum-Vienna) in tribute, though it is not one of his best works.   Twilight by the underrated Austrian painter Carl Moll is worthy of its inspiration; its invisible waterline draws the eye inward while it defies our expectations.  A fellow Belgian, Anna de Weert (1867-1950) came close in color and spirit with Canal In Ghent. 
To understand the impact of this one painting it helps to remember the ambivalences built into the use of symbols in 19th century art.  Water functions as a horizontal axis, positive in supporting life but when it acts as a mirror it takes on the vertical, with the implicit sense of drowning or at least absorbing what it reflects.  For  its original audiences, the still waters of Fosset were more than a static landscape.  They suggested the instability of nature and, by extension, of modern life.  Some of them doubtless had also  read Stephane Mallarme's Herodiade (1887),in which the French Symbolist poet had written:
"By the power of old silence and deepening gloom,/ Fated, monotonous, vanquished, undone,/ Like the sluggish waters of an ancient pond."

1. Fernand Khnopff - Still Water. Fosset, 1894, Osterreisches Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
2. Gustav Klimt - Still Pond, 1899, Loepold Museum, Vienna.
3. Carl Moll - Twilight, c.1900, Osterrreisches Galerie Belvedere, Vienna
4. Anna de Weert - Canal in Ghent, c.1900, Museum  voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent.


Neil said...

I've always loved Klimt's landscapes, with their fiercely cropped skies and internal visions, and never understood until now that the key to them was Khnopff. Klimt is so much regarded as a painter of women, but I think his landscapes are much stronger and instilled with more of his essential spirit.

femminismo said...

Lovely! I adore the night pictures, too. I need to go on a late night expedition myself. Thanks for these postings and all the information!

Jane said...

Neil, I was able to see the Klimt Landscapes exhibition at the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts in summer 2002 and I was bowled over (and they are not small canvases, either!). I've read that he often used a telescope for inspiration, which would explain that odd combination of far off and close up in them. This is not the only point of inspiration that Klimt took from Khnopff, but I'll write more about that soon.

Jane said...

Jeanne, ever since childhood I've loved night walks and think I recognize fellow night owls when I see their works. Some of the most vivid memories I possess come from solitary night walks - also from business trips with the late Taffy, the beagle.

Andy McEwan said...

As ever,a fascinating and stimulating post.A favourite Khnopff picture of mine is the drawing The Abandoned City (Une ville abandonnee) where the still waters are flooding the town. With no signs of life, the picture has an eerie, elegiac atmosphere - as of course have many of his works. It's in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.

Jane said...

Thanks, Andy. I've been immersed in Khnopff for a year or two and am finally collecting my thoughts, so there's more to come. Khnopff's reserve and his use of mystification as an artistic technique have led to assertions about his work and him that are impossible to verify. I tread carefully.