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.


Images:
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.

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