29 February 2012


Gounod's opera Faust, from Goethe's novel, debuted in Paris a year before Marguerite Khnopff was born in Belgium.  Faust could not possess his Marguerite and neither could Fernand Khnopff.  In French marguerite is the word for daisy.  It comes from the Latin margarite for pearl.    Various meanings have attached themselves to the flower.  Its white petals  have symbolized purity and secrecy;  its yellow heart  symbolized joy, energy (the sun), and wisdom (intellectuals are said to prefer the color yellow).  The golden circle on the wall to her left may be a symbol of Masonic origin or it ma refer to the ancient belief in the  self-sufficient perfection of the circle.

Along with encadrement, or framing/encircling, Khnopff's Portrait of Marguerite Khnopff errects a barrier. Khnopff's images of his sister caused speculation from the start.  There was an acceptance of intense brother-sister relationships in the 19th century. At its extreme, the British Romantic poets idealized incest in their works, finding in a social taboo the possibility of the purest form of love. Representation or reality?  Sometimes both.   Even his acquaintances sensed the lineaments of perverse urges at work in Khnopff's personal symbolism.
The questions viewers would most like answered  still hang in the silence enveloping the pictures.  Khnopff's philosophical and religious explorations also suggest a preoccupation with forbidden relationships.   Representation versus reality,  the abstraction of human passions, creation as a series of pairings (think: Emanuel Swedenborg), aesthetic sublimation (Schopenhauer): all ideas that circle around a core irritant. 

“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 by Josephin Peladan, 1888.
Marguerite Khnopff married Charles Freson on her 26th birthday, April 8, 1890, which suggests that she too marked life in symbolic terms.  She moved from her family home in Brussels to Liege.  Nine months later a daughter, Gilberte, was born.  When Gilberte Freson married in 1917, also at twenty-six, Khnopff made a gift to her of a new version of Incens, an image of her mother.

Like Moreau, Mucha, Munch, and other artists of his time, Khnopff used photographs as aides memories for his compositions.   He was disingenuous about the practice when questioned, not uncommon  at the time and not surprising in a proud, reticent  artist. But Khnopff went further:  He gave a lecture to the Belgian Royal Academy  in 1916,  "Is Photography An Art?"  In it, he denigrated the artistic pretensions of photographers.  That his friends were surprised at the large collection of photographic equipment found in Khnopff's studio after his death, speaks to his concealment of his methods,   as he concealed his aims.

With our greater familiarity,  it is easy to see that a group portrait like The Children of Louis Neve (1893) was based on a  photograph.  No sense memory would have captured the children as they descended the stairway so faultlessly.  Khnopff's portraits of children from the 1880s, particularly the masterpiece Portrait of Jeane Kiefer, whose subject is a three year old, are meticulous.  These were the pictures that the flamboyant Sar Josephin Peladan would have seen and they are far removed from what he asked of the artist. 

Khnopff met Alexandre in 1884, when the photographer presented La Lanterne Magique at a meeting of the group L'Essor (The Leap - motto: "A unique art, one life").  Beginning in 1888, Khnopff employed Alexandre to reproduce images of Khnopff's works in a unique collaboration.  Alexandre used platinogravure, a costly process involving platinum.  Khnopff then used soft pencils to rework the surface of the prints, creating new works from old in another example of the neo-Platonic distinction between representation and reality. Solitude (at right) is an example this genre, based on a photograph of a pastel Khnopff made, using Marguerite as his model, in 1894.  The original work was part of a triptych and given the individual title Isolation.

Marguerite continued to pose after her marriage.  Among  photographs Khnopff took in 1890, some show that she had cropped her hair, an unusual thing to do at that time.  In several she wears a laurel wreath, the crown of victory.  If the idea was an allusion to her recent marriage (you can see the wedding ring on her finger), why assume that it was the artist's idea?   She appears self-possessed, calm, introspective. It is easy to believe that she embodied ideals that the artist venerated.  Some forty photographs of Marguerite taken by the artist have been preserved  from this time.   She appears in costumes exotic and hieratic, with objects of ancient meanings.  Marguerite's contribution to their collaborations is one more subject that the artist concealed.  Her public gesture in donating his last self-portrait to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence suggests a strength of purpose and a remarkable bond between sister and brother.

The story behind the posthumous Portrait of Marguerite Landuyt is rich in irony.  Marguerite Landuyt of Dendemonde had been born in 1879 and  died at the age of sixteen in February, 1895.  Her cause of death was omitted from the death certificate.  Khnopff had been born  his grandparents ' home in Dendermonde and, based on that connection, the director of the local art guild approached the artist with an unusual request:  to paint a portrait from a photograph of the girl for her grieving widowed mother.  
It's a safe guess that the familiar enveloping white dress and the layered planes of the geometric background were supplied by the artist.  The white flowers that dot the walls are marguerites, of course.  The red cyclamen she holds in her hand has been interpreted as a symbol of farewell (Sophie van Vliet -2004).

After his sister moved away, Khnopff's  frequent models were the sisters Elsie and Lily Maquet, daughters of a Glasgow architect living in Brussels.  Between them he recreated a version of Marguerite's persona.  In Lily (see Arum Lily) he found the strong androgynous features and in Elsie (Head Of A Woman) a sweetness of expression.  Photographs suggest as much. Khnopff's technique continued to be a marvel but it would be animated only fitfully and by the past.

Images by Fernand Khnopff:
1. Portrait of Marguerite Khnopff, 1887, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels. 
Incens, 1898, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Incens, 1917, pastel over photographic print, Barry Friedman collection, Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, NY.
Silence, 1890, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels. 
photograph of Marguerite Khnopff, 1890, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
Solitude, after 1894,  crayon & pastel over photographic print, Kunsthalle Hamburg.
photograph of Marguerite Freson-Khnopff, 1890, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels. 
photograph of Marguerite Freson-Khnoff, 1890, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium.
Portrait of Marguerite Landuyt, 1896, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels. 
Head Of A Woman, c. 1901. private collection, Belgium.
La Reveuse - a/k/a - Nevermore, c. 1900, Studio International, London.

26 February 2012

Gustave Moreau: Khnopff's Favorite Painter ?

At the retrospective of  Fernand Khnopff's work at the McMullen Museum  in 2004, his early painting After Gustave Flaubert. The Temptation of St. Anthony (1883) was displayed next to Salome Dancing by Gustave Moreau.  Moreau (1821-1898)  was a French Symbolist whose pronouncements on art sound familiar to followers of Khnopff..  "I am dominated by  one thing, an irresistible, burning attraction towards the abstract." Moreau said, truer in Khnopff's case than in his.   Khnopff made no secret of his admiration for Moreau, and the influence it had on him before he discovered the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Edward Burne-Jones, who became his friend. 

Imitation, being the sincerest form of flattery,  comparing Villa Khnopff with the Musee Moreau in Paris is enlightening. In Moreau's case, he tore down the place where he had lived and worked for years in order to build the perfect showcase.  Khnopff's project was much the same, except that he chose his site - near the beautiful rose gardens of the Bois de Cambre in Brussels - and then built.  
The  area of the Faubourg-Montmartre remained determinedly seedy throughout Moreau’s lifetime.  In a manner familiar to Americans from the fight over the Alfred Barnes Collection, Moreau, who willed his house and its contents to the French state, made his gift conditional on its maintenance as is.  With museums, in perpetuity seems to mean a century more or less.

The similarities are many and obvious.  Khnopff also came from a well-to-do family.  He had regular, appreciative patrons.  Like Moreau, he refused to offer the key to his symbolic language, although he was the more diplomatic, talking genially but revealing little.  Moreau, on the other hand, was known to simply refuse to answer his collectors’ questions about what it all meant.  Moreau, too, was  asked to draw a self-portrait that was to hang in the Vasari  Corridor of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, an honor accorded to a select company of  the world’s greatest painters.  But, unlike Khnoff, whose sister Margeurite gave his auto-portrait to the Uffizi, Moreau never delivered his.  Apparently he considered himself undeserving of such an honor.

Moreau designed his house/studio so that his works would be displayed in color coordinated settings among the objects that inspired him.  I think of a photograph taken at Villa Khnopff that shows the artist's portrait of his sister Marguerite hung over a mantel on which sits a pair of crossed tennis rackets, referring to Memories, the painting of seven Marguerites, five of whom are holding rackets.

Moreau completed his museum in 1896, two years before he died and it is quite likely that Khnopff would have known of it and may have visited it on one of his Parisian trips.  The first indication that Khnopff had something similar in his mind was a letter  in autumn of 1899 to an English friend, John Parker-Compton.  Khnopff didn't draw a comparison but that wasn't his style.  Among Moreau's loveliest works are a series of watercolors he made during his stays in Italy, scenes of former grandeur, now quiet and waiting to be rediscovered by appreciative eyes.  Is it really that far from Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice to Saint Jan's Chapel in Bruges?  I am left with the disquieting thought that Fernand Khnopff may have intended Villa Khnopff to become a museum for his work.  He had the means  and it may explain why he stayed there during the German occupation when so many Belgian artists fled to England that Jean Delville became the head of the League of Belgian Artists in London.   What if Khnopff's feuding heirs thwarted his intentions by allowing the destruction of Villa Khnopff?  

1. Fernand Khnopff - After Gustave Flaubert.The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1883, private collection.
2. Gustave Moreau - Interior of Saint Mark's Basilica. Venice, undated, Musee  Gustave Moreau, Paris.
3. Fernand Khnopff - Requiem, 1907, Hearn Family Trust, New York.

20 February 2012

Nothing By Chance: Villa Khnopff

“I always meditate on my subjects for a long time before attempting to translate them.  I am not one of those to amuse themselves to take as a point of departure a slash of crayon traced by chance.  I want precision.  I have unceasingly one goal from which nothing can deflect me.  So that I am not distracted in spite of myself, it often occurs that I even take a pen and minutely describe my thought.  Thus arrived, I feel in a better position to translate my vision.” – quoted by Edmond-Louis de Taeye, 1897.

Fernand Khnoff was at the pinnacle of his career, hiw works exhibited from St. Louis to Budapest,  when he  decided to build a house.  Apparently, he considered the master of L'Art Nouveau - Victor Horta - as his architect but chose instead Edmond Pelseneer, less well known but perhaps more willing to let his client obscure his contribution to the project. The house/studio at 41 rue des Courses in Brussels between 1900-1902 was constructed in the Austrian modernist style with plain white surfaces and geometric forms outlined in black. The motto "Past - Future" was carved over the front door.   The interior was enlivened with accents in blue and gold,  Khnopff's favorite colors.  According to journalist Helene Laillet, passers-by mistook the unusual looking building for a chapel or a funeral vault.

 We may smile at   Laillet's ingenuousness in the face of  Khnopff's collection of self-referential talismans (The Home Of An Artist, 1912).   And yet, what else is the average suburban house of today if not a temple to the self?  With one important difference:  for Khnopff  these objects functioned as worry beads, used to channel his mental energy into his art.

The master of Villa Khnopff was not a hermit.  For a decade, beginning in 1903, he designed sets and costumes for productions at  Theatre de la Monnaie, beginning with the debut of Ernest Chausson's opera Le Roi Arthus in Novmeber 1903 and then other congenial subjects like Oberon and Parsifal.  During this time he also began to attend the Church of the New Jerusalem, whose teachings were based on Swedenborgian mysticism.   The attraction for the artist whose work  Edmond de Taeye characterized as "neither religious, nor Christian, nor mythological, but rather emblematic" seems obvious.   Emblematic of what?  Certainly not of chance, a force the artist attempted to avert at every turn.

Khnopff's father Edmond died on January 9, 1900 at Saint-Gilles, where Khnopff stayed until his house was finished January 14, 1902.  Khnopff's widowed mother Marie moved to nearby Ixelles, where she lived until her death on November 21, 1906.    Fifteen months later Fernand Khnopff married Marthe Worms, a thirty-three year old widow  from Luxembourg with two young children, at the Ixelles town hall.

After his marriage, Khnopff lived with his new family in a home on boulevard General Jacques about one hundred meters from Villa Khnopff.  He forbade his wife to enter his studio, the space consecrated to his work. They divorced in 1911 and Marthe married again 1916; she died November 27, 1958.   Marriage seems to have altered Khnopff's portrayals of women.  His later works, executed mostly in  pastel, are often nudes and not the idealized, marmoreal images of the pre-Raphaelites.  The women look directly at the artist/viewer, suggesting that the distance between artist and the subject has been crossed.   

Khnopff shared the Socialist sympathies of many Symbolists, like Horta who designed  La Maison du Peuple (1899) for the betterment of the working class.  The artist lectured at the educational branch of the Workers' Association on his  favorite topics - early Flemish art and recent British art   -and his classes were enthusiastically received. During the World War, Khnopff chose to stay in Brussels, sharing in the general hardships and using his influence to petition to the German occupiers for better conditions.

In the wake of his divorce, the artist who refused to admit his wife to his studio, invited a series of female journalists to interview him there:   Maria Bierme in 1911; Zuzanna Rabska from Poland and Helene Laiillet in 1912.   It's true that another woman got there first,  an article  published in Il Rinascemnto, Milan in April 1906 was written by Margherita Sarfatti who, two decades later,  became the biographer and mistress of Benito Mussolini.

The readers of the magazine Pourquoi Pas? were more aware than we are of  Khnopff's influence on the aesthetic of his time.  We are familiar with Gustav Klimt's design for the dining room of the Palais Stoclet but forget Khnopff's design of the music room.  Through his marriage to Suzanne Stevens, niece of the painter Alfred Stevens, Adolphe Stoclet (1871-1949) became interested in collecting art.  As an traveling engineer, the Belgian Stoclet began to collect artists as well, buying his first Khnopff, Head of a Young Englishwoman, in Vienna in 1898 and becoming friendly with its creator.   As you can see from other works Stoclet purchased from the artists, he shared Khnopff's love of the color blue.  When Stoclete inherited a fortune in 1904, he commissioned the Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann  to design a house for the couple in Brussels. Stoclet turned to Khnopff to design the murals for his music room.  One panel , Albatross with a Broken Wing, was Khnopff's version of a scene from Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Khnopff was also commissioned to design the Wedding Room for the town hall at nearby Saint-Gilles.

Khnopff continued to exhibit new works in Brussels at the IVth Salon de l'Estampe in 1910 and Salon de Printepms in 1911.  A solo exhibition in the city of Liege took place in 1912.  Khnopff received the Order of Leopold from the King of Belgium.

Fernand Khnopff died soon after undergoing an operation at a private clinic on November 12, 1921.  He was buried at the Laeken cemetery, near his mentor Xavier Mellery.

"The last representative of the spiritualist and symbolist school which flourished and then vanished thirty years ago, Fernand Khnopff, is dead.  He was a completely distinguished and charming artists, discreet, aloof, retiring.  His work was characterized by refined feeling and carfeul execution, but his 'literature' was very private and did not try to exert an influence even in Belgium.  He painted for the initiate.  He won the unreserved esteem and affection of those who knew him.  He did not seek to stimulate the intellectual work, which takes only impresarios  as its guides and not those who live in ivory towers." - Obituary   published 1 December 1921 in Bulletin de la Vie Artistique, Brussels.

After Khnopff's death, the family destroyed his papers.  The next year, his sister Marguerite Freson-Khnopff  donated the artist's last self-portrait  to the portrait Gallery of the Uffizi in Florence.  The contents of his studio were sold on Novmber 27, 1922 by Galerie Georges Giroux of Brussels, the same establishment that previously sold the atelier of his mentor Xavier Mellery.

I don't know what happened to Villa Khnopff after its creator died.  Apparently Marguerite Acarin, a dancer and choreographer professionally known as Akarova and nicknamed 'The Belgian Isadora Duncan' lived there for a time in the 1920s with her husband Marcel Buagniet, a painter who had known Khnopff.
Villa Khnopff was torn down in 1936, a casualty of a dispute between his brother's children. The photograph above is the last known image of Villa Khnopff.

1. fernand Khnopff - Study for Defiance, 1897, Adolphe Stoclet Collection, Brussels.
2. Unidentified photogrpaher - Villa Khnopff, c. 1902, Musee des Arts decoratifs, Paris.
3. The Blue Room at Villa Khnopff, 1912, Studio International, London. 
4. Alexandre (possibly) - Fernand Khnopff in Front of Hypnos Altar, Villa Khnopff, no date, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
5. The Studio. VIlla Khnopff, 1912, Studio International, London.
6. Fernand Khnopff -  Nude Study, 1910, Offa Gallery, Knokke-le-Zoute.
7. Pourqoui Pas? - Our Arbiter of Taste, cover, 15 December 1910.
8. Albatross with Broken Wing, c.1904, design for the music room at Palais Stoclet, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels. 
9, A Blue Curtain, 1909, Adolphe Stoclet  collection, Brussels.
10. Self-portrait, 1918, Uffizi Gallery, Florence. 
11. Unidentified photographer - Villa Khnopff, 1935, Belgian Archive of National Patrimonie, Brussels. 
12. Edmond Pelseneer -  plan for L'Atelier Khnopff. Brussels, 1900, Archive of modern Architecture, Brussels.
13.  Alcove at Villa Khnopff, with ivory mask by Khnopff, a crystal vase resting on it, and a wall hanging with Japanese cranes behind, 1912, Studio International, London.

For further reading: The Home of an Artist: M. Fernand Khnopff's Villa  at Brussels  by Helene Laillet was published in The Studio, LVII, December 1912, no. 237, p. 206 and The International Studio, XLVIII, January 1913, no. 191, p. 201.  It is now reproduced online at Artmagick

17 February 2012

The Androgyne And The Magician

Duality is an idea with a long history.  Its most enduring  symbol is an opposition between masculine and feminine,  yin and yang.  One way out of this unsteady binary state is through the figure of the androgyne, as in  the hero/ine of Virigina Woolf's Orlando (1925).
When Fernand Khnopff met Sar Josephin Peladan in 1885 the circumstances were as dramatic as the Frenchman could have invented.  Born Josephin Peladan, the magician of mysticism gave himself the honorary title of Sar, claiming it had been bestowed on his ancestors by a Babylonian king.  The two men found in each other a rapport based on their fascination with  androgyny.

 Peladan invited the young artist to make an illustration for  Le Vice Supreme, his 1884 novel of an artist who creates "an angel, without sex, the synthesis of a young man and a young woman."  In the event, the result was not one of Khnopff's better works but it caused a sensation. Given that another Belgian artist Felicien Rops had illustrated the first edition it began an enduring enmity between the two artists. Eight years later, in 1893, Rops wrote in a letter to Armand Rassenfosse, "Knopff 9sic) no longer imitates the French; he has sunk up to his chin in the boots of the Englishman Burne-Jones."
Rose Caron, an opera singer who had sat for the artist,  claimed that  Khnopff' had appropriated her face for his nude woman.  Khnopff was so upset at the charge that he confronted Caron,  ripping the original sketch and throwing it at her feet.  The press was thrilled to promote the scandal.  Predictably, Peladan's sequel La Vertue Supreme, published in 1900, attracted little attention.

Khnopff went on to illustrate Peladan's  Istar and Femmes Honnettes! (1888).  For Istar he created a  truly sensational image of a woman in the throes of passion, her eyes closed (and not in psiritual contemplation) her head thrown back, while a  horrible phallic-looking plant writhes around her groin.  Whether her bondage is literal (hands tied behind her head?) or figurative hardly matters.

Pallentes Radere Mores, roughly translated as "Immoral people turn pale under the lash of satire" was the frontispiece for Femmes Honnettes! (Honest Women!).  The motto was taken from a satire by Persius (34-62 CE), a Roman poet who work became popular during the Middle Ages.  The hands of the well-dressed woman reaching toward the toothsome nude suggest a world of dissimulation.

Years later, Khnopff  told journalist Helene Laiilet,  "Art is not a necessity."   A sentiment that fits uneasily with Peladan's plan for a priestly class of artists  whose work would promote spiritual evolution.  Eventually the reticent  Khnopff moved away from the garish Peladan.  In the meantime, Peladan incorporated L'Asssociation de l'Ordre de la Rose Croix du Temple et du Graal in 1888 with its telltale reference to  medieval times.    Erik Satie became music director for the group and in the two years (1890-1892)  before he broke with Peladan, Satie composed his most innovative music.

 The Salon Rose-Croix, exhibited annually  from 1892 to 1897 in Paris,  to a large audience, lured  by Peladan's notoriety, although the artists who participated were hardly a shabby group, including Edmond Aman-Jean,  Eugene Grasset, Carlos Schwabe,, and Jan Toorop.   At the first Salon in March, 1892, Khnopff's I Lock My Door Upon Myself  captured  public attention. 

  “My mind beats for no one; I live in myself for myself. I feel with my mind.  I breathe with my brain, I see with my mind, I die of impatience and longing.  No one here can sate my wishes or soften my lack and I have forgotten how to cry.  I am alone, I rest and can wait.”  – from Seraphitus Seraphita by Honore de Balzac,  1834.

Because Khnopff used titles for some of his pictures from  poems by Christina Rossetti and because he used red-haired models, it is easy to see a pre-Raphaelite bent.  But I Lock My Door Upon Myself and Who Shall Deliver Me are veritable catalogs of the artist's personal imagery.  The locked room contains many possible exits.  The window at right opens onto a scene of Bruges, the corridor behind the woman looks like the ones in early Flemish primitive paintings, and the table she leans on has been likened to a coffin.  A circular mirror reflecting a vaporous scene, a bust of Hypnos that Khnopff had recently seen on his first visit to the British Museum, a faded poppy and arum lilies.

Khnopff's art is a demonstration of hise neo-Platonic belief that all natural things have a correspondence  with a deeper truth behind the image.  Khnopff used  the arum lily as this emblem for androgyny.  The flower belongs to the gynadnric class of plants, having both male and female characteristics which makes it an apt floral symbol for the ideal.
In  Arum Lily, the model is Lily Maquet, one of three daughters of a Glasgow architect living in Brussels. who posed for the artist.  She wears the armor-like white dress, and seems trapped between the lily and the curtain that separates her from past, represented by an antique column.

"Khnopff has created a type of ideal woman.  Are they really women?  Are they not rather imaginary feminites?  They partake at the same time of the Idol,of  the Chimera, and of the Sphinx and of the Saint.  They are rather plastic androgynes, subtle symbols, conceived according to an abstract idea and rendered visible." - Jean Delvillle

Something else that Khnopff told Helen Laillet in their interview which appeared in Studio International for December, 1912: "The expression of the mouth is the truest, there it is impossible to dissimulate."   You can peel this statement like an onion.  It goes against the common wisdom that the eyes are the window of the spirit,  through which we most fully experience another person. with  Khnopff's opaque or averted glances. Its suggests dissatisfaction with what he saw there and, as a corollary, the goal of dissimulation and concealment.   And the mouth can be greedy or cruel.   When I look By The Seaside or many of Khnopff's pcitures, I'm reminded again of Norma Winstone's lyric A Timeless Place.

"The summer sky I saw reflected in the colour of your eyes,
but somehow I could never peel away the layers of disguise.
I'm drowning now, I'm slowly sinking in a sea of blue and green
Where what you are is never seen.  How can anybody know you?"

Note: Thank you to Neil Philip for his help with the Latin and with Roman literature.
1. Alexander Seon - Portrait Of Josephin Peladan, 1891, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon.
2. Fernand Khnopff - Le Vice Supreme, frontispiece 1885. 
3. Fernand Khnopff - With Josephin Peladan, Istar, 1888, Wolf Uecker Collection, Lausanne.
4. Fernand Khnopff - With Josephin Peladan.  Pallentes Radere Mores, 1888, Cheramy et cie, Paris.
5. Fernand Khnopff - Le reflet bleu (Blue Reflection), 1911,  private collection, Brussels.
6. Carlos Schwabe - poster for the  Salon Rose+Croix, March  1892, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
7. Fernand Khnopff - I Lock my Door Upon Myself, 1891, Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
8. Fernand Khnopff - Arum Lily, modeled by Lily Maquet, 1895
9. Fernand Khnopff - At the Seaside, 1890, Mme Paul Philipsson, Brussels.

13 February 2012

"My Dream Will Become Your Reality"

" ..there can be no doubt that the guardians of the sun gate were put there in answer to the question, 'Why do the dead return not?'  The beasts fawn on all who enter, but rend all who would pass thence again." - William Lethaby, from Architecture, Mysticism, and Myth, London, Percival & Co.: 1892

After more than a century Caresses still startles, even without the  frisson of knowing that  the face of  the creature half-woman/half-leopard is modeled after the artist's sister.  The androgyne  has been  an ideal at least since Plato's Symposium wherein the brother-sister relationship seemed to offer a way out of the conflicts of sexuality. Closer to Khnopff's time, the theme reappeared in the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg as a morality that might encompass perverse urges.  And in French literature the place of honor that  Shakespeare's Hamlet holds in English belongs to Racine's Phaedre, a play about incest.

When Khnopff was questioned about his intentions for the picture  he replied that the image is a lot less mystical than people think; that it is a completely contemporary allegory. It may be an allegory on the choice between power and pleasure embodied in a sphinx and an androgyne  but its imagery draws on the myth of Oedipus and the Sphinx, a popular subject with 19th century painters, notably Gustave Moreau.   The leopard symbolized exquisite delight in the Middle Ages, but Khnopff intended a cheetah, the animal closest to the snake.  He used the body of a leopard for plastic reasons, he explained.  The red desert and the two ruined columns suggest that the two sexes  are exiled in some stark burning infinity. 

Like Moreau, who created hybrid forms not found in nature, Fernand Khnopff's forms were emblematic, but he used readily available symbols  such as circles, mirrors, flowers, animals.  The blue wings and the closed eyes of Khnopff's Icarus are the stuff of sleep and dreams.  His sleeping Medusa is also an intensely personal revision of a well known mythological character. When Khnopff told the Italian journalist Marghareta Sarfatti that Hypnos "is the only deity I recognize" he acknowledged the centrality of dreams in his imagery.  And always, although not acknowledged, that gorgeous Memling blue that he knew from childhood in Bruges.

"Behind appearance is a reality which appearance expresses but can never fully disclose.  Beauty is a sort of symbolic disclosure.  It is the invisible made visible through expressions, the revealing 'garment' of the invisible and kin to our natures." - Theodore Jouffrey, from a lecture to the Royal Acaemdy of Art, 1842.

What  strangeness lies behind this voluntary solitude, immobile yet attentive - to what thoughts?  The Symbolist belief that silence is necessary for spiritual revelation has links to many religious and occult practices.

"In the most remote antiquity, ornaments were emblems.  The jewels which adorned the men and women bore the imprint of a profound sentiment, or better, contained an illusion to some religious idea...were less real representations than the forms of writing, thought made sensible." - Charles Blanc, from Grammaire des Arts decoratifs in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Paris, H. Laurens: 1876

  "...to distinguish between the invisible and the hidden.  For example, a letter in an envelope is visibly hidden, but not invisible." - Fernand Khnopff

Encadrement, or framing, was very important to Khnopff.  From the French,  the word carries the dual meaning of both framing and encircling.  In  the novel Against Nature (1884), J.-K.Huysmanns asserted that the artist is one who remains outside time.  The multiple framing devices in Portrait of Marguerite Khnopff distance the viewer, so does Margeurite's averted glance.  The white dress and the long gloves are a kind of armorOne arm  is locked by the other in a hidden gesture.  The door behind her is closed, an emblem of the space that separates the viewer (and the artist) from her.  There are markings that suggest hieroglyphics  on the hanging that drapes the door, but we cannot decipher them.  

The golden circle was Khnopff's mandala.  The circle is usually positive, symbolizing unity, perfection, and  sacred form in  geometry.  The Latin word for gold - aurum - is similar to the Hebrew word for light - aor
Khnopff often used the tondo, a round form from the Italian Renaissance.   I suspect that his interest was specific enough that he would have known that its earliest instance was Burgundian and, thus, associated with Bruges, once seat of the Burgundian court.  But there are more ambiguous interpretations of the circle and the erudite Khnopff was likely aware of them as they were common currency in his time.  In his play The Birds (c. 414 BCE), Aristophanes claimed that each of us begins as a circle, without arms or legs.   Medeival alchemists contended that the first sphere was a skull.

A mirror image has commonly symbolized art because both are mimetic, representing the sensible world.  In light of Khnopff's neo-Platonic belief that human passions are elevated through  their abstract expression, it may be that in With Gregoire Leroy. My Heart Cries For Other Times the artist intends us to question whether the reflection is an illusion or an emblem of the soul.  There is more to this image than narcissism just as there is more to contemplating the past than nostalgia.

“We are merely the stars’ tennysballs, struck and bandied which way please them.” – from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster,  c. 1613. 

By the time he completed Memories  at the age of thirty-one, Fernand Khnopff was the most famous artist in Belgium and had an international reputation.  He used photographs of Marguerite in  making the picture.  Through the powdery medium of pastels he created a timeless place, without shadows.  I think of this picture as une ronde des femmes.   The three women at left, with the youthful Marguerite-of-the-white-dress in front are like an exercise in time-lapse photography.  The woman in the center, the only one with her back to the viewer, is turned toward this tableau.  Like the Portrait of Marguerite, she clasps her tennis racket behind her back in a locked gesture.  The knowledge that Marguerite married the next year and moved away  to  Liege seems a palpable presense.

The chimera, a character with specific attributes in Greek mythology, is also simply an imaginary creatre composed of incongruous parts, or even an unrecognizable creature from a dream.  Here Khnopff's version, part animal and part human, stands in front of a woman who holds in her hands a veil that separates reality and dreams.

"My dream will become your reality." - (Sar) Josephin Peladan

What Peladan said, Khnopff, whose works Peladon adored, achieved.  The painter of  introspective portraits and Barbizon landscapes would never have cast the spell on viewers that this enigmatic purveyor of dreams has.  But in retrospect, even Fosset in the forest of Arden appears to be a place "where what you are is never seen."

Caresses,  1896, Musee Royale des Beaux-Arts, Brussles.
A Mask, 1897,  Hambourg Kunsthalle.
Icarus, undated, Maitre Poirier Collection, Brussels. 
Medusa, 1896, private collection, Belgium.
The Golden Tiara, 1909, private collection, London
Portrait of Margeurite Khnopff, 1887, Musee Royale des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. 
Brown Eyes And Blue Flower, 1905, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent. 
 With Gregoire Leroy. My Heart Cries for Another Time, 1889, private collection, Belgium.
Memories, 1889, Musee Royale des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.
Chimera, c. 1910, Marcel Mabile Collection, Brussels.
In Fosset. An Evening, 1886, Hearn Family Trust, New York. 

For further reading
1.The Symbolist Art of Fernand Khnopff by Jeffrey Howe, Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press: 1892.
2. Catalogue Raisonne by Robert Delevoy, Catherine Croes, Gisele Ollinger-Zinque, Editions Hossmanns, Brussels: 1979, 1987.  Attributions, courtesy of.