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.


Hels said...

I can understand why Khnopff used the arum lily to symbolise androgyny i.e the flower had both male and female characteristics. The trouble with symbols in art is that they can represent more than one thing. Or they might even represent nothing at all.

I can also understand where the pre-Raphaelite bent came from. But why attack him on those grounds? "Knopff no longer imitates the French; he has sunk up to his chin in the boots of the Englishman Burne-Jones." What had poor old Burne-Jones done to deserve that?

Jane said...

Hels, apparently Rops took it as a slight to his artwork for "Le Vice Supreme" when Peladan solicited an alternative illustration from Khnopff for a new edition. Ensor also picked a fight with Khnopff, accusing him of plagiarism vis-a-vis similarities he found between his painting "Russian Music" and Khnopff's "Listening To Schumann." When the aristocrat Khnopff was young, he attracted hostility from other artists who were less fortunately placed. This may have contributed to Khnopff's famous reticence.
As for symbolism, J. E. Cirlot's "Dictionary of Symbols" contains so many competing interpretations that they sometimes cancel each other out. That's why I tread cautiously toward Khnopff.

Melinda9 said...

His work has always looked so intriguing when I see it in art books. Thanks for these posts on his life, times and art.

Jane said...

Melinda, I've saved the most difficult for last and that is the place of his sister, Marguerite Freson-Khnopff, in his work.

Anonymous said...

Your blog is superbly informative, thank you. I am doing a little research on Fernand Khnopff. Do you know if there is a publicly available catalogue for the Gallery Giroux sale of his studio effects in 1922?
Thank you

Jane said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for your kind words.
The catalogue was named "Tableaux, pastels, sculptures, dessins, gravures, et meubles". It was published by Galerie Georges Giroux, Brussels,: 1922.
The Frick Art Reference Library (New York) and the Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles) list copies as being in their collections.