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.


gésbi said...

I have very much enjoyed this and your previous posts on and around Khnopff, painter whose ideas 'circle around a core irritant.' Simply excellent.

Vincent Nappi said...

More great stuff on Khnopff. Thanks so much for posting about this guy!

Jane said...

Thank you, Gesbi. There is quite a bit of contradictory information about Khnopff out there. Much of it is opinion offered where evidence is scarce. I've tried to clarify what we know from what we imagine - and still write gracefully. None of this would matter if the works were not bewitching.

Jane said...

Vincent, my thanks to you, again. Their contemporaries found affinities between Khnopff's images and Maurice Maeterlinck's poetry. One of these days I want to get to that, so this may not be the end of things here. It's hard t let go of artists. They get under your skin.

Neil said...

Fascinating as always, Jane, Khnopff has got under your skin, but I think you are getting under his.

Jane said...

Neil, it was the unexpected chance to see "Incens" close-up that goaded me to do this. (Thanks to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University and an anonymous collector/dealer whom I suspect is Barry Friedman of NYC.)