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.


Rouchswalwe said...

Jane! A thought-provoking, beautifully presented post. Thank you!

Neil said...

Fanstastic (in every sense of the word) post, Jane. I particularly love the quote about the letter in the envelope being visibly hidden but not invisible - it's the kind of distinction Donald Rumsfeld used to try but fail to make.

Jane said...

Rouchswalwe,since Khnopff wanted to provoke thought in his viewers that must be a good thing.

Jane said...

Neil, in a match-up between the two, I would bet on Khnopff! The artist has provoked quite a few unsupported assertions. The most recent one I came across was in the book "Debussy and his World", where Leon Bottstein identified the woman in "Memories" as Khnopff's wife. This leads me to wonder whether any of the unidentified women among the many nudes Khnopff did after his marriage were of his wife. Like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, each answer provokes two questions. As for your compliment, I don't even want to think how I struggled with this one.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jane!
Great blog!
I have one question. You quoted Khnopff in connection with his choice for a cheetah/leopard in THE CARESSES: "He used the body of a leopard for plastic reasons, he explained."
Is it possible to give me the source of this quotation. It would be of great help for my doctoral studies...
Greetings from Germany, Anna!

Jane said...

Welcome to you!
The quote came from either Jeffrey Howe's book, which is well worth reading - or - from "Fernand Khnopf" by Frederik Leen, et al - or from "Fernand Khnoff" by Louis Dumont-Wilden - or from "Fernand Khnopff" or "The Symbolists" by Robert Delavoy (all in English).
The catalog raisonne is in French, so I would not have quoted my own translation without mentioning the fact.
I can't speak German but I spent a weekend with Cassell's German-English dictionary so I could stumble through "Sonia Knips und zie Wiener Moderne."
Good luck with doctoral studies and please keep me posted. It is so nice to meet you, even at a distance.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your help! My thesis is about "Animals in European Art 1885-1915". At the Moment I am concerned with hybrid creatures... So Khnopffs "Caresses" is a very important picture for my studies...