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), a French Symbolist whose pronouncements on art sound familiar to admirers of Khnopff, said  "I am dominated by  one thing, an irresistible, burning attraction towards the abstract." Truer in Khnopff's case than in Moreau's.   Khnopff made no secret of his admiration for Moreau, and the obvious 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 between the two artists 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 Khnopff, whose sister Marguerite donated 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, a painting of seven women, all 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 wouldn't have been his style.

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 his countryman 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, his works exhibited from St. Louis to Budapest,  when he  decided to build a house.  Apparently, he considered  hiring the master of L'Art Nouveau, Victor Horta, as his architect but chose instead Edmond Pelseneer, less well known but perhaps more amenable to letting his client obscure his contribution to the project and take the credit himself. 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 condescend to  Laillet's ingenuousness in the face of  Khnopff's collection of self-referential talismans (The Home Of An Artist, 1912) at our own risk. After all, 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 Arthur in November, 1903 and other subjects he found congenial like Oberon and Parsifal.  During this period Khnioff also began to attend the Church of the New Jerusalem whose teachings were based in  Swedenborgian mysticism.   The attraction for the artist whose work  Edmond de Taeye characterized as "neither religious, nor Christian, nor mythological, but rather emblematic" was unsurpring.   Emblematic of what, though?  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 would stay 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 the 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 in 1916; she died November 27, 1958, outliving Khnopff by decades   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 space  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 living conditions.

In the wake of his divorce, the man 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.   However another woman had got there first; an article  appeared in Il Rinascemnto, a magazine published in Milan in April 1906, 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 its 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, he shared Khnopff's love of the color blue.  When Stoclet inherited a fortune in 1904, he commissioned the Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann  to design a house  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 IV 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 where it now graces the Vasari Corridor.  The contents of his studio were sold on November 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 Baugniet, 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  half-woman/half-leopard is modeled after the artist's sister.  The figure of 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 among 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 landscape. 

Like Moreau, who created hybrid forms not found in nature, Fernand Khnopff's forms were emblematic.  Khnopff also used recognizable  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 to his vocabulary of images.  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 a myriad of 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, had great significance for Khnopff.  From the French,  the word encadrement 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, as does Margeurite's averted gaze.  Her white dress and  long gloves function as 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 no one has deciphered 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.   Medieval 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.

06 February 2012

Bruges & Fernand Khnopff

"What is the effect of an early education and of peculiar surroundings upon a disposition abnormally sensitive  and precocious?...Like birthmarks, these reflections and impressions grow with us - sometimes hidden, often shown in disfigurements, always there...Bruges has much to do with the art of Fernand Khnopff."  -  Walter Shaw Sparrow, Magazine of Art, London, 1890.

Idealized memories of childhood are common enough, and probably explain the persistent  myth of a golden age.  D'Autrefois,  or other times, often are the subtext of Fernand Khnopff's art.  We interpret at our own risk.

"Where life was concentrated in two or three rooms and where the salons were only used once a year for official receptions, only after ward to be closed once again for the length of the long silent winter but also in  the desolation of the summers.  grandiose dwellings, places of oblivion and solemnity, where a child's spirit is almost forced into melancholy meditations and solitary pondering...." - Hippolyte Fierens-Gevaert on the Khnopff family in Bruges.

According to Pol de Mont, director of the Museum of Fine Arts-Antwerp, Fernand Khnopff told him in 1901 of the  countless hours he had spent playing with his younger brother Georges  in the cellar of the family home in Bruges.  Khnopff's vivid memories of staring out windows just above the waterline of the canal  may have been the source of his later idiosyncratic image cropping.

"I have often been reproached for cutting the heads off my personages  with the frame which surrounds them, but in doing that I have had each time a precise goal.   Thus, in L'Offrande, I had wanted to give the impressions of a very large figure seen on high from below," (Fernand Khnopff quoted by Edmond-Louis de Taeye in Fernand Khnopff, in the sereis Les artistes Belges contemporains, Brussels, Castaiagne, 1894).

Edmond Khnopff's (1826-1900)  father, was a royal magistrate in Bruges where the Khnopffs had lived since 1726. Originally from Austria, the family had been elevated to the nobility by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1621 and several generations had served as lawyers and judges in the Austrian Netherlands.  The independent Belgian nation was twenty-eight years old when  Fernand Khnopff was born on September 12, 1858 at his grandparents' home, a chateau at Grimbergen-lez-Termonde, east of Ghent   His  younger brother Georges (a future poet) was born at Bruges in 1860 and a sister Marguerite was born in 1864 at Liege. The Khnopffs lived at Langestraat 1, a location with a view of the famous Quai Vert (Green Quay).
Khnopff's methods for keeping the curious at arm's length were themselves works of art; he had mastered the aristocratic skill of revealing only so much as he chose.  He cooperated with interviewers throughout his career, but on his terms.   His descriptions of his only known return to Bruges in 1904 never varied from what he told his friend Leon Tombu: that he had put on dark glasses before leaving the train and  never removed them while outdoors.   This story, true or not, has an antecedent in Dendermonde.  After his  grandfather's death in 1868, Khnopff never visited there again. 


Khnopff obscured the extent of his use of photography but we still wonder about those dark glasses.  In Bruges. A Church (above) shows the interior of  the Church of Notre Dame and the altar by Michelangelo.  The Khnopff family coat of arms was displayed on the church walls; by no means was this just one among the many churches of  Bruges for Fernand Khnopff

A country with two principal languages is a country in need of interpreters. The polymath Henry Van de Velde  (1863-1957) said that he saw in Flemish and wrote in French.   Flemish cities - the beads on the rosary of Flanders in Fierens-Gevaert's  resonant phrase - existed as a living reminder of.another time  The works of  the Belgian symbolists were rooted in reality as much as in dreams..  The repetitious images of stagnant pools and crumbling churches in Symbolist art,  attributed to the stories of Edgar Poe Allen, had real-life counterparts in cities like Bruges.

The place that religion had occupied in everyday life hollowed out in the 19th century, leaving a vacancy that  the Symbolists filled with psychologically-tinged mysticism.  In L'Art Romantique  (1869), Baudelaire asserted that an affinity exists between spiritual states and the natural world and, furthermore, "art is of value only in so far as it is capable of expressing these mysterious relationships."

What coded messages does this dual image hold?  The upper panel is a tondo, a round painting of Marguerite, Khnopff's sister.  Enclosed in a circle, a form symbolizing perfection, she touches the lips of a mask of Hermes.  Behind her, a white crane is embroidered on  a wall hanging.  The lower panel shows St. Jan's Hospital in Bruges, home to a large collection of paintings by the great Hans Memling. At the bottom of the frame Khnopff engraved these words from Aesop's Fables: "Light winged the crane fled."   In an interview with Maria Bierme, Khnopff added:  "clear is the light of noble thoughts which rise toward the heavens."

The year of Khnopff's  Secrets/ Refkections,  the Chapel House at St. Jan's hosted the first modern exhibition of Memling's work. It attracted 35,000 visitors but  Khnopff was careful to state that he had not seen the Bruges Memlings, which may explain his painting  - An Abandoned City - which shows the base of the Memling monument without the Memling statue on top!
One more secret, at least for now, is whether Khnopff was familiar with this intriguing dual image of the Place de Luxembourg by Khnopff's first teacher, Xavier Mellery. 

1. Memories of Flanders. A Canal In Bruges, 1904, Hearn family Trust, New York. 
2. A Canal In Bruges, 1905, left panel for the triptych D'Autrefois (Of Other Times), current whereabouts unknown, Catalogue raisonne, Croes et al, Brussels: 1979.
3. L'Offrande (the Offering), 1891, pastel, graphite and chalk on paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. 
4. In Bruges. A Church, 1904, Musee Communale, Verviers. 
5. Secret. Reflection, 1902, Groeningen Museum, Bruges.
6. Xavier Mellery - Place de Luxembourg, no date given, Ronny van de Velde gallery, Antwerp.
7. Marguerite Khnopff  photographed by Fernand Khnopff- c. 1901, Musee d'Orsay, Paris. 
8. unidentified photographer - D'Autrefois, 1908, Venice Biennial, Venice, Cartlgoe rainsonne, Croes et al, Brussels: 1979.