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