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


Vincent Nappi said...

I've been loving all these Fernand Khnopff articles you've been posting lately. Thanks so much for shedding light on someone who is quickly becoming a new favorite!

ACravan said...

I've been following your Khnopff posts with great interest and pleasure. They're terrific. Curtis

Jane said...

Vincent, Khnopff's work repays the attention. Because Khnopff was reticent about many things, others have been rather free in filling in the blanks. (A polite way of saying that takes awhile to sift through the verbiage out here.)

Jane said...

A Craven, thank you! I've struggled with Khnopff. Seeing one of his pastels in person at the group exhibition "Face To Face" - and what a marvel it was - made me determined to try to do his work some small measure of justice.

ACravan said...

You've done us and Khnopff a great service. About a year ago, I used a number of Khnopff paintings, as well as photographs of the house, on my blog as illustrations for various texts. In each case I thought the works and the juxtapositions made the artistic sense I was looking for, but I think you've clarified things really beautifully, which takes a lot of effort and discipline. But that's typical of The Blue Lantern. Curtis

Jane said...

Thank you for your appreciation, Curtis. It makes me think that I have succeeded in some small measure.

Hels said...

I was delighted to read "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". This suggests that not only were the Austrians having success with modernism in Vienna etc; other Europeans felt it was a role model for their own societies.

I was also delighted to read that "Khnopff shared the Socialist sympathies of many Symbolists, like Horta who designed La Maison du Peuple for the betterment of the working class." Too often artists watch their own society almost as an outsider, and don't want to get involved in any real way.

But families who destroy an artist's history, as soon as the artist is safely dead, make me sooo angry. It happened to Turner as well (by his agent, but same thing).

Jane said...

Thanks so much for your interesting comments!
Fernand Khnopff and Adolphe Stoclet provided conduits between the "new" art between Austria and Belgium.
The Belgian Symbolists were, generally speaking, much more politically engaged than their counterparts in other countries. Belgium led in industrialization and the 1880s was a decade of harsh conditions for workers and social upheavals.
I don't know why Khnopff's family destroyed his papers. He may have requested it, given his personality. My guess that he wanted Villa Khnopff to be his lasting statement on his art doesn't necessarily conflict with that. But the ignominious destruction of Villa Khnopff, that he took such pride in, by feuding nephews shows how we all lose influence over our legacy when we are no longer there to defend it.

KP said...

Hi I wanted to learn more about the influence of the Church of the New Jerusalem on Khnopff. Could I get the source where it mentions he went to the church?

Jane said...

KP, welcome. I've read everything I could get my hands on - both in English and French - about Khnopff and, without benefit of footnotes, at this point, can recommend two books.
1. The Symbolist Art of Fernand Khnopff by Jeffrey Howe, UMI Research Press:1982.
2.Fernand Khnopff, 1858-1921 by Frederik Leen,Royal Museum of Fine Arts,Brussels: 2004.

It was difficult to sift through the speculations about Khnopff. His strong sense of privacy invites all kinds of "filling in the blanks." But beware.
I should have included the following quote in one of my Khnopff articles “If stupidity becomes so persistent that it pushes you beyond all possible endurance, amuse yourself by playing a charming practical joke which is intelligently conceived, cruelly carried out, and punctuated at its close by a discreet laugh which is the concentrated and sublime expression of joy. " Fernand Khnopff, as translated by Mary Anne Stevens, London, Phaidon Press: 1973.
Hope this helps.