26 March 2021

Painted From Memory: Fernand Khnopff's Bruges

To medieval thinkers, everything on earth  was a sign, what was visible was only worth what it could extract from the invisible.  The waning of religion left a vacuum that nostalgia filled. The Saint John's Hospital was one of the oldest buildings in Bruges, a 12th century palace of healing. Painted by Fernand Khnopff in 1904, its reflection in the water reveals more of the building than the artist showed. 

According to Pol de Mont, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Khnopff described to him in 1901 the many hours he  spent playing with his younger brother Georges in the cellar of the family's home in Bruges. His vivid memories of staring out windows that were just above the waterline of the canal ,may have been the source of his later idiosyncratically cropped images.

Fernand Khnopff was fascinated by the mysteries religion, from the orthodox to the occult. He was attracted to the Salon de la Rose + Croix that ...art as a religion. His pictures are meditations on transience, often done in grisaille. He was inspired by Georges Rodenbach's comment on pastels as a metaphor for memory, images "half erased ... fading like a pastel drawing that has not been kept under glass, allowing the chalk to disperse." What Rodenbach made of Bruges was a metaphor for death. The publication of his novel Bruges-la-Morte in 1892 made his reputation.  By the late 19th century the canals had become polluted carriers of disease. For both men Bruges functioned as a 'soulscape."  In symbolic iconography, reflections signal the differences between perception and reality.

Khnopff''s adroit ways of keeping the curious at a distance were themselves works of art; he cooperated with interviewers throughout his career but only on his terms. His description of his only known return to Bruges in 1904 never varied: he told his friend Leon Tombu that h had donned dark glasses before leaving the train and he never removed them while outdoors, True or not, this story had a similar antecedent in Khoppff's hometown: after his grandfather died in 1868 he never went there again. Rodenbach, who never returned to his birthplace in Ghent, spoke of it constantly, according to his children.

Khnopff's father was a royal magistrate in Bruges where the family had lived since 1726.  Originally from Austria, the family had been elevated to the nobility by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1621.  Several generations has served as lawyers and judges in the Austrian Netherlands.  Belgium had only  become an independent nation in 1830. The family home was located a 1 Langestraat with a view of the Quai vert (Green Quay).

"Where life was concentrated in two or three rooms and where the salons were only used once a year for official receptions, only afterward to be closed once again for the length of the long silent winter nut also in the desolation of the summers. Grandiose dwellings, palaces of oblivion and solemnity..." _ Hippolyte Fierens-Gevaert. 

Khnopff's Memling Plaatz is a surreal island, threatened with inundation..by a rising tide.  The plaza and the base of the memorial to Hans Memling are realistically rendered but where is the statue commemorating the 15th century painter. When he was asked, Khnopff claimed he had never seen the statue. The painter may have been channeling the history of how Bruges hd been left for dead. Miraculously, it had become an accidental port by virtue of a tidal wave tht swept inland in 1134. In response, the citizens of Bruges had constructed a web of canals to take advantage of their good fortune. Gradually as they continued to dredge eventually the River Zwijn silted in leaving the city marooned at permanent low tide. By the 15th century Bruges had entered a twilight world. The glorious art and architecture remained, confirming its irrelevance in an industrial age. Perhaps this was what  Arthur Rimbaud had in mind when he opined that the French would have been second rate Symbolists without the Belgians. 


Fernand Khnopff - In Bruges.  Saint Jan's Hospital (circa 1904) pastel on paper,  Hearn Family Trust, NYC

Fernand Khnopff  - Memories of Bruges, 1889, pastel on paper mounted on canvas, Royal Museum of Fine arts, Brussels

Fernand Khnopff  (1858-1921) - Abandoned City (Memling Plaatz - Bruges), 1904, pastel and pencil on paper mounted on canvas, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.

22 March 2021

Painted From Memory: Henir Le Sidaner's White Garden

Henri Le Sidaner (1862-1939) was born just as the Impressionists were preparing to overturn realism in painting and he died just as abstraction was peeking its nose under the art tent like some mischievous camel.  To our eyes he may look like a particularly sweet Impressionist but Le Sidaner was, rather, an adherent of Symbolism, another reaction to realistic art.  The potted version is that Symbolists expressed truths through metaphorical images (works as well in literature as in art). His friend Gabriel Moury described Le Sidaner as "a mystic who has no faith."

His contemporaries compared Le Sidaner to the great novelists and playwrights of the movement: "The Rodenbach of Painting" and "The Maeterlinck of Painting."  Both men were Belgians. Georges Rodenbach was the author of Bruges-la-Morte (1892), said to be the first novel illustrated by photographs and Maurice Maeterlinck was a Flemish poet who wrote in French and was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize in 1911. His paintings get a mention in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time  

Le Sidaner, the child of Breton parents, was born on the island of Mauritius. He was a contemporary of the Post-Impressionists and studied art in Paris with an academic artist but for his own painting, he looked to the Symbolist movement in turn of the century Belgium. He moved to the village of Gerboroy in 1898 where he could paint in solitude and cultivate his gardens but that did not mean that he set his easel outdoors.  Le Sidaner preferred to paint from memory which pulled a scrim between the painting and the viewer. 

Like Whistler, Le Sidaner saw potential in liminal times of the day, those moments when the sensory threshold is about to be crossed. The white garden, that Le Sidaner designed, was surrounded by sandy walkways,  rows of white pinks (Dianthus plumairius) formed its border, the trees were white weeping roses and a white bench  provided a resting place for contemplation. Its design harked back to a medieval hortus conclusis, an enclosed garden with roots in the Song of Solomon: "A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up." The eye is invited to enter the painting through an expanse of empty lawn, follows back to the balustrades and the steps to arrive at the barely visible red dot of the setting sun. With or without the symbolic elements,  Le Sidaner's paintings  reach out to the viewer.

Image: Heniri Le Sidaner - Le Jardin blanc au crepuscule (The White Garden at Twilight), 1912, oil on canvas, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.

15 March 2021

How The Old Masters Came To America

 "One takes, moreover, an acute satisfaction in seeing America stretch out her long arm and rake in, across the green cloth of the wide Atlantic, the highest prizes of the game of civilization."  -  Henry James, from "The American Purchase of Meisssonier's 'Friedland," 

When Henry James wrote this in 1876 he was a young man.  By the time he came to write the short novel The Outcry in 1911 he was in is sixties and had been living in England for decades.  In The Outcry James took the opposite position.  Times had changed for the British aristocracy. In the wake of the collapse in grain prices they had been rendered land poor, reduced to selling their old master paintings to culture climbing American millionaires like J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick.

Mechanized steamships  had caused the collapse of grain prices as  trans-Atlantic trade enabled the United States to export its grain to Europe.  Over a period of just nine years the price of wheat dropped  from twenty cents a ton down to two cents. The British and Russian land barons were hit especially hard by this; the famines on the Russian steppes would not be forgotten by the peasants; their descendants flocked to support the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

A similar upheaval but a much worse one took place in Norway, an entirely different society from its European neighbors.  Norway in the 19th century was a poor country in an undeveloped state, its people subsisted  mostly off nature as farmers and fishermen with a small class of carpenters and cobblers.  

However hygiene was improving by mid-century so people were living longer but the soil could not support the larger population and agriculture collapsed, forcing people to migrate to the cities. Industrialization came late to Norway and when it did it was sudden and brutal. Kristiana, as Oslo was then known, grew from 17,000 in 1800 to 230,000 in 1901.

From tiny farm communities where everyone knew everyone going back generations and the pace of life was slow, Norwegians were thrust onto an urban treadmill where undreamt-of speed became the pace of their days, where they might see hundreds of strangers in a single day.  The wonder was that even neighbors could be strangers in the city. The need to constantly defend oneself from over-stimulation led to the use of coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol ...

Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) published his novel Hunger in 1890. The story of a starving young man in the capitol city, who moves in and out of homelessness, hunger eventually leading to delusions.  All the while trying to maintain a fa├žade of respectability, he gradually suffers mental and physical deterioration.  Hamsun took a dim view of the modem metropolis just then coming into being, describing Kristiana sardonically as "this wondrous city that no one leaves before it has made its mark on him."

Edvard Munch (1863-1944), painter of emotional extremes lived through these disorienting times. Located on the outer edge of Europe,  a third of Norway was above the Artic Circle. How desolate was this place?  The novelist Mary Shelley had sent her Frankenstein off to die in its Arctic wastes.  From notes he left behind we know that this jittery atmosphere inspired The Scream (the best-known pastel version was created in 1893). 

A brief historical note on the term "old masters."  The term first came into use after the French Revolution to distinguish pre-revolutionary artists from then contemporary artists who were held to be 'modem masters.'


1.  unidentified artist - Countryside Around Dixton Manor- Gloucester, England, 19th century, reprinted from The Observer, 4 November 1979.           

2. Edvard Munch - The Scream, 1893, oil, tempura, and pastel on cardboard, National Gallery of Norway/ Munch Museum, Oslo.                                                                                    

07 March 2021

There's A Word For It: Bonnarding

"Because nothing is ever finished/ the painter would shuffle bonnarding,/ into galleries, museums,, even the homes of his patrons,/ with hidden palette and brush:/ overscribble drapery and table with milk jug or fattened pear,/ the clabbered ripening colors of second sight.

Though he knew the time the pentimenti rise - / half-visible, half brine-swept fish, their plunged shapes/ picking the mind - toward the end, only revision mattered:/ to look again, more deeply, harder, clearer,/ the one redemption granted us to ask." - excerpt from "History As The Painter Bonnard" by Jane Hirshfield, from The October Palace, New York, HarperCollins: 1994

There is a story that may or may not be true, that Pierre Bonnard was arrested in the Louvre, paintbrush and palette in hand, standing in front of one of his own paintings, reconsidering and retouching it. That it has come down to us ...suggests how plausible it seemed to the artist's friends, whether or not  true.

The dog on the terrace may gave this painting its title but could be the last thing you notice about the picture.  The view from the terrace draws the eye first. What a pleasant and varied vista, a landscape with trees and fields and a brook running by. Then the cloth laid on the diagonal in the lower right corner opposite the stairs catches the eye; a cup and saucer, a spoon, and a pot are at the ready for a petit dejeuner en plein air. Only then de we notice the little dog curled up by the garden wall. This too is bonnarding, painting as an adventure.  The process is the point.

Bonnard has been claimed as the first abstract expressionist for the immediacy of his brushwork, full of flexibility and improvisation. Looking at a Bonnard painting, especially later ones,  we sense his pleasure at moving paint around  on the canvas. He simplified his subject matter the better to concentrate on formal elements, color, shape, etc.  

Unlike the Impressionists,  contemporaries of his youth, Bonnard was uninterested in painting  en plein air. He was perfectly content to paint the view from his window or terrace. Instead of  paining at an easel, Bonnard tacked his canvas to a wall. A restless spirit, he usually had several canvases in progress at a time. Sometimes he even painted several subjects on a single canvas, to cut up later when they were finished.  His eccentricities extended to mixing his paints. Rather than use a palette, Bonnard mixed his colors on plates, walking back and forth from the wall to a table where he haad arranged the plates to his liking.

It was in 1904 that Bonnard discovered the Midi when he visited his friends from the days of the Nabis, Ker-Xavier Roussel Edouard Vuillard ,at Saint-Tropez. The light and the vegetation came as a revelation to the Parisian. "I had a thousand and one nights...The sea, the yellow walls, the reflections as colourful (sic) as the lights." From then on Bonnard spent his winters in a succession of rented houses until, in 1922, he purchased :a house in Le Cannet.  Le Bosquet, the pink house became, along with his companion Marthe and a series of little dachshunds, all the inspiration  he needed.

Image: Pierre Bonnard - Chien sur la terrasse (Dog on the ..The sea, the yellowwTerrace), 1917, oil on canvas, Musee d'Orsay, Patis.