Fernand Khnopff is regarded as one of the most mysterious painters of symbolism. For the first time after 40 years the Petit Palais dedicates him a retrospective in France again, about 150 works from all of Khnopff’s creative periods are on display, from the early landscape paintings, children’s portraits and ethereal women’s figures to the mythological images and late enigmatic city views of Bruges. The exhibition was conceived in collaboration with the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels with the goal to delve into the atmosphere of the fin de siècle through an exhibition design inspired by Khnopff’s artist residence.
Fernand Khnopff celebrated his dandyism detached from the world with the same dedication as he created his hermetic picture puzzles that entice the viewer into an inextricable maze of symbols. Also his personality and his life he made a secret of, only little of his private life has been revealed, at times he appears like the incarnation of the eccentric aristocrat Jean Floressas Des Esseintes, the last of his house, from Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel À rebours (Against the Grain), the cult book of French Décadence of the 19th century.
Fernand Khnopff was born in 1858 in the castle of his grandparents in Grembergen, his father Edmond-Jean-Joseph was magistrate in Oudenaarde. When Fernand was one year old, the family moved to Bruges, where he spent his childhood, which strongly shaped his personality. After Khnopff’s father had been appointed judge, the family settled in Brussels. Fernand regularly spent his summer vacation in Fosset near La-Roche-en-Ardennes. At the age of 15 Khnopff made his first sketches according to nature, which already reveal first compositional stylistic features of his later work. On one of his studies he noted “not seeing the sky”, the idiosyncratic choice of the image section with its raised horizon and cropped figures were to become characteristic of his entire artistic work.
Fernand Khnopff, Le maître de l’énigme, Petit Palais
Khnopff’s aristocratic education and the art affine environment, he grew up in, considerably accounted for his highly eccentric dandyish behavior as an artist, displaying a distinct class consciousness. After secondary school he started studying law at the Université Libre de Bruxelles following family tradition, which he dropped out of after one year already, to pursue his artistic calling and to study art at the Académie royale des Beaux-Arts. Also his studies at the academy Khnopff dropped out of in 1879 and started his career as a freelance artist after having stayed in Paris for several months.
Les XX, art revolt of the Belgian bourgeoisie.
In 1883 the Belgian artists’ association Les XX or Société des Vingt (The Society of the Twenty) was founded, with Fernand Khnopff being one of the founders and keeping his membership until their dissolution in 1893. Khnopff had designed their first logo and ranked among the most successful exports of the artist group. In Belgium the avant-garde was led by ambitious lawyers and collectors, just like Fernand Khnopff, who was supposed to make a legal career, was born into a family that had brought forth numerous magistrates. In contrast to the symbolist movement in France the art revolt of Les XX didn’t originate in a bohemian environment, but was an association of sons of the bourgeoisie, who were determined to campaign against the prevailing conservative taste of their fathers. Instead of revolting against social hierarchies, the strategy of Les XX was to directly rope the state in for their goals.
Alluding to the triennial Salon, the Academy and the jury system Octave Maus, one of the co-founders, declared: “Everything that is beautiful, free, and sincere, is stifled by a coterie of octopuses who suck up all the money, esteem, and reputation for themselves.” Les XX didn’t have any aesthetic program, which makes it difficult to define their common goals. The group was a catch basin for all trends that looked like avant-garde, mixing naturalism, neo-impressionism and symbolism with each other. During the economic crisis in 1886 the left-wing leading figures of Les XX campaigned against the political establishment with socialist ideas. This class-struggle mood is also reflected in the pictures of the artists, who denounced the misery of the miners in the coal-mining areas with an iconography of proletarian heroism.
Fernand Khnopff, Mademoiselle Van der Hecht, oil on canvas, 1883
Fernand Khnopff, Marie Monnom, oil on canvas, 1887
Due to this democratic impulse the attempt to eliminate the borderline between artist and craftsman led to the result that the exhibitions of the group were increasingly dominated by decorative arts. In the most clearly way the modern ideal of a Belgian socialism was embodied by the promises of the Maison du Peuple (House of the People), which was designed by Victor Horta and opened in 1891. Also Fernand Khnopff took part in a project of the Maison du Peuple that was aimed at the education of the workers. It was a particular endeavor of Les XX to foster the interdisciplinary collaboration between artistic genres and media. In enforcing modern art writers and poets such as Maurice Maeterlinck played an important role, but music as well was a fixture within the exhibitions and soirées of Les XX.
Not only the revolutionary music of Richard Wagner, also chamber music of Belgian composer César Franck or Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré orchestrated the art of the fin de siècle in Belgium. Fernand Khnopff had good contacts to musicians he was frequently commissioned by to produce portraits, among them the Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer, the daughter of composer Gustave Kéfer. In 1886 Khnopff had his first great success in public with his painting Listening to Schumann, depicting his mother absorbed in Schumann’s music. This picture full of grief and sorrow was probably inspired by James Ensor’s similar painting La Musique Russe that had been created two years before. When both paintings were exhibited at the salon of Les XX at the same time, Ensor accused Khnopff of plagiarism and broke the friendship with him. However, unlike Ensor Khnopff didn’t depict music, but wanted to visualize listening, the inner perception of sound and its psychological impact. The listener, full of devotion to the music, is absorbed by it and has herself being carried away by its magic, with one hand held against her ear to protect herself against the outside world. The source of the music is only suggested at the left edge of the picture by the hand of the pianist, being outside the focus of the viewer.
Fernand Khnopff, Listening to Schumann, oil on canvas, 1883
In search of the fictitious Golden Age of Belgium Fernand Khnopff discovered the “soul of things”.
Khnopff’s willingness to assimilate foreign influences reflects the curiosity of a small and not yet established nation that still was in search of its place in the cultural landscape of Europe. In developing a Belgian identity the political leaders even didn’t shy away from anti-Semitic campaigns to keep a crude nationalistic construct of Roman and German roots clean from impure influences. Relating to this context also is King Leopold’s II. colonial craving for expansion and the brutal subjugation of the Congo in 1885. Many Belgian artists supported this imperialistic policy and had themselves inspired by primitive African sculpture, which is why Belgian art nouveau also shows features of murderous colonialism.
The struggle for a national identity in Belgium was driven by political general conditions that were influenced by the September revolution of 1830. After the Belgian provinces had been under the foreign rule of Spaniards, the Dutch, the French and Austrians for centuries, an identity creating culture couldn’t emerge for a long time. To counter this lack of historical tradition, the kingdom launched a series of “fake traditions” that were surrounded by legends of crusades and medieval battles for civil independence. Due to the multilingualism of Belgium visual art became the driving force in projecting a glorious common past.
Fernand Khnopff, Requiem, charcoal and colored pencils on paper, 1905
However, the national style was characterized by contradictions, while in Brussels the work of Rubens with its exuberance and its sensuous colors was preferred, in Antwerp the heritage of the primitives of the 15th century was maintained, following the tradition of Memling with richly ornamented interiors. Also in Fernand Khnopff’s period the artistic coordinate system of Belgium the artists had to find their place in remained patchwork, with the influences of Bosch, Bruegel, Memling and Rubens competing with each other. Khnopff tried to pervade the phenomena of everyday life with “the soul of things”.
Torn between intentions to reform and reveling in a fictitious lost golden age Belgium was the ideal breeding ground for symbolism with its yearning for myths and legends that made the national past shine in a strangely glorified light. At the same time materialism of modern Belgium was considered as evanescent and soulless, and its overcoming through a social revolution that was born from the ideals of beauty was yearned for. In this respect Fernand Khnopff’s work was both solitary and cosmopolitan, being romanticized by nostalgia and at the same time trying to unleash energy headed for future.
Fernand Khnopff, Incense, oil on canvas, 1898
“L’art pour l’art“ was the response of the symbolists to the radical changes of the fin de siècle.
Symbolism had emerged from the Décadence movement around 1880, which questioned positivism of the technological progress. The symbolists transcended the increasing degeneration of an era shortly before its downfall into an art that attempted to respond to the loss of everyday mysteries with an enhanced thrill of ecstasy. In this attempt symbolism not only opposed naturalism’s love of details, but the excessive enthusiasm of romanticism as well. Also the banal subject matter of impressionism was rejected by the symbolists, instead they endorsed an artistic ideal that tried to mediate between the outer aspects of the world and an underlying hidden reality by means of symbols.
Due to social upheavals and industrialization connected with them the world view of the artists of the fin de siècle was profoundly shaken, as also natural sciences, the proven findings of whose were disintegrating in ever new discoveries, and religion couldn’t provide spiritual support anymore. Only by means of the symbol that represented the entirety of an aesthetic idea of reality the fragmentation of the world could be replied to. Both in poetry and fine arts the debris of the outer reality were meant to be put together to new symbols in order to return to a spiritual wholeness through perfect beauty. One of the applied stylistic devices was synesthesia that pulled all sensations such as color, sound and smell together, that’s why also the musical rhythm plays a major role in symbolist poetry.
Antinous Mondragone, Italy, marble, around 130 AD
Fernand Khnopff, With Verhaeren. An Angel, pencil and colored pencils on paper, 1889
One of the most important principles of symbolism was to depict the targeted aesthetic ideal by no means directly, but always by a circuitous indirect approach. Through the exploration of affinities between words and objects these were meant to be related to each other in a spiritual way, thus gradually encircling the aesthetic ideal, the higher purpose. Essential was the horizon of meaning that was meant to serve as metaphor for the validity of a universal entirety, for the eternal and sublime. Thus the banality of reality was meant to be replaced by an art world pervaded by mysteries. In dialogue with the work of art the viewer was asked to slowly unriddle what cannot be expressed verbally. The symbolists didn’t consider themselves as game changers, but as demiurges of autonomous aesthetics that were meant to reconcile the inner with the outer world, and they solely felt obliged to the idea of “L’art pour l’art“ (“Art for art’s sake“).
August 12th 1886 is regarded as the official founding day of the symbolist movement, when poet Jean Moréas published the manifesto Le symbolisme, in which he took up position against “a clear meaning, false sentimentality and objective description” and expressed his aspiration “to visualize the ideal in distinct form, the goal of which can’t be found in itself, but in expressing the ideal.” After symbolism had been made public to a broader audience during the world exhibition in Paris in 1889, it spread from France throughout Europe, with strong influence in Belgium, Germany, Austria and Russia. French poet Charles Baudelaire was chosen the spiritual godfather of symbolism and his most famous work Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) became the bible of the intellectuals, which exactly reflected the mindset of the fin de siècle, torn between weltschmerz and belief in progress.
The preferred subject matter of the symbolists was represented above all by Greek mythology and biblical allegories, which put occultism, fantasy, eros, sin, illness or death into a new context through pictures rooted in depth psychology and ecstatic feelings. The pure, noble and sublime was embodied by female figures wrapped in long, white robes inspired by classicism. In contrast to them was the “femme fatale”, who conjured up the dark side in connection with the metaphors for eros, sin, death and the devil, combining the sublime and the abysmal.
Fernand Khnopff, The Supreme Vice, pastels, colored pencils and white heightening on paper, 1885
Fernand Khnopff, The Idol, pencil, charcoal and pastels on paper, 1909
Khnopff stylized his artist life as Gesamtkunstwerk with his studio as temple of the self.
Fernand Khnopff put his heart and soul into symbolism, painstakingly endeavoring to turn his life into a Gesamtkunstwerk. Dedicated to the symbolist ideal of a higher entirety he staged both his art and his person in light of the mysterious. As introvert Khnopff tried to seal himself off from the outer world as well as possible, obscuring his works deliberately to hide behind them like behind a mask and to systematically disconcert the audience. In 1904 Louis-Edmond Taye described Khnopff as “reserved like a diplomat. Well-groomed and cool. With the attitude of an English puritan.” But Khnopff was also a man of public life, who knew how to move in society just as smartly as in his dark realm of mysteries. As a dandy of the Décadence Khnopff was strongly concerned with his appearance, who continued to live his aesthetic life also on the street. When he left his studio, he dressed like an aristocrat with gloves, beringed and holding a white lily as symbol of purity.
His motto was “On n’a que soi“ (“One has but oneself“), this solipsistic philosophy of life, closely tied with his permanent desire for a hermit’s solitude, is also reflected in his studio house that he designed as temple of the self in 1900 together with the architect Édouard Pelseneer, serving him as a sanctuary, where he could have himself be absorbed by art like a monk. The house was completed in 1902 and followed in style rather the Vienna Jugendstil than Belgian Art Nouveau, in 1938 it was torn down. Only few visitors could count themselves lucky to enter the studio house, which was designed as synaesthetic Gesamtkunstwerk in order to stimulate all senses. The guests were received in the vestibule by a stuffed peacock and from there got to Khnopff’s studio, which was colored in white, blue and red, just like the entire house. On the floor of the studio was a magic golden circle that served Khnopff for meditation, who was said to have put up his easel in the middle of it.
Khnopff considered the circle as symbol of perfection and often used it in his paintings and drawings in form of medallions. Also on the ceiling of the studio the magic circle was replicated as painting of Khnopff’s zodiac sign, the Libra. In a seemingly random arrangement paintings were lying on the floor or leaning against the wall. Aroma diffusers filled the air with perfume, while a column with a bronze of an amazon by German symbolist Franz von Stuck was reflected in a large water basin. Blue silk curtains covered the entrance to another studio, where works in progress were stored. In the blue room on the first floor Khnopff hung reproductions of works of the artists, whom he admired the most, such as Edward Burne-Jones, Gustave Moreau or Eugène Delacroix. The last room was reserved for the portrait of his beloved sister Marguerite, which he never parted with throughout his life.
Fernand Khnopff, Le maître de l’énigme, Petit Palais
Fernand Khnopff, Brown Eyes and a Blue Flower, pencil and gouache on paper, 1905
Hypnos, the god of sleep, was the only deity Khnopff accepted.
However, the most important place of honor was devoted to a bust of Hypnos. As many other symbolists Fernand Khnopff was thrilled to make the gods of Greek mythology came alive again, in the center of his interest was Hypnos, the god of sleep, whose temples grew little wings from. According to Hesiod’s tradition Hypnos was born through parthenogenesis by Nyx, the night, his brother was Thanatos, the god of death. Hypnos was regarded as gentle god, who possessed half of the life of man when sleeping. Hypnos was the only god Khnopff was willing to recognize, he remarked about him: “Sleep is the most perfect in life.”
He considered sleep as unconscious state of creative imagination, later dream as source of inspiration was also discovered by the Surrealists and explored in trance-like sleep experiments. Khnopff made several copies of a bronze statuette of Hypnos from the 4th century B.C. in the British Museum in London, attributed to Greek sculptor Scopas. The left wing, which had been broken off from the original bronze, he never reconstructed, instead he kept the fragmentary character of the sculpture. Khnopff colored the wing of some plaster busts and painted depictions in blue, the color of romanticism and yearning distance. As household deity and guardian of his creative sanctuary Khnopff presented Hypnos on an altar.
Fernand Khnopff, Le maître de l’énigme, Petit Palais
Hypnos, Italy, Bronze, around 350-200 B.C.
Fernand Khnopff, A Blue Wing, oil on canvas, 1894
Among the group of own works that were on display in his studio house was Hortensia, an early work from 1884, which he never wanted to part with. Many characteristic features typical of Khnopff already can be perceived in this simple floral still life. Similar as in his painting Listening to Schumann Khnopff moves the actual scene to the background. A woman is sitting in a light-flooded interior absorbed in a book, but her silhouette can be seen only vaguely, whereas the flower pot with the hydrangea is presented on a much larger scale in the foreground. A red flower is lying on the tablecloth exactly on the vanishing line between the hydrangea and the women, which could be a hint that it might be Khnopff’s beloved sister Marguerite. The hydrangea is cropped at the upper edge of the image, which Khnopff was to apply also on his later idealized female figures.
Fernand Khnopff, Hortensia, oil on canvas, 1884
Fernand Khnopff was connected with Edward Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites by a close friendship.
Fernand Khnopff was influenced by the sparkling erotically charged pictures of Gustave Moreau with their gloomy visions of the Bible and mythology. But he felt even closer to the English Pre-Raphaelites such as Edward Burne-Jones or Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In 1891 Khnopff traveled to England for the first time, but he had got in contact with the English art scene already in 1886 and participated in an exhibition in London in 1890. Khnopff was so fascinated by the Arts and Crafts movement, that he cultivated his Anglophile dandyism deliberately following the role model of the English artists. Several times he traveled to London, where he made friends with Edward Burne-Jones and as a frequent guest in English artistic circles became correspondent of the magazine The Studio. Giving lectures in Brussels Khnopff expressed his admiration for the Pre-Raphaelites and particularly for Edward Burne-Jones, whom he swapped drawings with, which they had written mutual dedications on.
Also the poetry of Christina Rossetti, the sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, inspired Khnopff to several images. I Lock My Door Upon Myself is an outstanding example of how the mechanisms of symbolism work, namely by separating the symbol from its inherent meaning and assembling image fragments to a new pictorial entity following the collage idea, which is held together only through the painterly equal treatment of the single elements. Rossetti’s poem titled Who shall deliver me? inspired Khnopff to the painting, which he created in 1891. Christina Rossetti was severely religious, in her poem she depicts the mind of a soul yearning for solitude, who turns away from the pleasures of life. Khnopff’s visual representation of Rossetti’s lines weaves chains of association into a tight web that eludes any clear interpretation.
Fernand Khnopff, I Lock My Door upon Myself, oil on canvas, 1891
The melancholy of withdrawing into one’s shell is expressed by the female protagonist of the picture, who thoughtfully rests her chin on her hands, bidding farewell to the outer world. In the foreground are three single red lilies, which reflect the hair color of the woman and structure the image vertically. Horizontally the image is divided into three equally big stripes by three narrative levels arranged on top of each other. In the foreground there is a black plane reminding of a black cloth, that also calls up associations with a piano or a coffin. The middle area is dominated by the portrait of the female figure and the blossoms of the lilies, which divide the picture into four compartments. In the upper stripe of the composition are two cutouts that offer a view of the outside space showing facades and buildings that aren’t linked to each other perspectively.
Between these picture-in-picture areas are a winged bust of Hypnos in front of a kind of door and two circular mirrors, which reflect another image space, the one outside the image, where the viewer stands. The circular shapes of the mirrors, for Khnopff representing a symbol of perfection, form a contrast to the geometric raster of the other picture elements. Due to the multiplication of image spaces the viewer loses his bearings and gets trapped in an interspace, neither representing interior nor exterior. Like a barrier the pictorial structure pushes itself between the image and the viewer, thus opening illusionary doors, behind which the story lines interwoven with each other lead into nothingness, like in a dream that fades away after awakening.
Fernand Khnopff, Who shall deliver me?, colored pencils on paper, 1891
Khnopff’s pictures aren’t what they seem, they are mazes of logic, as soon as the viewer becomes aware of it, it’s already too late.
Mysticism of 19th century shining through in I Lock My Door Upon Myself emerged from the desire to unveil everyday objects of life in order to catch a glimpse of their deeper reality hidden behind. For Fernand Khnopff the perception of a work of art, which granted access to the spheres of universal beauty, represented a mystic experience, he commented on this, as follows: “Fine arts are basically idealism: the deepest dreams obtain an entirely personal interpretation.” Thus one of the most important goals of André Breton, who formulated them in his Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924, already had been anticipated by Khnopff. The mysterious of Khnopff’s works doesn’t arise from the symbols, which he weaves into his subject matter in a sophisticated way, but from the suggestive attraction of his visual language that addresses the subconscious of the viewer and evokes his own chains of association. Khnopff succeeds in provoking the viewer’s feeling of familiarity, which creates a spiritual relation to his works from the very first moment.
These emotional ties are supported by his masterly, almost photo-realistic painting technique, which transfers newly discovered optical laws such as depth of focus, blurring and the seemingly at random chosen image section of a spontaneous snapshot subtly to painting. However, as soon as the viewer notices that looks are deceiving, he has fallen into the trap long ago and has hopelessly got lost in Khnopff’s skillfully constructed mazes full of magic and mysteries. The contradiction between the perfection of the presentation and its contextual manipulation results in an obscuration of the image content, the symbols of which can be deciphered only through an intense communication with the work. The ambiguity of the icons turns the interpretation of Khnopff’s works into an almost unsolvable problem. A characteristic feature of symbolism is detaching the applied symbols from their familiar context and filling them with new content in creative freedom, thus mystifying the viewer in the face of an arithmetic riddle with several unknowns.
Fernand Khnopff, Future or A Young Englishwoman, marble, 1898
Fernand Khnopff, Decadence, pastels on paper, 1914
Khnopff pointed out that he was painting only for himself, therefore he merged traditional iconography with a subjective private mythology that could be decoded only by a handful of viewers, who were in the know about. On principle he didn’t comment or interpret his pictures, in dialogue with the work the viewer was meant to be forced to reflect upon himself, in order to explore the deeper meaning behind things as well as his own psyche. Khnopff replied to the rhetorical question, if a meaning is inherent in works of art, as follows: “Is it possible, that, as sceptics claim, there is nothing that inheres in any work of art but that what we find in ourselves; that we don’t admire it for its inner values, but because it corresponds to certain of our own feelings and we solely seek a reflection of our soul in it.”
Fosset, blurred childhood memories of deserted landscapes.
The reflection of a psychic mood through outer reality was shaped already in Fernand Khnopff’s very early childhood. In Fosset in the Belgian Ardennes, where his family owned a cottage, he regularly spent his summer vacation. In their meditative tranquility the intimate nature impressions that Khnopff captured there in predominantly small format paintings already represent the substrate his later city views of Bruges were to take shape on. In doing so he didn’t intend to exactly depict nature, but to express atmospheric phenomena that made places and objects appear in a different, mysterious light depending on the time of the day. Transferring a spiritual mood to the depiction of a landscape stands in the tradition of German romanticism, Khnopff, however, wanted to render remembered images above all, which is why he depicted Fosset and its surroundings blurred with smudged brush strokes, as if the lens of a camera had been deliberately brought out of focus.
Fernand Khnopff, In Fosset. An Evening, oil on canvas, 1886
Fernand Khnopff, Still Water, oil on canvas, 1894
Already his early landscape pictures feature solitude as central theme, people show up only occasionally or reveal their presence in form of seemingly abandoned farmsteads, to disappear in the views of Bruges completely. Also the reflection of trees in water as symbol of spiritual depth and as play with appearance and reality is part of the repertoire of symbolism, returning later in the canals of Bruges. Numerous landscape pictures of Khnopff follow a geometric structure tending to abstraction, such as in In Fosset. Under the Fir Trees from 1894. An avenue of trees standing exactly vertically draw the viewer into the image, while they obstruct the horizon at the same time. Later in Pittura Metafisica the obstructed horizon became one of Giorgio de Chirico’s most important composition elements to give the image space an aura of the mysterious.
Fernand Khnopff was the star of the Jugendstil movement in Vienna and paved the way for the art of Gustav Klimt.
Khnopff presented the picture in 1898 at the first exhibition of the Vienna Secession, he was in contact with as corresponding member already since its foundation in 1897. His growing international success was proven by the fact that he was allocated to a room of his own, where he showed a total of 21 works. The young artist generation of Austria celebrated Khnopff with several festivals and dedicated him a special edition of the magazine of the Vienna Secession Ver Sacrum, the programmatic title of which they anticipated feverishly with a “holy spring” of art. Khnopff was given the honor of designing the complete issue, which equaled the highest artistic accolade in the sense of the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Above all Gustav Klimt he influenced strongly, alongside the mythological themes with his enigmatic depictions of the sphinx it was in particular the landscape pictures such as In Fosset. Under the Fir Trees that inspired Klimt to similar works. Khnopff’s composition of geometric rhythms through vertical trunks, the raised horizon and the contemplative mood can be found in many of Klimt’s landscape paintings of the Attersee. Between 1898 and 1901 Khnopff participated eight times in exhibitions of the Vienna Secession in total.
Fernand Khnopff, In Fosset. Under the Fir Trees, oil on canvas, 1894
Next to lonely reflections of nature especially female portraits were a central theme of Khnopff’s oeuvre. His preferred models were close family members like his mother or his sister, but he was also pleased to accept commissions to portray children. Preschool children he gave the grave features of adults, just as if they were conscious of the problems of a changing world already. Although Khnopff despised the naive belief in progress shown by his contemporaries, he used the achievements of modern technology such as photography in a pragmatic way, when it came to bringing his image concepts to perfection. He executed several portrait commissions using photographs, amongst them the posthumous portrait of Marguerite Landuyt, who had died at the age of 20.
The young woman in a white dress looks like an apparition, slowly fading away in the memory of her family to vanish behind the door, she is portrayed in front of, forever. As on many other portraits Khnopff has cropped the feet, thus turning the picture into a window that erects a barrier between the figure and the viewer. Khnopff always portrayed women completely negating any sensual appeal by means of high-necked dresses, they represent allegories of chastity and virtue, who elude any physical approach.
Fernand Khnopff, Marguerite Landuyt, oil on canvas, 1889
Marguerite, beloved sister and prototype of androgynous beauty.
Fernand Khnopff was downright obsessed with the aura of his sister Marguerite, for him she incarnated the epitome of the female ideal of beauty that featured distinctly androgynous traits and came closest to the ideal of the Pre-Raphaelites. For Khnopff the asexual perfection of androgyny represented the ultimate goal and clearly corresponded to his own androgynous chaste figures, who represented a reflection of himself. His voluntary hermit existence was filled with life only through the platonic intimate bond with Marguerite. In his portrait from 1887 Khnopff portrays Marguerite like a caryatid out of alabaster, laced up in a white dress with high collar and gloves, the left arm strangely folded behind the waist, she becomes the prototype of the mysterious young woman, who appears aloof and melancholy at the same time. Introverted and standing in front of a closed door she represents a symbol of unattainability, in her immaculacy demonstrating her superiority over the femme fatale.
The eternally feminine plays a major role in Khnopff’s oeuvre, which he tried to explore by means of mythological imagery. But unlike Gustav Klimt his feminine figures obviously don’t succumb to the temptation of flesh despite their sensual charisma. Remarkably Venus, goddess of love, didn’t find her way into Khnopff’s image repertoire, but only those female figures, who came closest to his ideal conception of androgyny, by combining feminine and masculine features. However, Khnopff’s neo-Platonic understanding of love wasn’t without temptations, the struggle between animal instincts and spiritual idealism became one of the most important themes in his work.
Fernand Khnopff, Marguerite Khnopff, oil on canvas, 1887
For Khnopff the reproductive instinct and the urge to create something spiritual formed an area of conflict, he developed the aesthetic ideal for his figures from. Physical beauty he considered as mere likeness of divine beauty, which, however, could be helpful to become aware of the higher beings of love and beauty. This balancing act between the temptations of sensuality and the pursuit of aesthetic sublimation is most clearly embodied by the mythological figure of the sphinx. Often Khnopff shows this dualism in the struggle of a virtuous hero with the sphinx, whose head and wings represent the spiritual and the body animalistic sexuality.
Caresses – Oedipus’s struggle with the temptations of sensual delights.
In circles of symbolism and the Décadence a distinct cult of androgyny was practiced. This attitude was revolutionary and reactionary at the same time, by questioning both traditional gender roles and negating the sexual as a topic. In Fernand Khnopff’s most famous work, Les Caresses (Caresses), an icon of symbolism, Oedipus in the form of a hermaphrodite huddles against a sphinx in form of a female cheetah. It is one of the few pictures of Khnopff’s oeuvre that depicts a direct body contact between the protagonists to charge the fatal battle between a life committed to virtuous idealism and depraved sensuousness erotically.
Caresses was shown at the exhibition of the Vienna Secession in 1898 for the first time, where it attracted the attention of the visitors, who didn’t succeed in finding a final interpretation of the painting then as now. Oedipus standing in front of cypresses and ancient architectural elements amidst a reddish landscape snuggles the head of the sphinx with his cheek, who tenderly closes her eyes. Oedipus, whose nipples are covered by two metallic stars, stares into the nothingness lost in daydreams, while he is holding a rod with a winged glass sphere, maybe a hint of the god Hypnos with wings on his temples, who was worshipped by Khnopff so much. Hieroglyphics reminding of cabalistic signs on the wall behind the sphinx pay homage to 19th century occultism, in this context Oedipus, who blinds himself, becomes a seer, by turning his eyes to subconscious and to the higher reality hidden behind things.
Fernand Khnopff, Caresses, oil on canvas, 1896
Fernand Khnopff, Sketch for Caresses, colored pencils and white heightening on paper, 1896
The lips of Oedipus are shut tight, whereas his eyes are open wide, for Khnopff an expression of active silence and thus inspiration. The sphinx makes Oedipus choose between sensuous pleasure and power through self-control. According to Khnopff’s own statement the body of a cheetah, which was pretty unusual for the representation of a sphinx, most strongly resembled a snake, as it sneaks up when attacking, and also came closest to the suppleness of a snake’s body. The sphinx appears as seductress, as femme fatale, whose beauty challenges Oedipus’s androgyny and evokes an ambivalent emotional state mixing temptation, bewitchment and submission.
As symbolist Khnopff invented new, enigmatic attributes for the figures of mythology.
Just like the sphinx Khnopff has made the mythological figure of Medusa a subject matter in several works, but he releases her from the ancient context and transforms her, as it was common in symbolism, through entirely unusual, idiosyncratic attributes. In ancient iconography Medusa incarnated the femme fatale, object of desire and deathly monster at the same time, who demonstrates her power over male sexual fantasies. Her decapitation at the hand of Perseus symbolizes the triumph of the mind over the temptation of the flesh by separating the head from the body. In one of his bronze sculptures, both created around 1900, Khnopff adopts the well-known image of the head of Medusa following ancient tradition. Similar to Caravaggio he depicts her entwined around by snakes and with her eyes and mouth wide open, at the moment shortly after the fatal strike by the sword of Perseus, when she becomes aware of her end purely horrified. However, unusual is the combination of Medusa’s head and the wings of Hypnos, which grow out of their temples between their snake hair. The spiritualization of her head is even increased through the association with sleep and dream.
Fernand Khnopff, The Blood of Medusa, colored pencils on paper, 1898
Fernand Khnopff, Medusa, patinated bronze, 1900
In a similar way Khnopff deals with the myth in his pastel Sleeping Medusa. The snake, symbol of the chthonic gods, darkness and evil, is replaced by an eagle, which, being an antipode to the snake, symbolizes the sun and the good. Medusa’s head is placed on the mighty body of a bird, whose feathering suppresses any erotic associations by fully covering bare skin just like in Khnopff’s female portraits featuring high-necked dresses. The superiority of the eagle over the snake turns the message of the myth into its opposite and transforms Medusa into a positive figure. However, Khnopff presents the bird of the sun in a nightly environment, the androgynous head in a side view has his eyes and mouth shut tight, thus expressing spiritual seclusion through passive silence.
Fernand Khnopff, Sleeping Medusa, pastels on paper, 1896
However, the symbolists‘ turning towards ancient subject matter didn’t mean that they haven’t been open to contemporary technical innovations. The development of photography provided the artists of the 19th century with a new medium, which enabled them to approach reality in a completely new way and to bring seeing into the focus of their work. Khnopff owned cameras and equipment for professional requirements and although he played his technical skills of photographic practice down being an amateur photographer, the photographs he made himself have an extraordinary quality. In his archive more than 40 portraits of his sister Marguerite were found, which he used to study poses and gestures or to test the effect of draperies, light effects and accessories. Subsequently he transferred the carefully composed photos to paper or canvas, while removing superfluous details and enhancing the atmosphere into the supernatural.
Marguerite Khnopff posing for “The Secret”, Aristotype from glass negative, ca. 1902
Fernand Khnopff, Secret Reflection, pastels on canvas and colored pencils on paper, 1902
Drawing or heightened photo? Already at the turn of the century Khnopff’s multiple art questioned the authenticity of the original.
The photos served Khnopff as memory and documentation of themes that he worked on in certain paintings. In Memoires (Memories) for instance he used photos of his sister Marguerite to assemble several views of her in a collage amidst a new environment. The large-size pastel from 1889 from the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels is too fragile to be transported and therefore could be shown in Paris only as projection. Seven young women, dressed trendily, are standing in a park-like landscape, which is executed in a sketchy brushwork in contrast to the detailed rendering of the figures. Khnopff has drawn the figure group directly according to photos of his sister Marguerite and arranged them in front of the background like a collage, with forgoing a cast shadow deliberately.
Fernand Khnopff, Study for Memories, heightened photo, 1888
Fernand Khnopff, Study for Memories, red chalk on paper, 1887
Fernand Khnopff, Memories, pastels on paper, 1889
Six of the women are holding a tennis racket, but they don’t play tennis, which was about becoming popular at that time, instead they are standing like paralyzed, without communicating with each other and staring into the nothingness, every single one appears like caught in her world. The picture is filled with the melancholic atmosphere of an autumn afternoon and reflects bygone moments that rise from a subjective inner world and superimpose the objective outer world. In Memoires Khnopff suspends the unity of space, time and narrative and makes his sister, multiplied by the magic number seven, become a forerunner of the lonely manichini of Pittura Metafisica. Not least Carlo Carrà’s puppet-like figures holding a tennis racket appear to be directly inspired by Khnopff’s figure group.
In 1888 Khnopff commissioned the renowned photographer Albert Edouard Drains, known under the name of Alexandre, to photograph some of his drawings and paintings. Alexandre’s pictures of Khnopff’s works were printed on high-quality photographic paper by using the process of platinum print, which generated more stable photos than the ones that were produced with silver salt. Subsequently the pictures were glued on cardboard with the relief stamp Alexandre photographe, the edition was probably limited to 15 copies. Platinum print produced matt, deep black photos with a soft, dark grain. Khnopff considered every copy as a new original in miniature format, which he reworked in such a minute way, that it is sometimes difficult to judge, if it is a drawing or a heightened photo.
Fernand Khnopff, Diffidence, heightened photo, 1894
Fernand Khnopff, Red Lips, heightened photo, 1897
In order to enhance the expression, he remodeled light and shadow areas with soft crayons, water colors or pastels and contoured some lines in the faces such as ringlets and corners of the mouth. In doing so he often varied the coloration of the original deliberately, thus creating variations of one and the same theme just like in music, the lips of the women for example got a red color accent or the wing of Hypnos he colored in blue. Khnopff signed each heightened photo with his monogram or signed it on the carrier cardboard. Some lost works of Khnopff, such as Sibylle or Arum Lily only have been passed down by means of the heightened reproductions. Through the reinterpretation of past romanticized in nostalgia Khnopff achieved a subtle transfiguration of visual memory that questions the reality of works of art and their subject matter. Also in context with the individual original, its reproducibility and authenticity, Khnopff’s procedure appears as a highly modern approach on the way to multiple art of the 20th century.
Bruges, the Venice of the north and melancholy place of yearning.
Between 1889 and 1892 and between 1902 and 1905 Khnopff created several city views of Bruges, while frequently combining these with a female portrait. In 1892 Georges Rodenbach, one of Khnopff’s preferred writers, published the novel Bruges-la-Morte (Bruges, the Dead City), he designed the frontispiece for. The book contained 35 tourist photographs of Bruges, which inspired Khnopff to several works. The melancholy mood of the book reflected exactly Khnopff’s own emotional world, who merged the description of deserted canals and alleys with his own memories. In Bruges-la-Morte Bruges plays the role of a living organism, which Khnopff considered as an intimate self-portrait. He drew his melancholy city views of this haunted necropolis always from black and white photos, which also influenced him in such a way that he kept the predominantly grey tonal values.
Fernand Khnopff, In Bruges. A Portal, colored pencils and pastels on paper, 1904
Fernand Khnopff, Memories of Flanders. A Canal, colored pencils and pastels on paper, 1904
For Fernand Khnopff Bruges meant conjuring up the reminiscent mood of his childhood, which he was determined to protect against banal reality at any cost. Khnopff’s father Edmond came from an aristocratic family, who had settled in Bruges in the 18th century after they had left Austria. Bruges with its many canals was called the Venice of the north and attracted numerous artists with its atmosphere characterized by mysticism and decline, among them William Morris, Holman Hunt, Christina Rossetti and Stéphane Mallarmé. Through Bruges Khnopff also felt deeply attached to Hans Memling, the Flemish master, who had lived there in the 15th century and with whom he shared his love of a precise art of drawing. Until the age of six Fernand Khnopff lived in Bruges, where he often was left on his own together with his brother Georges, spending most of the time in the garden of an antiquated patrician house with no playmates around.
The manorial houses of Bruges with their closed courtyards and their salons, which were opened only once a year for official events, appeared gloomy and deserted. In the emotional world of a child’s mind that was susceptible to melancholy and silence this magic place must have left its indelible marks. In 1899 Khnopff declared: “I spent my childhood in Bruges, which really was a dead city at that time, ignored by the visitors. I carefully treasure distant, but very precise memories.” In order to keep the evanescent sheen of this nostalgic yearning, Khnopff avoided returning to Bruges all his life. To Pol de Mont he confided: “What, if it has been spoilt?” When he was indeed forced to return to the city of his childhood due to an important matter in 1907, he took a cab at the station wearing black-colored glasses during the ride. In doing so he was protected from viewing how the face of the city had changed during the past decades, which would have erased his precious memories.
Fernand Khnopff, L’entrée du béguinage, chalk and pastels on paper, 1904
Fernand Khnopff, In Bruges. Lake of Love, charcoal, pencil and pastels on paper, 1904-1905
“Know yourself.” – Khnopff’s pictures represent a metaphysical stage that makes the viewer become aware of his own nescience.
To visualize the views of Bruges Khnopff mostly chose the image section in such a way that the upper area of the buildings was cropped, as if he wanted to describe the city from the perspective of a child. All works of the Bruges series illustrate the dualism between image and reality, in the reflections of buildings in the water of the canals, and in the own mirror image, which is kissed by the woman in My Heart Cries for the Past. The evocation of deep sensations through architecture pervaded by poetry, which represents the backdrop of a metaphysical stage of melancholy, already anticipates Giorgio de Chirico’s Pittura Metafisica with its mysterious, deserted arcades of Ferrara.
Both Khnopff’s remembered childhood dreams of Bruges and his ethereal female figures have one thing in common: they are unattainable. This is what reveals one of the basic principles of symbolism, that the absolute platonic idea always has to remain something unattainable. Because if an idea was realized by means of banal materiality, it would lose its charm and vanish. With regard to symbolist painting Mallarmé declared: “It isn’t about painting the object, but the effect.” For Fernand Khnopff art opened a door to a world beyond reality, where he created a new periodic table of symbols just like an alchemist that evoked metaphysics of endless chains of association. His art is a hall of mirrors, whose psychological impact multiplies the mirror image of the viewer again and again, to confront him like the inscription above the Temple of Apollo at Delphi with the call: “Know yourself.” Like Platon Khnopff is dealing with making aware of one’s own nescience, in order to cultivate virtue and refine the own soul.
Fernand Khnopff, With Grégoire de Roy. My Heart Cries for the Past, pencil, coloured pencils and white chalk on grey paper, 1889
Khnopff’s figures are trapped in the struggle between human frailty and divine beauty, their idealism reflects the past world and represents a vision of the future world at the same time. With Khnopff’s artistic production fading before the First World War and his death in 1921 an era that had lasted more than 2000 years had come to an end, when beauty, mysticism and knowledge hadn’t been contradictions. Almost 100 years after Khnopff’s death in today’s digital era the economics of attention grant an image not more than three seconds anymore to reveal the viewer the enigma of his time. What is brought to light in this act, is an abyss of banality, much ado about nothing, while man is about to submit to the algorithms of artificial intelligence. Mankind is about to prize the last secrets out of the universe, taking photos of black holes, but the higher meaning of this human doing remains hidden behind their event horizon. Fernand Khnopff surely would have commented this hustle and bustle with the barely concealed mockery of a cosmopolitan dandy and would have locked himself in his temple of the self forever. Because he has always known it: “On n’a que soi“ (“One has but oneself“).
11.12.18 – 17.03.19 Petit Palais, Paris