Fernand Khnopff: Between Eros and Thanatos

7.9 bis - meduse - via Galerie Nagy

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Study for Le sang de Meduse (1898), pencil and coloured pencil on paper, 22 x 15 cm. Private collection, courtesy of Richard Nagi, Dover Street Gallery, London]

Featuring prominently in this important contribution to studies of international Symbolism is the house-studio of Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921). Khnopff was one of the most influential artists in this field, yet outside of enthusiasts of fin-de-siècle beaux-arts the artist is not well understood. His art has recently come to be reassessed. Khnopff was a widely known and influential figure in the international Symbolist movement of the 1890-1914 period. He exhibited with the leading vanguard group of the 1890s Les XX, beside Ensor, Van Gogh, Seurat, Redon and Rops. He also exhibited abroad and his art was widely reproduced. He exchanged pictures with fellow artists, including Burne-Jones. This is the English translation of the extensive monographic exhibition, held at the Petit Palais, Paris 2018-9.

Khnopff funded the building of a unique domicile, meticulously designed by him. This house-studio was constructed between 1900 and 1902, in the Ixelles district of Bruxelles. It was designed as an immersive spectacle, in the modern style. The building featured high ceilings, dramatic drapes and clean lines, with much painted white. It lacked dado rails and strongly patterned carpets. Its public rooms lacked furniture. There were satin curtains rather than internal doors. It was designed in a Secession style, with polished walls give the interior a chilly unearthly atmosphere.

Despite Khnopff’s reputation for isolation, according to the testimony of visitors he used his studio in a way that was no different from those of other artists. At this time, the studios of artists were social spaces where the artist could hold court, show his wares and entertain. It was a place where an artist could control an environment for the display of his art and even make the spaces art. His own was prominently positioned in all rooms, with a few key pieces by fellow Symbolist artists. His house was featured in a journal article that included photographs of the public rooms. The press described the artist-designed building as a coded self-portrait: imposing, inscrutable, elegant and individual. Regrettably, this experience is unrecoverable. The art was dispersed by auction after the artist’s death in 1922 and the house was demolished in 1938.

Khnopff grew up in Bruges. He studied law at university in Bruxelles before undergoing extensive studies in fine art, partly under Xavier Mellery. Although he is seen as anti-academic (specifically his non-narrative, ahistorical, Romantic, Tonalist tendencies), his grounding was in academic art. Some of his heroes (Naturalists, James McNeill Whistler, Gustave Moreau, Burne-Jones and Alfred Stevens) contributed to Salons and won prizes, as well as exhibiting with independent groups. Khnopff followed the same approach. His preference for drawing (especially with limited tints) rather than painting is a deliberate distancing from Salon art. Yet his fastidious technique and aversion to the spontaneous effects or materials that are difficult to control marks out Khnopff as a temperamentally conservative artist and character. His attachment to art fulfilled emotional needs and his art reflects that; it is almost devoid of intellectual content. It is poetic in character.

A good example of that is the frontispiece Khnopff illustrated for the first edition of Georges Rodenbach’s landmark novella Bruges-la-Morte (1894), which involves death of a wife, a widower’s grief and the appearance of a doppelganger, set in the moribund city in Flanders. It is essentially an extended dream and mediation on loss and yearning. Khnopff’s frontispiece was partly based on a photograph. Khnopff was an avid user of photography, both to provide sources and to reproduce his art. This catalogue includes many of the sources beside the art. Khnopff also augmented photographs of his art with additional touches.

4.2 -via symbolisme

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Portrait of Jeanne Kefer (1885), oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. The Getty Museum of Art, Los Angeles]

Khnopff earned a living from his society portraits, as did Klimt. Some of his early portraits are very fine. Khnopff shared with Klimt the use of the peculiar modern format of the square – a surpassing rarity as a ratio for easel paintings before the 1880s. It seems to have been a Secession proclivity. Khnopff used it for his portraits, Klimt for his landscapes and (later) Schiele for his early (1909-10) nudes. Khnopff also used the extremely elongated vertical for drawings of standing figures; Klimt did likewise, as well for the vertical of his controversial (censored) poster design; Klinger also used the extreme horizontal in a number of paintings and prints (including The Glove suite).

One of Khnopff’s outstanding square-format portraits – Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer (1885) – is now owned by the Getty Museum, LA. In it, the young child (dressed formally for the outdoors) is at the back of the shallow pictorial space, standing with her back touching a closed door. It curiously prefigures the distanced, alienated children of Schiele’s drawings, emphasising her physical and emotional isolation from the viewer. This approach reinforces the impression of vulnerability.

Khnopff used his younger sister Marguerite as his model for face and clothed figures. His source photographs are reproduced. Presumably, his nudes are of erotic photographs (sources not reproduced). The faces and unclothed bodies generally look unpersuasive, like poor montages. Marguerite’s visage was re-imagined through the visage through the lens of Greek statuary. His figures are types rather than individuals.

Khnopff’s preferred landscapes were rather bucolic views around the forest at Fosset, a village close to Brussels. The landscapes are minor scenes played in a minor key. They are not substantial and while naturalistic lack the punch of Harald Sohlberg and Nikolai Astrup. The oddly lack the Pictorialist approach that unifies his more artificial scenes. The townscapes – typified by An Abandoned City (1904), which shows a few Flemish townhouses being encroached upon by the sea – are the best of Khnopff’s views, using vignetting and unifying tone. I almost wrote “art set outdoors”, yet in his airless oneiric art, with its stress upon motifs rather than elaborated compositions, the distinction between indoors and outdoors is a muzzy one. The forest landscapes are so tamed they could be the corner of a drawing room; figure motifs float in suspension as if they are in misty gorges. It seems there is not a single picture by Khnopff that includes direct sunlight. Colour is muted, definition is misty, lighting is crepuscular. Streets are largely or entirely unpeopled.

A Souvenir of Flanders (A Canal) 1904 (pencil & pastel on paper)

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Des souvenirs de la Flandre: Un canal (1904), pencil, charcoal and pastel on paper, 25 x 42cm. The Hearn Family Trust, New York]

What are the other qualities of Khnopff’s art? Timelessness, stasis, immobility, lack of vitality. His nudes are idealistic and detached. They are erotic but sexless, eschewing the sordid and corporeal qualities of the female body. (There appears to be no male nudes – aside from academies from his student years – made by Khnopff.) His nudes, sexes decorously concealed, are too vaporous to be carnal. One cannot imagine touching or kissing the subjects of Khnopff’s unearthly visions, except in a dream or fever, so beloved of Symbolist novelists. This is the art of a man who venerates women greatly but probably does not understand them much. In this sacralising approach we find indications of a degree of squeamishness on the matter of the sex act. (His only attempt at marriage was late, uncomfortable and soon dissolved.)

Passing thoughts. In 1886 Ensor would accuse Khnopff of plagiarising Ensor’s painting. The two artists are seen as embodying two poles of Flemish art: the Symbolist v. the realist, the mystical v. the satirical, the fastidious v. the painterly, the Flemish Primitives v. Rembrandt/Rubens. En passant boulevard du Régent (1881) bears a strong resemblance to Degas’s Place de la Concorde (1875), something which bears closer investigation. Khnopff is more an artist of morbidity than of eroticism.

The exhibition selection is broad. Sketchbook pages catch the artist at his least guarded and most spontaneous. Variants – some original drawings and variants juxtaposed with modified photographic reproductions – and a wide selection of art and sources provide us with a good understanding of the artist’s output and working methods. As with fellow artists of his movement, Khnopff paid a great attention to framing his art – a common trait among the Symbolists, Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau. This catalogue includes reproductions of works with elaborate original frames that Khnopff commissioned.

Author Michel Draguet is director general of Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, an academic expert and a writer of the highest ability. (One wishes heads of all major museums had such impeccable grasp of the subjects of their institutions.) His knowledge of Belgian and French art and the fin-de-siècle movements is vast; he has excelled in curation and publications on the subjects and Khnopff is a subject placed centrally within his area of expertise. This catalogue covers a wide range of subjects in great detail, tying together literary and artistic influences, including detailed discussion of iconography. Links to Romanticism, Stéphane Mallarmé, Maurice Maeterlinck and Rodenbach are discussed extensively. The role of polychromed plaster statuary is set out with Khnopff’s rarely reproduced examples presented as an active attempt to revivify Greek precedents. An account of the operation of Les XX, Rose-Croix, Munich Secession and La Libre Esthétique and Khnopff’s level of engagement with these is particularly interesting for those studying those groups.

This is a beautiful and serious book about a significant artist and can be warmly recommended.

 

Michel Draguet, Fernand Khnopff, 2020, Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), hardback, 304 pages, 210 col. illus., $60, ISBN 978 0 300 24650 6

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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