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Obsession

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My lifetime with Fernand Khnopff

The Caresses, oil on canvas, 1896. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium

The Caresses, oil on canvas, 1896. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium


By Jeffery Howe

I was an undergraduate student at Carleton College, located in a midwestern town whose motto was "home of cows, colleges and contentment," when I discovered Fernand Khnopff, of fin-de-siècle Brussels. I found him in the library while thumbing through an exhibition catalogue that contained his best known painting The Caresses, which depicts a cheetah-bodied Sphinx holding a languid and mesmerized Oedipus in a sensuous and foreboding embrace, as though she's considering devouring him in just a minute. To a young man from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, home of paper mills, the world's largest open pit mine, and the Judy Garland birthplace (a bland white frame house beside U.S. 169), Khnopff seemed a doorway to a new world, a place I yearned to get to someday if, like Judy/Frances Gumm, I could find my way out of northern Minnesota.

A few years later, I began graduate school at Northwestern University, planning to study Renaissance art. I had no intention of a career in art criticism; I just wanted to learn something well and deeply. But I kept finding myself attracted to the fractious and dangerous early modern world that I'd encountered in the exhibition catalogue, eventually writing my first professional essay on the symbolic meanings of mirrors (e.g., vanity, self-knowledge, truth, art, magic) in late 19th-century art.

And so did the Symbolist movement, of which Khnopff was an archly mysterious practitioner, become my vocation, and Khnopff my special focus, because in an era of enigmatic artists, he seemed most enigmatic, and because relatively little work had been done on solving the riddles presented by his work. The academic study of art often involves the close observation of material that has been closely observed for decades, if not centuries, by very keen eyes. In Khnopff I found an opportunity for my eyes to see new things; and his complex cultural references promised to let me explore not simply brush style, but history, religion, mythology, and psychology at the same time as I looked at paintings that entranced me.

From left: Khnopff before the altar to Hypnos in his studio, circa 1900, and the white house in Brussels with the pansy window, 1902. Archives of Modern Art, Brussels

From left: Khnopff before the altar to Hypnos in his studio, circa 1900, and the white house in Brussels with the pansy window, 1902. Archives of Modern Art, Brussels

Symbolism in the late 19th century was a multidisciplinary international movement created by young artists who had rebelled against early 19th-century conventions of content and style but also against newer revolutions mounted by the Realists and Impressionists, whose work these newer minted radicals found superficial, lacking insight into the dreams, religious urges, and imaginings that constituted a hidden reality more true and significant than the jeweled surfaces painted by Courbet or Monet.

Symbolist art took many forms, from Gauguin's colorful abstractions to Khnopff's single-minded revival of old Flemish technique, including painting on wood panels, a practice utilized by 15th-century artists. Typically, the ever perverse Khnopff went backward in order to be avant-garde.

Portrait of Marguerite Khnopff, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 1887. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium

Portrait of Marguerite Khnopff, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 1887. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium

Khnopff came of a wealthy and distinguished Belgian family. Born in a castle in 1858, he lived with his mother until he was 44, when he moved to a house like none other in Brussels, with a tall white tower and a window that was pansy-shaped, a pun on pensée. "One has only oneself" was his motto, and he seems to have taken it seriously. He lived as a bachelor (except for a short period late in life), ate from a tray in his dining room (it was not furnished with a table), and though his works sold well and he had students and circulated widely in Belgian society (there are few photographs of him that don't show him in evening clothes), he kept his face turned away from the world, just as he hid the face of his beloved sister Marguerite in his oddly moving portrait of her. While he left broad and theatrical hints as to his sensibilities (a main feature of his studio was an altar he built to Hypnos, the god of sleep and dreams, whom he claimed to worship), he never really disclosed his inner life except through his painting. After he died in 1921, his family assured that the mystery would never be solved. They burned his personal papers.

It's only as an artist, then, that we can know Khnopff. A stunningly accomplished draftsman over a range of media, he was masterful also in avoiding the two major pitfalls for artists of his time. The first was obsessive realism, dramatically illustrated by Khnopff's older contemporary, the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, who once starved a goat and drenched it in whitewash after he discovered he could not find a thin-enough white goat to sit for his painting The Scapegoat. Rigid adherence to a narrowly conceived reality was the second danger. Gustave Courbet, a Realist from the generation prior to Khnopff's, famously declared that if someone would only show him an angel, he would gladly paint it. Khnopff and other Symbolist artists had no trouble painting angels (and in some cases "seeing" them).

From left: Acrasia (1894), Solitude (circa 1890), and Britomart (1894). Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain, Liège (Acrasia and Britomart); Fondation Neumann, Switzerland (Solitude)

From left: Acrasia (1894), Solitude (circa 1890), and Britomart (1894). Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain, Liège (Acrasia and Britomart); Fondation Neumann, Switzerland (Solitude)

Contrived symbolism and allegory can also be deadly for art, of course, but like his great Lowland predecessors, such as Jan Van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, and Pieter Brueghel, Khnopff had the ability to make his allegories seem fresh and affecting. This particular gift of imagination seems to have been remarkably common in that part of Europe both before and after Khnopff (Magritte was another practitioner), perhaps an effect of life in a historic crucible of religious tension and war.

Khnopff eventually led me to my profession, when as a result of my writing about his work I was asked to teach a course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago titled "Symbolism and Decadence." The brilliant but eccentric art students in my class seemed to be primarily interested in decadence, and their bizarre and fey attitudes sometimes made me nervous about turning out the lights to show slides. But I found I liked teaching.

Memory of Bruges: The Entry to the Beguinage, pastel on paper, 1904. Hearn Family Trust

Memory of Bruges: The Entry to the Beguinage, pastel on paper, 1904. Hearn Family Trust

All these years later, I continue an enduring relationship with Fernand Khnopff. I visit Belgium nearly every summer, and always go to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts and to Bruges, to see his works and the places where he painted.

I particularly feel his presence in Bruges. It was the city of his childhood, a paradise lost. Once one of Europe's great trading cities, the canal-rich Bruges had faded with the silting up of its harbors in the 16th century and had become frozen in time, a charmed ancient city, Venice-like, but with chill winds, low clouds, northern light, pre-Reformation piety, and sturdy brick architecture.

One of the Bruges landscapes now at the McMullen Museum is a painting of what is perhaps my favorite place in the world, a stretch of canal leading to a gently arching bridge that crosses to the closed door of a beguinage, a lay convent where women live under the direction of a priest.

The author, then a graduate student, in Bruges, 1978. Courtesy of Jeffery Howe

The author, then a graduate student, in Bruges, 1978. Courtesy of Jeffery Howe

It's evening, and the painting—pastel on paper—is gentle and quiet, with the bridge, buildings, and sky reflected in the calm waters of the canal and rendered so resonantly that this could be a photograph of a dream, and so luxuriantly that you feel you could enter that ghostly city that lies just beneath the still surface.

Delicacy is the hallmark of the painting: color shading to color, images coalescing out of tiny detail, all traces of artifice dissolving and disappearing, leaving just a surface that presents us a glimpse of depths and mysteries. Looking into this painting, I sometimes think, is probably as close to knowing Khnopff as I will ever get.

 

Jeffery Howe is the curator of Fernand Khnopff: Inner Visions and Landscapes, on view at Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art through December 5, 2004, and is the author of The Symbolist Art of Fernand Khnopff (Michigan, 1982).

 

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