The Genius of Solitude
An online interview with Jeffery Howe & Aurelio Madrid on the Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff
“On n’a que soi”
(One has only oneself)
Aurelio Madrid: Fernand Khnopff was born in 1858 in a castle in eastern Flanders to an aristocratic family. He spent some of his childhood in the Belgian city of Bruges, a city he painted throughout his life. Before he started art-making he studied law & even while he was alive he was (& still is) considered a master of Belgian Symbolism. Some of the major themes of Symbolism had to do with “objectifying the subjective” spaces of the mind, myth, dreams & the like. Khnopff’s work typified this tendency of making art a middle point between the mind & the art object. He was a pupil of Xavier Mellery, who helped Khnopff use painting as a medium to the “soul of things,” the interior, the subjective, or the cerebral. Although Khnopff’s work & philosophy cherished solitude & subjectivity, he was involved & inspired by the artistic & intellectual groups of his day, namely Les XX (The Twenty) & the Salon de la Rose+Croix. The mystic Sar (Josephin) Peladan esteemed Khnopff enough to compare him to Moreau, Burne-Jones, Puvis de Chavannes & Rops—no small compliment considering the impact these artists had on European art & ideas. Of course Khnopff was well read, reading such authors as Baudelaire, Remy de Gourmont, Swinburne, Christina Rossetti & even the obscure decadent Rachilde. One of Khnopff’s well-known works I Lock the Door Upon Myself (1891), is based on a Christina Rossetti poem Who Shall Deliver Me—a thorny & introspective poem, well chosen & masterfully painted by him. Marguerite Khnopff, his sister, was his favorite model. He designed the house where he lived in Brussels; sadly the house no longer stands. It’s been said that Khnopff painted within a large gold circle that was embedded in the floor in a main room of the house. Khnopff died in Brussels in 1921at the age of 63.
I’ve been fascinated by Khnopff & the Symbolists since my boyhood, but it wasn’t till recently that I found someone else that shared in my interest as well. Professor Jeffery Howe, who is a leading expert on the art of Khnopff (among many other things), curated the show: Fernand Khnopff: Inner Visions and Landscapes, at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art in 2004 & he has written the book: The Symbolist Art of Fernand Khnopff (Michigan, 1982). Howe has called his interest an obsession–he’s met with some of the living Khnopff family in Belgium, has walked in some of the Bruges landscapes Khnopff’s painted & studied the artist extensively. He’s been kind enough to grant me an interview on the artist. Indeed, the interview he gives that accompanied the Khnopff show in Boston serves as a great introduction to the art & times of this unique Belgian artist & to Howe himself.
I have many questions, so I’ll open with a few to get things started. As I’ve mentioned, Khnopff was a member of Les XX & the Salon de la Rose+Croix–was there any connection between the two groups? The Salon de la Rose+Croix was an esoteric group that I don’t know much about–can you make any connections between the group & Khnopff’s art? Are you familiar with Khnopff’s relationship with the Sâr Péladan & how this relationship affected Khnopff’s life &/or work?
Jeffery: It is a pleasure to meet someone else who shares an interest in the fascinating artist Fernand Khnopff. He was a unique individual in a most interesting period, when modern art and culture were being redefined.
In answer to your first question, Khnopff was a founding member of Les XX (the Twenty), which was a group of young Belgian artists who founded an exhibition society in 1883 to provide an alternative to the official salons. Members included artists as different as James Ensor, Theo van Rysselberghe and Khnopff. The exhibitions of Les XX not only provided an opportunity to exhibit their own art, but showed some of the most advanced art in Europe. Foreign artists who showed there included Whistler, Seurat, Redon, Van Gogh and Gauguin. The stated goal of Les XX was to be as open as possible to new trends, with as few restrictions as possible. Member artists worked in various styles, from Realism to Impressionism, with Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism emerging in the mid-1880s.
The society of the Rose+Croix began their annual exhibitions in 1892 in Paris. Led by the colorful Sâr Péladan, the stated goal of the Salons was to promote idealism in art, and “ruin realism.” It was much more ideological, dedicated to an esoteric Catholic mysticism.
Péladan was interested in art as a tool to advance his occult interests, and cultivated artists whom he thought would share his goals. First contacts between Khnopff and Péladan began in 1884, when he was seeking artists to illustrate his mystical novels. Le Vice Suprême (Paris , 1884) was intended to be published with a frontispiece by Khnopff, but the artist destroyed the first version of his design. Félicien Rops filled in with a striking image which embodied the decadent themes of the novel, with a pair of fashionable corpses dressed for a night on the town. Khnopff continued to be close to Péladan’s ideals through the 1890s, and made several illustrations for Péladan’s novels, but he never became a follower. His Belgian contemporary, Jean Delville, was much more loyal, and effectively became Péladan’s counterpart in Brussels. Delville commenced a series of Salons de l’Art Idéaliste in Brussels which mirrored the Parisian Salons de la Rose+Croix. Examples of Delville’s art include The School of Plato (1898, Musée d’Orsay) and the Treasures of Satan (1895, Royal Art Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels ).
Common themes between Khnopff and the Rosicrucian artists included the sphinx as a symbol of mystery, and the conviction that the material world was itself a symbolic representation, with the role of the artist as initiate and conveyor of idealistic principles. Works such as Une Ange (1889) and The Caresses (1896) by Khnopff reflect these ideals.
Aurelio: I had no idea that Les XX featured such a wide range of artists (& styles). I must’ve been focusing on only the Belgian side of the group which had (as you’ve said) James Ensor, Theo van Rysselberghe and Khnopff, but also included such heady eccentrics as Toorop, Rops, & Minne. I was looking at only the Belgian side of Les XX, & probably the darker side overall.
What you say on the Sâr Péladan wanting to “ruin realism,” makes sense given the avant garde aesthetic of the time epitomized by the J.K. Huysmans novel À Rebours (Against Nature)–you talk about this in your BC interview. I wonder if this retreat was a reaction to the overall industrialization of Europe & the like. I’m thinking Huysmans, the Sâr Péladan & Khnopff were all friends as well. Are you familiar with these inward ideas & the connections to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer?
(I’ve noticed that your BC Khnopff exhibit website has a nice glossary that touches on some of these topics—thank you.)
Back to the Sâr Péladan, I’ve read that he had some radical (for the time) ideas on sexuality (sometimes referring to himself as Princess A. Dinska, among other titles) & writing books on androgyny. Sometime women in Khnopff paintings look like boys & his Oedipus’ (The Caresses 1896) face can be of either sex. Rachilde is also known to have had these open views on sexuality as well. They were people of the mind, exploring its inner secrets; no doubt they’d bump into sexuality & its grey areas.
He painted his sister all the time—did she have these steely grey eyes he loved to paint as well (I can’t tell from the well-known portrait he painted of her)?—it there anything to be said of Khnopff’s painted, undialated grey eyes?
I was also pleased you touched on Jean Delville, considering the presence of mind, myth & dreams his paintings radiate.
Jeffery: The Symbolist circles in Brussels and Paris were small enough so that these artists and writers were certainly aware of each other. Many Belgians spent considerable time in Paris, including Khnopff himself early in the 1880s, and later his brother Georges Khnopff lived there for a time. Felicien Rops and Georges Rodenbach lived most of the time in Paris. Khnopff became more interested in London, and even considered moving there for a time. His friendship with Burne-Jones and other later Pre-Raphaelites was probably a large factor. That said, there was also a certain nationalistic rivalry, so the French critic & author Huysmans, concentrated on local artists such as Moreau and Redon. The Sâr Péladan reached out to the Belgians, since many artists were strongly inclined to mysticism. Khnopff, Delville, Emile Fabry, and Georges Minne were perhaps the strongest.
Androgyny was one of the key themes of the day, fueled by readings of Plato (The Symposium presented a striking conception of the original humans as androgynes), Darwin and the sense of evolution (and its counterpart, Decadence), and the burgeoning field of psychology, which was then as now fascinated with sexuality. Besides Freud, J.M. Charcot in France, and Krafft-Ebbing (author of Psychopathia Sexualis) in Germany were pioneers in this field. Novelists such as Peladan, Rachilde and Oscar Wilde brought these topics to a wider audience.
You are quite right to note the striking quality of the eyes in Khnopff’s portraits. It may have been a family trait, but it also fascinated him. He painted many models besides his sister, but most of them share this hypnotic gaze. The redhead in I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1891, Munich) is a classic example.
Aurelio: I’m glad you bring light to some of an underlying rivalry between France & Belgium—at the time. This is something easily missed when simply skimming the Symbolist movement in books, especially now. As you suggest & I’ve read, Khnopff was an anglophile & he admired the work of Burne-Jones, & the Pre-Raphaelites in general. In fact some of his paintings have English titles. Burne-Jones did like to paint those myth-laden, femme-fatale, & androgynous subjects, all rendered in a precise & melancholic manner (as Khnopff did).
Emile Fabry’s an artist I’ll have to look into, thanks for mentioning his name.
You write that Plato & Darwin (!) helped to contribute to these ideas of androgyny. I had no idea someone like Darwin would have anything to say on the subject. I’m sorry to press another point further, but I would like to know if you had had any ideas on the Symbolists & the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. I’ve read that Schopenhauer encouraged the use of art as a medium to escape the will, to a more enlightened state of mind. Is there any connection here to Khnopff & the Symbolists?
The last questions I have for you are on Khnopff’s use of photography. Did he use photographs for all or most of his paintings, or only some? I understand that for him it was a “dirty little secret,” while at times using photographs, painting on them as the final artwork. You point out in the BC interview that he even claimed to paint images of Bruges from memory, when in fact, such a crisp memory would require the use of a photo. Do you have any more thoughts on this subject? One of the goals of the Symbolists was to make the subjective objective. Khnopff’s use of photography demonstrates this objective very well, taking the objective photograph & using it at the service of the subjective imagination.
I can’t thank you enough for the expertise & time you gave me on Fernand Khnopff. It might be interesting to make an artwork using Khnopff’s ideas & methods as a tribute to this artist who looked inward to show future generations his masterful & nuanced genius of solitude.
Jeffery: As you note, the more one gets into the sources and implications of Symbolist theory, the richer and more complicated it is. Arthur Schopenhauer was extremely important to many Symbolist artist and poets. The French poet Jules Laforgue and Georges Rodenbach were just two writers who were influenced by his pessimistic yet idealistic philosophy. The impact of Schopenhauer was a bit delayed in the French speaking world, but by the 1880s he was translated and quite important for Khnopff.
Khnopff’s technique, whether in drawing or oil painting, is always extraordinary. His works often look almost photographic, and his use of photographs is uncontested. He was a rather good photographer himself, as shown by the photographs and cameras found in his studio after his death, and many of his highly detailed images of Bruges must have been done from photographs. Then as now, Bruges was a magnet for photographers. At that point in time, however, photography was not taken seriously as an art form by most people. Khnopff denied even using it as a tool, but that was probably intended to create an aura of mystery about his works. Photographs gave him the means to frieze time, and to meditate on his subjects undisturbed; the photograph was only the beginning of his image.