• gerard van weyenbergh

Fernand Khnopff, his art + video

In short

He is nicknamed the "master of the enigma", and for a good reason. Symbolist painter, also draftsman and sculptor Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921) created a deeply strange and dreamlike pictorial universe inhabited by an ambiguous feminine ideal. Combining references to Greek mythology, occult elements, and more personal symbols, he has profoundly renewed the imagination in painting. The artist, who celebrates the withdrawal into oneself and the inner vision, marked the Symbolist movement, of which he is considered a master.

Anonymous, Portrait of Fernand Khnopff , circa 1900, © DR


He said

"We only have ourselves. "

His life

Fernand Khnopff was born in Bruges, this city on the water, named the Venice of the North. He is the son of the king's prosecutor, a function that forces the family to settle in Brussels when the young boy is only eight years old.

After a start on the benches of the law university, Khnopff embarked on an artistic career. At the Académie des Beaux-Arts in the mid-1870s, he met James Ensor, who was promised an important career and who was also associated with the Symbolist movement. But the latter accused Khnopff of plagiarism in 1886.

The young artist, who cultivates his allure of a dandy, blends in with the modernity of his time and paints portraits of high society. Brussels is a dynamic city of art, in full effervescence. Khnopff, therefore, joined the group of XX, founded by Octave Maus in 1883, which organized remarkable exhibitions of the European avant-garde.

Close to the English Pre-Raphaelites (many who came to Brussels at that time), whose taste for nostalgia and romance he shared, he participated in the Rose-Croix salons under the aegis of Sâr Péladan. Throughout his life, Khnopff remained a mystical spirit.

In the 1890s, he also took part in the Viennese Secession, which exhibited one of his fervent admirers: Gustav Klimt. Khnopff acquired great notoriety and enjoyed success beyond Belgium, in Paris, London, and Berlin.

In 1899, the artist, fortunate but with the ideal of a solitary life, had a large house-workshop built, the plans for which he designed and which very theatrically stages the withdrawal into oneself that he advocated. This building, which resembles a temple, will be destroyed in the 1930s.

The artist died in 1921, crowned with glory. His work is fully in line with the very fruitful movement of European symbolism, alongside Gustave Moreau, a great admirer of Khnopff. By its dreamlike and fantastic character, his work was able to inspire surrealist painters, including the Belgian Magritte.

His key works

Fernand Khnopff, I Lock My Door Upon Myself , 1891 © Bayerische Staatgemaldesammlung

Borrowing its title from a line by Christina Rossetti, the sister of the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, this work advocates withdrawal. A woman with a hypnotic gaze seems to invite us into her world, a real visual puzzle full of illegible symbols and patterns: a low wall covered with a black veil, three lilies that appear in the foreground, a medallion suspended from a chain across the wall composition. Only one element is clearly legible: the sculpture of Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, to whom Khnopff worships.

Fernand Khnopff, Art or Caresses , 1896 © Musee des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles

This work is the painter's most famous. It represents a young androgynous, the head leaning against that of a hybrid being, half-woman, half-leopard, an animal associated with pleasure. He therefore seems to be faced with a dilemma: succumb to temptation or remain impassive. The feminine imagination is assimilated to perversity, to the temptation of profit, but also of death. The artist seems to rewrite the myth of Oedipus and the Sphinx, a theme that has experienced a great artistic wealth during the XIX th century, especially through the Symbolist movement.

Fernand Khnopff, L'Encens , 1898 © Musee d'Orsay, Paris

As usual, the artist here took his adored sister Marguerite as a model. It is she who fixes the feminine ideal that the artist sets out in her works: a red-haired woman, with an androgynous figure and a square face. Her body is here entirely veiled in a precious garment decorated with the motif of the thistle, giving her the appearance of a saint. Impression reinforced by the halo behind her head. The work is almost monochrome in tone, adding to the feeling of mystery. Khnopff here mixes sacred and secular iconography, drawing inspiration from family photographs that he himself took. Video: © Beaux Arts Magazine,