At the heart of symbolism

Beyond appearances


The abandoned city

Symbolism attraction

Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), painter, sculptor, engraver and photographer was a multiple talented artist coming from a cosmopolitan family. He spent his childhood in Bruges, the “Northern Venice” and a dozing, even abandoned city (see the opposite image) that had a great impact on his whole life.

His sister Marguerite, born in 1864, became his adulated oracle and favourite model. In 1866, the family settled in Brussels. From 1876 to 1879, he followed the drawing courses at the fine arts academy of the capital, beside James Ensor.

Fernand Khnopff stayed several times in Paris, where he notably studied Eugène Delacroix and Gustave Moreau. In the 1880s, he exhibited in Belgium and in England (which he visited for the first time in 1891). In Belgium, he actively participated in two groups of progressive artists, the Circle of the XX and the “Free aesthetic” that followed. In London, he met the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Edward Burne-Jones, and collaborated with the fashion art magazine, “The Studio”. He was also in constant contact with the Viennese Secession and, especially, Gustav Klimt.

All these meetings did nothing but reinforce his attraction to symbolism. Rejecting the ugliness of the industrial and advanced society, he took refuge in an inner world filled with dreams, silences and death to the surrounding world. In 1900, he had a house built in Brussels, which was designed as a temple with this motto: “One has only one's self”. The “Portrait of Marguerite”, realized in 1887, had pride of place in the key room of the house, which was unfortunately destroyed after the painter death.

Portrait of Marguerite, 1887Fernand Khnopff represented his sister in an almost full-length portrait. The bottom half of the dress cut gives the impression of a being that is floating as in a weightlessness state. This state contrasts with the body wearing gloves and sheathed in a white dress from which only the head emerges. Marguerite looks away from the spectator, as if absorbed elsewhere, in a totally inner world. She is just like the creatures coming from a world beyond appearances and filling the artist's universe.

He became really well-known in his lifetime before sinking into oblivion and finally being fairly recognized today.

The most famous work of Fernand Khnopff dates back to 1896. It is entitled “Art” or “The Sphinx” or “The Tenderness” and represents a new version of the Oedipus myth. This eternal myth inspired tragedies for Sophocles and Jean Anouilh as well as the paintings of Dominique Ingres, Gustave Moreau and Fernand Khnopff of course:

In these three paintings, it is all about the Greek Sphinx, portrayed in three different ways:

  • In the plastic representation from Ingres, Oedipus is ready to confront the Sphinx looking at him implacably;
  • In the mysterious painting from Moreau, the Sphinx seems a bit anxious to hear Oedipus answering the riddle She will ask him;
  • In the ambiguous canvas from Khnopff, both protagonists appear reunited into a common destiny.

These different representations show the richness of the myth, source of multiple interpretations from the most common to the shrewdest. The myth will help us to illuminate Fernand Khnopff's work, which will in return reveal the myth to us.

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