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PRINT January 2004

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Anne Pontégnie on “Fernand Khnopff”

After honoring Delvaux, Magritte, and Ensor with major retrospectives, the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, celebrate the mysterious and fascinating work of Fernand Khnopff (January 16–May 9; travels to Salzburg and Boston). Born in 1858 in Grembergen-lez-Termonde but raised in Brugge, Khnopff grew up in a Belgium haunted by symbolism—as it had been ever since Wagner created his Lohengrin there at the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie, in 1850. Influenced first by the literature of Georges Rodenbach and Emile Verhaeren, and then initiated into painting in 1875 at the Brussels studio of Xavier Mellery, Khnopff actively participated in a symbolist international then in full flower. The man who inscribed the motto “On n’a que soi” (You only have yourself) on his studio wall was nevertheless fully engaged in the artistic life of his era, from his friendship with the Pre-Raphaelites to his celebration by the Secession. He died in 1921.

Like a Henry van de Velde, Khnopff tackled all fields of creation. Photography, sculpture, architecture, costumes for the stage, poetry, and mural painting accompanied his production of oils and pastels. These multiple aspects will be represented along with his most striking works: Khnopff shared with Magritte an extraordinary capacity for creating images that would enter the collective imagination. One cannot easily forget the sphinx of Des caresses, 1896, the strange group portrait Memories, 1889, or the red-haired woman in I Lock My Door upon Myself, 1891. From the troubling beauty of the deserted landscapes of Brugge to the gravity of his remarkable portraits of children, 265 of the artist’s works will be assembled, together with a handful of masterpieces by contemporaries Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, and Edward Burne-Jones. The moment seems particularly ripe for rediscovering Khnopff, finally rid of the cumbersome theoretical finery that has accompanied his work until now—whether the starched grandiloquence of the Rosicrucians or the psychoanalytical raptures of the 1970s—and for carving out a place for him at the root of a broadened modernity.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.