Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 14, 2021
Michel Draguet Fernand Khnopff Brussels and New Haven, CT: Mercatorfonds in association with Yale University Press, 2020. 304 pp.; 210 color ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780300246506)

The work of Fernand Khnopff as one of Belgium’s foremost symbolist artists is increasingly attracting scholarly attention. It is no coincidence that in the past few years interesting exhibitions have been dedicated to Belgian symbolism and Fernand Khnopff, such as Dekadenz und Dunkle Träume: Der belgische Symbolismus at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin (2020–21) and Fernand Khnopff: Le maître de l’énigme (1858–1921) at the Petit Palais in Paris (2018–19). One of the directors of the latter exhibition was the Khnopff specialist Michel Draguet, author of several journal articles on Belgian art that are also of particular interest for Khnopff, as well as monographs such as Fernand Khnopff: Portrait of Jean Kéfer (2004) and, prior to that, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (1995), an important work in the Khnopff scholarship that the author revisits in his most recently published book.

Khnopff’s role in symbolist art; his position on the European stage (England, France, Germany, and Austria); his position vis-à-vis modernity; his discrete yet also somewhat distant presence in Belgian cultural life; his versatility as an artist and a painter, sculptor, book illustrator, and designer; his ambiguous involvement in photography; his relationship with other artists, writers, and musicians, and with architecture, especially through his own peculiar, no longer extant villa-studio and his work in the Palais Stoclet in Brussels: all prove extremely fertile routes into the work of Khnopff and the context of fin-de-siècle Belgian and European culture. Each of these routes is touched upon, sometimes in detail, in Draguet’s present study, based upon a thorough knowledge of archival materials. The book is also abundantly illustrated and even has a very clear plan for the visitor’s transformative parcours through villa Khnopff.

In Fernand Khnopff, the artistic production of the Belgian artist is tied to larger themes of fundamental cultural-historical and art-philosophical interest. One of the most fascinating underlying themes in Draguet’s study is Khnopff’s search for a symbolically and historically lost wholeness and the overcoming of tension and fragmentation, like that between feeling and spirit, or body and intellect, as Khnopff’s handling of the iconography of the sphinx and androgynous figures shows (chapter 11). In this act of (re)creating wholeness, the self and artist coincide, and ultimately only the self remains in an ongoing movement between confrontation and interiorization, exemplifying Khnopff’s motto On n’a que soi” (One only has oneself).

This artistic search is analyzed by Draguet against the background of fundamental subthemes, adding to topics that he explored in his 1995 Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique, such as subjectivity (chapter 3), the memory trace (chapter 3), arrest, absorption, immobility, action, and narrative (chapters 5 and 9), art and photography (chapter 10), the notion of a threshold space and the introduction of disturbance into contingent reality (chapter 12), reality and the dream (chapter 7), and total art (chapter 13), to name only a few. The search for (a new) synthesis, which characterized the long nineteenth century and intensified in fin-de-siècle culture as an answer to the challenges of modern life and progress, fueled and accompanied a sensitivity for connections among the arts, literature, music, and architecture, connections that emerge at various instances in Fernand Khnopff. For example, Draguet argues in the first chapter, “A Dream Castle,” when talking about the art on display in the villa Khnopff, that “each work was but a fragment—although autonomous and complete in itself—of a thought in perpetual motion, seeking foundations in unity and totality” (20). Interestingly, Draguet’s book opens with arguably one of Khnopff’s most particular “synthetic” achievements in this respect: his villa-studio (1902), his “dream castle” in Ixelles, Brussels, an area that was popular among artists and writers. It ends in chapter 13 with a consideration of Khnopff and the “total work of art,” through a detailed analysis of his decorative work in the music room of the Palais Stoclet, commissioned from the Viennese architect Joseph Hoffmann by Adolphe Stoclet in 1905, which, as Draguet shows, must be understood in terms of a dialogue with Khnopff’s own home.

Although the argument is not always systematically or sufficiently fleshed out or unpacked for the interested reader who wants to grasp its full depth, Draguet’s endeavor to connect Khnopff with his cultural environment and with theoretical or aesthetic frameworks in which his world can be interpreted, or to which it testifies, makes this study a must read for anyone interested in Khnopff or fin-de-siècle European culture. There is not only the connection between Khnopff and Mallarmé, who figures at various instances throughout this monograph and is one of the leading threads throughout the book. In addition, Draguet’s exploration of Khnopff’s affiliation with the important art critic, poet, and theoretician of symbolism Émile Verhaeren, with the photographer Alexandre (Edouard Drains), and with Gustav Klimt (chapter 13) are good examples of an approach that opens interesting perspectives on his work. Khnopff’s relationship with Alexandre (chapter 10), with whom Khnopff collaborated on “enhanced photographs,” illustrates this. While “the effect of memory” (200) was heightened through the photograph, Khnopff subsequently enhanced the image “by restoring colour and new sensations” (200), a revisitation that operated like memory repopulating the souvenir. Elsewhere, in the case of En écoutant du Schumann (1883, Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels), Khnopff revolutionized the palette to take the image further toward the dreamlike dematerialization of reality through music (202). Thus Khnopff’s ambiguous attitude toward photography, reproduction, revisitation, the series, and enhancement is connected to his broader sensitivity to reality as fundamentally a kind of experience felt like a memory.

In Draguet’s gold mine of entwined themes, interpretations, and brilliant suggestions, arguments sometimes tend to become dense, or they suggest rather than explain. They therefore would need more fleshing out to become fully comprehensible or would need to be tied more coherently to references, primary sources, and/or additional clarifications in the notes. A good example is the analysis of Khnopff’s painting Memories (Du Lawn Tennis) (1889, Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique) in chapter 3, “The Territory of the Subject.” The painting represents seven women who are all modeled after Khnopff’s sister Marguerite. Six of them were based upon photographs of Marguerite, but one woman, in white, was not. Draguet asks in regard to the non-photograph-based Marguerite: “What meaning could be attributed to it? Is it she who remembers, or is she the one being thought of behind the alibi of the others? Unless, as Mallarmé said, it is a question of each bearing the features of the one who is absent” (45). Given the importance of memory, time, and absence—in Khnopff’s work, in his villa, in symbolism generally, in music (as Khnopff’s own En écoutant du Schumann suggests), in literature—a more extensive recourse to Mallarmé on absence and presence would at this point have been helpful and would certainly have enriched the interpretation of the Marguerite in white. This need to further unpack the text often occurs in connection with Mallarmé, where Draguet states that “for the poet, myth could only come to the fore through an appeal to the arts that found its philosophical synthesis in Wagnerian opera. A ‘total work of art’ would embody the myth, surging from conventional language back towards its poetic origins. The Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, at least as Mallarmé understood it, was a reimagining of language in a desire to renew and control time” (268). It would be interesting in this instance to explain both the Mallarmean and Wagnerian concept of Gesamtkunstwerk in connection with “myth” and poetry. It would also be helpful to point out in this passage the fundamental social dimension of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, a dimension that is often underexamined in the scholarship. This would be all the more useful in view of the concept of myth, widespread in the age, in the sense of the (atemporal, though sometimes also historicized) story of original unity, before historical and societal fragmentation set in. The latter clearly fits in with some of Khnopff’s most fundamental iconographic themes, such as that of the sphinx and the androgyne, that are precisely caught in relationships of reconnecting and reestablishing a lost unity and origin, and that also have a clear societal dimension in the context of a divisive modernity in Khnopff’s work.

That being said, Fernand Khnopff offers a wonderfully rich interpretation of the complex work of one of Belgium’s most important artists in a way that may be of interest to a wide variety of scholars from various disciplines within the humanities, from cultural history to aesthetics and the philosophy of art.

Dominique Bauer
Professor of Cultural History at the Faculty of Architecture, KU Leuven, Belgium