Forming the Symbolist Identity: the Materiality of Fernand Khnopff’s Sculptures

by Maria Golovteeva, University of St Andrews

Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren described the artworks of his compatriot, symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff, as “suggestions of thought” due to their visionary and symbolic character.[i] Indeed, his œuvre is predominantly characterised by allegorical and emblematic symbolism, but it would be rather simplistic to dismiss the material aspect of his art. First, the physicality of works of art characterises artists’ intentions, as they choose specific materials and employ specific techniques to obtain a certain effect. Thus, as a versatile craftsman, who worked with paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and sculpture, Khnopff must have paid careful attention to the material aspects of his creations. His articles on various materials he employed and their physical characteristics demonstrate his interest in materiality (photography, ivory carving, etching and engraving, etc.). Second, considering the Kantian idea of the “aesthetic experience”, art can function through its physicality, as the viewer’s engagement with a work of art includes not only its intellectual aspect, but also the interaction with its physical components: “the immediate relation to the sensational apprehension of the objects is what forms the primary basis of experience”.[ii] Third, according to the Symbolist Manifesto, the objective of the movement was to wrap the idea in a sensual form, with the form being subjected to the idea, which it is meant to express.[iii] This declaration of the idealist nature of the Symbolism and movement away from naturalism still took the notion of the form into consideration. Moreover, the importance of the material culture within the symbolist subjectivity was determined by the symbolist desire to collect exquisite and unique objects or everyday objects with acquired deeper meaning.[iv] The main character of Karl Huysmans’s novel À rebours, Des Esseintes, was an example of this predilection to gather exquisite things and construct an artificial interior in his search for the self-realization.

Khnopff did not produce many sculptures: around seven are known to have existed, but most of them were produced in multiple copies or in various materials. For example, he created two versions of Bust of a Young Englishwoman, both in tinted gessoduro but with slight variations in a turn of the head.

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Fernand Khnopff, Bust of a Young Englishwoman, 1891, polychrome plaster, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels (Inv. No. 70)

 

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Fernand Khnopff (from Robert L. Delevoy, et al), Photograph of Bust of a Young Englishwoman, 1891, polychrome plaster/photograph, Private Collection, Brussels.

Another variation of this sculpture might have existed in tinted marble.[v] Khnopff also rendered Head of Hypnos in bronze (below) and in plaster (known from photographs).

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As can be seen, in terms of a subject matter, Khnopff explored the themes and imagery of his paintings and drawings in a three-dimensional form. The recurrent symbols comprise images of Hypnos as well as of enigmatic and mysterious women (a young Englishwoman, Sybille, Vivien, Medusa), who embody qualities of both an ideal woman and a femme fatale in different proportions. As already mentioned, the materiality of his sculptures was determined by the Symbolist doctrines, which articulated the physicality of the objects through the concepts of precious or unique objects (collectibles) and a self-expression of an artist or a collector. Moreover, Khnopff was an active participant in the fin-de-siècle milieu, therefore, his considerations of sculptural materiality were strongly influenced by several contemporary trends, particularly the nineteenth-century revival of sculptural polychromy and re-introduction of certain materials.

Almost all the sculptures that Khnopff created were polychromed. He explored the expressive and aesthetic qualities of sculptural colouring. His pictorial approach was to create an image of a mysterious female or androgynous creature, self-contained and withdrawn from reality, as found in his Bust of a Young Englishwoman (above), Sybille (below, known from a photograph), Vivien (below), Mask (above), Future (below).

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His sculptural polychromy evoked the enigmatic and visionary atmosphere of his paintings and drawings. As a Symbolist, who experimented with levels of reality and the coexistence of two worlds, real and ideal, Khnopff employed the sculptural colouring in attempt to add a lifelike resemblance to his visionary characters, which were neither living nor alive. As such, he highlighted certain realistic features of his mystical beings with colour: lips, eyes, eyebrows, and hair of Vivien, a young Englishwoman (Bust of a Young Englishwoman, Future), a two-winged creature (Mask), skin tones of Vivien and the 1891 rendering of a young Englishwoman. However, Khnopff did not use colour to create a naturalistic effect: emphasising the human traits of his creatures, he at the same time made them look like inanimate idols of his own ideal world of symbols and visions. This resulted from a certain tension between form and colour: despite relatively naturalistic colouring, his sculptures did not try to mimic reality or real human beings, as they were always presented as objects – busts, masks, heads, or, as in case of Sybille and Vivien, small statuettes against exquisite backdrops resembling George Frampton’s Mysteriarch (1892). Khnopff emphasised the physicality of his sculptures and thus the visionary nature of the creatures they depicted by an unrealistic slicing of their heads (Bust of a Young Englishwoman, Future), constructing elaborate compositions with a backdrop and a support (Sybille, Vivien), leaving an unworked piece of marble under a carefully sculpted face (Future) or simply exposing the uncoloured gessoduro with his monogram (Bust of a Young Englishwoman). Furthermore, Khnopff’s intention to create sculptures resembling some sort of religious idols was related to the Symbolist concept of a studio altar, which the Belgian might have learnt from a German artist Franz von Stuck.[vi] Just as Stuck’s studio, built in 1897, featured an altar to Athena, Villa Khnopff, which was constructed between 1900 and 1902, enshrined an altar to Hypnos (above), topped by a plaster version of his Head of Hypnos and composed of Tiffany glass, a Byzantine medallion, precious books, images of his family, and golden sphinxes, and inscribed with the artist’s personal motto “On ne a que soi” (One has only oneself).[vii] Combining the idea of the studio altar and the collectibles as a way of artistic and intellectual self-expression Khnopff also erected a construction recalling an altar (below), which included an original version of Mask in ivory and gilt bronze crowned with a crystal vase and placed on a blue column against a Japanese embroidered wall-hanging with a white crane flying against a blue background.

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Robert L. Delevoy, Photograph of Khnopff’s House

Another German artist, Max Klinger, also dismissed the colour in sculpture as a trace of naturalism, instead praising it for its artistic qualities that allowed the realization of almost any idea. He wrote on sculptural polychromy and was partly credited for formulating a base for its reintroduction in the nineteenth-century arts: “Colour must come into its own here, must structure, fit, speak”.[viii] He stated that sculptural polychromy symbolised a return to simplicity that could help to emphasise the sculptural form and balance each part of the sculptural composition. These ideas of the fellow artist-sculptor must have appealed to Khnopff, who was possibly familiar with Klinger’s art through Franz von Stuck. Furthermore, both Khnopff and Klinger preferred to work with artificial polychromy based on the addition of paint to accentuate the painterly quality of the sculptures instead of natural polychromy represented by a combination of a naturally coloured materials (mainly stones and marbles). This approach to the colour aspect of sculptural materiality reveals the general artistic method of Khnopff and Klinger: they were concerned with colour in the first place and chose materials that granted them certain freedoms in terms of applying colour over the colourful materials that pre-determined the colour of the sculptures themselves. Introducing polychromy into three-dimensional works was a common practice of many nineteenth-century artists, who were equally interested in sculpture and painting: most of them, like Khnopff, were used to working with colour, but lacked training in sculpture.

At the same time, sculptural polychromy experienced an overall revival in the nineteenth-century. It represented a movement away from academic canons, which stood for principles of classical white sculpture. Furthermore, the nineteenth century was marked by medieval polychromy and by a final acknowledgement of the widespread colouring of the ancient Greek sculptures. Within the pan-European romanticism of the Middle Ages and supported by active restorations of medieval buildings around Europe starting from 1830s, coloured medieval sculptures came under the notice of artists and scientists.[ix] Moreover, conservation activities influenced to a certain degree the re-introduction of forgotten arts and crafts, such as gesso painting, fresco painting, stained glass, etc. Even though Medievalism was an international movement, Khnopff’s interaction with medieval subjects and sculptural polychromy was through his fascination with British art. The Neo-Gothic movement in Great Britain resulted in the re-introduction of coloured ceramics and gesso painting as well as the medieval themes (the legend of King Arthur, the War of the Roses, etc.). Khnopff most likely learnt the re-discovered technique of gessoduro during one of his many trips to England, presumably from George Frampton in 1891.[x] The Pre-Raphaelites, whom Khnopff admired and even was rumored to have befriended, also promoted the subject matters and techniques inspired by the Middle Ages.

The gessoduro re-established itself during the British medieval revival and since Khnopff was looking for a medium that united colour and matter, it became his material of choice.[xi] At the same time his works are often described as of polychrome or coloured plaster due to the closeness of these two materials. In his article on gessowork Walter Crane highlights its elasticity and a wide range of “effects and expressions it provides with almost no particular limitations or natural laws.”[xii] He partly attributes its expressive qualities to the variety of existing recipes and mixtures. Hippolyte Fierens-Gevaert, one of Khnopff’s critics, explains the artist’s fascination with the material through its aesthetic potential: it is susceptible to both moulding and carving combining organic and inorganic qualities and at the same time provides an extreme delicacy and softness that no other medium could grant.[xiii] His gessoduro sculptures (Bust of a Young Englishwoman, Vivien, Mask) demonstrate how Khnopff explored the physical characteristics of the material. The medium allowed him to carefully shape even the smallest and the most exquisite details, such as the laurel and flower wreath and small precious wings of the Mask, or convey a movement, such as the flowing hair and gown of the dancing Vivien, without any previous training. The fluidity and opaque texture enhanced the delicate feature of the mask and the young Englishwoman, while the fusion of the colour and the matter created an illusion of an inner glow. The colour receptivity of the gessoduro gave Khnopff an opportunity to control the intensity and shades of applied colours, thus, again, exploit the coherence between sculpture and painting.

Even though gessoduro or polychrome plaster was Khnopff’s material of choice, he turned to wax perhaps in pursuit of a greater artistic expression. As a more plastic material, wax provided more accuracy in details and allowed the creation of more complicated forms or more spontaneous expression. Even though it is possible to study Khnopff’s Sybille only from a photograph, it is obvious that the artist took full advantage of the plasticity of the medium: the mysterious priestess seems to be wearing an elaborate headpiece and a flowing garment with numerous folds along the sleeves. Again, with careful modelling, the artist depicted Sybille’s elegant gesture almost resembling a dance. While working in wax, Khnopff also paid more attention to the sculptural surface: he created a captivating difference between the smooth hands and calm face of Sybille and her vibrant outfit consisting of pleats, creases, and crinkles. It is unknown whether this sculpture was coloured, as the original, which had belonged to a British collection, was presumably lost during German bombing in 1940.[xiv] Nevertheless, the wax itself has a specific colour, which together with its other physical characteristics, including its ability to deteriorate with time, attracted the Symbolists as an intermediate state between human skin and marble and became their favourite material.[xv] In Georges Rodenbach’s famous work Bruges-la-Morte (1892) the makeup of Jane Scott resembled corpselike wax figures contributing to the overall dark atmosphere of that Symbolist novel.[xvi] With the medium experiencing a certain revival in the course of the nineteenth century and polychrome wax sculpture becoming more popular among the artists and more acknowledged by the public, Khnopff most likely became intrigued by the material’s ability to create fascinating fusions of form, texture, and colour (due to its great capacity to hold pigment), again realising his recurrent symbol of a mysterious and distant female. Khnopff’s approach to using wax characterised the changing perception of the material in the course of the nineteenth century. Traditionally wax was employed for its perfectly mimetic qualities: due to the highly naturalistic effect, cheapness and availability of the material, it was used to create votive sculptures, funeral effigies, death masks, and anatomical models. However, as with the sculptural polychromy, fin-de-siècle artists and sculptors attempted to move away from the naturalism bringing the symbolic aspect of the three-dimensional wax works to the forefront.

While Great Britain was going through the gessoduro revival, Belgium was experiencing an ivory movement. To encourage the chryselephantine revival, King Leopold II and the secrétaire d’état to the Congo Free State, Edmond van Eetvelde, invited Belgian artists and sculptors to create works for the Antwerp Interbational Exhibition of 1894.[xvii] This government campaign bordering on a colonial propaganda intended to promote the economic exchange between Belgium and Congo and revive the Belgian craft of ivory carving, which had been almost forgotten since the seventeenth century. In his article on the revival of ivory carving for The Studio Khnopff partly reviewed the exhibition, considering it a success and regarding the chryselephantine sculptures as the products of Congo rather than objects d’art.[xviii] Three years later he praised the organisers of the Tervueren Colonial section of the 1897 Brussels Exhibition for paying more attention to art rather than to the practical side.[xix] This was very representative of the quickly-established status of the recently rediscovered medium. Khopff himself contributed to its artistic acknowledgement: he exhibited his Mask (above) in the Brussels Exhibition. He also created a frontispiece for the catalogue of the exposition L’Etat indépendant du Congo. La sculpture chryséléphantine, Bruxelles-Tervuren. Just as Khnopff never returned to work with wax after the Sybille, he employed ivory to create only one sculpture, quite possibly caught in the overall celebration of the Belgian craft revival. One of the reasons could be that chryselephantine was a complicated material to work with: Khnopff’s ivory mask was mounted into a bronze laural wreath possibly because it was quite challenging for the artist to carve such small and delicate details, which he easily sculpted in the gessoduro version (above). On the other hand, merging ivory and bronze in one image corresponded with the fin-de-siècle love of exquisite materials and symbolist fascination with precious collectibles. The ivory mask was supposedly slightly tinted on the lips, eyes, and wings, but probably in a slightly colder palette when compared to the plaster version, due to the materials’ different capacity to hold colour.

Khnopff explored the expressive qualities of bronze more deeply in his two 1900 sculptures: Head of Hypnos and Head of the Medusa. Obviously inspired by the bronze head of Hypnos in the British Museum, which he most likely had seen during one of his trips to Great Britain, Khnopff stayed true to the material of the original but created a noticeably bigger sculpture. In the spirit of symbolist aesthetics with the form being determined by the idea, Khnopff chose the medium, which evoked the ancient Greek sculptures to render the classical imagery of two mythological creatures, Hypnos and Medusa. At the same time, he was clearly concerned with the aspect of presentation and exhibition: he placed his sculptures on elegant plinths, hiding the fastening behind the writhing snakes in the Head of the Medusa in a particularly clever and creative way. Deriving inspiration from ancient motives and taking into account contemporary aesthetics, Khnopff realised nineteenth-century visions of mythological imagery and produced fin-de-siècle versions of Greek sculptures, which also correlated with the symbolist desire to collect artifacts, even if they were only seemingly rare.

Khnopff’s only marble sculpture Future also recalls an ancient Greek bust, particularly because of the medium used, the form of a herm, and the laurel wreath. However, the Belgian again rendered the object according to nineteenth-century ideas. First, he left an area of crude marble in the form of a plinth building up a tension between the delicate features of the mysterious female and the unworked material. Second, Khnopff added colour to the face and hair, juxtaposing the cold marble and the traces of polychromy. The resulting contrast between the colour and the medium was stronger than in his much warmer plaster busts creating an impression of an almost vampirish beauty. Third, as he rendered the altars enshrining the Head of Hypnos and the Mask in a priestly manner, he also conducted physical manipulations resembling his own special spiritual rituals to change the appearance of the Future several times. Treating the bust as a precious collectible, Khnopff altered not the work itself, but the way in which he fashioned it, which nevertheless affected the presentation and thus the perception of the sculpture. At the first Viennese Secession the work was presented with a scarf sprinkled with little blue stars on her head.[xx] The photograph with Khnopff posing in front of the sculpture depicts it with a bare head revealing a skull cut across the forehead (below). Nowadays the bust is adorned with a laurel wreath. This is a clear example of Khnopff interacting with his sculptures and treating them as an extension of his personality and philosophy and as a means of constructing his artistic identity.

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Photograph of Fernand Khnopff

Clearly Fernand Khnopff was attentive to the physical characteristics of his sculptures, adjusting their materiality to his artistic needs. Experimenting with sculptural polychromy and various materials Khnopff was influenced by contemporary trends in sculpture and at the same time supported them with his works, rendering his most recurrent imagery and symbols in a three-dimensional form. Rejecting the naturalism, Khnopff explored the artistic and spiritual coherence of his art as well as aesthetic and expressive qualities of different media. So with his art he constructed his artistic ego, his Symbolist identity, leaving almost no other documentation of his personality: the record found after his death hardly provided any information about the artist himself.

 

***

[i] Verhaeren, E., ‘Les XX’, Chronique artistique, I (no. 7), 1891, p. 251

[ii] Banham, G., Kant and the Ends of Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), p. 13

[iii] Moréas, J., ‘Un manifeste littéraire: Le Symbolisme’, Le Figaro, September 18, 1887

[iv] Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, O’Mahoney, C. I. R., ed., Symbolist Objects: Symbolism and Subjectivity at the Fin de Siècle (High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: Rivendale press, 2009), p. 165

[v] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1996), p. 57

[vi] Howe, J. W., The symbolist art of Fernand Khnopff (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1982), p. 112

[vii] Ibid.

Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, p. 165

[viii] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, p. 42

[ix] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, p. 54

[x] Hargrove, J., ‘Painter-sculptors and polychromy in the evolution of modernism’, Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910, p.109

Draguet, M., Khnopff, ou L’ambigu poétique (Brussels, Paris, 1995), p. 136, note 134

[xi] Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, p. 175

[xii] Crane, W., ‘Notes on gesso work’, The Studio, vol. I (2), May 1893, p. 47

[xiii] Fierens-Gevaert, H., ‘Fernand Khnopff’, Art et décoration, 4 (1898), p. 123

Quoted in Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, p. 175

[xiv] Delevoy, R. L., C. de Croës, and G. Ollinger-Zinque, Fernand Khnopff (Brussels: Lebeer Hossmann, 1987), p. 35

[xv] Héran, E., ‘Art for the sake of the soul’, Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910, p. 99

[xvi] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, p. 57

[xvii] Leonard, A., ‘Internationalism in Spite of Themselves: Britain and Belgium at the Fin de Siècle’, Brockington, G., ed., Internationalism and the Arts in Britain and Europe at the Fin de Siècle, CISRA Volume 4 (Peter Lang, 2009), p. 229

[xviii] Khnopff, F., ‘The revival of ivory carving in Belgium’, The Studio, vol. IV, 1894, p. 150

[xix] Khnopff, F., ‘Studio-Talk: Brussels’, The Studio, vol. XI (51), June 1897, p. 201

[xx] Hevesi, L., Acht Jahre Sezession (Vienna, 1906), p. 33

Bibliography:

Banham, G., Kant and the Ends of Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)

Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910 (Van

Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1996)

Brockington, G., ed., Internationalism and the Arts in Britain and Europe at the Fin de Siècle, Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts, Volume 4 (Peter Lang, 2009)

Crane, W., ‘Notes on gesso work’, The Studio, vol. I (2), May 1893, p. 45-9

Delevoy, R. L., C. de Croës, and G. Ollinger-Zinque, Fernand Khnopff (Brussels: Lebeer Hossmann, 1987)

Draguet, M., Khnopff, ou L’ambigu poétique (Brussels, Paris, 1995)

Hevesi, L., Acht Jahre Sezession (Vienna, 1906)

Howe, J. W., The symbolist art of Fernand Khnopff (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1982)

Khnopff, F., ‘The revival of ivory carving in Belgium’, The Studio, vol. IV, 1894, p. 150-1

Khnopff, F., ‘Studio-Talk: Brussels’, The Studio, vol. XI (51), June 1897, p. 200-2

O’Mahoney, C. I. R., ed., Symbolist Objects: Symbolism and Subjectivity at the Fin de Siècle (High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: Rivendale press, 2009)

Moréas, J., ‘Un manifeste littéraire: Le Symbolisme’, Le Figaro, September 18, 1887

Verhaeren, E., ‘Les XX’, Chronique artistique, I (no. 7), 1891

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