‘Des Esseintes’ of Brussels: Artifice of the Villa Khnopff

by Maria Golovteeva, University of St Andrews

Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff erected his extravagant villa in Brussels at number 41, Avenue des Courses in Brussels, at its intersection with Avenue Jeanne, on the edge of the greenery of the Bois de la Cambre. It was a result of collaboration with Belgian architect Edouard Pelseneer. The first steps to create the house were most likely taken in October 1899; the plans were drawn in March 1900, and the residence was finished in 1902.[i] The villa is now only known from eyewitness accounts and photographs published in contemporary periodicals, as it was demolished in 1938 – 1940 to build a block of flats.[ii] It is still to be determined who took the photographs depicting empty rooms and corridors of the Villa Khnopff and one view of the dwelling from the outside, but their reproductions first appeared as illustrations in the article ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’ by writer and journalist Wolfram Waldschmidt in the Dekorative Kunst in 1906.

Facade of the Villa Khnopff
Facade of the Villa Khnopff. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

Some of these photographic evocations were reproduced in the artist’s first biography published by his friend Louis Dumont-Wilden in 1907, which provides an insight into the Villa Khnopff too.[iii] Several reproductions also appeared in Hélène Laillet’s 1912 article ‘The Home of an artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels’ for The Studio. Contemporaries that were invited to visit the magnificent building, designed in the Secessionist style that highlighted eccentric designs and superficial atmosphere, called it ‘la chapelle votive d’une esthétique personnelle et compliquée’ or ‘le Castel du rêve.’[iv] Dumont-Wilden, who visited the villa numerous times, recalls des Esseintes, the main character of Huysmans’ novel A Rebours, who decorated his house with rare, strange and beautiful things to establish an artificial environment to correspond with his overly sophisticated idiosyncratic personality. Indeed, artificiality was one of the main characteristics of the Villa Khnopff.

Just like the Goncourt’s ‘maison d’art’ at Auteuil, which its owners transformed into a proto-Symbolist work of art, the image of the Villa Khnopff was circulated in textual and photographic reproductions.[v] Photographic evocations of the house are of particular interest, as they provide visual depictions of the dwelling and perhaps less subjective descriptions than written testimonials. They characterise the self-documenting ability of the photography that gave the artist an opportunity to construct, preserve and project not only his vision of his house, but also of his artistic identity. At the same time, these photographs demonstrate the documentary capacity of the medium, which Khnopff considered to be one of its most important and valuable qualities. This creates an interesting reciprocity between his life and photographs and a certain ambiguity of these photographic representations. On the one hand, they provide a supposedly objective view of the villa; on the other, they exude an air of constructed reality and carefully controlled affectation. For instance, the photographs do not document the villa entirely: they depict only several areas probably chosen by the artist excluding the sleeping quarters of the dwelling. Khnopff’s avoidance of showing more utilitarian spaces in his house, whether it was common for that time or not, represents his meticulous control over his art as well as his personal image. This contributes to Khnopff’s intention to design an artificial aura of an intellectual and dandy around himself and mythologise his œuvre. Thus, the artificiality of the Villa Khnopff, which was also an continuation of the artist’s eccentric personality, extended even in its photographic depictions, which as a result of a technical process represent an opposition to everything natural.

Dumont-Wilden’s comparison of Khnopff to des Esseintes is even more detailed: he dubs the artist “un des Esseintes qui n’a pas subi l’éducation romantique, et n’a jamais fréquenté le grenier d’Auteuil.”[vi] The biographer thus contrasts the Villa Khnopff not only with des Esseintes’ residence, but also with the Goncourt’s aestheticised house. Dumont-Wilden most likely implies the stylistic differences between two dwellings, as in other aspects they shared certain similarities. The villa in Brussels represented a projection of the life of the artist into a living environment and explored the potential of interior rearrangements of art objects and artificial settings that would transform a domestic home into ‘an “artistic” retreat just like the house at Auteuil.[vii] However, while the Goncourts decorated their residence according to their main ‘collecting, literary, and aesthetic interests … in French eighteenth-century art, Gavarni and Romantic literature, near and far-eastern “objets d’art” ‘, Khnopff fashioned his villa in a completely different manner.[viii] He combined his preference for the laconic Secessionist architecture with his fascination with the Pre-Raphaelite art and the classical past.

Khnopff praised the Secessionist style and Viennese architects deriving inspiration for his residence from their works. He was impressed with Josef Hoffmann’s buildings and galleries already in 1898 while he was exhibiting in Vienna.[ix] This was visible in the white facades of the villa (see above) dominated by rigorous straight lines. Such architectural preference was not coincidental on Khnopff’s part: the concepts of straight and curved lines had certain aesthetic and philosophical meaning to the intellectuals of that time. Unsurprisingly, in the manner of his idealistic and spiritual art Khnopff predominantly preferred the supposed intellectualism and morality of straight lines to the sensuality and materiality of curved lines, as well as unelaborate ornamentation to heavy embellishment, both in the exterior and interior of the villa. Indeed, the facades were decorated only with black lines, golden circles, and black monograms on a golden background with Khnopff’s typical “cold yet noble aestheticism”. [x] The building exuded such an “air of reserve, almost of disdain” that passers-by sometimes mistook the austere exterior of the villa for one of a chapel or a vault.[xi] Khnopff used the colour black only for the exteriors together with gold, blue, and white, which he employed for decoration throughout his villa.[xii]

Even after such a laconic exterior, visitors were still struck by austerity of the interior. Khnopff emphasises in his 1904 article ‘Mein Haus’ for Die Zeit that from the beginning the dwelling was as uninviting as possible.[xiii] This statement borders on self-criticism, but not for Khnopff: for him as for an aesthete, the comfort and coziness of his residence is not of a high priority. What was more significant for him is projecting his desire to gather precious collectables and create a specific decadent and artistic setting, which was evident in the first room of the house – a small antechamber with white walls of polished stucco.

The Antechamber
The Antechambre. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

Already this little room showed the touch of the artist, as it was inhabited by several emblems of Khnopff’s private symbolism. Those were symbols important for Khnopff and his art: a small laurel tree in the corner, a stuffed Indian peacock, a small Greek statue on a blue column and his work Blanc, Noir et Or (1901) with the word “Soi” (self) inscribed above it.[xiv]

Blanc, Noir et Or
Fernand Khnopff, Blanc, Noir et Or, 1901. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

The antechamber was followed by a long white corridor that ran through the villa.

The Corridor
The Corridor. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

Like the antechamber, it was decorated with works of art. Among other paintings hanging on its walls was Khnopff’s work Arum Lily (1895)  that depicted his sister Marguerite with the strong features of a Pre-Raphaelite beauty and the portrait of Elisabeth of Austria  executed by Khnopff.[xv]

Arum Lily
Fernand Khnopff, Arum Lily, 1895. Photographic reproduction executed by Alexandre and reworked by Khnopff. © Le Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique.

Elisabeth d’Autriche
Fernand Khnopff, Elisabeth d’Autriche.

A copy of a Greek sculpture of Hope from the Munich Glyptothek was placed on a windowsill. The latter corresponded with the motto written on the walls: ‘Everything comes to him who waits’. The corridor continued the idea of the immersion into the personality of the artist and his private symbols, his art and sources of his inspiration introduced in the antechamber. In fact, Khnopff’s collection of his own works and of the works of others constituted an important part of his villa.

The space was lit with high windows glazed with Tiffany glass to control the light and reduce the distractions of the nature just as many windows around the house were heavily draped to minimise outside noise and reduce the distractions of the city. The confrontation between the carefully constructed artificial atmosphere of the villa and the outside world was noticed by the visitors: Dumont-Wilden called the house ‘le temple du Moi, … la forteresse d’une individualité en perpétuelle défense contre le Monde et la Vie.’ Hélène Laillet  described it as ‘the expression of his [Khnopff’s] own personality which he [Khnopff] has built for his own satisfaction; it is his immutable ‘Self’ which he has raised in defiance of a troubled and changing world.’[xvi] Khnopff’s dwelling conveyed an impression that the artist fenced himself, his artistic self, from the world in this perpetual defense. Thus, like des Esseintes, Khnopff strived to maintain an artificial environment in his dwelling. After all, he shared with the fictional aesthete from Huysmans’ novel his reclusiveness and eccentricity. At the same time, Dumont-Wilden characterises Khnopff as ‘un des Esseintes méthodique, épris, d’ordonnance harmonieuse beaucoup plus que de singularité.’[xvii] Indeed, Khnopff’s residence, in its austerity, did not share the opulence of des Esseintes’ house.

The austerity of the interiors was specifically evident in the White room on the ground floor, which almost no one could recognise as a dining room, as the space always struck guests with its severity and coldness.[xviii]

The White Room (Dining Room)
The White Room (Dining Room). © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

According to Laillet’s description, the doorway was curtained with pale blue satin, the windows were glazed with blue and gold glass forming in combination ‘flames and fantastic figures’, which demonstrates the artist’s intention to create an artificial interior.[xix] The walls were decorated with Khnopff’s most known works and a reproduction of Edward Burne-Jones’s Wheel of Fortune. The overall impression of the room was ‘vague and uneasy’, chairs did not ‘invite repose’, and a small table was ‘just big enough to hold a vase’.[xx] The miniature dining table would be brought in for every meal and quickly taken away afterwards. This again represents how the functionality and comfort of the living space was sacrificed for the sake of decadent perfectionism and aesthetic unity, the tension between the real and the ideal, the material and the immaterial, or as contemporaries put it, ‘the struggle between the ideal and the material’.[xxi] At the same, by sacrificing the domestic the artist reaches his main goal – to bedazzle the public, as pointed out by French journalist, critic and novelist Albert Flament, who wrote under a pseudonym Sparklet for L’écho de Paris: ‘Ah! l’intérieur de M. Khnopff, son vestibule aux dalles blanches, aux murs blanches, sa galerie blanche, sa sale à manger pareille, avec sa table pour deux, et son petit canapé pour unique siege, triomphe du ripolin, couloirs de sucre vernissé où s’ébaubissent les snobs de la Cambre!’.[xxii]

The artificiality of the Villa Khnopff was partly related to the cult of the artist as a thinker and a priest of art in the nineteenth century. The sacred nature of artists’ work was foremost promoted by the poet and novelist Joséphine Péladan, who addressed artists with the following call: ‘Artiste, tu es prêtre: l’Art est le grand mystère, et lorsque ton effort about it au chef-d’œuvre, un rayon du divin descend comme sur un autel.’[xxiii] In 1892 he founded an artistic group dedicated to spirituality and the aesthetics of mystery – the Salon de la Rose+Croix. Khnopff not only exhibited at the Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, but also to a certain extent followed Péladan’a dogmas. Indeed, Khnopff turned his living and working space into a temple of art by creating a religious, almost supernatural atmosphere in his villa and elevating his art and artistic process almost to the status of a cult, which he attempted to transmit in the photographs of the villa.

Several altars dedicated to the most important emblems in Khnopff’s art and scattered around the house contributed to this atmosphere of the artistic cult. On the ground floor, opposite the staircase leading to the upper floors, was a blue niche containing the first altar of the house.

The Altar
The altar to Imagination in the blue niche. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

It was a shrine to Imagination and comprised Khnopff’s sculpture of a winged mask executed in ivory, enamel and bronze on a thin blue column.[xxiv] The installation was placed against a Japanese embroidery with a crane on a blue background. The winged mask was a recurrent emblem of the artist’s private symbolism: it existed in several versions, including a sculpture in a polychrome plaster and appeared in Secret-Reflet (1902).

 

Another altar, dedicated to Hypnos, was placed in the most important part of the house – the artist’s studio upstairs. It comprised a copy of the bronze head of Hypnos from the British Museum, which dates back to the fourth century B.C., a Byzantine medallion, a case of clear glass, gilded bronze sphinxes and a base of Tiffany glass.[xxv] The motto ‘On n’a que soi’ inscribed behind the altar again invited to the exploration of the inner world of the self.

 

There were in fact two studios separated by draperies, and the second, smaller, altar to Hypnos. One was for completed works, and the other one held works in progress and numerous costume and set designs for the Théâtre de la Monnaie. Only the main studio, with finished works, was ever photographed. First Maria Biermé and later Laillet provided the evocations of the second studio in contemporary periodicals.[xxvi] And the idea of the artist as a Symbolist priest creating art effortlessly is evident in the photograph of Khnopff in his studio.

Fernand Khnopff in his studio.
Fernand Khnopff in his studio.

The artist is posing in front of a painting on the easel as if working on it, but the painting is already framed, which indicates that it is a finished work. The relaxed pose of Khnopff wearing fashionable suit instead of working clothes suggests the staged composition and addresses an image of the artist as a dandy. The similar artificial image is created in the photograph of Khnopff in front of the altar to Hypnos in the main studio, which Günter Metken characterises in the 1980 exhibition catalogue as following: ‘[i]l [Khnopff] se faisait photographier en dandy ou en prêtre symboliste, devant son autel à Hypnos.’ [xxvii]

Thus, following the contemporary fashion, Khnopff created a cult of his own enigmatic artistic personality reflected in the artificial and thoroughly constructed environment of the villa. This was supported by mysterious rituals that the artist was believed to perform in his dwelling. For instance, Khnopff was thought to stand in a golden circle inscribed on the mosaic floor of his studio underneath another circle on the ceiling with the constellation of Libra in the middle to find his inspiration.[xxviii] The effect of such meditation was enhanced by a whisper of a shallow fountain (see above image of main studio) with rose petals floating on its surface placed in the studio.[xxix] And during the guest visits to his house, Khnopff supported and developed the idea of himself as a mysterious artistic genius in his temple of art whose inspiration comes straight from above. As the Viennese painter Josef Engelhart reported, to enter the main studio, the visitors had to participate in a special ritual. The artist would rush into his working space, while a butler would lower a thick bar in front of guests preventing them from entering the studio.[xxx] It would be lifted up after some time, and the visitors would proceed inside greeted by the artist, his works resting on easels and the altar to Hypnos placed exactly opposite the entrance. According to Khnopff, this ritual was necessary for the guests to collect themselves before meeting with his art. Therefore, like the Goncourt house the Villa Khnopff received an aesthetic extension in performances interacting with the interior spaces of the dwelling. Moreover, this demonstrates that the concept of artificiality dominated not only the interiors of the villa and the artist’s establishment of his artistic image, but also the extensions of the dwelling in photography and performance.

Artificiality of the Villa Khnopff was partly linked to a unified aesthetic experience, which was promoted by Wagnerian ideas. Indeed, the artist’s residence brought together architecture, interior designs, sculpture, painting, and even music, which all worked collectively. This was most evident in the Blue Room located above the studio.

The Blue Room
The Blue Room.© Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

It contained works by other artists, including a drawing by Burne-Jones of a woman’s head personally inscribed to Khnopff and an engraving made after Gustave Moreau’s David.[xxxi] The names of these two artists, who influenced Khnopff’s art and whom he held in a very high regard, were set in two gold rings on the wall separated by a small cast of Lord Leighton’s sculpture The Sluggard (1886).[xxxii] Moreau was one of the artists collected by des Esseintes. Khnopff’s portrait of his sister Marguerite (1887), who was his favourite model and his muse, crowned an altar dedicated to her. This familial shrine included a vase with flowers and a tennis racquet that referenced Khnopff’s first widely acknowledged work Memories (1889), which featured Marguerite in seven different poses. Khnopff would retire to this blue sanctuary at the end of the day to dream, contemplate and plan new works, surrounded by paintings and sculptures, while listening to the music coming through a large window from the studio downstairs.[xxxiii]

Memories
Fernand Khnopff, Memories (Du lawn tennis), 1889. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

This granted him a full aesthetic experience of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Like in other rooms of the house, the furnishing was rather scarce, represented only by a blue divan and a table in this case.[xxxiv] This signifies that Khnopff preferred the theatricality and realisation of his artistic vision to his own comfort. Again, in this respect his villa resembles the artificiality of des Esseintes’ dwelling, but distinguishes from it with its austerity of interiors.

Thus, every room of the villa was defined by Khnopff’s collection of art, the emblems of his private symbolism, his celebration of everything unnatural and his pursuit of aesthetic pleasures even in small everyday domestic things. So much so that Waldschmidt noticed than even the flowers in the garden behind the villa looked like the background of a Quattrocento painting.[xxxv] And Khnopff emphasised this link between art and life in his photographic portraits taken in his residence. The artist occupies a rather insignificant place in these depictions as if he wants to hide among his artworks, to immerse and dissolve in his œuvre. He wants to be identified with his works or maybe even become a work of art in the spirit of the Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957), who stated that she would want to be a living work of art.[xxxvi] At the same time, Khnopff elegantly poses in his dwelling harmoniously blending in with the interiors. It was probably his requirement as a sitter to be portrayed either contemplating in front of the altar to Hypnos and surrounded by his art or as if working in his studio. In the Symbolist world of Fernand Khnopff life and art were closely entwined.

Fernand Khnopff in front of his works.
Fernand Khnopff in front of his works.

As can be seen, the comparison of Khnopff to des Esseintes was very appropriate, as they both represented aesthetes withdrawn into their private artificial world. And the photographs of the Villa Khnopff closely reflect the artist’s celebration of everything that is unnatural as well as his carefully constructed artistic image. However, as Jeffery Howe points out in his book on Fernand Khnopff, this praise of artificiality and emulation of the main character of Huysmans’s novel sometimes bordered on self-parody.[xxxvii] A vivid example of that was a tortoise that des Esseintes decorated with precious stones and it eventually died. Khnopff had a living tortoise, which he considered too noisy and put it in the garden, and when he found it dead, he had it bronzed and kept it in his studio calling ‘My remorse’ (fig. 6: bottom right, next to Des Caresses).[xxxviii] Thus, artificiality in the artist’s life and perhaps art, though signified intellectualism and decadence, bore a mark of sadness and regret.

***

[i] Michel Draguet, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995), p. 337.

[ii] Wolfram Waldschmidt, ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’, Dekorative Kunst, Vol. XIV, 1906, pp. 158-166; Maria Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, La Belgique Artistique et Littéraire, July-September 1907, pp. 96 – 113; Louis Dumont-Wilden, George Garnir, Léon Souguenet, ‘L’Atelier de Fernand Khnopff, avenue des Courses’, Pourquoi pas?, December 15, 1910; Hélène Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels’, The Studio, Vol. LVII, No. 237, December 1912, pp. 201-207.

[iii] Louis Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff (Brussels: G. van Oest & Cie, 1907).

[iv] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 26; Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, p. 97.

[v] For more information on the Goncourt’s ‘maison d’art’, see Juliet Simpson, ‘Edmond de Goncourt’s Décors – Towards the Symbolist Maison d’art’, Romance Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, January 2011, pp. 1-18.

[vi] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 30.

[vii] Simpson, ‘Edmond de Goncourt’s Décors’, p. 2.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Michel Draguet, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995), pp. 339-341.

[x] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 201.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, p. 102.

[xiii] Fernand Khnopff, ‘Mein Haus’, Die Zeit, 37-38, 2 Dezember 1904, No. 483, p. 9.

[xiv] Jeffery W. Howe, The symbolist art of Fernand Khnopff (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1979, 1982), p. 147. Though most of these details could be found in contemporary descriptions of the villa, according to Howe, he has enriched his overview of the house with the information obtained during his conversations with Khnopff’s former pupil in 1918-1920 M. Marcel Baugniet.

[xv] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 147.

[xvi] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 26; Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 201.

[xvii] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 30.

[xviii] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 202.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid., p. 204.

[xxii] Sparklet [Albert Flament], ‘Le Trottoir roulant. Mardi 1er décembre’, L’écho de Paris, 6 December 1903, p. 1.

[xxiii] Sâr Péladan, “Préface au catalogue du pemier Salon de la Rose+Croix”, in Le Salon de la Rose+Croix: 1892-1897, Jean da Silva (Paris: Syros-Alternatives, 1991), p. 117.

[xxiv] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 202.

[xxv] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 148.

 

[xxvi] Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, pp. 103-104; Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 205.

[xxvii] Günter Metken, “Fernand Khnopff et la modernité”, in Fernand Khnopff 1858-1921, Frans Boenders et al., (Brussels: Ministère de la communauté française de Belgique, Service de la diffusion des arts, 1980), p. 44.

[xxviii] Josef Engelhart, Ein Wiener Maler erzählt… Mein Leben und meine Modelle (Vienna, 1943), p. 89.

[xxix] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 148.

[xxx] Engelhart, Ein Wiener Maler erzählt…, p. 88.

[xxxi] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 149.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, p. 112: “… sur l’atelier, de larges baies vitrées, car c’est dans cette chambre bleue que Fernand Khnopff se retire pour venir écouter religieusement la musique que des artistes exécutent dans son atelier”.

[xxxiv] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 149.

[xxxv] Waldschmidt, ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’, p. 166.

[xxxvi] Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino, Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati (New York: Viridian Books, 1999), p. 1.

[xxxvii] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 145.

[xxxviii] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 204.

[i] Michel Draguet, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995), p. 337.

[ii] Wolfram Waldschmidt, ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’, Dekorative Kunst, Vol. XIV, 1906, pp. 158-166; Maria Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, La Belgique Artistique et Littéraire, July-September 1907, pp. 96 – 113; Louis Dumont-Wilden, George Garnir, Léon Souguenet, ‘L’Atelier de Fernand Khnopff, avenue des Courses’, Pourquoi pas?, December 15, 1910; Hélène Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels’, The Studio, Vol. LVII, No. 237, December 1912, pp. 201-207.

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