No Strings Attached: Emotional Interaction with Animated Sculptures of Crucified Christ

by Jonah Coman, University of St Andrews

Coman1In a manuscript in the National Library in Madrid, MS 3995 (c.15 C),[i] one can find one of the most bizarre depictions of human interactions with the crucifix. The miniature shows a kneeling Benedictine nun, her black and white robes flowing in front of her, calmly looking at a crucifix with her hands folded in prayer. From the textured wooden crucifix, an emaciated but smiling Christ has descended and stands on her ample habit, maybe even pinning it down. Both of his feet, and one of the hands, are pierced through with three massive iron nails, and all of his limbs are marked with the bleeding sores of crucifixion. His right hand hovers in front of the nun’s face, as if to show her from up close the bleeding wound left by the fourth nail in his palm. But that fourth nail is not affixed to his body anymore; in fact, the big iron peg is now stuck in the nun’s face, both ends visible on the surface of her cheeks. Is this a ‘compassio Christi’ gone remarkably literal?

The story accompanying it locates the event under the influence of English kings, at the (unidentified) Benedictine convent of Fontanblay.[ii] The nun kneeling was said to be of an unsurpassed beauty, and an equal devotion to her convent’s sculptures of Mary and Christ. Every time she would pass by the figures, she would kneel and greet them with an Ave and a cross. This nun nevertheless has captured the attentions of a young knight in the town, and she returned his affections. So much so, that she has planned to one day sneak out of the convent and run away with him; but in order to do that, she would have to go by the two sculptures she usually venerated. The nun, either still out of devotion, or so that she wouldn’t tip her sisters off, or still out of a quasi-animistic concern that she would tip off the statues themselves, went by and kneeled in front of the figures on her way out. At that point, Mary, who understood her intent, started scolding her, and Christ himself descended from the cross, removed one of his nails, and struck the nun with it across the face, so that it went through her cheeks. ‘After dealing the blow, Christ crucified returned to the cross just as he had been before, except that his right arm forever after remained in the position in which it had wounded the nun’. The modified position of the sculpture itself worked another miracle in the conversion of the knight, through visual confirmation if the truth: ‘When the knight heard about it, he could not believe it. To be sure he went to the convent to see what had happened. Once he has learned the truth about what had happened he considered himself a great sinner and repented of all the sins…’[iii]

The story above, like others mentioned in this chapter, are tales of interaction of medieval audiences with what appears to be life-size, mobile Christs. Nevertheless, very few scholars explicitly associate them with a specific typology in the plastic arts, and especially sculpture, of the middle ages. Such life-size Christs were not just the stuff of dreams (or nightmares), but have existed in Europe throughout the middle ages – massive wooden bodies, from the size of a small adult up to three metres tall, were habitually hung on the crosses above the nave. A special subset of these is formed by sculptures capable of moving their hands, bowing down, or even rolling their eyes and wagging their tongue, what Kamil Kopania terms ‘animated sculptures’.[iv] These sculptures appear in scholarship on established communal theatrical rites, such as processions and Easter sepulchral dramas, which used articulated Christ from the local cross as a multi-purpose prop for enacting the descent, burial and resurrection. [v] Nevertheless, their presence in the community outside of these ritualized moments, and their significance as presences, rather than props, has not been yet enquired.

Kamil Kopania considers this work on sepulchral drama as preliminary studies that explain the function and liturgical use of such statues, but do not address provenance, survival, construction and over-all physical aspects of the sculptures.[vi] His comprehensive cataloguing study comes as new knowledge in an art historical field already disgruntled with traditional analysis of art based on materials. His Animated Sculptures of Christ is, nevertheless, a needed addition to the field – as three-dimensional and emotional objects, these sculptures cannot be studied in isolation of their materiality. Only by taking into consideration their size and physical presence can their emotional impact be assessed. Coman 2and3In this essay, I take the materiality of the sculptures as a starting point, and, through the exploration of what this materiality implies, I arrive at the same destination as the knight in our story: at a meditation on the questions of truth that this sort of life-size figures pose.

The medieval story I started with is one of many taken from exempla as well as vitae, where sculptures of the crucified Christ become animated. Lukardis of Oberweimar reacted out of compassion for the man when, dreaming of walking around in her convent ‘into a certain portal’ (per quoddam ostium), she saw ‘Jesus Christ as if recently crucified on a cross’ (in quo Iesum Christum recenter cruci quasi iam affixum). Seeing a dangling hand (implicitly jointed) that has come loose from its peg and therefore left all Christ’s weight resting in only two nails, she tried to allay the pain of the crucified by tying it back to the rood.[vii] Rupert of Deutz saw the big crucifix above the altar he was praying at not only bow down to embrace him, but also ‘sensed how joyfully [a sculpted crucifix] received this gesture of love, since as he was being kissed he opened his mouth, that I might kiss him more deeply.’[viii] In 1340s, Margaret Ebner’s similar desire to kiss the altar crucifix came true in a dream when ‘my Lord Jesus Christ bent down from the cross and let me kiss His open heart and gave me to drink of the blood flowing from His heart’.[ix] This kind of feeding at Christ’s side-wound is not unusual for mystics of the period, although this story, and the one of Luitgard of Luxemburg, emphasize the concrete sculptural form the crucified takes in these encounters:

Christ came to meet her at the very entrance of the church, all bloody and nailed to the Cross. Lowering his arm which was attached to the Cross, he embraced her who was standing opposite and pressed her mouth against the wound in his right side.[x]

In MS Ludwig IX.7, St Hedwig of Silesia prays ‘prostrated’ in front of a crucifix that comes to life to gesture and talk ‘with a loud voice’ to the woman.[xi] The illuminator directs the extra-textual spectator’s reading of the right-arm motion of the crucified towards Hedwig in a concrete way emphasizing its body: ‘Here, detaching his right hand and arm (manum et brachium dextrum) from the cross beam, the image of the crucified (ymago c[ru]cifixi) blesses St. Hedwig’.

Coman4

In all these narratives, as well as in images accompanying or independent of this sort of texts, the dangling right arm (always dextra, as counterpart of sinistra, where the sinners would rest) of the explicitly sculptural crucifix is read in multiple ways. It slaps the English nun, embraces Rupert, droops painfully in front of Lukardis, presses Luitgard’s head to Christ’s side, or points towards his side-wound in a donor portrait in the prayerbook of Bonne of Luxembourg.

Coman5

This gesture of the crucified interacting with believers are treated as visionary or miraculous events, but they benefit from concrete, material support onto which the medieval imagination was able to map familiar gestures. Christ’s arm movement, kisses and intense gaze can be explained as the effect of articulated Christ sculptures witnessed in motion. Even though not all, not even a majority, of crucifixes were articulated, the stark impression the few animated Christs make on anybody witnessing it can then be mapped on a regular, unmoving crucifix. Once the viewer acknowledges the reality of sculptures in motion, any crucifix has the potential to animate, especially the highly affective, highly dynamic ones characteristic of the high and late middle ages. This contamination of imagery and imagination can be observed by comparing the manuscript images of crucifixion encounters with 12th century Romanesque Christs. Sculpted in a dynamic pose as if frozen during the descent from the cross, originally part of a larger devotional group, these images of the crucified alone could have been, by the 14th century, viewed in isolation from their original ensemble. [xii]

Coman 6 through 9

With their dramatic bend of the torso and the drooping arm, not quite fully surrendered to gravity, they seem to extend their right hand to caress, slap or hug the viewer. Not a lot of imaginative effort is required to envision these sculptures as suddenly animated, especially if moving sculptures of Christ already exist in the experiential horizon of the viewer.

The capacity for mutation and contamination of medieval religious sculpture has been demonstrated by scholars specifically working on medieval crucifixions. Sara Lipton asserts that ‘we can trace in these [diachronically] different depictions of Christ’s body visual characteristics that seem to align with contemporary devotional trends’,[xiii] while Lutz notes that artists and viewers adapted to and influenced each other in the design and reception of crucifixes.[xiv] This way, the 12-13th  century meditations on the crucifix imagine Christ bloody on the cross, even though the long-established iconography of the time was still the unbroken, quietly dignified pose that Rachel Fulton called Redeemer Christ;[xv] and Francis of Assisi’s devotion to the crucifix reveals that the materiality of his stigmata are quite plastic, closely mimicking the sculptural conventions  – not cavernous wounds but protruding simulacra of nails grown from his own flesh, and a side-wound where ‘the flesh was contracted into a sort of circle, so that it looked like a beautiful rose.’[xvi]

Coman 10

The relation between text and imagery, as well as the extent to which the trope of the moving sculpture infused the psychology of the medieval believer, can be mapped by using Sara Lipton’s case study. In cataloging viewer interaction with crucifix statues, Lipton has identified and collected one specific trope of the crucified slumping body of Christ read as one of the gestures compiled above: the motion towards an embrace and a kiss.

Therefore S. Bernard said: Who is he that is not ravished to hope of affiance which taketh none heed to the disposition of his body? He hath his head inclined to be kissed, the arms stretched to embrace us, his hands pierced to give to us, the side open to love us, the feet fixed with nails for to abide with us, and the body stretched all for to give to us[xvii]

This specific image appears in fourteen variations across the medieval Latinate and vulgate Christianity, spanning four hundred years.[xviii] The trope of the embrace, associated by Jacobus of Voragine with Bernard, was already a commonplace imagery in English miscellanies before it was widely disseminated by the Passio Christi chapter in the Latin Legenda Aurea and its vernacular translations. Manuscript copies of this work abounded even before being given a boost by Caxton’s own translation and print of the Legenda. This is just one of many tropes; the diversity of meaning the gesture has (blessing, punishment etc), as well as the wide geographical area of its spread attests to a quasi-animistic lay thinking about local sculptures of Christ.

Coman11

If the statue moves for Easter, and for other special sermons, why could he not move in personal encounters with true believers? If the statue is capable of animation, then what keeps it from springing into life at any point?

The likeness with live humans was not just a result of the lifelike size and the affected poses of the statues of the crucified. Exceptional survivals like the ‘Mirakelmann from Döbeln’, highly jointed, with real human hair, fingernails and flexible skin, and capable of bleeding, should not discourage the scholar to investigate farther this type of sculptures. Kamil Kopania catalogues more than 150 figures with different degrees of articulation (see map), and he does not take into consideration other non-jointed, but still quasi-skeuomorphic sculptures.

Coman13

The credibility of these sculptures was preserved by concealing the joints articulating head, hands (shoulders, elbows and wrists, as well as fingers), knees and hips of sculptures – which allowed it to perform a far larger set of movements than those required during the Easter sepulchre dramas – with skin-coloured leather, parchment or bone glue paste.[xix] The Christ sculptures of Burgos, Valvasone and Orense are covered in calf leather over a soft wool padding, which makes their body give to pressure – these sculptures are especially designed to be touched, and not just witness from a distance. Several examples have human hair and horn nails;[xx] other narratives of sculptures covered in parchment or leather imitating skin can be found in literature.[xxi] The Burgos, Döbeln and Boxley Christs could bleed from the side wound thanks to a liquid tank in the chest cavity. Another three sculptures, including the Boxley rood, the best documented but by no means the first or the only English artefact, have movable tongues and eyes, allowing them to conceivably perform the kissing, whispering and gazing that contemporary descriptions of animated Christ mention: ‘the iȝen of the ymage be turned hidirward and thidirward, and that the ymage semyngli speke.’[xxii]

So how did these animated sculptures of the crucified Christ perform in a medieval, emotional version of the Turing test? As the stories collected at the beginning of this essay demonstrate, this sort of moving images suffused the collective imagination of the Christian believers and cropped up as miracle tropes as well as in mundane depictions of interactions with the crucified. If from afar, and in candlelight, these Christs flickered between animated and static, between object and subject ‘hover[ed] in the gap between the visible and the visionary’, closeness to the statue could bring even more awareness in the spectator of the status of the image as human. [xxiii] Their size and weight, experienced in the process of (re)moving, cleaning, or praying to, the way they filled the space with presence creating slight changes in the air pressure, the way the breath and whispers of the believer bounced off the material reality of the body, imbuing it with its own echoed breath and whispers, and especially the somewhat uncanny give of the skin and slight sway of the hair, are all tools for emotional recall. This is a process Sara Lipton calls

‘resemblance and relation. The [spectator] roams freely within his visual memory, personal history, and cultural world in his search for images and gestures similar to, and therefore of significance for, the images and gestures of the artwork before his eyes…’[xxiv]

Jacqueline Jung also considers these statues as interpretable multi-dimensional texts that draw their power from memory and imagination: ‘the figures are best thought of as embodied templates for imaginative projection.’[xxv] These assessments are as poetic as they are deeply attuned to the medieval mnemonic and meditative practices, but I would like to slightly challenge the direction of their argument.

Sara Lipton’s focus on the gesture of the embrace emphasizes the dialogical dimension of these encounters. On two different occasions, she prompts the modern reader to see devotional art ‘as initiating a dialogue or conversation’, whether in one specific moment or ‘across many centuries’.[xxvi] This narrative of the dialogical relationship emphasizes difference of bodies and creation of ‘other’ in relation to an abstracted self. I communicate with him therefore he exists outside my body; I touch him therefore he is a physical entity separate from my own. Instead of the ‘other’ that dialogue presupposes, I propose reading these encounters through the Lacanian ‘mirror’ perspective. Lacan’s mirror, that stands at the core of the formation of self, is not a literal, but a metaphorical one: it is the body of mother or lover mirrors the self and represents the ideal ego.[xxvii] Recognition of these Christ images as human – by their size, materiality, and ability to move, speak and bleed – (re)materializes the self as reflection of Imago Dei. This is a concern prevalent in mystical and theological discourse of the 13-15th centuries, but, as Alexa Sand demonstrates, it is also reflected in the lay concern with mirrors, death and the body mortal.[xxviii]

The humanness, three-dimensionality, credibility and especially – and this is crucial – the essentially Christian incarnational belief of the spectator faced with an image of God embodied all collaborated toward a moment of visceral recognition, of heightened sense of presence and of identity.[xxix] Through acutely human, self-actualizing experiences like pain, revulsion, arousal, and terror, the believer is reminded of self as Imago Dei and, faced with his image, of Christ as god incarnate.[xxx] I touch him and he touches me; he suffered pains that I could suffer and I bleed like he bled; I understand his pain because he is like me – human fully. The three-dimensional sculptures of the crucifixion especially, but also visual and narrative cues (the blood of the crucifixion, the pains and tortures described) more generally, drive home one of the most important truths of the Christian church: the incarnation. Sand’s intuition about statues of Mary – that it is not her lifelike appearance, but her humanity (which allow her to give birth to Christ but also to be vengeful) make her statues so effective[xxxi] -productively maps on the crucified Christ examples. The impact of the imago crucifixi is doubly effective since Christ’s humanity – that allow him to caress the viewer as well as to suffer on the cross – is the fundamental dogma of the medieval church, and one that was over and over rehearsed through theological works as well as popular sermons.

Modern as well as medieval scholars have been concerned with the authenticity these statues assert with their presence. Echoing Lollard and other medieval iconoclastic ideas, Elina Gertsman re-emphasizes the incongruity between the ontological status of the figures and the recognition they demand.

‘The statue makes a claim for reality, for truth, not least through the use of real epidermis to render skin, real keratin to render nails, real human hair to frame his face. But this reality produces a corpse, pale and leeched of life.’[xxxii]

Nevertheless, the truth that is constructed in the encounter between the statue and spectator is, as I theorize it, in the body of the believer and not in the manufactured simulacrum of a human. The pale corpse is alive through the inspiration of the believer, through the act of imagining or believing, which makes it move not by ropes and pedals, but by imagination – Margaret Ebner, Lukardis and Rupert of Deutz gave life to the statues because they believed they were indeed alive. The real epidermis shell is filled with animation/animus by the human who understands the skin as part of the stuff of incarnation; this (re)animation of statues is, in a way, building a real presence from material and inspiration just like the Creation (Genesis 2:7 Formavit igitur Dominus Deus hominem de limo terrae, et inspiravit in faciem ejus spiraculum vitae) and, by its Chalcedonian nature, the Incarnation does.

This theoretical approach might seem to be a far-fetched animistic approach spurred by modern familiarity with robotronic fantasies that glorify, nonetheless, the human intellect behind the machine. Yet the Welsh-born bishop of Chichester, Reginald Pecock (d.1461), made the same kind of comparison between the ontology of animated sculptures (idols) and that of Christ:

People thought that the spirits would join themselves with the images in a complicated process incomprehensible to human perception, and that the spirit and the image combined in some inexplicable way would be a perceptible god; somewhat like the way we Christians believe that God descended into humankind and united to himself a human individual.[xxxiii]

For Pecock, idolatry was akin to the incarnation; but in the case of the sculptures of Christ, where the believer would not (or at least, was supposed not to) believe that the actual Christ resided, the similar process taking place was in fact not idolatry. The arguments of Lollards, a group that so adamantly condemned multiple practices of the institutional church, against image-based devotion construed it as ‘ner of kyn to ydolatrie’, but not idolatry quite yet.[xxxiv] The idol-worshipper believed that his god resided in the image – the image would be animated with the spirit of the god; the orthodox Christian believed that her god did not reside in this one specific image, but that the image signified him – in a sophisticated Christian semiology seen best at work in the Eucharist[xxxv] – and that the sculpture was animated by her imagination and belief.

So why do all the images that I found in narrative and illumination resemble the semi-detached Christ of the deposition? What makes this motif so appealing and iconic that it appears over and over again across time, space and story matter? One can use stylistic shifts around the period in order to explain the different approach of the viewer to the new motif, and therefore a feeling of uncanny and uncertainty around the new, more expressive sculptures, like Sand did with sculptures of Mary.[xxxvi] Nevertheless, this essay offered an alternative possibility predicated on the Europe-wide examples of jointed sculptures of Christ. By their ability to prompt the thrill or fear of the crucified suddenly coming alive because of their inherent animation mechanisms, I have shown that artifice – that is, the fabricated and staged sculpture, that represents the incarnated Christ in his most human of moments – can substitute, or better still, re-actualize nature. Contact with a credible simulacrum of embodiment and pain can bring one to recognition of the self, and therefore of the human, in her god. This process rests on witnessing the physicality of the sculptures, and on coming into close proximity, or even contact, with the inviting body of these figures. Intimate touch, therefore, is the key to this incarnational epiphany, a direct body contact that crucial to the very scene of the deposition, and sought by the medieval believer.

Coman14 and 15

Direct body contact produces an extremely visceral sense of truth, and body contact with a material Christ produced the truth of his incarnation. That that body is art, or artifice, idol, or inspired representation of god, it does not matter in the end; what matters is the knowledge that this contact brings.

Visiting the Christ of Burgos in the middle of the 19th century, Theophile Gautier was seriously disturbed by its appearance and the myths surrounding it:

Nothing can be more lugubrious and disquieting than this attenuated, crucified phantom with its human appearance and deathlike stillness; the faded and brownish-yellow skin is streaked with long streams of blood, so well imitated that they seem to trickle. It requires no great effort of imagination to give credence to the legend that it bleeds every Friday.[xxxvii]

For him, this sculpture was the pinnacle of ‘the craving for the true, however revolting,’ a characteristic that he ascribed to Spanish art as a whole, but which could be said to be the impulse for a lot of high and late medieval art. For Gautier, as well as for the nun that I started with, the tangible, credible materiality of the crucified sculpture provides a visceral jolt of (self)-recognition and maybe, a return to belief in the fundamental Christian paradox, a dead god made human.

***

[i] One of the seven surviving medieval copies of the Castilian mirror for princes attributed to King Sancho IV (1258-1295) ‘Castigos del rey don Sancho IV’. Colbert I. Nepaulsingh, ‘Notes for a Study of Wisdom Literature and Literary Composition in Medieval Spain’, in Hispanic Studies, Madison, Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies 1986, ed. John S. Miletich, pp.217-222; Barry Taylor, ‘Old Spanish Wisdom Texts: Some Relationships’, La corónica 1985 (14), pp.71-85.

[ii] The story closely resembles one episode (vol. I, distinction VII, capitulum XLIV) from Cesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum (1220-1235), with the twist of the end action by the statue of Christ and not of Mary. See Alexa Sand’s summary in ‘Vindictive virgins: animate images and theories of art in some thirteenth-century miracle stories’, Word & Image 26 (2010), p.155. Cesarius’ story quickly found its way in the Cantigas de Santa Maria attributed to Sancho IV’s father, Alfonso X (1221-1284), but the mutation is peculiar to the Castigo.

[iii] ‘Castigo del Rey don Sancho’, chp.19, translated by Emily C. Francomano, Medieval Conduct Literature: An Anthology of Vernacular Guides to Behaviour for Youths, with English translations, ed. Mark David Johnston, Kathleen M Ashley, (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2009) pp.217-221.

[iv] Kamil Kopania, Animated Sculptures of the Crucified Christ in the Religious Culture of the Latin Middle Ages (Warszawa: Wydawn. “Neriton”, 2010).

[v] Easter sepulchre animations: Pamela Sheingorn, The Easter Sepulchre in England, Early drama, art, and music reference series 5 (Kalamazoo, MI : Medieval Institute Publications, 1987); Clifford Davidson, ‘The Bodley ‘Christ’s Burial’ and ‘Christ’s Resurrection’: Vernacular Dramas for Good Friday and Easter’, European Medieval Drama 7 (2003), pp. 51-67; Osborne Bennett Hardison, Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages, (Baltimore 1965), pp. 253-283; Peter Meredith, ‘The Bodley Burial and Resurrection’: Late English liturgical drama?’, in Alan J. Fletcher, Wim Hlisken (eds.), Between Folk and Liturgy, (Amsterdam, 1997), pp. 133-155.

[vi] Kopania, ‘”the Idolle That Stode There in Myne Opynyon a Very Monstrous Sight”: On a Number of Late-Medieval Animated Figures of Crucified Christ’, in Materiał Rzeźby, ed. Aleksandra Lipińska (2009), pp.132-3.

[vii] “Vita venerabilis Lukardis,” Analecta Bollandiana 18 (1899), pp.305‒67 (314) cited in Jacqueline Jung, ‘The Tactile and the Visionary: Notes on the Place of Sculpture in the Medieval Religious Imagination’ in Looking Beyond: Visions, Dreams, and Insights in Medieval Art and History, ed. Colum Hourihane (Princeton: Index of Christian Art, 2010), pp.217-18 and n.63.

[viii] Sara Lipton, ‘”The Sweet Lean of His Head”: Writing about Looking at the Crucifix in the High Middle Ages,’ Speculum 80 (2005), pp.1175-6.

[ix] Margaret Ebner, “Revelations,” in Margaret Ebner, Major Works, transl. Leonard P. Hindsley (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), p.96.

[x] Thomas of Cantimpré, The Collected Saints’ Lives: Abbot John of Cantimpré, Christina the Astonishing, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières, transl. Barbara Newman, Margot H. King, (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008), p.228.

[xi] ‘Ubi dum in oracione prostrata moram faceret, ut solebat, ymago iam dicta manum et brachium dextrum de ligno crucis absolvens extendensque ipsam benedixit dicens voce sonora: Exaudita est oracio tua et, que postulas, inpetrabis’ transcribed in Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, p.215 n.58

[xii] Carla Varela Fernandes, ‘Pathos – the bodies of Christ on the Cross. Rhetoric of suffering in wooden sculpture found in Portugal, twelfth-fourteenth centuries. A few examples.’ RIHA Journal 0078, 2013.

[xiii] Sara Lipton, ‘Images in the world: reading the crucifixion,’ in Medieval Christianity in Practice, ed. Miri Rubin (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2009), p.180.

[xiv] Gerhard Lutz, ‘The Drop of Blood: Image and Piety in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, Preternature 4 (2015), p.37.

[xv] Lutz, ‘Drop of blood’, p.39; Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

[xvi] Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, pp.223-4 n.85

[xvii] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, ed.F.S. Ellis (Temple Classics, 1900), Chp 12 ‘The Passion of our Lord’.

[xviii] Lipton, ‘Sweet lean’, indexes several primary texts, of which I give a selection: Verse appended to the English text of the Ancrene Riwle (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.xiv, fol. 131v) England, c. 1225-50; Collection of biblical and patristic distinctions (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm. 23447, fol. 23v), 13C; Devotional verse in Latin, French, and English (London, British Library, Add. MS 11579, fol. 36r-v), England, 13C; Middle English devotional verse or excerpt (Trinity College Cambridge, MS B.14.39, fol. 83v). England, c. 1250; Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, Italy, ca. 1260-63. Other famous medieval writers adopted the trope: Ramon Lull, Catherine of Siena, Thomas a Kempis, Richard Rolle of Hampole.

[xix] Kopania, Animated Sculptures, passim; Kopania, ‘Idolle’, p.135.

[xx]Kopania, ‘Idolle’, p.139.

[xxi] An interesting example is 13th and 14th C mechanic monkeys ‘with real (regularly replaced) skins.’ Jessica Riskin, “Machines in the Garden,” Republics of Letters 1:2 (2010), p.31.

[xxii] Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, Churchill Babington cited in Sarah Salih, “Idol Theory”, Preternature 4 (2015), p.31; Leanne Groeneveld, ‘A Theatrical Miracle: The Boxley Rood of Grace as Puppet’, Early Theatre 10.2 (2007), p.18; Kopania, Animated Sculptures, pp.118, 156 n.117. Misericords with movable tongues in Winchester and Halifax, St John’s cathedral, are mentioned in Paul Hardwick, English Medieval Misericords: The Margins of Meaning, (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2011), p.167, and Kopania mentions a ‘bad thief’ with a similar construction.

[xxiii] Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.155.

[xxiv] Lipton, ‘Reading the crucifixion’, p.181

[xxv] Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, p.219,220

[xxvi] Lipton, ‘Reading the crucifixion’, p.185 Lipton, ‘Sweet lean’, p.1201

[xxvii] Tamise Van Pelt, ‘Lacan in Context: An Introduction to Lacan for the English-Speaking Reader’, College Literature 24 (1997), p59.

[xxviii] Alexa Sand, ‘The fairest of them all: Reflections on some fourteenth-century mirrors’ in Push Me, Pull You: Imaginative, Emotional, Physical, and Spatial Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art, ed by Sarah Blick and Laura Gelfand (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 535, 544-5.

[xxix] In a somewhat similar manner, Hans Belting sees the body as a big organ receptive to reality from within: “The human being is the natural locus of images, a living organ for images, as it were… it is within the human being, and only within the human being, that images are received and interpreted in a living sense.” An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 37.

[xxx] Sand, ‘Reflections on mirrors’, pp.536, 558, touches on the latter two experiences, but does not give the rationale for their effectiveness.

[xxxi] Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.157.

[xxxii] Elina Gertsman, ‘’Bewilderment Overwhelms Me’’, Preternature 4 (2015), p.8.

[xxxiii] Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, ed. Churchill Babington (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1860), I.244–45 cited in Salih, “Idol Theory”, p.28

[xxxiv] Salih, “Idol Theory”, p.15

[xxxv] Michel Camille suggests to take the Eucharistic theology as framework for understanding late medieval ‘perception of images, for here a visible thing was itself capable of becoming and not just signifying its prototype.’ The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.217.

[xxxvi]  Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.150.

[xxxvii] Theophile Gautier, Voyage en Espagne, 1865.

‘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.

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.

f1
Fernand Khnopff, Bust of a Young Englishwoman, 1891, polychrome plaster, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels (Inv. No. 70)

 

f2
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.

f10
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.

f13.jpg
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)

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