PARIS—Walking down the grand hallway to the entrance of the Khnopff exhibit, one is struck by the image of the artist’s sister and muse looming in the distance. Growing closer and closer, you slowly realize that the reproduction of his painting is towering over 30 feet tall, and very much in place tucked in between two enormous windows looking out unto the Seine. It’s an interesting play on the grandiose scale of the exhibition space and the mysterious quality of the work of Fernand Khnopff and acts as an enticing introduction to his life’s work.
Fernand Khnopff, the mysterious and reclusive Belgian symbolist and leader of the Brussels Avant-garde movement the end of the nineteenth century, has not had a retrospective in Paris in over 40 years. Although considered one of Belgium’s great artists, he is not so much of a household name outside of his country of origin. Le Petit Palace, being one of the best exhibition spaces in Paris to view historical European art, spares no expense to recreate his life and times. The curators integrate his work with explanations of his techniques and pioneering use of photography, his friendships and affiliations with the Pre-Raphaelites, the influences of French painters Moreau and Seurat and great literature that formed the themes and basis of his images. In addition, the exhibit folds in some work by current fine artists, like photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto and sculptor Hans Op de Beeck, illustrating the ongoing influence that symbolism has on modern art.
WHAT: Retrospectives of Fernand Khnopff and Jean-Jacques Leqeue
WHERE: Le Petit Palais, Paris, Avenue Winston Churchill
WHEN: Khnopff concludes on March 17, Leqeue remains open until March 31.
Khnopff was raised in a wealthy family and began his career as a portrait artist. The beginning of the show spends some time on his commissioned portraits and it is here, with traditional portraiture, begins Khnopff’s life-long obsession with his sister, Marguerite. Tall, beautiful and androgynous, she became the face and figure to haunt his work from then until the end of his life. As his work became more abstract, her face became the central focus of all of his paintings and pastels. Many rooms are filled with his works of the feminine ideal. Not surprisingly, he befriended Edward Burne-Jones and the circle of British Pre-Raphaelites at this time and their influence shows.
Once Khnopff began to create enigmatic art inspired by ancient mythology and influenced by writers such as Flaubert, he hit his creative stride. He became fascinated by Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, after a visit to London’s British Museum and included the image of the his winged head in much of his work during this time. Medusa serves as an inspiration as well. This was an extremely prolific time in his artistic life. His most famous works, “I Lock My Door Upon Myself” (inspired by a poem by Christina Rossetti) and the sexually-charged meeting of Oedipus and the Sphinx (and precursor to Cat People), “Les Caresses”, are featured in one gallery space dedicated to his mythology period.
Interestingly, the end of the exhibit features an anomalous body of work. After spending most of his career being inspired by and lifting styles from his contemporaries, he created a series of very personal renderings of the city Bruges, his childhood home. His illustrations meticulously create a sort of ghost city, empty and sometimes floating with no horizon lines. The almost black and white drawings shine a light on something very unique and heartfelt, a deeper glimpse into his heart and nature.
Khnopff, the man, was not only artistically inspired by his times, but modeled his life after the Decadent movement. During the last years of his life, he created a solitary fortress to live in and work. It was his idea of an extravagant creative cocoon. Only a handful of visitors were allowed to enter and those who had a chance to visit described it as a singular experience. Reportedly, there was a live peacock perched in the center of the entryway, with an atomizer diffusing fragrances as a hidden piano played in the background. On the first floor, the artist’s work was purposefully and self-consciously strewn on the floor for his few guests to enjoy. The upstairs was dedicated to works in progress. From this description, it’s hard not to think of Huysmans’s 1884 literary masterpiece A Rebours, with Knopff styling his life after the decadent hero des Esseintes as his model for this “temple of the self.” The exhibit took the care to create standing listening stations through all the rooms with recitations of poetry, ambient piano music and even the fragrances of the times.
Down a flight of marble stairs to a second exhibit of a truly overlooked artist, Jean-Jacques Leqeue, which is titled “Builder of Fantasy.” Leqeue was an aspiring architect who lived and worked in Paris one generation before Khnopff (born during the reign of Louis XV and died under Charles X). He created a large body of proposals for buildings, follies for gardens, detailing for hotel facades and interiors for churches going up at the time.
Obsessed with spheres and globes, Leqeue’s drawings looked more like illustrations for Jules Verne’s science fiction than realistic ideas. Encouraged by the Ecole des Beaux Arts competitions of the time, he created visionary work that had no basis in reality and was not constrained by any budgetary concerns. As a result of his imaginative extravagance, none of his ideas was ever produced. Failed as an architect, he was able to support himself because of his great skill as a renderer and a draftsman.
Leqeue was a fantasist, hungry for fame, ceaselessly curious, driven and prolific. In 1825, six months before he would die in near-poverty, he donated his life’s work of 800 drawings to the prints department of the Bibliotheque Royal (now the Bibliothèque Nationale de France). The work is exhibited here in its entirety for the first time. The hundreds of drawings range from studies in physiognomy to architectural renderings. Rooms full of drawings of fantastic subterranean gardens, grottos and caves seem to naturally (and quite surprisingly) segue into a room of highly-detailed anatomical renderings of vaginas. His many pornographic illustrations and erotica were kept under lock and key in the “Enfer” of the library. Leqeue had a bawdy sense of humor and an over-the-top aesthetic that make his work amusing as well as fascinating, however best to leave little ones at home.
Le Petit Palais has created two in-depth, world-class exhibits of artists rarely explored of late. I doubt this opportunity to see their work like this will occur again in our lifetime, so it’s a great opportunity and not to be missed.