Fernand Khnopff and the art of introspection—exhaustive book offers last word on Belgian Symbolist

The outcome of decades of research, this meticulously produced volume gives insight into artist's full oeuvre

I Lock My Door Upon Myself (detail, 1891), by Fernand Khnopff © Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

I Lock My Door Upon Myself (detail, 1891), by Fernand Khnopff © Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

What a beautifully produced book this is—a smartly designed, substantial tome by Michel Draguet, who co-curated the exhibition devoted to the Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921) at the Petit Palais in Paris last year. His book covers every aspect of Khnopff’s oeuvre: his portraiture, landscapes, imaginative compositions, graphic works and sculptures.

The artist is placed in the context of the artistic and intellectual world of fin-de-siècle Europe, and his relationship with the Belgian group Les XX and Whistler, Ensor, Burne-Jones and Klimt, with photography and, most importantly, literary works by authors such as Mallarmé and Verhaeren, all carefully examined.

Khnopff took himself and his environment extremely seriously. Like many of his artist contemporaries, he conceived his own home in Brussels (completed in 1902) as a work of art in itself, a self-portrait and a dream castle where he could present his paintings and sculptures. The house was unfortunately demolished in 1939, so the book begins with an imaginative reconstruction of the route visitors were once obliged to follow through its graciously appointed rooms, where the works were arranged in a mini-survey exhibition presided over by the figure of Hypnos, the god of sleep. One wonders what a modern visitor might have made of the studio, with its magic golden circle on the floor where Khnopff positioned his easel according to astrological alignments.

For all Khnopff’s obsession with perfecting his surroundings, his art was essentially introspective. Reality was placed at a distance and filtered through reverie and nuance. Although he spent his early childhood in Bruges, and it became an important motif in his art, his version of it was a monochrome memory—the empty dead city of Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte. When Khnopff revisited it in 1902 he drove through the city in a carriage with the blinds drawn down, wearing tinted glasses in order not to disturb his recollections of it.

“The figure paintings are delightful but baffling, freighted with symbolism that defies easy interpretation”

The natural world may have been held at arm’s length, but the vaporous landscapes he painted near the family home in Fosset in the Ardennes—inevitably shown in mist or rain rather than brilliant sunshine—emerge as among his most lyrical works. The figure paintings are delightful but baffling, freighted with symbolism that defies easy interpretation.

What are we to make of the 1889 Memories (Du Lawn Tennis), which shows seven figures—all based on Khnopff’s sister Marguerite in different costumes and poses—wielding racquets and staring dreamily at something unseen? As the author perceptively observes, Khnopff’s figures always appear to be frozen in expectation and boredom, and psychologically isolated. They float in space rather than seeming anchored within it. In the case of the red-haired women sunk in reverie in his paintings Who Shall Deliver Me? (1891) and I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1891), they gaze at the viewer as though hypnotised.

The outcome of decades of research, this exhaustive study must surely be the last word on the artist. If there is a fault with the text it is its occasional lapse into opaque phraseology, perhaps an unconscious echo of the enigmatic quality of Khnopff’s canvases. But often the author hits the nail on the head with a pithy or poetic insight. The observation that Khnopff “gave emptiness its psychological density” seems to say it all.

Fernand Khnopff, Michel Draguet, Mercatorfonds, in collaboration with and distributed by Yale University Press, 304pp, £45 (hb)

• Caroline Bugler is a freelance writer and editor specialising in the visual arts