Monday, June 29, 2009

Fernand Khnopff and the Symbolic Woman

I'm feeling a bit under-the-weather today, so instead of plotting an exciting new post, I thought I would just post some images I've been collecting by one of my favorite artists, Fernand Khnopff. Khnopff was a Belgian artist who had quite a cult following during the 1890's. In some respects he reminds me of Felicien Rops, another Symbolist artist I've written about previously. Both artists had a knack for portraying women as beautiful, yet strangely eerie and foreboding.

"At the Altar of Hypnos"
Khnopff had a very particular way of depicting women's eyes -- their stares are a rather paradoxical combination of vacant and possessed, wouldn't you say?

He was also fond of imagining his female subjects as animals, as you can see in his most famous image, "The Caress" [above]. It was not uncommon during this period to see women in art and literature associated with primal urges and bestial tendencies.

"Medusa's Blood"
Like many other Victorian and Symbolist artists, Khnopff was also intrigued my mythology, and one of his favorite subjects was the Medusa figure -- potentially a symbol of the dangerous, deadly woman, but also an evocation of being cast-off, alienated, and misunderstood...

"Istar" [left], and "Listening to Flowers" [right]

"The Offering"

"Young English Woman"

"The Veil"

Of course, I particularly love this piece depicting a woman smoking a cigarette ["The Cigarette, 1912]. As I've mentioned before, there is something so fascinating to me about images of women and cigarettes from this period -- it would have been considered quite taboo at the time, because it was a habit only considered acceptable for men!

"Who Shall Deliver Me?" [from the poem by Christina Rossetti].

"The Kiss of the Sphinx" [left], and "Sleeping Medusa" [right]

"Head of a Woman"

"Des Cheveux Noirs" [sold recently at Christie's auction for over $65,000].

"Study of a Woman"

...or is it two women? Doubling was a common theme among late Victorian artists, as well. Women were often depicted kissing, staring at, even fondling their own image in mirrors. Khnopff's version here seems ambivalent -- are there two women or is this a fantasy in which the mirror-image has a will of its own? Some critics argue that these double-images represent women as narcissistic, egoistic, and incapable of loving any person other than themselves...what is your take??


MySpecialStash said...

Wow, such an interesting post! I haven't studied Victorian art at all, but these "doubling" images kind of remind me of Frida Kahlo's famous self-portrait "The Two Fridas", which explores the duplicity which women inevitably experience- the disjunct between societal expectations of women, and the true female experience and nature. While Frida's narratives tended to skewer the gender norms for creating that sense of "double identity", it seems like Victorian art blames the women for failing to satisfy their obligations as women. Even though some of the pieces seem somewhat bleak in that sexism, I also think that recognizing the divide between male perceptions of women, and the female reality, was an important step in legitimizing the female perspective and experience.

Sorry for rambling- is it obvious that I've gone a bit crazy while waiting for my summer job to start? :)

[Tara] said...

My Special Stash -- I didn't even think of Kahlo, but you're right, she deals a lot with inner and outer identities! It is very different when envisioned by a woman though, it seems! I do often think there is something sinister in these Victorian portrayals. Have you ever read "Idols of Perversity"? It is fascinating -- I think you would really enjoy it. It deals with all of the varying motifs of women in Victorian art -- most of them very nasty, underneath it all [according to the author, anyway].

Sam said...

Thank you so much for this post! I was familiar with that painting of the woman with the cheetah...but the others - so amazing!!

Anonymous said...

i think it's two women. and does anyone ever talk about this maybe being the painter's fantasy? two women kissing is such a familiar modern sexual fantasy...

Blood Milk said...