I did not quite understand why I had left the “Khnopff, Maître de l’énigme” exhibition at Petit Palais slightly sad and depressed? So I went back thinking that maybe, that morning, I was tired and unfocused. And what I found on my second visit of this mysterious turn-of-the century Belgian painter, is that the lighting of the exhibition and the often white walls are just too cold. Of course it could have been intentional to reproduce the cold light of the north but I think it gives a dark ambiance to melancholic paintings which are nevertheless exceptional.
Very obsessed by his sister Marguerite, Fernand Khnopff focused on mysterious landscapes from his youth in Fosset, in Ardennes, numerous children’s portraits which hang in a beautiful single room, and ladies playing tennis which he painted from photographs.
This contemporary of Klimt, Gustave Moreau and of Burne-Jones loves red headed ladies and mysterious themes, foggy or gardens at sun set, developing his own version of symbolism. He is very obsessed with mythological heroes like Hypnos (God of sleep), the sphynx and Méduse of which he made a dramatic bronze sculpture. Whistler’s love of white inspires him and he uses it to create more mystery in his portraits.
It is a whole world in which Khnopff introduces us, first with the replica of his house in Ixelles which accompanies us through the decor during the whole exhibition. Then, with the charming vision of his mother listening to Schumann, and his mysterious painted photographs or pastels. After he died a very sophisticated photo material was discovered inches studio giving one more proof of his interest for the technic which allowed him to give real life to his characters. The most famous painting “Memories” is proof of his vision of women. The medium he uses is always original and one can start dreaming about any of the 150 works.
Towards the end of his life, he worked on the costumes an decors of over twelve operas at La Monnaie, decorated the ceiling of the wedding room at town hall in Saint Gilles, an area of Brussels, and painted frescoes in Adolphe Stoclet‘s house built by Josef Hoffmann and decorated by Gustav Klimt. This enigmatic and introverted man seems to have fantasized on women and his pastels often remind us of Odilon Redon.
This is not an uplifting exhibition but the myth of Khnopff is well rendered and the lovers of his style will enjoy it immensely. And don’t miss the Lequeu drawings downstairs and the new gallery o statues at the left of the entrance. Until March 17, Petit Palais.
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