Fernand Khnopff, The Sphinx or The Caresses (Kunst - Die Zärtlichkeit der Sphinx)

Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Date: 1896
Technique: Oil on canvas, 50 × 150 cm

On one level, it seems likely that this painting was inspired by Honoré de Balzac's story "A Passion in the Desert." It recounted the strange love that developed between a soldier of Napoleon's army, lost in the Egyptian wastes, and a female panther. Balzac described the animal's sinuous body and movements, her spots and ringed tail, and the soldier's caresses.

But of course this is not a panther, not even a cheetah, though Khnopff painted a cheetah's body. This is a sphinx. Enigmatic and dangerous, it was one of the common guises for a fin-de-siècle femme fatale. Through mythology or the mysterious Orient, women could be presented as exotic and voluptuous -- that is, in ways that were subject to deeply felt anxieties but whose representation lay outside the boundaries of convention. In the popular imagination, even in the scientific literature, women were not regarded as fully rational beings, and their impulses, unchecked, posed a threat. Consider art nouveau's other femmes fatales: Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon, whose look turned men to stone, and Salomé, whose dance was rewarded with the head of John the Baptist.

The sphinx devoured all who failed to answer her riddle: "What walks on four legs, two legs, and three legs?" So it is natural to see Khnopff's youth as Oedipus, who answered her: "Man, crawling as a baby, walking an adult, and using a cane when old." Already in ancient times, the sphinx had come to represent knowledge, of good and evil, life and death. In William Butler Yeats' poem, "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes," she "lashed her tail; her eyes lit by the / moon / gazed upon all things known, all things / unknown, / In triumph of intellect / With motionless head erect."

In another way, the youth can be seen as a symbolic portrait of the artist, and the painting as alluding to art itself. At times it has been called L'Art. The pansy above the youth's ear (in French pensée means both "pansy" and "thought") was an emblem Khnopff sometimes used as his signature. The sphinx (like almost all of Khnopff's females) resembles the artist's sister Margueritte. For that matter, the youth resembles her as well, and this androgyny accounts for much of the painting's unsettling effect. Androgyny was central to the notion of art espoused by Khnopff's friend Joséphin Péladan, a novelist, spiritualist, and descendant, he claimed, of the Magi. In art alone could the union of male and female -- creation -- be complete. Khnopff has been called a "painter of the invisible," his images merely physical expressions of an idea.


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