Women play a major role in Belgian Symbolism, as they embody all the duality and ambiguity of the world.
Khnopff and Rops were Belgian Symbolists who captured and expressed the mystery of women. In Khnopff’s case, the woman was variously angel, muse, and a companion rushing to rescue the man. Yet, she also appears as a temptress, femme fatale with more than a dash of the perverse – the very symbol of the Supreme Vice, sung by Péladan, the grandmaster of La Rose+Croix.
The theme of women constitute an inexhaustible one for all Symbolists, both painters and authors. Just as Khnopff did in his paintings, Baudelaire defined different types of women in his poetry: ‘I am beautiful, oh mortals! Like a dream of stone, and my breast, where each has in turn wounded himself, is made to inspire in the poet an eternal and mute love, as well as the material’.
In Caresses, which is perhaps Khnopff’s most famous creation, he represents this mysterious beauty, but alas the woman sells herself and her master becomes Satan.
This is what Félicien Rops remembered of her throughout his oeuvre. It is the ‘devouring’ woman, and at the same time it is also death. ‘I am as beautiful as death, and as public as well,’ proclaimed Emile Verhaeren in Les flambeaux noirs (from ‘The Black Trilogy’). In Against the Grain (or Against Nature), J.K. Huysmans described this singular climate that prevailed in the Symbolist era, and through his character, the Duke Jean Floressas des Esseintes – a man of exquisite and unusual, but also perverse taste – he proposed a system that extols strangeness. Caresses, which for a long time was called Art, develops this ambiguous feeling, mixed in with temptation, seduction, as well as submission – that of man to woman.
This confrontation of the androgynous being with the female sphinx in an imaginary setting, filled with blue columns and cabbalist inscriptions that vaguely resemble hieroglyphics, is open to many interpretations. Is it a symbolization of power, domination, and seduction, or perhaps rather the image of Khnopff himself faced with his reflection, his sister Marguerite, the inaccessible muse? Or, perhaps, it is the eternal vision of Oedipus and the Sphinx? The work raises endless questions, and will no doubt continue to do so. The mystery will remain, just as that of Magritte’s images. It is easier to understand now why the Surrealist grandmaster came to the Brussels Museum merely to see the works of the Symbolist dandy.
Text: Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque, Museum of Modern Art. A Selection of Works, Brussels, 2001, p. 86 © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels