The home of an Artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels
By Hélène Laillet
To speak of the “Villa Fernand Khnopff” is to speak of one of the artist’s greatest works; it is the expression of his own personality which he has built for his own satisfaction; it is his immutable “Self” which he has raised in defiance of a troubled and changing world.
In the Avenue des Courses, on the outskirts of the Bois de la Cambre, in a magnificent rose-garden is situated this strange dwelling-place which mystifies many a passer-by — “A chapel probably,” say some; “A vault built by some eccentric person,” guess others. Then they pass, but those who know what famous “eccentric ” hides himself behind these walls stop and consider the perfectly proportioned house. They have no difficulty in guessing by what artist it was designed, for in its pure clear lines the cold yet noble aestheticism of Fernand Khnopff is easily recognised. There are no complicated ornaments, only black lines and golden circles; here and there a monogram in black on a golden background, very simply and delicately drawn, stands out against the pure whiteness of the panels. The front of the house has an air of reserve, almost of disdain. Above a black door, bare of any ornamentation, are the words, “Past—Future,” and on the top of the gable is a statue of Aphrodite. One tries in vain to classify this house according to any definite style of architecture ; he who occupies it has set his own seal upon it, and in its singularity lies its style.
If you are fortunate enough to gain admittance, the servant silently opens the door and shows you into an anteroom decorated entirely in white, with walls of polished stucco. From a position of pride, a superb stuffed Indian peacock watches from the corner of his eye; he is the haughty guardian of this austere dwelling-place. On a slender blue column stands a little Greek statue which, with a graceful gesture, invites you to silence, and on the whiteness of the walls hangs a little replica of a picture which the artist has entitled Une Aile bleue. This haughty woman, standing upright behind the head of Hypnos, absorbed in a reverie both sad and mysterious, holds in her slender fingers the veil which she has drawn between dreams and reality, and is indeed a symbolic figure. Above the picture are inscribed the three letters of the word “Soi” (Self). This ante-room is impregnated with the character of the artist.
A silken hanging of a greyish blue, artistically faded, is raised, and Fernand Khnopff, man of the world, welcomes you. But he has hardly time to assume this wordly mask before it is laid aside; on the other side of the silken curtain the personality of the “artist” alone exists, it imposes itself upon you and is found in all the slightest details of the harmonious surroundings.
It hardly seems possible to realise that five minutes ago you were in the busy streets of Brussels, for here no sound from the outside world troubles the mind, no window placed too low brings you into contact with life; your imagination carries you away, and you feel yourself to be far from all that is low, petty, mean, and worthless; you are in the kingdom of the beautiful and in this purified atmosphere you feel a compelling need of silence in order that you may attain for a moment something of the Ideal. Yes, silence is necessary in this long white corridor filled with a soft and restful radiance; daylight enters only through curious windows of stained glass on which the colours of blue and gold in combination form flames and fantastic figures. Valuable drawings hang on the walls; among others is an admirable portrait of Elizabeth of Austria — Empress of Solitude — and on the white partition in letters of gold are inscribed the words: “Everything comes to him who waits” — words which are certainly engraved on the persevering mind of the artist. Facing a beautiful white staircase is a logette in which an ivory mask is suspended from a slender column on the top of which, held in place as though by enchantment, is a vase of finest crystal.
This white corridor leads into a white room, beautiful but severe and glacial; several chairs enamelled in white do not invite repose; in a corner stands a little table just big enough to hold a vase in which a single aster raises its delicate head; facing the window in a very fragile Venetian glass are two little branches with transparent leaves; the doorway is curtained with pale blue satin, and on the walls hang studies of the artist’s most remarkable and attractive works. There is something vague and uneasy in the atmosphere of this room; this same head that appears on each drawing has a disquieting influence — always the same regular features, haughty and reserved — yet this woman, so continually reproduced, seems to be different in each picture; her expression, though always searching and profound, seems at times to be disdainful, tender, cunning, voluptuous, hard, glacial, sad, mocking, or caressing, and when one seems to have guessed what the eyes are saying, one remains disconcerted by the expression of the mouth. “The expression of the mouth is the truest,” says Khnopff; “there it is impossible to dissimulate.” One would like to remain, feeling instinctively a need to penetrate the secrets of so complicated a mind, secrets that elude one just as they seem to be within one’s grasp, but something in these faces, with their smiles sad and disillusioned, compels one to pass on and leave them to their dream of beauty and of sadness. It seems that Fernand Khnopff had wished to illustrate the famous words of Alfred de Vigny — that singer of sufferings nobly born — “Silence alone is great, all else is weakness.” The pessimism of the painter is as sincere as that of the poet.
If the artist did not tell you so, you would not know that you were in the dining-room — how should you? There is nothing to denote the fact. At meal-times a little table appears, only to disappear again almost immediately. Here again is shown the struggle between the ideal and the material.
Several steps at the end of the corridor lead to the studio, where one feels more at ease than in the other room, although the sense of mystery is greater. Facing the door is an altar sacred to Hypnos. It is composed of a crystal cabinet resting on a glass pedestal cast by Tiffany; below are two chimeras of gilded bronze and these words stand out clearly: “On n’a que soi.” The sun filters through stained-glass windows like those in the corridor, and their colours are reflected on the white mosaic floor of the studio, in the middle of which is traced a great golden circle. On the ceiling, to correspond, there is another, where is represented the constellation of Libra (the Balance) under which Fernand Khnopff was born. A little fountain murmurs the eternal song of Life, which flows on stifling the swiftly passing Present, so that the Past and Future seem almost to meet. At the bottom of the white marble basin lie mother-of-pearl shells, their delicate colours shining through the clear transparent water. Beautiful objects are scattered about the room — a silken garment of shimmering hues, a rose shedding its petals, a branch of withered mistletoe, a beautiful cushion lying on the floor, several butterflies — one of so marvellous a blue that the most subtle combinations of colours could not produce its tint — and, on a bright piece of embroidery by Lalique, a tortoise cast in bronze. Khnopff does not like animals; for a little while he tolerated this tortoise, then finding it too noisy, he put it in the garden; it wandered away and he found it again dead. To-day — silent — it has regained its place in the studio and has been named by the artist “My remorse.” In one corner of the room is a couch the pure Empire style of which harmonises with the cold beauty of the room; here and there hang artistic draperies; on a pedestal stands the first bust modelled by the artist — it is of marble slightly tinted and thus has an almost lifelike appearance — and near by there is a portrait of Mme. Khnopff, the artist’s mother — a very fine study.
There is not a single detail in this studio which does not denote the desire for complete harmony; this strained search after perfection is pleasing to certain sensitive natures. Those who are fascinated by his strange art seek to read the mind of Khnopff by means of the numerous drawings into which he has put something of himself, but though these works are complete to the slightest detail, it is very difficult to interpret the artist’s meaning. Looking at these drawings so admirably finished, one merely says: “They are very beautiful.” What more could one say? But mentally one raises the mask of lofty reserve and before these eyes, sad, grave, or ardent, wide-open or half-closed, before these expressive mouths with lips thin and compressed or half-opened and eager, before these smiles hopeless or tender, one experiences the most subtle emotions that the arts — sculpture, painting, or engraving — can produce when they express at the same time both sorrow and happiness. The face is always the same yet always different; it is a face which exercises a powerful fascination because, though very human, it possesses something vaguely supernatural. A lady who visited the artist once asked him this question: “Should you meet this woman whose face seems to haunt you, would you marry her?” “On no account,” was the artist’s reply. “I know too well what she has in her mind.”
The adjoining room is a second studio and contains the works in course of execution. On an easel rests a very fine portrait, already in an advanced stage, of the Duc de Brabant, which the artist will finish when the young prince returns from his holidays. Two engravings on marble intended for the residence of M. Stoclet promise, by the perfection of the design, the attitude of the symbolic figures, and by the fineness of the workmanship, to rank among the artist’s greatest works. In this room, too, are the cartoons which Khnopff in the rôle of “scene-painter” has made for the scenery of certain operas. Thanks to his refined and artistic taste there are in the Théâtre de la Monnaie at Brussels costumes and stage-effects of the most remarkable beauty. He applied all his energies to the production of such works as “Le Roi Arthur” and “Oberon,” and once more the directors of the theatre have appealed to his brilliant imagination and his clever pencil for the scenery of “Parsifal,” which is to be given next season.
Back through the studio one goes to the corridor and up the large staircase to a small ante-room which leads to the “Blue Room.” In this “Chambre bleuc” Fernand Khnopff has placed some of the works of his favourite artists. There is a picture by Delacroix, a few reproductions of the works of Gustave Moreau, a kindred spirit, and a very beautiful portrait done in red chalk, which was given to the artist by Burne-Jones. In this “Chambre bleue” all the objects are precious and bear illustrious signatures. Among others is the artist’s portrait of his sister. In the bay-window, through which nothing but green foliage can be seen, a Malmaison exhales its delicate perfume. It is in this room, where all the blues are exquisitely in harmony, that the artist rests after his work, soothed by the sounds of the piano which float in through the open window from the room below, and here in this poetical atmosphere Fernand Khnopff dreams and composes beautiful works.
In his home, which is the expression of his ideal, far from the world, cut off from all outside influences, alone in his haughty solitude, Fernand Khnopff listens only to the voice of art, and he works methodically at the development of his conscious self. When young painters come to ask his advice he says: “Above all, be sincere; if you have nothing to say, say nothing.” “Art is not a necessity,” he adds.
In this house there is nothing to remind one of time or care; desire and regret are banished. The artist follows the line of life he has laid down for himself and his attitude corresponds to that English motto which he has made his own: “Make the best of everything.” Born a Belgian, he has an English nature, for knowing himself to be but little understood he takes refuge in solitude and silence. With a smile of mingled pride and satisfaction he often repeats these words: “Vraiment on n’a que soi.”
Pride in the form of a peacock guards the door and Hypnos sheds throughout the house the atmosphere of sleep, a sleep that leads to dreams. True to his conception of art, Fernand Khnopff has reached the noblest realisation of his best self; as Dumont-Wilden has said of this cold and beautiful house, it is indeed “the fortress of an individuality in perpetual defence against the World and Life.”