December 05, 2004

Ensor vs Khnopff

In Brussels, in 1886, at the third annual exhibition organised by Les XX (‘the twenty’), a society of (mostly) progressive artists established in opposition to the state-sponsored salon system that had previously monopolised the exposure of new artists’ work, two young painters exhibited canvases with vaguely similar subject-matter: James Ensor’s Russian Music and Fernand Khnopff’s Listening to Schumann. Details from the two pictures follow: click on the details to see the images in full.

Detail from 'Russian Music' (oil on canvas) by James Ensor, 1881.
Detail from 'Listening to Schumann' (oil on canvas) by Fernand Khnopff, 1883.

Of the two works, Khnopff’s received much more attention and acclaim. The poet Emile Verhaeren wrote essays about it in the review L’Art Moderne. Ensor was furious, and suspected plagiarism: he’d painted Russian Music in 1881, when it had been exhibited (under another title) in the official Brussels salon. Ensor changed the title after a series of concerts in January 1885 had introduced Belgian audiences to the music of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakoff for the first time. Listening to Schumann dated from 1883. Ensor wrote a letter of protest to the secretary of Les XX, Octave Maus, but was evidently placated, as both he and Khnopff continued to participate in the group’s exhibitions until its dissolution in 1893.

Detail from 'Skeletons Warming Themselves' (oil on canvas) by James Ensor, 1889.
Detail from 'Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer' (oil on canvas) by Fernand Khnopff, 1885.

Ensor’s complaint seems absurd, to my eyes at least, owing to the many dissimilarities between the two works. This, perhaps, is only so obvious with hindsight, given the divergent trajectories of the two painters’ subsequent careers. The quickest of glances at the remaining pairs of details shown here should, I think, bring to mind chalk juxtaposed with cheese. Ensor is rough where Khnopff is smooth; Khnopff is subdued, dreamy, melancholy, where Ensor is garish, abrasive, satiric. Both artists were innovators, but Ensor, being perhaps further ahead of his time, had to struggle longer and harder for reward and acclaim.

Detail from 'The Tower of Lissewege' (oil on canvas) by James Ensor, 1890.
Detail from 'With Grégoire le Roy: My Heart Cries Out for the Past.' (pencil and chalk on paper) by Fernand Khnopff, 1889.

From 1900, Khnopff painted less and less, devoting most of his energy into the house in Brussels, built according to his own plans, and decorated following to strict rules such that white, blue and gold were the only colours permitted inside the building, whereeas the external doors, windowframes, etc., were all painted black (compare this with the colour-scheme in the last of the present images, below). He died in 1921: Ensor outlived him by twenty-eight years, and continued painting well into his eighties. In 1929, his tranition from outsider to recognised public figure was complete, when he was granted the title of Baron.

Detail from 'Melancholy Fishwives' (oil on canvas) by James Ensor, 1892.
Detail from 'White, Black and Gold.' (charcoal, pastel, watercolour, gouache and gold-dust on paper mounted on canvas) by Fernand Khnopff, 1901.

I took most of the information repeated above, and all of the present images from my copy of a 1994 book entitled Impressionism to Symbolism: The Belgian Avant-Garde 1880-1900, which also served as the catalogue to an exhibition staged that year at the Royal Academy.

Posted by misteraitch at December 5, 2004 07:22 PM | TrackBack

They're strongly similar in palette, perspective and detail. The emotional tone is really close though it's like two different narrative moments, and the genders are reversed. Ensor was a raving mad genius, but I can see what he was saying. Especially in the historical context, where so much of what we see now as almost mundane in both pictures was new, fresh, never seen before. It's like two paintings of water lilies, impressionist views at different times of day. Look at the mantelpiece in both, and the light on the chair legs.

Posted by: vernaculo on December 8, 2004 07:50 AM

The woman in 'Listening to Schumann' seems to have a headache!

Maybe she's a piano teacher listening to an 8 year old playing Trumerei, and not playing it very well!

Just kidding....

Posted by: RonSabaroff on December 8, 2004 11:04 AM

Ron: the woman depicted in Listening to Schumann is apparently the artist’s mother, so it could be she’s thinking ‘Fernand dropped out of law-school for this?’ Similarly, the woman playing the piano in Russian Music is Ensor’s sister…

Posted by: misteraitch on December 8, 2004 11:24 AM

Mr. H, There's quite an attractive and well-known painting in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich called 'Listening to Beethoven' (I think) and if I'm not mistaken (but am I?) Khnopff painted that also, but in later years.

Here I am am, away from all my books, and many years later too.....

Khnopff is hardly known at all these days, except as a kind of minor Symbolist. But I have always found him evocative, fascinating, and musical.

The haze of narcissism, in his case, is not repellant. His masterpiece, I'd say, is the Oedipus with the Sphinx.

Ensor by contrast was a true genius and wonderful painter (as well as a profoundly disturbed individual) and can hardly be valued enough.

He's quite similar to Munch in many ways, I feel. I mean psychologically.

Giorgio de Chirico represents the third in this triumvirate of young geniuses whose painting is a kind of late-adolescent (or psychotic) struggle for identity.

Posted by: Ron Sabaroff on December 8, 2004 11:42 AM

Belgian art?

Did you see this?

Posted by: bernard on December 8, 2004 09:54 PM

Fantastic I live in Ecuador in South America and think Ensor from today is my Father!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I stady Art, Plastic Arts, write me.

Posted by: Arom on February 10, 2007 07:54 PM
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