November 12: “Is photography art?” is a nagging question constantly raised since the invention of the medium. It’s one that annoys most photographers, who just want to get on and take pictures. However when it’s raised by an artist a reply is provoked.
When Fernand Khnopff (who died on this date in 1921) gave a lecture in 1916 at the Académie des Beaux-arts he condemned outright the artistic pretensions of photography, but when he wrote his Is Photography among the Fine Arts? In the magazine of art 1899, his question was rhetorical. He quoted others’ responses, but concluded with conflicting answers. There’s a reason for his increasing vehemence; he was hiding something.
Khnopff’s oeuvre includes a large body of nearly monochromatic works on paper. A somewhat limited palette and restrained way of handling his medium become important features of his art, even when he is working in oils. The tendency towards monochromy in his work becomes an essential element in creating the remote and silent atmosphere of the scene.
Another factor in this aspect of his art, however, is the growing influence of the photograph, especially in his depictions of the city of Bruges (a kind of Shangi-la to him, a place he had only visited as a child). If he didn’t visit Bruges as an adult, the only plausible explanation for the accuracy of his later renderings of the town is the use of photography.
In public Khnopff disparaged the artistic merits of this growing medium and throughout his life carefully concealed the role photography played in the creation of some of his paintings.
After his death around forty photographs of Marguerite, who was both his sister and his favourite model, were discovered to remain despite her clearance of his studio and the destruction of much of his work and his personal papers. In them, she adopts poses in décor and costumes alluding to Antiquity and the Far East. It is clear that he was the photographer. Khnopff often did no more than rework the photographed motif in pastel or oil.
He had good reason to maintain his protest against photography. Referring to the paintings shown at Les XX in 188 which included his Portrait of Jeanne Kefer, Lucien Solvay had described Khnopff’s works as plagiarisms of the “photo-paintings” of Jan van Beers. He was intentionally provocative; Solvay and Van Beers had crossed swords in the law courts four years earlier when Solvay accusing Van Beers of being incapable of painting without the support of photography. Perceptively, Solvay believed he was also encountering this mechanical rendering of the photographic in Khnopff’s work.
In fact, Khnopff’s photographs are already imbued with the mystery and intensity. Like his grey-tone drawings, monochrome photograph also abbreviates and abstracts the image of reality it has captured. Khnopff’s works based on photographs produced an image removed one more step from reality; remote, dreamlike, rendered in the shades and shadows of near monochrome which are the perfect medium for conveying the ideas and themes of his art.This theatrical aspect of his photography makes him heir to the photographers who were quite close to the Pre-Raphaelites such as Julia Margaret, Oscar Reijlander, Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll and Lady Harwarden.
Interestingly, he concludes his 1899 Is Photography among the Fine Arts? by quoting M.Davanne, President of the French Photographic Society:
The application of photography to what are called artistic purposes is only one aspect of photography; it has many others not least equally important; and since it does not lend itself to every fancy; it must not be diverted from its own line of work, which is accuracy, authenticity, perfection of detail and truth with beauty. Photography has won such wide recognition in the world that it has every right to be Itself, without attempting to ape anything else. We should be the first to forgive its mistakes and caprices, but it must not sacrifice what ought to be its very essence, its life, its one superiority over any work done by hand – that it, its literal truth.
Ironically, based on the oeuvre he has left behind, we might judge Knopff more photographer than painter, especially in the age of Photoshop, since he was doing no more than ‘retouching’ and editing his photographs. But was Khnopff an artist?