Text by Geoffrey Smith
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In the 1890’s Khnopff regularly visited Britain and established friendships with G.F. Watts, Edward Burne-Jones and their circle. The title of the painting is a quotation from a Christina Rossetti poem.
God strengthen me to bear myself;
That heaviest weight of all to bear,
Inalienable weight of care.
All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.
I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?
In his response to Rossetti’s lines, Knopff is not concerned with a descriptive interpretation of the poem, rather, as a Symbolist, he is striving for an enigmatic evocation of the atmosphere evoked by the poet’s writing.
A young women sits behind some sort of ledge or shelf, her arms extended and fingers clasped so as to support her face. The viewer’s gaze is immediately transfixed by the blank stare of her extraordinary eyes – their colourless pupils seem to bore into one’s soul. These blank eyes exhibit the sort of intense introspection engendered by the poem. Their profoundly unsettling engagement is intensified by the spatially incoherent space within which she sits. Is the scene to the right a vision through a window or a reflection – or a painting suspended by cords which extend upwards to the edge of the composition? What is happening further to the left? A circular mirror shows a blurred view of a window (across the room?); directly behind the woman’s head another window is set at an angle next to panelling, or a door, which look as though they are extending away from us behind the shelved area with the prominent bust.
This white sculpted bust is a copy of a bronze head in the British Museum – part of a lost statue of Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, showing wings sprouting from his temples. Khnopff was fascinated by this artefact; he sculpted several versions of it and indeed it formed the focal point of an altar of Hypnos which he installed in the Secessionist style house he built for himself in Brussels. Sleep is required before one can enter the realm of dreams – an anti-rationalist area of the human experience that interested the Symbolists. The presence of Hypnos who was the brother of Thanatos, the god of death, chimes with this Symbolist preoccupation with dreams and death. The three withered Lilies, arranged across the foreground are again symbolic of the passing of time and eventual Death.
1891 Claude Monet: Haystacks (Sunset, Snow Effect), Chicago, Art Institute