Symbolist Visions
Fernand Khnopff: The Abandoned City – 1904

Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

In common with Burne-Jones, Khnopff experienced a profound nostalgia for the Medieval world. For Khnopff this anti-materialistic, nostalgic yearning was centred on Bruges, home to a glorious artistic past and the city where he spent his early childhood. The city had lost its 16th century pre-eminence when the river Zwyn silted up and by the late nineteenth century Bruges was at a low ebb – a backwater – certainly not the tourist town it is today.

At this point – the nadir in the fortunes of the town – an influential novel appeared. Bruges-la-Morte by the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach was published in 1892. It has been lauded as the archetypal symbolist novel in which a grief stricken widower retires to the decaying city and roams through a deserted world. This tale was fertile ground for Khnopff who, in line with other symbolist writers and artists was fascinated by decay. (The key text for the movement, Baudelaire’s collection of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal published in 1857 is a prime example of this obsession).

The viewer stands before The Abandoned City seemingly as the sole witness to the end of the world. The sulphurous sky emits a listless drizzle which descends on a stark townscape – swept and manicured but devoid of life. The windows of the typical Flemish renaissance building are boarded or blind. Even the pedestal has lost its statue. From the right the encroaching sea has made inroads across the cobbles. Before long the surface of the square will be submerged and slowly but inexorably the unwitnessed end of civilisation will follow.

Khnopff has not chosen the well trodden route taken by many Mid-Victorian painters – rather than a scene of violent and total destruction such as John Martin’s apocalypses (see The Great Day of His Wrath), he has memorably evoked the eerie feeling of a slow, unseen but total ending.

Text by Geoffrey Smith

Artist Information
Fernand Khnopff

Contemporary Works – 1904

Pierre August Renoir: Portrait of Misia Sert – London, National Gallery

Gustav Klimt: Roses Under Trees – Paris, Musée d’Orsay