The Belgian symbolist Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) is one of my favourite artists; Caresses (1896) is one of his most famous paintings. I like it a lot, though I find it more interesting than attractive. It’s a good example of Khnopff’s art in that the symbols are detached from clear meaning and float mysteriously in a world of their own. As Khnopff used to say: On n’a que soi – “One has only oneself.” But he was clearly inspired by the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx, which is thousands of years old. Indeed, an alternate title for the painting is The Sphinx.
Even older than the Oedipus story is another link to the incestuous themes constantly explored by Khnopff, who was obsessed with his sister Marguerite and portrayed her again and again in his art. That’s her heavy-jawed face rubbing against the heavy-jawed face of the oddly nippled man, but Khnopff has given her the body of a large spotted felid. Many people misidentify it as a leopard, Panthera pardus. It’s actually a stranger and rarer felid: a cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, which occupies a genus of its own among the great cats. And A. jubatus, unlike P. pardus, is an incestuous animal par excellence:
Cheetahs are very inbred. They are so inbred that genetically they are almost identical. The current theory is that they became inbred when a “natural” disaster dropped their total world population down to less than seven individual cheetahs – probably about 10,000 years ago. They went through a “Genetic Bottleneck”, and their genetic diversity plummeted. They survived only through brother-to-sister or parent-to-child mating. (Cheetah Extinction)
It must have been a large disaster. Perhaps cheetahs barely survived the inferno of a strike by a giant meteor, which would make them a cat out of hell. In 1896, they became a cat out of Bel too when Khnopff unveiled Caresses. Back then, biologists could not analyse DNA and discover the ancient history of a species like that. So how did Khnopff know the cheetah would add extra symbolism to his painting? Presumably he didn’t, though he must have recognized the cheetah as unique in other ways. All the same, I like to think that perhaps he had extra-rational access to scientific knowledge from the future. As he dove into the subconscious, Khnopff used symbols like weights to drag himself and his art deeper and darker. So perhaps far down, in the mysterious black, where time and space lose their meaning, he encountered a current of telepathy bearing the news of the cheetah’s incestuous nature. And that’s why he chose to give his sphinx-sister a cheetah’s body.