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Video transcript

(piano playing) Steven: We're in Munich at the Neue Pinakothek, and we're looking at the work of a Belgian artist, Fernand Khnopff. Beth: The title of the painting is, "I Lock My Door Upon Myself," from a poem by Christina Rossetti, called "Who Shall Deliver Me?" Steven: I'm always interested by the visual arts when they have corollary in literature or in music. The way in which artists try to create a kind of alliance between the openness of words, and the way in which we can visualize in our imagination. But, how can that then be treated in something that we can see? Beth: I think it's real conundrum that painters, since the renaissance, have tried to deal with, including artists like Botticelli. The stanza in the poem that this is from goes like this: "I lock my door upon myself, "And bar them out; but who shall wall "Self from myself, most loathed of all?" This is, in some ways, a religious poem about inner struggle and the way that God can, in the end, provide salvation. But, to me, this idea of inner struggle and inner turmoil is very much the subject of so many symbolist paintings, this inner life. Steven: And so, we have this image that is very narrow in its tonality, so that there is not much distinction between, for instance, these beautiful flowers, these lilies in the foreground that space across this frieze almost creating a kind of rhythm that speaks to the rhythm of poetry. Beth: Or, reminding me of a medieval painting, like a triptych in its [tri par tight] division, and the woman in the front who spans two of those parts of the painting. Steven: That woman is not enacting anything in an obvious sense. There is no theatrical gesture. She is quiet and contemplative, but in a way that allows for the ideas of the painting to, in a sense, be embodied by her. Beth: Khnopff was inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites, who painted about 40 years before him. Steven: So, the symboists are creating meaning by association, by feeling, and by symbol, as opposed to by an explicit narrative. Beth: I would say symbols that aren't very specific, but also open to interpretation. Steven: For instance, probably most evident is the sculptural head that's on the shelf in the background. We know that it's Hypos, the God of Sleep. Beth: The brother of Thanatos, the God of Death. Steven: Which seems to be completely in keeping with the mood of this painting. Beth: It does. Doesnt it? We have, on the right side, an image of a medieval townscape with a lone figure in it. Steven: That figure, seems to me, to be a contemplative, isolated figure, the way that we might think about [Fredricks Monks] earlier in this century. Beth: Then, on the left side, we see a door, but we can't really see the space that it opens into, and next to that, perhaps a mirror. Then, beside that, a decorative floral pattern. We have the lilies that are in the foreground. We have a lot of things that don't add up to a traditional narrative. Steven: Right. When we expect to see lilies, we tend to see white ones, and it speaks to Mary's virginity. These are not only orange lilies, but they're also dried. They've withered. There is something terribly melancholy about them. Beth: The female figure also looks off into the distance in a way that we can't read what she's feeling very clearly. Steven: As if that's not enough ambiguity, there are other elements in here that are just tantalizing. Note the very fine chain that hangs down, an unseen place in the middle of the canvas. There seems to be a little crown that hangs from it. Then, just to the right of that, in a rectangle, we can just make out what seem to be two circles, and what might be a face in the center. Beth: Then, the figure rests on a table that is reminiscent of an alter. On it, is a black cloth and a spear, or an arrow. What do all of these mean? If we look for explanation in the poem, we're not going to find it there. We're not going to find a meaning anywhere. This is really about evoking a mood, or a feeling. One way to think about that is that the impressionists, who came just before the symbolists, took the objective world and saw it through the lens of individual temperament. But, in symbolism, we a inner world made objective, made manifest, on the canvas. Steven: In a sense, the interior subjective self made universal as it's brought into the visual realm. Beth: We think about the title, "I Lock My Door Upon Myself," this focusing on the interior life, it brings us inside ourselves to find our own meaning and interpretation. (piano playing)