Against a background made of marble and ancient landscape in tones of red, an androgyne leans slowly towards the caress of a sphinx with a cheetah body, feminine in its flexibility. The eyes of our androgyne stare without seeing, like in a dream.
Omnipresent in Khnopff’s work, the theme of androgynes considerably predates the commitment of surrealism to the fundamental myth. Khnopff, when asked about his intentions, answered that the painting of the cheetah is a lot less mystical that one may be led to believe. It is only a very common allegory. Man faces a choice: pleasure or power.
In the Middle-Ages, the leopard was one of the symbols of sensual pleasure. Besides, this leopard is not a leopard but a cheetah, one of the wild animals which crawls the most, the closest to snakes, as he specified, adding that he had not chosen it for its mystical values but for its aesthetic qualities.
Woman plays an important part in Belgian symbolism as she alone personifies all the duality and ambiguity of our world. Khnopff and Rops are the Belgian symbolists who best understood and expressed her mystery. In Khnopff’s work, woman is in turn an angel, a muse, a friend. But she is also perverse, a temptress and a femme fatale, symbol incarnate of the supreme vice.
In ‘The Caress’, Khnopff depicts this mysterious beauty, but the woman sells herself and Satan becomes her master. This impregnates all of Félicien Rops’ work. She is the all-consuming devouring woman, she is also death.
The confrontation of the androgyne and the sphinx in a fantasy landscape, filled with blue colons and cabalistic writings vaguely reminiscent of hieroglyphs, gives rise to many different interpretations.
Symbolization of power, of domination, of seduction? Or maybe the image of Khnopff himself, confronted to his reflection, his sister Marguerite, his untouchable muse? Or the eternal vision of Oedipus and the sphinx? This work is a constant interrogation and will never cease to be. (from Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque, in catalogue 'Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), Brussels, RMFAB, 2004, p. 236-237)
English Translation by Marianne Reynolds (2010)