Thursday, June 13, 2013


I wasn’t familiar with the artwork of Ferdinand Hodler in my youth.  The public library in my hometown didn’t have a Hodler monograph, though it did possess an extensive collection of oversized art books.  He isn’t well represented in American collections, and I can’t recall there ever being a show at a NYC museum devoted solely to his work (the Neue Galerie’s “View to Infinity” exhibition being a recent exception).  In all my years of studying Art History, his name was never mentioned once.  One of my textbooks for a survey course did include one black and white plate of Night, which being a quintessential Symbolist work struck me as both magnificent and absurdly stagey.  Somehow, over the years, I discovered his work, mostly in reproductions, and came to appreciate this underappreciated master.

Hodler Night
Hodler - Night -1890

For those of you unfamiliar with Hodler, I will provide a brief introduction.  He was born in Berne, Switzerland in 1853, the son of a carpenter father and a peasant mother.  Probably not destined for greatness, his life was transformed by tragedy; his parents and siblings died of tuberculosis, eerily reminiscent of the experience of that other great Symbolist, Edvard Munch.  After his father’s death, the young Hodler was trained as a decorative painter by his stepfather, which led to an apprenticeship with a local artist and ultimately to his choice of a career as a painter, a path he pursued in Geneva.

At the time of Hodler’s artistic maturation, artists throughout Europe were rejecting the naturalism of the Realists and the Impressionists, which had defined progressive art in the mid-19th century.  Symbolism wasn’t your typical movement, initiated by a centralized, tight knit group of individuals.  Though established in France, the movement’s most accomplished proponents were scattered throughout Europe, commonly from nations not then recognized as centers of the visual arts: the Norwegian Munch, the Austrian Klimt, the Swiss Hodler and Böcklin, the Belgian Khnopff and the German von Stuck.  Of course, Moreau, Redon and Puvis de Chavannes are significant Symbolists of French origin.  There were common themes addressed in the work of these artists who rejected the detached representation of visual realty.  The Symbolists sought to pierce reality, to find the common threads that define human existence, leading them to explore allegory.  Munch’s nude youth sitting on the edge of her bed is not a portrait of an individual; it is a depiction of Puberty.  For Hodler, a nude woman surrounded by six shrouded men is the visual representation of Truth.  Klimt’s works include Jurisprudence, The Virgins and Medicine.  Hodler painted Night, The Day and Spring, while Munch explored Melancholy, Jealousy, Dance of Life and Ashes. Clearly these artists were seeking the universal in their work, not the specific, not the individual.


Munch Jealousy
Munch - Jealousy -1895

The Symbolists also presented to Victorian Era audiences an unabashed sexuality that challenged contemporary morality.  Addressed in an Impressionist vocabulary, Degas’ nudes were shocking for being unsentimental, unidealized and mammalian; on the other hand, they did not embody an active sexuality.  The Symbolists seemed hell bent on confronting the smug morality of their epoch.  Their nudes were undeniably naked and unquestionably sensual beings.  Again, the Symbolists rejected external reality and portrayed the unseen, the individual beneath the clothing experiencing very private urges.

Klimt Judith
Klimt - Judith I - 1901

Most critically, these artists strove to preserve an air of mystery in their work.  A painting should not be grounded in specifics, nor should it be dissectible.  A true work of art should project a very personal perspective and elicit a strong response based on its unconventional uniqueness.  Often, the Symbolists turned to dream imagery and mythological themes to distance themselves from everyday reality and establish an otherworldly mood.

Bocklin Centaur at the Village Blacksmith's Shop
Bocklin - Centaur at the Village Blacksmith's Shop - 1888

Hodler also embraced his own personal creed which he called “Parallelism”, a method of establishing order within his compositions by presenting repetitions of figures or forms usually organized in parallel planes.  This approach can be clearly recognized in many of his landscapes where horizontal bands of clouds repeat in an endless series in the sky or in figurative works like “Those Tired of Life” in which five elderly men are portrayed sitting frontally and evenly spaced on a bench.  “Parallelism is more than a principle of formal composition, it is a moral and philosophical idea, relying on the premise that nature has an order, based on repetition, and that in the end all men resemble each other.” (Musée d’Orsay website)

Hodler Die Lebensmuden
Hodler - Those Tired of Life -1892

Like Munch, Hodler, stylistically, evolved toward an Expressionist outlook, particularly in his later years, but he never fully transitioned to the new vocabulary as did Munch.  I think his last portraits of Valentine Godé-Darel most fully embrace the Expressionist approach, perhaps impelled by the intensity of emotion sparked by his subject matter.  You see, Hodler was recording over a period of months the physical decline from cancer of his mistress and model, a woman to whom the artist was deeply committed.  After Godé-Darel’s death in 1915, Hodler continued to be productive artistically until his own death three years later.

Hodler The Dying Valentine Gode Darel
Hodler - The Dying Valentine Gode-Darel - 1915

My interest in Hodler, as is the case with most artists I admire, was initiated through an appreciation of his technical skills because, in the end, technique is everything.  As Sam Gelber once told me in Grad School, and I paraphrase, “How you paint is what you paint.”  At the time, I didn’t quite understand this, but later his point became crystal clear.  Hodler was an extremely talented draftsman and a uniquely inventive colorist.  The influence of Art Nouveau is evident in his work, in that line and form achieve a balance, neither one asserting dominance over the other.  In his painting, the brushwork is assured and resolute.  Composition is clearly laid out, not masked at all, and is usually quirkily his own, personally determined but ultimately, upon repeated viewings, satisfying.  The late self portrait I include below, exemplifies most of the technical aspects I enjoy in Hodler’s work.

 Hodler Self Portrait
Hodler - Self Portrait - 1916

In the early 90’s, I was given the opportunity to visit Switzerland where I was fortunate to see numerous Hodlers firsthand. At the Oskar Reinhart Museum in Winterthur, I came across Surprised by the Storm, an early work by Hodler which no reproduction can adequately capture.  I stood before this sizeable painting for twenty minutes before moving on and then came back to take a second look.  Surprisingly, this early work embodies most of the attributes of Hodler’s mature oeuvre: a balance between line and form, assured impasto brushwork, innovative composition and unique coloration.  The painting depicts what I suppose is a party, out in a small skiff for a pleasure trip on a lake, who have been caught unawares by the approach of an unexpected storm which could easily capsize the vessel.  The waves, agitated by the oncoming storm, tilt the vessel toward the viewer exposing its occupants: four young women clustered together in the center of the boat and two men struggling to keep her afloat.  The women form a central ring in the composition, their dresses billow and swirl, creating a sense of movement.  Three of the women cower, terrified by the turn of events, while one lifts her head to experience the moment, her face electrified in excitement.  Perhaps, she stands in for Hodler, who at a young age was buffeted by terrible loss but, at that time, was embarking upon an unknown course in a challenging field in an unfamiliar city.  The thrill of uncertainty, the possibility of crushing failure and the excitement of fully embracing Life must have been intoxicating for him.


Hodler Surprised by the Storm
Hodler - Surprised by the Storm - 1886
I visited many museums and collections during my two weeks stay in Switzerland and saw many Hodlers.  I was most taken with his self portraits and landscapes, which, though small in scale, made a powerful impression on me.  Whatever the subject matter, his images are usually bathed in sunlight, dazzling and persistent.  If Munch is the painter of twilight, then Hodler’s hour is noon.  Considering the trials of his youth, it is not surprising that Munch would be compelled to address moody and gloomy themes, portray individuals, troubled, yearning and brooding, caught in the last glow of evening.  With Hodler, I knew his work before his biography, and the work clearly embodied a reassuring optimism and a personal strength of will.  When I discovered that he had suffered losses similar to those of Munch, I was initially taken aback, finding it hard to reconcile Hodler’s outlook with his personal history.  How could this man have created these glorious, upbeat paintings?  But, upon consideration, I recognized that, unquestionably, different individuals, as a result of countless factors including genetics, respond to adversity in different ways.  One man may crumble under the weight of minor misfortune, while another may bear, unscathed, horrendous suffering.  It’s part of what defines the human condition.  And, isn’t it our acknowledgment of these deviations in human ways and outlook that fuels our fascination with art; we long to understand our own kind, to deepen our awareness of what unites us as humans and to perceive what separates us from each other.

Hodler Lake Thun Landscape
Hodler - Lake Thun Landscape

Hodler Emma Schmidt Muller
Hodler - Portrait of Emma Schmidt-Muller - 1915

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