A cloud of criticism, apology and embarrassment hangs over the oeuvre of Ferdinand Hodler, the prodigiously talented Swiss painter who was born the same year as Vincent van Gogh (1853) and died, like Gustav Klimt, in 1918.
Hodler’s work bridges the academic neo-classicism of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (his teacher’s teacher) at one end and the Viennese Expressionism of Klimt and Egon Schiele on the other, a coupling that accounts as much for its manipulative magnetism as for its overdetermined artifice.
In his catalogue essay for the Hodler retrospective that was held at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1973, Peter Selz describes the artist’s hardscrabble roots, far removed from the comfortably bourgeois childhood homes of Édouard Manet (1832–1883) and Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), the revolutionary French painters of the previous generation:
Ferdinand Hodler was born into the Swiss proletariat in the poorest quarter of Bern in 1853. His father, an impecunious carpenter, died when the artist was a still a child, and was eventually followed in death by his mother, who was remarried to Gottlieb Schüpbach, a widowed house and sign painter.
When Hodler was eight years old, he began assisting his stepfather, and when he was fifteen, he apprenticed with a tourist-trade landscape painter. By the time he was nineteen, he decided to quit the Canton of Bern for good:
He walked [almost 100 miles] to Geneva without money, without education, with the slightest knowledge of French and without a friend to greet him at his destination. He knew only that Geneva was a cultural center of considerable importance and that it might be a place where, having left behind the sadness of his childhood, he could hope to enter a new life, perhaps as a new person.
In Geneva, he studied for six years at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with Barthélemy Menn, a Swiss painter who was a student of Ingres in Rome as well as a friend of Delacroix and Corot. From these beginnings we can chart the strength of Hodler’s art, namely his considerable command of line and his clarity of form.
Menn’s neoclassical training and Romantic associations are echoed in his student’s ultimate direction, a style Hodler dubbed “Parallelism.”
Parallelism was Hodler’s personal brand of Symbolism. It can be characterized as a mutation of the neoclassical principles of balance and symmetry into a relentless mirroring of the right and left halves of the composition, which the artist steeped in mystical overtones.
In Hodler’s view, Parallelism meant “any repetition of any kind which lends a painting unity,” according to Oskar Bätschmann in the catalogue for a more recent exhibition, Ferdinand Hodler: A Symbolist Vision, which traveled from the Kunstmuseum Bern to the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, in 2008.
The artist himself declared:
The work of art will reveal a new order, the order inherent in all things, the idea of unity.
It is in the exercise of Parallelism, however, that gets Hodler into trouble with the modern-day viewer.
Reviewing the Kunsthaus Zürich exhibition Ferdinand Hodler: Landscapes (2004) for Modern Painters, Marcus Verhagen writes:
There are two schools of thought on Ferdinand Hodler. According to one, he was guided by the worst impulses of the Symbolist generation, exploring ill-defined metaphysical questions in canvases that have come to look hopelessly dated and affected. According to the other, his work married a late-Romantic wonder at the natural world with a bold decorative streak […] which he shares with contemporaries such as Klimt and Munch.
The organizers of the Zürich exhibition, by concentrating on Hodler’s landscapes, sidestepped the issue of his “large allegorical pieces, with their amateur theatrics and addled philosophizing on the cycles of biological life” by avoiding them altogether.
But the landscapes are not immune to Hodler’s manipulative compositional approach, with many “organized around portentous symmetries, patterns that hint, a little insistently, at the existence of transcendent energies within the natural world.”
In one quick stroke, Verhagen zips up the contemporary take on Hodler:
From a twenty-first-century perspective, his efforts to find painterly ciphers for mystical notions seem cumbersome at best and at worst faintly ridiculous.
The current exhibition at the Neue Galerie, Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity, neither avoids what is discomfiting about Hodler, nor does it offer a full-throated revisionist endorsement of his Symbolist work. Rather, it presents a highly selective view of Hodler as a precursor of Expressionism, and particularly of Klimt and Schiele – a sampling of whose work is also on display – for whom he was an acknowledged influence. This makes for beautiful show, and one that begins on a very high note.
“Portrait of Emma Schmidt-Müller” (1915), which is on view in the same room as Klimt’s iconic “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), is an unqualified masterpiece. Every brush mark, every patch of color, every sinewy reflection and translucent shadow merge into a solid, limpid and profoundly human image of a simply posed dark-haired and dark-eyed woman, seated with her torso tilted one way, her head the other, and her hands folded calmly in her lap.
The portrait’s graphic contrasts of light and dark, and its dissonant masses of viridian and yellow ocher, jump out at you unlike anything else in the show. But even if the other works never quite reach its zenith, gazing at it convinces you that Hodler knew his stuff.
The show’s selections are pared down to portraits, self-portraits, landscapes and the most abstracted of his allegorical works, in which the figures are arrayed frieze-like against nearly blank backgrounds. Many images are repeated, with ten self-portraits as well as variations of the same landscapes and figurative works that in some cases are virtually copies of each other.
This strategy, which excluded all work completed before 1899, may not have been deliberately designed to make Hodler into some sort of a serialist, but it does leave the impression that the show’s operating principle is an imposed conceptual superstructure that casts the artist as much more intellectually rigorous than he probably was.
Given that the work we now deem sentimental, hokey or truly bizarre is what the artist considered his highest achievement, does such a cleaned-up version allow Hodler to be Hodler, or are the curators treating him like a weird old uncle invited to their Modern Art Party as long as he doesn’t stain the carpet?
A good argument can be made that this is the role of curatorship — separating the wheat from the chaff and all that. It could even be extended in favor of saving an artist like Hodler from himself.
And while the exhibition paints the painter as a wild colorist, a witty and sensitive portraitist, an experimental interpreter of the Alpine countryside, a designer of whimsical or mildly melodramatic allegories and, above all, a prophet of Expressionism whose unflinching eye chronicled his lover’s slow and painful cancer-ridden demise, where, we may ask, is the Hodler with the frightfully bad taste?
I’m bringing this up only because it seems to me that without the uninhibited id behind such shamelessly gorgeous nonsense as “Truth II” (1903), which depicts a naked woman putting to flight a circle of muscular, black-cloaked men, or “The Consecrated One” (1893-1894), which surrounds a naked prepubescent boy with hovering angels, the tamer pictures would not be as vibrant.
Even though he talks a good formalist line in an interview published in the Guggenheim catalogue (“What I value most in painting is form. Everything else is there to serve form. Most important among these servants is color. I love clarity in painting and this is why I love Parallelism.”), Hodler was an exuberant vulgarian, and the verve, eroticism and ill-mannered imagination running riot through his major paintings suck us in even as we attempt to back away from his appalling lack of discernment.
What comes through in this exhibition, even without the more extreme examples of his work, is Hodler’s innocent love of making art — and by innocent I mean both unsophisticated and childlike. In that way he was something of a holy fool who viewed himself as nothing less than an evangelist (in a lecture titled “The Mission of the Artist,” Hodler explains that the artist must “express the eternal element in nature,” which is beauty, and to enhance nature by “intensifying objects”) but whose critical faculties were left largely undeveloped.
As Peter Selz writes in the above-cited essay:
He came from a very isolated place, he was never part of any artistic community, had little tradition to continue or even to rebel against.
If Hodler never rasped up against community and tradition, he would have remained untouched by the collective superego — a circumstance that can be read as an immense gift as well as a fatal infliction. Outsider artists operate in this wide-open territory, but they don’t draw like Ingres.
Hodler does, thus forcing a disconnect between sophisticated technique and unrefined sentiment, in which the former tends to magnify the latter.
Ingres himself did some pretty preposterous pictures — the large public commissions, history paintings and official portraits — and like Hodler he esteemed them much more than the bourgeois portraits we now prize (especially the portrait drawings, which he saw as beneath him).
We all but ignore Ingres’ major paintings today, and perhaps it is correct to toss Hodler’s into the dustbin as well. But unlike Ingres’ big pictures, which are fussy and tiresome, Hodler’s are awkwardly, rambunctiously alive in their badness.
Hodler’s unpolished ebullience, expressed through unmediated line, color and form, is undoubtedly what drew Klimt and Schiele to his work. That was more than one hundred years ago, however. Hodler may have provided them with vital connective tissue, but their ability to more consummately fuse ideas, experiences and influences into mesmerizing imagery has eclipsed his work in importance.
Marcus Verhagen is right: from our 21st-century perch, Hodler’s “efforts to find painterly ciphers for mystical notions seem cumbersome at best and at worst faintly ridiculous.” In fact, Verhagen is being generous — the major allegorical works define the ridiculous.
Ridiculousness has a range of connotations, but boredom isn’t one of them. Hodler’s big works are as campy and crazy as they are solidly painted and luminously colored. We can’t take them seriously, but we can’t take our eyes off of them. We may wince at their preciousness, pretension and overreach, but what we’re feeling are the growing pains of Modern Art.
Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity continues at Neue Galerie New York (1048 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 7, 2013.