Ferdinand Hodler, The Sick Valentine Godé-Darel (1914), oil on canvas; courtesy The National Academy of Design
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The Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853– 1918) is known to American audiences primarily as a precursor of twentieth-century Expressionism. Combining Symbolist imagery and Post-Impressionist facture, Hodler’s signature paintings have been compared to those of Munch, Klimt, and Gauguin, all of whom were his contemporaries. In Switzerland he is something of a national treasure, although in his own day the Swiss often found him to be a source of scandal and a target of ridicule. Few things, however, are more forgiving than historical perspective coupled with national chauvinism. Organized by the Swiss Institute for Art Research, in cooperation with the Arts Council of Switzerland, the Hodler retrospective currently touring the United States is an attempt at gaining critical credibility for the work outside of his native country. Are the paintings of such quality that he should be considered a figure of international import? Unless a contrived hocus-pocus becomes the standard by which we judge art, one would be hesitant to bet on it.
Ferdinand Hodler: Views & Visions is the first retrospective of the artist’s work to be seen in the United States since 1972. (An exhibition of Hodler’s landscapes toured the States in 1987.) It brings together fifty-six paintings encompassing his career as an artist, ranging from student work to Lake Geneva with Montblanc at Dawn, painted in the final year of his life. As installed at the National Academy of Design in New York, Views & Visions is simply presented and briskly paced. It never feels overblown. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Hodler’s paintings. Indeed, the artist revealed here is one whose link to modernism is, at best, tangential. He is, as it turns out, not a pioneer Expressionist but a nineteenth-century academic whose relationship with the new painting was that of a dabbler.
Hodler’s early paintings evince a solid talent. His genre scenes, portraits, and landscapes are the work of an able, and sometimes brashly confident, artist—Portrait of Louise-Delphine Duchosal (1885) is the most assured painting Hodler ever did. But even in these early paintings one can see portents of an artist prone to overstatement. Despite its skillful interplay of blacks, grays, and rust-browns, The Student Self-Portrait (1874) is remarkable mainly for it’s self-mythologizing. Yet even in his corniest paintings Hodler was capable of grace notes. If the title figure in The Reaper (c. 1878) is ennobled to the point of cliché, the landscape is nicely handled; the quick dabs of paint delineating the grass upon which he stands are pleasantly unprogrammatic and the light that emanates from the painting is convincingly rendered.
It is Hodler’s Symbolist work that dominates the exhibition. This is, in part, a function of the National Academy’s architecture: given the layout of the galleries, one tends to enter the exhibition somewhere in the middle, and the middle consists of Hodler’s Symbolist paintings. It is difficult to avoid them. Of course, the curators wouldn’t have it any other way. In his introduction to the catalogue, Hans A. Lüthy, who along with Peter Fischer organized Views & Visions, writes that this emphasis is a means of informing the “rather indifferent attitude of the American public” toward Symbolist painting. Given the catalogue’s poor translation, it is, perhaps, unfair to comment on this statement. But one likes to think that this “indifference” is less a matter of ignorance than an indication of a healthy stateside skepticism toward matters metaphysical.
Hodler was an artist keenly aware of his cultural isolation, and his turn to Symbolism was both inevitable and calculated. “My goal remains Paris,” he wrote in 1891. “The German Swiss will not understand me until they see that I have been understood elsewhere; also, only then will I impress the French Swiss.” One doesn’t have to be versed in the arcana of Symbolism—or “parallelism,” Hodler’s variant thereof—to know that something spooky is going on in his paintings. They are filled with grim figures, in various states of undress, taking part in mysterious rituals or—as in The Disillusioned II (1892–93)—glumly pondering the fate of the cosmos. (Titles like Communion with Infinity are enough to scare off those not predisposed to Hodler’s philosophical portentousness.) The paintings are theatrical and overdetermined. The mannered poses of Hodler’s figures are bound to have contemporary viewers scratching their heads in befuddlement. They had not a few of Hodler’s contemporaries doing likewise. His gaunt, distracted figures prompted one critic of the time to write of Hodler’s “fetus-fetish,” providing a memorable, if unfortunate, addition to the critical lexicon.
The most telling shortcoming of Hodler’s Symbolist painting is his handling of the human form. It is here that his drawing falters considerably. The nude woman in Magnificence of Lines II (c. 1908), for instance, is clumsily situated and awkwardly distorted, as is the title figure in The Enchanted Boy II (1894). This isn’t a matter of skill, or lack thereof: Hodler’s early work is that of a capable draftsman. Yet, in the Symbolist paintings, his distortions don’t make sense pictorially, the way those of El Greco (or Max Beckmann) always do. Hodler could not conceive of the figure as an integral element of the painting’s structure; the human form was simply a tool for representing ideas. Consequently, he was incapable of making a figure and ground relationship dynamic or, at least, interesting. His environments are little more than sets in which his actors ruminate. Hodler’s advocates may claim that this inconsistency represents the dichotomy between worldly flesh and higher planes of being. Perhaps, but then we are in the realm of illustration, and not very good illustration at that. Hodler’s Expressionist devices are indistinguishable from bad drawing.
This is especially true in the paintings depicting the illness and death of Hodler’s mistress, Valentine Godé-Darel. Here again his distortions of form are arbitrary and unfelt. The Sick Valentine Godé-Darel (1914) is the finest of these paintings because it forgoes Expressionist melodrama to concentrate on observed particulars: the handsome contour of Godé-Darel’s profile, the feeble tilt of her hand. Similarly, Hodler’s best portraits are those unfettered by Symbolist “meaning.” Portrait of Matthias Morhardt (c. 1912), with its unlabored surfaces and off-the-cuff linear accents, is refreshingly forthright. Hodler created his finest paintings when confronted with the mundane.
And so it is with his landscapes, a body of work that constitutes Hodler’s true legacy. Hodler thought of landcape painting as a form of relaxation from more ambitious and, one presumes, worthy subjects. Yet it is precisely because he did relax that the landscapes succeed as art; instead of imbuing his landscapes with the intangible, he simply painted. (Like many academics, Hodler never knew his own strengths.) The greatest of these paintings is Landscape Rhythm of Forms: Lake Geneva with Clouds (1909), with its minimalist play of brushstrokes spread horizontally over the painting’s surface. Here Hodler’s painthandling is concise and unforced, giving forth a soft light in broad planes of color. Ironically, here may be the one time that Hodler did capture the spirituality he had always strived for.
While it would be misguided to assert that his landscapes are equal to those of, say, Cézanne, it would be folly to deny their pleasures, just as it would be to claim his modest achievement for anything more than it is. Despite its efforts to the contrary, Views & Visions confirms the marginality of Hodler’s oeuvre. He remains, very much, a local hero.
© 1995 Mario Naves
Originally published in the January 1995 edition of The New Criterion.