Vital Realism: Ferdinand Hodler’s Figures, Landscapes and Portraits

Ferdinand Hodler, Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc, Early Morning, November, 1917, Private Collection, Switzerland

In virtually all Ferdinand Hodler’s self-portraits he looks us right in the eye, his presence defiantly real, his vitality evident in his skin, nuanced with color in 1900 and 1916, but bursting with color in 1912 and 1914—the skin of a man who often worked outdoors, painting the massive Swiss mountains. One sees a remarkably intense man, concentrated in himself but also fully conscious of the outside world. On the one hand, he is the painter who achieved fame with Night (1889–90), the sleeping figures disturbed by bad dreams—one becomes allegorically evident in the nightmarish figure, shrouded in black, clearly symbolizing death, sitting astride the central figure, awake in terror. On the other, he is the painter of glorious mountains, subtly colored at different times of the day, sometimes seen through a haze, as in Landscape near Caux with Rising Clouds (1917), sometimes luminous with fresh light, as in Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc, Early Morning (1917). The former painting has the look of what later came to be called Lyric Impressionism. The latter, with its parallel bands of nuanced blue, tinged with grey and black, and of white tinted with shadow, seems oddly abstract. A large exhibition devoted to Holder was recently on view at the Neue Galerie in New York City.

Hodler’s formalist theory of "parallelism" suggests that he was aware of pure abstract art, which emerged in Paris in Delaunay’s Fenêtres and in Munich in Kandinsky’s Compositions—both before World War I. But Hodler was never purely abstract. No doubt this had something to do with the fact that he was deeply "impressed" by nature, unavoidably, considering his environment. (It seems significant that abstraction developed in cities, suggesting its anti-naturalism. Indeed, pure abstract forms are uprooted from nature, not to say denatured.) And perhaps also because neutral Switzerland never took sides: he could be realistic and abstract at the same time: reality, after all, is subtly abstract. His "formalism" is grounded in acute observation, which is why it never becomes a formula. But more to the personal existential point, he realized that abstract art could never deal adequately with death and, because of that, with human experience. Abstract art was peculiarly escapist, and there was no escaping death and the experience of seeing people close to one dying. Such loss could not be conveyed "abstractly."

As Hodler said, he never forgot that his parents and five siblings had died from tuberculosis when he was young—he was a lone survivor, which is one of the messages of his self-portraits, all the more full of life because of it. He documented the death, from cancer, of his mistress Valentine Godé-Darel in a remarkable series of drawings and paintings. The drawings articulate, with a few deft strokes, the face and body of the dying woman. The final paintings of her dead body, laid out on a bed, fuse the intense colors, often sharply contrasted, typical of early modernist painting, and the traditional realism of Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Corpse of Christ in the Tomb (1521–22). He probably studied the Holbein work, which is in the Basel Art Museum. For Hodler, this is a revitalizing synthesis, not an absurd contradiction. Traditional realism is revitalized, and color is given an existential purpose, not simply "essentialized," that is, presented for its own pure sake, as it is in modernist abstraction.

Realism and abstraction come exquisitely together in Hodler’s landscapes, perhaps most stunningly in the breathtaking Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc in the Early Morning (1918), with its subtle pink sky and lake, the cliffs of the ragged mountain between them, its dense blue thinly reflected in the pink water. Hodler lived on its shores: the mountain, his constant companion, was a symbol of his own sturdiness and endurance; the lake, of his sensibility, acutely aware of the changes in the weather and atmosphere in his environment, but also attuned to his own feelings. The works in which Hodler symbolized them, by way of half-nude allegorical female figures, became particularly famous. Among them are Eurythmy (1894–95), an exception because the figures are men cloaked in white robes and deep in thought, Day (1899), Sacred Hour (1904), Emotion III (1905), and later the two versions of Cheerful Woman (1909 and 1910) and Emotion VI (1911–12). Every line and color in nature is eurythmic for Hodler, that is, healthy and health-giving, which is why a healthy young female nude holding out her arms as though they were branches of a tree and seen from the back to emphasize her striding motion—and surrounded by colorful flowers with long curving stems—is called Splendor of Lines (1908).

These paintings led to his recognition by the Vienna Secession, which gave him a one-person exhibition and acclaimed him the greatest Symbolist painter after Gustav Klimt, its leader. Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, two other Viennese painters, acknowledged a debt to his expressionistic handling, for example, the intricate gestural patchwork evident in his two versions of The Jungfrau Massif from Murren, both painted in 1914. In one, the brown stone of the mountain forces itself upon us; in the other, it is almost completely shrouded in haze and white snow. Even more expressionistic—dramatically expressive—were the animated brushstrokes that defined the same place in Mountain Stream at Champéry, seen up close in two paintings, both made in 1916. Hodler had camped at the foot of the stream, directly facing the rushing water, holding his own against the force of nature with his forceful painting. He was in his element with the hard dead stone and soft living water.

Hodler tended to work in series, and his figures form a series, each figure a variation on the other, however different their faces and poses. In View to Infinity (1916), one figures follows another, suggesting an infinite number of similar figures, each eurythmic linked together by the same feeling. He also painted some noteworthy series of male figures, conveying a somewhat less tender feeling than the introspective women, seemingly dancing in a eurythmically induced trance. Men are powerful and aggressive for him—manly indeed, and ready for action, as March of German Students into the War of Liberation of 1813 (1908–09) and Unanimity (1911) show. Hodler’s men are realistic—outgoing and socially conscious. His women are spiritual—abstracted into their interior life and insular, however nominally connected in a eurhythmic community. The men are, in effect, Swiss citizen soldiers asserting their independence. The men form a down-to-earth democracy, the women, a transcendental aristocracy. They seem to hover in the air, unsupported by the earth beneath them—it often looks like a floating carpet of flowers—while the men are solidly grounded. They are hard-working and practical, like Hodler’s famously muscular ax-wielding Woodcutter (1910), dressed in everyday clothes. The women, although sometimes moody, have all the leisure time in the world, and dress in fancy gowns, as they do in Hodler’s 1911 portrait of Gertrud Müller and his 1912 portrait of Emma Schmidt-Müller.

Rarely do males and females meet in Hodler’s pictures, but they do in Spring (1901). But they are an adolescent girl and boy, the girl in a blue robe and the boy naked. They are innocent and undeveloped, unlike the women and men in Hodler’s other paintings. The women may be self-absorbed, but their bodies are erotically suggestive, and the fitness of the men suggests their sexual potency and confidence. More crucially, the virginal girl is lost in a trance, as her closed eyes indicate, suggesting that she is more spirit than body, while the naked boy stares at us with a knowing glance. The literature on Hodler does not examine the fact that his men and women lead separate lives, and that their separateness symbolizes the separateness of body and spirit, and suggests that the battle of the sexes, however subliminal it has become, exists in eurythmically harmonious Switzerland.

"Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity" was on view September 20, 2012–January 7, 2013, at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10028. Telephone (212) 628-6200.

-Donald Kuspit

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2013, Volume 30, Number 1