1. Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918)
Oil on Canvas - 40 x 37.5 cm
Genève, Musée d’art et d’histoire
Photo : Genève, Musée d’art et d’histoire/
An artist should be a forerunner, thus justifying an exhibition of his works. A forerunner of what ? Of modernity of course, the nec plus ultra being Abstraction. Ferdinand Hodler corresponds to this rule and today, we can enjoy looking at his landscapes and see them as precursors to Mondrian and Rothko.
After the Neue Gallery in New York , the Fondation Beyeler has assembled eighty of his paintings, produced mostly between 1913 and 1918, that is the very late years, the period of his celebrity and also of color. The choice of a limited time span and a thematic itinerary helps in highlighting the unity of the paintings and underscores the importance of series in the artist’s oeuvre. Visitors to the Musée d’Orsay exhibition in 2008 (see article, in French), where the chronological range was much larger, will therefore avoid the impression of déjà vu.
The catalogue reproduces the works without entries, sometimes on a double page, unfortunately cutting up the landscapes.
The first room provides some biographical milestones and reproduces vignettes of the works which made this Swiss artist famous : from Night in 1890, a Symbolist canvas which provoked an uproar, to Retreat at Marignan, a fresco finished in 1900 that also elicited a violent controversy. Then in 1907, for the University of Iena, Hodler produced Departure of the Students at Iena for the War of Liberation of 1813 and designed a project for bank notes, the famous Woodcutter. However when he signed the "Protestation de Génève" in 1914 against the bombing of the cathedral in Reims, his career in Germany came to a standstill, though he had participated successfully in the Secession exhibitions in Vienna and Berlin. This event plus his fondness for Swiss landscapes partly explain why his international celebrity seemed to fade away following his death.
2. Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918)
Valentine on her Deathbed, 1915
Oil on Canvas - 65 x 81 cm
Basel, Kunstmuseum, dépôt Rudolf-Staechelin
Photo : Kunstmuseum Basel / Martin Bühler
After this introduction, the actual visit begins with a gallery of self-portraits, an exercice which held an important place in Hodler’s production, particulary at the end of his life (ill. 1). In 1916 for example, he painted eight and drew eleven, often appearing face-on, against a neutral background, close up, with no narrative details. The artist focuses on his traits, painted realistically while at the same time achieving an interior vision. This incessant examining of his own likeness is undoubtedly linked to his obsession with sickness, old age and death which haunted him all his life. However, though Hodler was obviously assailed by doubts and anxiety, he also had a pronounced taste for a certain dramatic sense and was photographed many times.
This fascination with death can also be found in his representations of the suffering of his lover, Valentine Godé-Darel, who passed away in 1915. The theme is explored extensively in a section which brings together an ensemble of drawings and paintings marking each stage of her drawn-out illness until her death, depicted in her reclining body, shown as frail and linear (ill. 2), comparable to some of his landscapes, notably three views on paper of Lake Geneva seen from Lausanne.
3. Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918)
Mountain Stream near Champéry, 1916
Oil on Canvas - 83 x 98 cm
Coire, Bündner Kunstmuseum
Photo : SIK-ISEA, Zurich
Landscapes definitely hold center stage in the exhibition and the Swiss Alps are magnificently enhanced in the luminous building designed by Renzo Piano. The Stockhorn range, the Grammont, the Jungfrau -Hodler attained dyzzing heights. In 1916, he painted the stream in Champéry several times as it ran through the boulders, with a viewpoint so close up that the eye needs a few seconds to understand the image (ill. 3). They provide a sharp contrast with the series of Dents du Midi seen from Champéry, depicted the same year, but this time choosing large blue color blocks which seem almost smooth (ill. 4). Elsewhere, the stylized treatment of the clouds in several paintings add a dream-like dimension to the landscape, transforming the view into a vision. The magnified mountain rises in the distance like an apparition, separated from the viewer by the plains or a body of water in linear compositions, devoid of narration and human presence. Nature is divine, painting pantheistic and the landscape interior.
4. Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918)
The Dents du Midi from Champéry, 1916
Oil on Canvas - 73.5 x 110 cm
Nestlé Art Collection
Photo : Nestlé Art Collection
Hodler’s principle of "parallelism" based on symmetry and the repetition of motifs in order to obtain a unified image is particularly obvious in lake views, Thun or Geneva, in which the sky and the rocks are reflected. Kandinsky  saw melodious compositions, an assembly of simple lines at the service of a general movement. Oskar Bätschmann  underscored Hodler’s ability to reapply schemes in new ways.
This principle of parallelism can also be found in the very notion of series, since the variations, whether of a landscape or a likeness, are part of a whole, a coherent unity.
However, this practice of repetition at the service of an aesthetic purpose, should be qualified because, though Hodler multiplied different views of the Alps, it was also in response to demand, thus revealing an astute business sense as well.
5. Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918)
Lake Geneva and the Mont Blanc at Dawn, 1918
Oil on Canvas - 60 x 126 cm
Photo : Hulya Kolabas
At the end of his life, the artist, then sick, painted Lake Geneva at different times of the day dominated by the Mont Blanc which he could see from his window, in a famous series of over twenty canvases (ill. 5). Hanging in the same room, these paintings in which the sky and the water meet and reflect give the impression that the line of the lake continues from one painting to the next. This section illustrates perfectly how, after Valentine’s death, his treatment of landscapes became much freer, with the painter abandoning parallelism. After placing so much emphasis on line and contours, Hodler made more room for color and composed his paintings by toying with coloured surfaces, admitting that he had for a long time "neglected color in favor of form, contour, composition". Finally, color "not only accompanies form, but the form lives, ripples through the color" . In the last years of his life, blue dominates, a bright and luminous blue which imposes its presence in all of the sections of the exhibition. This was the period corresponding to the "Great War" but also that of the painter’s artistic success.
6. Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918)
View to Infinity, 1913/14–1916
Oil on Canvas - 446 x 895 cm
Photo : Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler
The visit ends with View to Infinity, a monumental painting in which the human figure reappears and which was supposed to decorate the Kunsthaus in Zürich but was finally displayed at the Offentliche Kunstsammlung in Basel because it was too big (ill. 6). The title - an immersion "into" infinity and not a direction "towards" it - evokes that of other Symbolist works, View to Eternity, Communion with Infinity, while the placement of the sculptural figures in a circle with no end recalls rather Emotion (1901-1902) and The Holy Hour (1907). Women, death and eternity in Hodler are fathomless, as well as inseparable, and Abstraction would never make them this tangible.
Curators : Ulf Küster and Jill Lloyd.
Collective work, Ferdinand Hodler, 212 pages, CHF 62.50. ISBN 9783906053066 (English).
Visitor information : Fondation Beyeler, Baselstrasse 101, 4125 Riehen/Basel. Tel : +41 (0)61 645 97 00. Open every day from 10 am to 6 pm, on Wednesdays from 10 am to 8 pm. Admission : 25 CHF (reduced : 6 CHF).