Exhibition Review: Ferdinand Hodler at Neue Galerie

Posted on October 12, 2012

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Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity, The Neue Galerie’s exhibition of late works by the Swiss symbolist (1853-1918), is structured around three distinct phases of Hodler’s mature work: symbolist paintings from the 1900s and early 1910s; a series of drawings and paintings documenting the decline and eventual death of Hodler’s lover Valentine Godé-Darel, from 1913-1915; and the Swiss landscapes and self-portraits that occupied Hodler from the time of Godé-Darel’s sickness until his own death in 1918. The period of Godé-Darel’s sickness is the emotional focal point of the exhibition, and it’s a remarkable one for the contradiction it exposes at the heart of Hodler’s work: despite an ardent adherence to the notion that life’s great themes were best depicted by symbolic allusion rather than naturalistic description, his most powerful works came from the direct documentation of his lived experience.

Hodler regarded The Night (1889-1890), a large canvas in which one of eight sleeping figures is startled awake by the cloaked figure of death, as his first mature painting. By the early 1900s, the earliest period on view at Neue Galerie, Hodler’s work still adhered to the essential formal drive of The Night; the impressively naturalistic handling of the nude in the service of some larger meaning. The exhibition’s first room reveals a painter in thrall to the symbolic power of the female nude. The Splendor of Lines (1908) shows a woman from the back, stepping forward with arms outstretched into a field of flowers. We are told that the model is Godé-Darel, but whether it’s her or another is beside the point. As a demonstration of grace and agility, the painting has little to tell us about its model’s individual characteristics.

Emotion (III). Ferdinand Hodler. Oil on Canvas. 1905.

None of the women depicted in the symbolist paintings feel real, insofar as the particulars that might identify them are ignored in favor of the universal attributes that make them symbols of something else. This is best exemplified in Emotion (III) (1905), and Emotion (VI) (1912), which hang side-by-side in the exhibition’s first room. In spite of the seven years that separate them, the paintings are virtual mirror images of each other. The four women who stride across the canvas in Emotion (III) do so in nearly identical fashion, only reversed, in Emotion (VI). Every twist of muscle is replicated identically. The effect—in spite of Hodler’s incredible specificity of line, form and color—is of vague universality. Subordinate to the ideas they embody (Woman in Ecstasy, Cheerful Woman), Hodler’s figures are lifeless, anonymous.

The emotional punch that accompanies the transition from women-as-symbols to the hauntingly direct and personal images of the sick and dying Valentine Godé-Darel is the hinge around which View To Infinity swings. Confronted with the harsh reality of his lover’s impending death, Hodler apparently spent the better part of two years by her side, documenting her decline in dozens of sketches and paintings. The story told in the titles of these images (Portrait of Valentine Godé-Darel (1911-1912), Valentine Godé-Darel in Her Bed (1914), The Sick Valentine Godé-Darel (1914), The Dying Valentine Godé-Darel (1915) and, finally, Valentine Godé-Darel on Her Deathbed (1915)), is more starkly revealed in the drawings and paintings themselves. The beautifully confident and serene woman in Portrait gives way to the skeletal one in Deathbed, with Hodler’s bold and incisive line marking the mounting effects of her sickness. The transition of the defiant and upright Godé-Darel to the rail-thin figure who appears to fight for air amid a sea of bed sheets is as direct and unflinching a statement on illness and death as any in the history of art.

The Sick Valentine Godé-Darel. Ferdinand Hodler. 1914.

Imagine how Hodler must have felt, twenty years after The Night, when he sat by the bed of his lover and started to document her decline. Having spent the intervening years articulating an artistic principle that aimed to represent life’s central themes by alluding to them symbolically, what did a head-on encounter with life’s biggest theme—its end—elicit in him? The results of this episode, far more personal and affecting than any of Hodler’s symbolist canvases, makes one wonder where his work would have taken him had he adopted direct representation as an end in itself.

The Dents du Midi from Champéry. Ferdinand Hodler. Oil on Canvas. 1916.

The beautiful harmonies of form and color in Hodler’s late landscapes, on view in the exhibition’s final rooms, suggest the raw power that an unapologetically representational Hodler might have wielded. Subject to the symbolic ideology of Parallelism—by which Hodler sought to achieve a unity of structure in the world by dint of symmetrical repetition—these portraits of Lake Geneva and the nearby Alps still manage to display a profoundly moving treatment of the natural world. These images, alongside those of Godé-Darel, only serve to heighten the irony that Hodler’s greatest gifts as a painter may have been undermined by his most deeply-held ideologies.

Hodler’s self-portraits—of which he made more than one hundred over the course of his life—are interesting to contemplate in this light. The exhibition makes an attempt to liken them to the craggy mountain landscapes, giving them the requisite symbolic association, but they seem to occupy altogether different ideological ground. Incredibly lifelike, the portraits have an illustrational quality about them that is heightened by the range of expressions—from comical to fiercely stern—they depict. The current of self-deprecation that runs throughout these works suggests that Hodler himself was unsure of their function. What, he seems to ask, do I symbolize?

It was the recognition of this inherent danger of symbolism that prompted Vincent van Gogh, almost thirty years earlier, to warn the young Emile Bernard against the depiction of Biblical scenes, writing to admonish Bernard for his turn away from naturalism in the service of “bogus, spurious” clichés. Van Gogh detailed his own efforts in two concurrent landscapes, writing Bernard “to remind you that one can express anguish without making direct reference to the actual Gethsemane, and that there is no need to portray figures from the Sermon on the Mount in order to express a comforting and gentle motif.”

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