A Symbolist Vision

Ferdinand Hodler

9 September 2008 - 9 October 2008

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Ferdinand Hodler was born in 1853 in Berne and settled in Geneva in 1872, where he lived for the rest of his life. His works, such as Alpine landscapes of mountains and lakes, portraits and historical pictures made on commission, established him as one of the key figures of his country's art, who found some loyal supporters early on in his career as a painter. To this day the predominant part of his extensive oeuvre is preserved in prominent museums and important private collections in Switzerland. In the early part of his career Hodler followed the realism of his teacher in Geneva, Barthélemy Menn, but his landscapes and genre scenes soon revealed his striving to spiritualise an ideal or an object instead of using a "pleasant" manner of depiction. His friends in Geneva, among them the literati associated with the symbolists of Paris, contributed to the strengthening of this tendency in his art and to the actual evolution of his large figurative, monumental compositions.

Ferdinand Hodler, Day I., 1899/1900, Kunstmuseum Bern, Staat Bern
Ferdinand Hodler, Day I., 1899/1900, Kunstmuseum Bern, Staat Bern

Hodler tried to support his painting, imbued with pantheism, with theory. Being enchanted with geometry and the newly emerged natural sciences, he relied on the principle of parallelism, derived from Nature, which he applied in his composition with increasing consistency, by placing images side by side using mirror images and symmetry.

Hodler's landscapes always met with great success; however, his monumental, symbolic canvases manifesting his individual style defined by his own choice of themes, strict lines, forms and composition as well as arbitrarily applied colours, won acclaim only when his painting entitled "Night" was exhibited first in Paris in 1891 and shortly after that in Munich, Venice, Berlin and Vienna. From the 1904 exhibition of the Vienna Secession – which earned Hodler not only artistic but also financial recognition – he was considered as being one of the leading figures of the European Secession. From this time he received regular invitations to reputed exhibitions as well as many awards.

He worked in seclusion in Geneva from 1914 until his death, mainly on his "Gaze into Infinity", "Blooming/, an (unfinished) monumental figural composition, and his"planetary landscapes". His last paintings depicting Lake Geneva and the Mont-Blanc Range at sunrise and in twilight are strongly expressive of his vision of "Nature's grand and joyous harmony".

The current exhibition, directed by Katharina Schmidt and Matthias Frehner, was realised in co-operation with the Kunstmuseum, Vienna and the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, with kind support rendered by the Schweizerisches Institut für Kunstwissenschaft (research team for the Hodler oeuvre catalogue). The exhibition includes about 130 paintings (many of which have been restored for this occasion), which are complemented by about forty drawings from the most prominent museums and private collections in Switzerland as well as some canvases from German museums. A selection of the highest standard has been assembled by the curators in order to provide an overview of Hodler's oeuvre which for the very first time places emphasis on the symbolist dimension of his art, culminating in masterpieces such as "Night", "Day", "Emotion", "Truth", "Love", "The Sacred Hour", and "Gaze into Infinity". Until now many of these works had not left the museums they had been preserved in for over fifty years. The exhibition devotes a special section to works with a central, symbolic theme of love and death, which Hodler represented in an individual way in his paintings and drawings depicting his dying love Valentine Godé-Darel in the successive stages of illness, agony and death.

The various genres are demonstrative of Hodler's characteristic rhythm while the process-centred aspect of his creative method is illustrated by examples of the various stages of some of his themes.

Ferdinand Hodler, Night, 1889/1890, Kunstmuseum Bern, Staat Bern
Ferdinand Hodler, Night, 1889/1890, Kunstmuseum Bern, Staat Bern

All the above facilitate a better understanding of the path travelled by this pre-eminent artist, who was greatly influenced by the developments of the last quarter of the 19th century and those of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and whose unmistakable style and significance have been placed in a new light thanks to the recently changed approach to symbolism and modern art, as well as to the revival of interest in the portrayal of man.

Amply illustrated catalogues (about 380 pages) in German, English and Hungarian will be published by Hatja/Cantz Verlag to accompany the exhibition, containing essays and commentaries written by acclaimed art historians with updates for readers on the most recent research findings on the theme.

Katharina Schmidt

Chief sponsors of the exhibition

A Symbolist Vision
Major sponsor of the exhibition

A Symbolist Vision
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A Symbolist Vision