Ferdinand Hodler and the paysage planétaire

As I promised in Tuesday’s post, I have found the reference to ‘paysage planétaire,’ and this makes for the perfect opportunity to give you a more extended introduction to the artwork of Ferdinand Hodler, if you aren’t familiar with him.

Ferdinand Hodler, Landschaft bei Château d'Oex, circa 1905. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ferdinand Hodler, Landschaft bei Château d’Oex, circa 1905. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I first discovered Hodler through an excellent exhibit of his late work at the Neue Galerie in New York City, in the fall of 2012. The catalog for this exhibition is excellent (Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012).  It is the source for most of the material I’m presenting here.

Hodler was born in Bern, Switzerland in 1853. In 1871 he moved to Geneva, which would be his base of operations until his death in 1918.

From early in his career, Hodler’s work focused on Symbolism. He had attended Josef Wertheimer’s lectures on Symbolism in art at the Université de Genève around 1882.  At the end of 1890 he completed his stunning work of symbolism, Die Nacht, meant to represent death.

Ferdinand Hodler, Die Nacht, 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ferdinand Hodler, Die Nacht, 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Die Nacht also exhibited his theory of parallelism, the idea that repetition of formal elements creates the unity of the complete work. Ulf Küster (in the catalog cited above) states that Hodler’s “… compositional method reflected his theory of parallelism, which to the end of his life he repeated like a prayer wheel in both oral and written statements …” (p. 14).

Various symbolic works formed the bulk of his oeuvre for many years, but he also continued throughout his life an early established habit of creating self-portraits, such as this one, from 1900.

Ferdinand Hodler, Selbstbildnis, 1900. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ferdinand Hodler, Selbstbildnis, 1900. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1913-14 he chronicled the illness, decline and death of his lover, Valentine Godé-Darel, in a series of paintings and sketches executed in unflinching detail.  These works, which also exhibit his exalted idea of parallelism, almost appear as landscapes.

Ferdinand Hodler, Valentine Godé-Darel im Krankenbett, 1914. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ferdinand Hodler, Valentine Godé-Darel im Krankenbett, 1914. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hodler had been doing landscapes of his native Switzerland for many years.  Late in his life, he explicitly stated his commitment to the form and to the idea of the paysage planétaire.  An extended quote from Oskar Bätschmann (also from the Catalog, pp. 24-25) perhaps says it best:

“Johannes Widmer, a young admirer of Hodler, wrote of a walk with the painter on a pleasant summer evening in 1917, from the painter’s studio to Lake Geneva. In front of the broad bay, with the mountains in view, and of the opinion he had ten or fifteen years left of work, after a long silence Hodler began to speak of his future projects.  … ‘I will also paint different landscapes than I have thus far, or indeed the same ones but differently. Do you see how everything over them breaks down into lines and planes? Isn’t it as if you were standing on the edge of the earth and engaging freely with the universe? From now on, that is what I will paint!’ … Hodler declared he no longer wished to accept any commissions and only wanted to paint landscapes, which he called ‘paysages planétaires.'”

Ferdinand Hodler, Der Grammont in der Morgensonne, 1917. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ferdinand Hodler, Der Grammont in der Morgensonne, 1917. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, Hodler passed away in 1918 and so had very little time to carry out his project.  Even so, what he has left us points toward the future.  Ulf Küster sees his work as an anticipation of Mondrian as well as abstract expressionism.  While Hodler clearly evinces a symbolist position right to the end, I also see him as an early expressionist, sharing much stylistically with his Austrian and German contemporaries, such as Klimt and Schiele.

And so ends today’s foray into history. Now, back to work!