Near the end of the Neue Galerie’s exceptionally touching exhibition of late works by the Swiss Symbolist painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), you come to a small, chapel-like room with walls draped in purple velvet and ecclesiastical music playing quietly in the background. Facing you on entering is a long, horizontal painting from 1915 of an emaciated woman on her deathbed, a composition inspired by Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1521). To the right hang three small landscapes, all views of Lake Geneva, distant mountains and skies painted in vivid, Impressionistic colors. To the left is a self-portrait from 15 years earlier, the image of a robust, genial man with a direct, wide-eyed gaze and a generous beard.
By the time you have reached this point in “Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity,” you have been prepared well to grasp the heartbreaking significance of this funereal arrangement. The dead woman is Valentine Godé-Darel, who became Hodler’s principal model as well as his lover in 1908, gave birth to their child in 1913 and died of cancer in 1915. The landscapes, made in 1914, were views from Godé-Darel’s sickroom. The self-portrait, painted in 1900, is one of some 115 such works that he made, mostly in his later years.
One of Switzerland’s most revered artists, Hodler was the son of a carpenter and a woman of peasant stock. His parents and all five of his siblings had died of tuberculosis by the time he reached adulthood. Showing artistic promise, he worked his way up the academic ladder and became internationally famous for history paintings and sometimes scandalous mythic scenes like “The Night” (1889-90), in which a naked man in a landscape among a group of sleeping figures awakens in terror to find a figure shrouded in black kneeling over him.
“The Night” and other wilder visions by Hodler are not in the show, which was organized by Jill Lloyd, an independent scholar, and Ulf Küster, a curator at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, where it will appear next winter. Focusing on the personal turn Hodler’s work took in his last decade, it presents a low-key, soul-searching last act.
The exhibition begins with a taste of the artist’s public enterprise, which had him fulfilling commissions for large-scale, multifigure allegories. In his last years Hodler worked on a mural called “A View to Infinity,” which pictures a monumental frieze of neo-Classical women in blue dresses in statuesque poses. Painted studies of women in dancing poses, nude or in flowing dresses variously relate to that project.
The lithesome Godé-Darel, whose most distinctive feature was her large, beaked nose, is the star here. Seen from behind, nude with outstretched arms in “Splendor of Lines” (1908), she is an embodiment of grace in motion.
While there is a fusty, archaic quality in his allegorical works, Hodler’s portraits are still resonantly alive. Painted with a brusquely sensuous touch, “Portrait of Gertrud Müller” (1911) pictures a lovely young woman in a tightfitting pink satin gown sitting sidesaddle on a cushioned bench with a blank yellow wall behind. There is nothing untoward about this portrayal, yet it is subtly erotic.
Whatever was going on between Hodler and Müller, or Dübi-Müller (that was her full surname), they certainly had an intimate relationship. An avid photographer, she made more than 100 pictures of Hodler at work and at play, indoors and out, during his last seven years. A gallery displaying 45 of her small black-and-white prints reveals a man with few inhibitions and a remarkable talent for enjoying life. It seems he felt loved by both the camera and the photographer.
What Dübi-Müller’s photographs do not show is the slow death of Godé-Darel, which happened during the same time. Her dying gave rise to a body of work thought to be unique in the history of art. During the two years of her illness Hodler documented her decline in paintings and drawings of extraordinary immediacy. It is harrowing to contemplate the 29 works from the series gathered in one dimly lighted gallery. The underlying emotions are not obvious.
Was Hodler a coldly objectifying observer, or was this his way of dealing with grief? Maybe it was something to do while keeping her company; maybe they talked like old friends as he drew and painted her. The uncertainty makes the series that much more mysteriously affecting to behold.
You might imagine that after this, Hodler would have succumbed to a pessimistic outlook. But the opposite evidently happened, as he turned to the consolations of landscape painting. A gallery of intensely colorful landscapes punctuated by wonderfully lively self-portraits, all dating from the teens, attests to a disposition of unyielding optimism.
The exhibition’s final gallery is given over to landscapes from Hodler’s last three years. When he was painting these, the Cubist revolution was old news; Mondrian had pushed landscape into pure abstraction. And yet, from today’s perspective, Hodler’s do not seem old-fashioned. They call to mind the future as much as the past, as his simplifications of clouds, sky, sea and land into blocky passages of radiant color anticipate Mark Rothko’s abstraction of the cosmos into color and light three decades later.
In his late works Hodler envisioned a spiritual time to come, when the material world would dissolve into the pure light of eternity.
“Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity,” runs through Jan. 7 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street; (212) 628-6200, neuegalerie.org.
Though you may not have heard of Ferdinand Hodler, you almost certainly have heard of his fans, among them Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. The Neue Galerie is presenting the largest ever exhibition of Hodler's works, giving a glimpse of the multifaceted Swiss artist's forays into portraiture and landscape.
Hodler's paintings, modern through and through, show a devotion to his hometown, loved ones and personal narrative without clinging to a quaint or provincial style. Born the same year as Vincent Van Gogh, the Swiss-born painter preferred to journey aesthetically while physically staying planted.
Hodler's paintings balanced a close observation of nature with a philosophical awareness of a natural order beyond the eye. This resulted in jarringly bright colors and shapes stripped of frivolous detail, adding an air of looming eternity to a familiar locale. In Hodler's words, he yearned for "a magnified, simplified nature, freed from all irrelevant details" in his work.
One of Hodler's most shocking subjects was his lover Valentine Godé-Darel, whom he painted on her death bed. Like with his landscapes, Hodler piles on the style not to obscure frankness but to coax it further. As his beloved creeps toward death, Hodler paints sadness, love and decay in the unnatural color fields, replacing wrinkles on her flesh.
Other women are rendered with a more impersonal style that recalls Symbolist dreams or ancient myths, with idealized forms that look as if they belong on a classical ceramic vase. In both his landscape and portraits, Hodler harnesses a physical and temporal feeling of infinity through simplicity and modernist fearlessness.
The extensive exhibition will cover Hodler's most influential pieces along with 45 photographs of the artist, many of which reportedly feature the artist "in bowler hat." (That alone is enough to get us to the show.)
"Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity" is on view at the Neue Galerie in New York from September 20, 2012 until January 7, 2013.
A bittersweet air permeates Neue Galerie’s intelligent exhibition, “Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity.”
The exhibition includes 65 paintings and 20 drawings, mostly late works, as well as 45 intimate photographs of Hodler (1853-1918). They show the Swiss Symbolist doing everything from painting pictures and pruning vines to lying on his deathbed.
A somber section of drawings and paintings chronicles his mistress’s illness and death from cancer. Some of these pictures, along with his strong, wide-eyed self-portraits, are among the most affecting works on view.
Its most ebullient works are landscapes. Though northern -- even desolate and brittle -- their mountains and skies are often saturated with color. At times, his spare sunsets presage the abstractions of Mark Rothko.
But Hodler, also prefiguring Lucian Freud, was primarily a figure painter, but without much feeling for flesh.
His skeletal paintings of the female nude resemble tinted drawings. Far from erotic, his images of the women with roughened skins -- furrowed like soil -- are well-drawn, earnest and hard-won.
“Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity” runs through Jan. 7 at the Neue Galerie, 1084 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-628-6200; http://www.neuegalerie.org.
Some wonderful news just came to our attention, and we wanted to pass it right along to you: this Thursday and Friday, Nov. 8 and 9, the Upper East Side’s Neue Galerie will offer free admission and Glühwein—a German and Austrian version of mulled wine—from 2 to 6 p.m.
The museum said in a statement that it is hoping to “spread goodwill in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.” Mission accomplished, thank you!
The Neue currently has a great show of work by Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918) on view through Jan. 7. My guess is that it’s even better after a piping-hot glass of refreshing Glühwein.
Ferdinand Hodler is one of those artists who have been lazily marginalised by history because they don’t slot neatly into a national movement or an influential school. Born in Switzerland in 1853, he dipped a toe in the international currents of his time, but he mostly followed his own internal muse through byways of naturalism and symbolism. The Neue Galerie’s haunting survey of his last decade, Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity, reveals an artist of idiosyncratic gifts, prodigious struggles and perpetual independence.
Like his fellow maverick, Vincent van Gogh (who was born the same year), he tinged his direct observations with spiritual meaning and channelled his mysticism through an uncompromising scrutiny of nature. In the people and places he faithfully transcribed, naturalism and abstraction collide with occasionally discomfiting results. Like van Gogh, Hodler considered becoming a pastor, but he, too, ultimately found his religious calling in the church of art. Van Gogh loaded every brushstroke with what the critic Meyer Schapiro called “pantheistic rapture”. Hodler likewise infused the mundane world with a quivering desire for reunion and release.
Considering the cumulative tragedies he faced, it’s not surprising that Hodler sought solace in paint. Born into poverty, he had lost both parents and five siblings to tuberculosis by the time he reached adulthood. The same disease felled a beloved mistress and confined his only son to a sanatorium. A second lover, Valentine Godé-Darel, died slowly of cancer, and his devastating record of her illness forms the nucleus of the Neue Galerie show. Hodler veered from one stylistic approach to another over the course of his serpentine career, but in the years between 1908 and his death in 1918 he finally settled on a unique brand of emotionally saturated empiricism. In landscapes and portraits, his fusion of fact and symbol reached an apotheosis.
He already had a wife and a mistress when he met Godé-Darel in 1908, but the porcelain-painter/opera singer seized his artistic imagination. Soon, she appeared as a lissome nude springing across a meadow in “Splendour of Lines” and, a bit later, in two versions of “Cheerful Woman”, arms raised and body torqueing in an awkward jig. We know she was the model for these inert, frieze-like works, even though Hodler rounded off her aquiline nose.
The next time we see her she stares back at us with fixed intensity, her perfectly oval head resting on a slim, graceful neck. She has made the leap from universal symbol of womanhood to unique object of the artist’s love, and he now celebrates the quirks of her appearance – thick, dark brows arched above dusky eyes, hooked proboscis, and wide cheekbones sloping down to a tapered mouth.
This is the last time she appears untainted by illness. From 1914 until she died the following year, each picture charts her step-by-step decline. The swan-like neck grows scrawny and the bones more prominent, the eyes sink deeper into the skull, the mouth twists in pain. In the end she is an emaciated corpse, laid out ceremonially like Holbein’s dead Christ. The Neue Galerie has hung 29 works from this series in a single, wrenching room, but that’s still only a small fraction of the 120 drawings and 18 paintings that Hodler made at her bedside.
The series’ honesty is raw and shocking, and not just because of the subject matter. As close as he was to Godé-Darel, he transcribed her deterioration with a bystander’s curiosity and a clinical eye. Did he set up the work as a screen between himself and his emotions? Was he using his mistress to examine his own mortality, or tapping the magic of his skill to keep her with him always, or perhaps exploiting his own feelings to create a late, great, body of work? These questions are complicated by the fact that all the time he was holding vigil and sketching her wasting body, the gluttonously adulterous artist was courting yet another woman.
In the dark days of Godé-Darel’s illness, Hodler also began the series of wide-eyed self-portraits that fill an entire hall at the Neue Galerie. In all of them, he confronts the viewer head-on, radiating irrepressible vitality. These intense works link Hodler not only with Van Gogh, but also with Edvard Munch, who tapped into the same psychological vein when he glared out at the viewer from lithographs bordered by human bones. Munch was haunted by the deaths of his mother and sister from the same disease that decimated Hodler’s family, and both artists found a way to transmute despair into the play of colour and line.
Towards the end of his life, Hodler evolved a way of projecting feeling on to form, without ever losing the realness of the things he portrayed. This is clearest in the late, transcendent landscapes that flesh out the exhibition. He obsessively rendered the same Alpine views around his home in Geneva, each time translating mountains and mirrored lakes into metaphors for divine immanence. A distant peak hovers over the clouds, inaccessible to mere terrestrials. From an unfixed vantage point, we must make a visual leap into the sublime.
Hodler’s sunsets over Lake Geneva blur into glowing bands of luminosity. They reach backward to the sublimely misted “Monk by the Sea”, by the German romantic Caspar David Friedrich. And they also look ahead to Mark Rothko’s fields of glowing colour. For Hodler, horizontality meant death, early loss, and what he called “life’s ever present despair”. His sunsets bleed upwards, guiding the eye from earthbound clay to the majestic sky.
Until January 7, www.neuegalerie.org
You may not know his name, but without this Swiss-born Symbolist, we might not have had Klimt or Schiele.
Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity. Neue Galerie; Through January 7; 1048 Fifth Ave., at 86th St.; 212-628-6200
Over the course of his lifetime, Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler moved among a variety of subjects and approaches, from audacious works of symbolism, to sweeping landscapes, to a vigorous body of portraiture. This expansive oeuvre is currently on view at New York City’s Neue Gallery in “View to Infinity,” showcasing the diversity and unique perspectives running through Hodler’s work. The show is presented in conjunction with the Fondation Beyeler, Basel, where it will show from January 27 to May 26, 2013
Spanning 65 paintings, 20 drawings and a selection of photographs, “View to Infinity” is the largest ever exhibition of works by Hodler in the United States, including a selection of his Symbolist works, sprawling mountain landscapes, and most notably, a series of portraits of his lover Valentine Godé-Darel, who died of cancer in 1915. Over the last two years of her life, Hodler created a vast number of portraits documenting her decline and death, creating a series of works almost unparalleled in the world of fine arts.
Powerful and evocative, Hodler’s paintings of Godé-Darel show a tender, even-handed view of her illness, doggedly preserving his subject as she moves closer to her death. In the 29 canvases from this series of paintings, Hodler explores a complex range of emotions throughout his model’s decline.
Alongside Hodler’s paintings is a selection of 45 photographs taken by Hodler’s friend and sometime model, photographer Gertrud Dübi-Müller. Showcasing the artist at home and at work in his studio, Dübi-Müller’s photographs bring Hodler’s personality and warmth into full view, an artist seemingly as comfortable in front of the camera as he was behind a canvas.
Spanning over 20 years of work, “View to Infinity” is a striking introduction to Hodler’s work, and offers a unique perspective on the nature of loss and persona in art.
The show is on view until January 7th.