FERDINAND HODLER View to Infinity

NEUE GALERIE | SEPTEMBER 20, 2012 – JANUARY 7, 2013

In this transcendent exhibition, the largest in America ever dedicated to this major late 19th-, early 20th-century Swiss painter, Hodler’s canvases breathe with a sort of palpable animism saved for only the most gifted artists and shamans. They are confidently painted figurative works, imbued with rich, contrasting colors and subtle symbolism. This energy is even visible in Hodler’s being, to which the viewer may bear witness in a group of photographs that depict Hodler in various states of work and play; always dressed in a three-piece suit and hat, at times painting with his canvas wedged into some hidden or savage part of nature, at other times beating a drum, listening to a lover play the accordion, or scrunching his face, play-seriously, into the camera. An aura of joy emanates from these photographs, and from each canvas joy and impenetrable sorrow.

Hodler, “View to Infinity,” 1916. Oil on canvas, 176 × 352”. Kunstmuseum Basel.

The show is best viewed in an ascending fashion to understand the artist’s chronological development. Start from the second floor, where Hodler’s earlier canvases focus on youth, vitality, and symbolic nature. Then ascend the circular staircase, past the giant reprint of a photograph of Hodler’s face, intense gaze vibrating the passage, to the third floor, where a larger than life reprint of Hodler drumming greets the viewer. This floor is slower, quieter, and filled with work from Hodler’s later period: paintings that expand like the sky and contract like a corpse.

Hodler’s belief in parallelism strongly informs his early paintings. Unity underlies variation in nature; so repetition of similar forms, therefore, reinforce the all-over unity of a painting.  In paintings from Hodler’s “Emotion” series, flowers (a fertility symbol) dot the landscape behind women (another fertility symbol) dressed as modernist Greek goddesses. They promenade from right to left in two-dimensional Egyptian planes, clutching pale blue cloth in various states of dress (civility) and undress (wildness). The use of all-over nature and fertility imagery, paired with the title of the series, “Emotion,” suggests, perhaps didactically, that women, nature, emotions, nakedness, and fertility all belong to one sphere separate from Hodler’s world of suited and bearded masculinity and order. It is a world that he may court, but must eventually surrender.  

The ephemeral, delicate nature of this feminine world is embodied by the color of the dresses. Like the neighboring German Expressionists of the time, Hodler equated red with passion and blue with spirituality.  As documented in the exhibition notes, Hodler said, “Blue is the color that, like the sky, like the sea, speaks to me of all that is not humdrum, all that is transcendent and magnificent.” Instead of painting these women in red, Hodler chooses to represent them as belonging to the realm of the spirit, rather than that of carnal desire. These sighing, blue-clad women appear almost to lift off the canvas, staring uniformly to some far-off, unreachable place, beyond mortal comprehension. The show, in fact, acquires its name from another cluster of blue-clad women staring past the viewer. It is Hodler’s final, and perhaps most famous, work, the larger-than-life “View to Infinity”(1916). Enormous woman, clad in blue, stare straight ahead, past a frail Hodler as he painted them into being; free from carnal love and pain and gazing, perhaps, at the stairway to heaven, appearing behind him. 

Three portraits face these blue women on the opposite wall. The two outside portraits are two parts of a diptych, “Woman in Ecstasy” (1911), showing a woman in a part-red, part-blue dress, fingertips perched lightly atop her breasts, as if to highlight Hodler’s fixation with women as carnal objects. Nestled between these sensual figures is “Cheerful Woman” (1910), a portrait of one of Hodler’s lovers, Valentine Godé-Darel. Arms spreads wide loosely, like a Lucinda Childs dancer, and clad in a simple blue dress, this image of Godé-Darel embodies the ineffable, physical, and above all transient nature of youth.  This depiction is a world away from the works on the third floor, an entire room of which is filled with sketches and studies of bedridden Godé-Darel, who is slowly, painfully, disintegrating under her lover’s watchful eye. The brutally honest paintings created by Godé-Darel’s bedside during the final year of her make no glory story out of the horrors of a slow demise.  Eyes sunken into sockets, cheekbones jutting unevenly under drawn flesh, mouth agape in sedated slumber, these paintings confront an ugly and unavoidable truth that can no longer be hidden. In a 21st-century culture that lives its life in public, they feel so terribly contemporary.

Perhaps the most moving paintings are those in which Godé-Darel finally meets her painted demise. In two paintings, both titled, “Valentine Godé-Darel on Her Deathbed” (January 26, 1915), the subject is stretched out horizontally, almost unrealistically so, her emaciated limbs becoming part of the bed which became her world. The room containing these paintings, dark, small, and lined with purple velvet and soft choral music from an unknown source, connotes a mausoleum. The two deathbed paintings are joined by the deathbed paintings of another of Hodler’s lovers, Augustine Dupin, similarly gaunt and horizontally stretched. Standing in this room, the blue-clad women staring at infinity downstairs take on a prescient quality, as the spirits of these disembodied women lift off the canvases, and away from Hodler forever. Superbly placed between these paintings are sumptuous landscapes of Lake Geneva, filled with horizontal bands of color, painted by Hodler from the view through the window near Godé-Darel’s bedside during the last year of her life. One can imagine Hodler, clad in a three-piece suit, swiveling his chair between the bed and the window, evoking his parallelist heritage to create a view of an expansive blue lake that is as much a meditation on the glory of nature as it is a lamentation on the constricted withdrawal of his nearby soulmate from this life into the next.



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Chloé Rossetti

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