Friday, March 14, 2008

Cold, Hard Facts

One of the greatest Swiss painters ever and one of the shining lights of Symbolism, Ferdinand Hodler was born on this date in 1853. With works such as Day II (above, from 1904-1906), Hodler spiritualized the idea of the nude for the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These nudes follow the European cult of the body that was taking hold around that time and would evolve later into a component of the master race philosophy of Nazism. Hodler himself believed in humanist ideals, condemning the German military for atrocities committed during World War I. I’ve always thought of Hodler’s Swiss mix of symbolism and classicism as the painterly equivalent of the films of Ingmar Bergman, matching the lyricism of Bergman at his most hopeful in such playful nudes.

Hodler loved the landscape of his native Switzerland. Works such as Der Niesen (above, from 1910) show the pristine, cold beauty of that place. There’s such a range in Hodler’s work, moving from such figure-focused paintings of expressive nudes to completely uninhabited scenes of water, mountains, and snowy fields. The rock face here almost becomes a human face, seen in profile. The clouds nearly vibrate with agitation, expressive in a way that El Greco and Van Gogh have more famously. The slate blue sky speaks of the cold of the mountains but also speaks of the cold of the universe looking down upon humanity. In these landscapes, Hodler matches Bergman in the pessimism of his worst cinematic moments, questioning the existence of a higher being existing in what often seems an icy and unforgiving universe.

When Hodler’s mistress was diagnosed with cancer in 1914, he spent a great deal by her side, often painting her in her misery. Hodler’s The Dying Valentine Gode-Darel (above, from 1915) belongs to a series of paintings the artist made documenting her struggle and his emotional response to it. Hodler’s devotion to his mistress while remaining married was certainly problematic, but his empathy can’t be questioned. Like Munch, Hodler took a fascination with the slow march towards death and depicted it with unflinching realism. Munch’s The Sick Child generates more pathos through the youth of the victim, but Hodler achieves something equally stirring in the passing of an adult, even someone as potentially unappealing as a mistress. The American way of death so divorces us from the reality of the process that looking upon such scenes, commonplace just a century ago in many developed countries and commonplace today in the third world and war-torn lands, is like looking into a dream—or a nightmare. I’ve always wondered if it was a particular trait of people from that part of the world—Munch’s Norway, Bergman’s Sweden, or Hodler’s Switzerland—to look more clearly upon death as a cold, hard fact of their lives and transform it into art.

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