PRINT March 1973

Ferdinand Hodler: Expressionism Versus Symbolism

The University Art Museum, Berkeley, published a 140 page catalogue, contributions by Peter Selz, Eva Wyler, Phyllis Hattis, and Jura Brüschweiler, 140 pages, 118 illustrations, 18 colorplates.

THE FERDINAND HODLER RETROSPECTIVE organized by Eva Wyler and Peter Selz for The University Art Museum at Berkeley provides a unique overview of perhaps the last neglected giant figure of the turn of the century. Still, despite its many virtues, I am of two minds about the Berkeley exhibition, an affective split resulting from a tendentious presentation of the Swiss artist’s career.

In my view there are two ways of dealing with Hodler. Either he is viewed as a major Expressionist who grew out of Van Gogh’s portraiture and Cézanne’s landscapes, or he is seen as a major Symbolist figure whose contribution is informed by currents within the Symbolist movement. The former view—one held at least 50 years, since Fritz Burger brought out his two-volume Cézanne und Hodler, Einfithrung in die Probleme der Gegenwart in 1920—is the one sustained by Peter Selz, the principal essayist in the Hodler catalogue published for this occasion. (The others include Phyllis Hattis, writing on Hodler as a draftsman, and Hodler himself, his extracts having been edited by Jura Brüschweiler, a Swiss scholar and the leading Hodler authority.) Owing to Selz’s explicit Expressionist scholarly viewpoint, Hodler has been too exclusively promoted as a major Expressionist painter. Since Hodler largely remains outside general American awareness—this is his first extensive showing here although the artist died in 1918—Selz’s view will easily find popular acceptance. However, Hodler cannot satisfactorily answer such an interpretation, the importance of his later paintings notwithstanding. And without their being insignificant, it is possible that they are not as Selz would have us see them either. By contrast, Selz’s view underplays that aspect of Hodler’s oeuvre about which one can create a more intriguing modernist argument—Hodler’s Symbolist painting. For this, a few backward glances are necessary.

Ferdinand Hodler was born to the working class in Bern, Switzerland, in 1853. The class affiliation is important to note as it helps in understanding Hodler’s evolution and embitterment: large portions of his career were rendered arduous on no other basis than provincial class snobbery. Conversely, his Olympian position during his later successful years was enlarged by this selfsame proletarian undertone. Despite a once major prestige, he is now only beginning to break with a primarily local esteem. In the period preceding the First World War, Hodler was—with few peers save Rodin and Monet—viewed as a force of nature, the way Victor Hugo had been regarded in the 19th century.

The central theme of Hodler’s work is death—as it was for so many others, Symbolist and/or Expressionist, the union as well not being uncommon, e.g., Edvard Munch. Hodler underwent driving deprivation at first hand and the experience as well of a family deathwatch as he observed brothers and sisters die one after another in metered sequence. The death of Hodler’s father occasioned his mother’s remarriage, and of the 12 children that made up the combined families, only six survived into maturity, the others having died of tuberculosis. The deaths, too, of the major female figures who shared Hodler’s life were closely observed and resulted in the series of his finest late Expressionist portraits, those of Augustine Dupin on Her Deathbed, 1909 (Fig. 1). Unlike many other explorations of the theme of death in the 19th century, Hodler’s was based on his own intimately and agonizingly lived and relived experience. The first programmatic Symbolist canvas, The Night, 1890 (Fig. 2) attempts to come to grips with a theoretical consciousness in conflict with larger Realist precepts discernible in the painting of The Night’s individual figures. This Realist approach particularly distinguishes Hodler’s early works from the pious Swiss academism and the local landscape tradition in which he was first trained. Throughout his life Hodler venerated his teacher, the Swiss landscapist Barthelemy Menn, a student of Ingres, who intensified Hodler’s attachment to drawing and exacting contour as an end in itself, even above such alternative Helvetian models as Hans Holbein, whom Hodler, being Swiss himself, must have studied,especially for his early patriotically themed, public decorations.

The Night, composed of sleeping male and female figures in amorous positions, is dominated by the central terrified awakened figure—a self-portrait upon whose body a succubus has been perched. The connection between this work and the several versions of The Nightmare by the 18-century Swiss artist, Henry Fuseli, has often been drawn; and Selz’s recognition that the figure “deals with the nightmare of sex and death” continues to correctly interpret the figure in this tradition. Hodler had inscribed on the frame of the work the following admonition: “more than one who tranquilly retired at night did not awaken the following morning.” The erotic aspects of the work are self-evident, and further supported by the identification of the female figures as, among others, Augustine Dupin. The diagonally placed sleeping couples investigate figure compositions of lovers more fully realized in many paintings on the theme of procreative love, which, like the figures of Rodin, are endowed with Michelangelesque musculatures. In many respects, the analogous artists to Hodler are not Cézanne or Van Gogh, as Selz’s argument (and installation) suggests. Rather they are Puvis de Chavannes and Rodin if we examine the themes and figure types of the Symbolist can, vases.

The parochial indignation of the mayor of Geneva on viewing The Night in the 1891 municipal exhibition led to its expulsion and obliged Hodler to exhibit the work in the Salon du Champ-de-Mars, the official salon of the most conservative art society in France where, ironically, it was received enthusiastically, particularly by the critic Arsene Alexandre. The success of this work in the capital of art led to the burgeoning of Hodler’s international fame. His Parisian reputation was assured when, in the following year, he sent Tired of Living, 1892 (Fig. 3) to the official salon and The Disillusioned, 1892 (Fig. 4) to the first Salon de la RosetCroix installed in Durand-Ruel’s gallery. The symbolic content and focus on Italianate drawing typical of Hodler’s work in the 1890s would make the artist an obvious candidate for inclusion in the Rosicrucian exhibition, although there is, as yet, no proof of Hodler’s solidarity with the Rosicrucian movement despite such inferences by Hodler’s early major biographer and documentor, Carl Albert Loosli.Jura Brüschweiler agrees with me that Hodler’s association with the then newly revived mystical confraternity signified only that the artist was seizing an opportunity to confirm his toehold in Paris.

The two works shown in Paris in 1892 more clearly convey the dualistic structure of Hodler’s Symbolist imagery, The Disillusioned being the black versionand Tired of Living the white of the friezelike “parallel” ordonnances of Hodler’s public style. (The smaller Expressionist portraits and landscapes more convincingly fall within the purlieu of a private style.)

Polarized coordinates are typical of Hodler. The Night, which opens the symbolic phase so brilliantly, cannot really be said to be completed until the painting of the final version of The Day, 1905 (Fig. 5), a work coincidental with Fauvism (and in which certain Divisionist passages of color are perhaps Fauve-like). The Night, with its many homo-erotic clues (an important, neglected aspect of Hodler’s entire Symbolic phase, although there is no question concerning the artist’s personal heterosexual orientation), is balanced by the focus on female sexuality implicit in The Day. The Night’s concern with death is countered by The Day’s focus on life. The symmetry of The Day, balanced parenthetical curves surrounding a central vertical figure, is vaginally implicit. The center of the composition is marked by drapery covered female genitalia. Similarly, the figure of death slouches upon the male genitalia in the center of The Night. The Day can be understood to concern birth as The Night symbolized death. These theatricalized compositions illustrate the duality of birth and death—in short the unity of existence.

Numerous canvases deal with, if not the clinical details of birth, related subjects—The Chosen, 1893 (Fig. 6) being among the more esoteric of them. In this composition six angels hover about a child kneeling before a sapling rendered in a revivalizing taste for pre-Raphaelite and northern Renaissance art—equally noticeable in the work of Hodler’s Swiss colleague, Carlos Schwabe, the designer of the poster of the first Salon de la Rose+Croix (Fig. 7).

In the exhibition and the catalogue Selz’s view is delineated through a thematic isolation of three distinct areas, portraits, landscapes, and Symbolist compositions, the latter underplayed in favor of the former.’ Evidently, while the landscape and portraits become predominant after the opening of the 20th century, they are certainly not rare in the earlier Symbolic phase of Hodler’s painting: Selz himself observes that it is in an early quasi-I mpressionist landscape, the 1885 Beach Forest, that the artist’s celebrated theory of parallelism is first enunciated. Parallelism is a simple principle of abstraction through which Hodler hoped to introduce “a feeling of unity . . . an element of order.” The tendency toward theoretical thinking reflected in Hodler’s extensive notes on art reveals an immense appreciation for the theoretical or abstract position similar to the views of the Nabis. Perhaps the most startling note of all comes from the Painter’s Decalogue (c. 1874), a ten-point set of rules that reminds one of Maurice Denis’ famous dictum of 1890: “A painting is above all else a flat surface covered in colors arranged in a certain order.” Almost 15 years earlier Hodler had written in the Decalogue that “the painter must practice seeing nature as a flat surface.”

The desire to infuse parallel rhythms into natural movement led Hodler to compose large friezelike compositions. These are based on polarized philosophical themes, ambiguous personnages who in slight variation echo and respond to one another’s attitudes. The relationship of such postures to the history of dance seems inevitable. Recent research now postulates Hodler’s connection to the dance movements of his friend, Emile Jacques Dalcroze, the founder of Eurhythmics, a system of choreography allied to the mystical thinking of the Anthroposophists, Rudolph Steiner particularly. Among Hodler’s major Symbolist canvases is the work called Eurythmy, 1895 (Fig. 8), a parallel figure composition of five old men garbed in white robes, an image of “five men representing humanity, marching toward death,” as Hodler described it, a work that reflects Rodin’s group, Les Bourgeois de Calais. Considering the present state of research on Hodler, one may still assume that the influence runs Hodler-Dalcroze as much as Dalcroze-Hodler. (By way of indicating the pivotal nature of Hodler’s work, one is tempted to point out the symbolic figure compositions of Hodler as models for the Matisse versions of The Dance.)

A personal interest in the Symbolist movement may have made me less responsive to the implications of Hodler’s later, more intimate work. However, it is not for arcane or esoteric value that I am intrigued by the earlier Symbolist painting, but because the problems inherent in this work led to major European art in a way that the purportedly “great painting” of Hodler’s Expressionist portraits and landscapes did not. In examining the archaizing postures of Hodler’s figures, e.g., The Day, one finds the models for the work of several Swiss artists whose early efforts were deeply influenced by Hodler, most particularly Louis Moilliet and his more famous comrade, Paul Klee. In their work we discover the Hodler manner transposed into miniature graphics. It was Moilliet (along with Auguste Macke) who was Klee’s travelling companion on the trip to Tunis in 1913, the journey that opened Klee to the possibilities of color. When one compares Moilliet’s Virgin in a Tree, 1903 (Fig. 9) and Paul Klee’s version of the subject of 1903 (Fig. 10), they reveal the obvious and most profound imprint of Hodler’s Symbolist style. The greatness of Hodler in the modern period is, I believe, not so much what he achieved in the 20th century—despite its self-evident virtues—but more in terms of what his Swiss successors were obliged to overcome of Hodler in their own evolution. In this sense, that is, as something once part of an evolution and at length rejected, we see the vitality and importance of Hodler’s achievement for modern art. Thus Hodler’s importance is not a function in conventionalized notions of Expressionist painterly values, however remarkable these paintings may be in themselves. To be sure, Hodler was a regional artist. However, his enrichment of a local tradition became the means whereby that tradition was able to internationalize itself in a way potentially significant to the larger history of modern art.

The exhibition will travel to the Guggenheim Museum, February 2–April 8, and to the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, May 1–June 22.



1. The Berkeley installation at least stressed thematic isolation—a production lucidly divided into three parts. By contrast, the New York installation about which one anticipated a chronological hanging that corresponded to the Guggenheim spiral ramp was disappointing. Instead of chronology, this installation combined options, freely intermingling theme and chronology on the basis of an interesting, but private taste. Hodler’s oeuvre—in spite of the fresh light which revealed an occasional unsuspected coloristic range—was reduced thereby to a directionlessness which rendered arbitrary the already difficult contradictory nature of his accomplishment.