Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Ferdinand Hodler

Lake Thun Symetric Reflection, 1905, Ferdinand Hodler                        
--more than just painting technique.                         
Marshland by Lake of Thun,
Ferdinand Hodler
For some reason, landscape painters are seldom very good at painting much of anything else. I've mentioned this fact again and again in discussing Dutch Golden Age artists (where specialization was taken to ridiculous extremes). But that was neither the beginning nor the end of this phenomena. One artist I mentioned recently even paid an artist friend of his to paint figures into his urban landscapes (pretty hard to do urban landscapes without people). If I had to account for this state of affairs, which abides, even today, I'd have to accentuate the major difference between painting landscapes and other content areas. Simply put, landscapes are more about handling paint than anything else. They're about skilled brushwork and a sharp eye for color. Yes some drawing skill helps a little but in general, landscapes seldom demand much more than some practice drawing trees, some rudimentary perspective, and a general understanding of good composition. Otherwise, it's all about what you do with the paint.
The Good Samaritan, 1886, Ferdinand Hodler. An earlier version is below, right.
Self-portrait with Roses, 1914,
Ferdinand Hodler
Contrast that with still-lifes, which are quite drawing intensive; figures, which demand extreme powers of observation (above); and portraits, which are basically figure painting with an even more rigorous exactitude involving a particular figure's particular likeness and (hopefully) personality. I notice this dichotomy probably more than most since, in highlighting the life and times of various artists, the first thing I look for is a self-portrait (left). And if that artist paints mostly landscapes, then doing so is usually a lost cause. Moreover, any artist who can handle other content areas with any degree of skill, likely finds little enjoyment is simply painting landscapes. Thus, while most painters can handle landscapes, few landscape painters can handle much else.
Merciful Samaritan, 1875, Ferdinand Hodler
Thus it's refreshing to find an outstanding landscape artist that, not only could paint excellent landscapes but painted nudes and portraits (especially of himself) with a surprising flair and depth of understanding rivaling anything any other artist (regardless of specialty) was doing at the time. His name was Ferdinand Hodler. He was a Swiss painter, so naturally, coming from an area of exquisite Alpine beauty, he knew his way round mountain tops, lakes, babbling brooks and flowing streams lined with vividly gnarled trees and picturesque peasants inside and outside their rustic abodes.
Today, artists would recoil at the thought of painting portraits of the dead and dying.
A hundred years ago, artists such as Hodler found death a constant presence
 in their lives and their work. This may be the artist's mother.
Deadwood, after 1910, Ferdinand Hodler
However, such landscapes are merely an appetizer served up before the main course when perusing the work of this turn of the 20th-century painter. Ferdinand Hodler was born in 1853 into a peasant family, his father eking out a meager existence as a carpenter. By the time he was eight, his father and two younger brothers had died of tuberculosis. His mother remarried (a decorative painter) but she too succumbed to the disease by the time young Ferdinand was twelve. He had five brothers and sisters. Every last one of them also died of the disease. As the sole survivor in his family, it's little wonder that the figure of death hovers over a great many of Hodler's paintings (above and below) or that he saw landscapes as far more than just empty backgrounds (left) in a struggle simply to breathe (tuberculosis being a lung disease).
La Noche, 1891, Ferdinand Hodler
--a landscape of figures harassed by the "ghost of death."
Perhaps the most striking work Hodler ever painted he titled La Noche (the night). At first glance it would appear to verge on some kind of orgy aftermath. Far from it.  Here's what Hodler himself had to say about the work:
"It is not one night, but a combination of night impressions. The ghost of death is there not to suggest that many men are surprised by death in the middle of the night, ...but it is there as a most intense phenomenon of the night. The coloring is symbolic: these sleeping beings are draped in black; the lighting is similar to an evening effect after sunset, showing the approach of night, but the effect is completed by those black drapes which partially cover the figures everywhere; they are the low, muffled notes of an austere harmony, which is merely a transcription of the effects of night. But the most striking feather is the ghost of death and the way – both harmonious and sinister – in which this ghost is represented, hinting at the unknown, the invisible."
A Troubled Soul, 1889, Ferdinand Hodler
Jungfrau vue de Mürre , 1914, Ferdinand Hodler
Ferdinand Hodler died in 1918 at the age of sixty-five. Perhaps what seems most amazing about his work is the progression of painting styles demonstrated over the course of his career. His earliest work could easily be classed as Romantic. Much of his work is pure Realism, but there's also Impressionism, Post-impressionism, symbolism, and Art Nouveau. And, while his life's work is heavily populated with undeniably "Swiss" landscapes, there is such a broad versatility to his content as to do him a grave injustice as an artist in labeling him a "landscape painter." He was very much a painter of life...and death.

Las de la vie (Tired of Life),1892, Ferdinand Hodler

No comments:

Post a Comment