Ferdinand Hodler’s Symbolist figure paintings and mountain landscapes are icons of modernism. What is little known today, however: the path to fame of the Swiss painter (1853–1918) takes him to Berlin, among other places. This exhibition tracesthe story of Hodler’s success on the Spree.
The online audio guide provides detailed information on selected major works from the different chapters of the exhibition. The 21 audio clips are available in German and English.
Room 1: Highly Promising.
Ferdinand Hodler has his first appearance in Berlin in 1898 at the “Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung” (Great Berlin Art Exhibition). The Bern-born painter is already well known in Switzerland by that time.
Hodler first apprentices with the vedute painter Ferdinand Sommer (1822–1901) in Thun in the Bernese Oberland, who specializes in mountain landscapes for tourists based on prints. In 1871–72, the young Hodler moves on to Geneva, where he will live until his death. Searching for new models, he studies Romantic painting of the Alps by the Geneva school in the Musée Rath. Barthélemy Menn (1815–1893), a progressive landscape painter and professor at the art school in Geneva, familiarizes Hodler not only with portraiture but also with the modern French plein-air painting of the Barbizon school. He also arranges for his first contacts with patrons. From 1874 onward Hodler participates regularly in Swiss competitions for painting and drawing and over the years wins important prizes.
The Swiss press and art criticism controversially discuss Hodler’s works. The artist early on recognizes the usefulness of this media presence, whether positive or negative, and encourages it to the best of his abilities.
Room 2: Outstanding.
In the Milieu of the Berlin Secession
Hodler soon sets his sights on the European art metropolises and avant-garde associations in order to build his career internationally. The Berlin Secession is founded in 1889–99 and is a strong countermovement to academic exhibition activity. Already with its second show the association opens up to international art. Increasingly, the city on the Spree asserts itself alongside Paris and Vienna as an ambitious center for modern art. In 1900 Hodler becomes a member of the Berlin Secession; in 1911 he is made an honorary member. Over the years he regularly presents his works with the Secessionists, including Walter Leistikow (1865–1908) and Lovis Corinth (1858–1925).
Berlin galleries are also interested in Hodler. The Kunsthandlung Fritz Gurlitt is already showing his works in 1900. Paul Cassirer (1871–1926), who is also managing director of the Secession, dedicates important exhibitions at his art salon to the Swiss artist from 1907 onward. Soon Hodler is, though not uncontroversial, taken for granted as part of Berlin modernism. One critic sums it up in 1911: “The tireless Secession presented Hodler’s paintings at every opportunity; he is known on all sides as the best monumental painter of the present […] because Hodler belongs to Germany like Gottfried Keller.”
Room 3: Monumental.
Berlin Disvovers His Oeuvre
Ferdinand Hodler’s portraits are seen in Berlin relatively late. His early naturalistic portraits are first shown at the Kunstsalon Paul Cassirer in 1907. Reviews of the show emphasize that these works in particular, just like the landscapes, can persuade even his most vehement opponents of “this man’s extraordinary talent.” For the painter from Geneva, portraits represent an artistic challenge and a good source of income. He repeatedly portrays his closest family circle, his friends, and his acquaintances. Hodler uses his numerous self-portraits to explore different moods and means of expression.
Hodler develops an unmistakable pictorial language for his empathic depictions of people. To achieve this he works closely with those to be portrayed. First he studies their characteristic poses and qualities. The painter employs technical aids when realizing portraits. For example, he places a frame with a grid of threads between himself and the model in order to render proportions correctly. Hodler’s penchant for frontal views can be traced back to his interest in symmetries, which also determine his figure paintings and landscapes.
Room 4: Monumental.
Berlin Disvovers His Oeuvre
With the monumental figure painting “Die Nacht” (Night) (1889–90) at the “Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung” (Great Berlin Art Exhibition) in 1898 Ferdinand Hodler attracts attention in the German capital for the first time. The painting had caused a scandal in Geneva in 1891. From that time forward, “Die Nacht” belongs to a group of splendid yet representative works that the artist repeatedly sends to important exhibitions in Europe. Hodler’s works are already categorized as Symbolism during his lifetime; its enigmatic, dreamy, atmospheric paintings celebrate the soul. The Berlin public, with its sober Prussian mentality, cannot make much of this new movement at first and has a difficult time with Hodler’s figure paintings. Many artists and critics open to modernism react in an unreservedly positive way. One art and architecture journal in Berlin writes in 1905: “Hodler’s works fall so completely outside the circle of the other works that one can speak here of a new, complete artistic personality in the monumental sense.”
Around 1910–11 Expressionism catches on in Berlin. The representatives of the new generation make emotional experience the focus of their art. Hodler becomes a modern classic and is considered a trailblazer for this new current.
Ferdinand Hodler’s innovative depiction of the Alps still influences our view of Switzerland today. The painter dispenses with vertical elements in the painting, such as trees or cliffs, that would delimit the pictorial field on the sides or lead into it. The staffage figures popular in Alpine painting do not interest him either. For him, every landscape already possesses its own character and expresses emotions. Hodler experiments instead with locations, viewing angles, and excerpts. As in his figure paintings, in his landscapes too he works with rhythms and symmetries, which he calls “parallelism,” to heighten the emotional effect. Layouts in horizontal stripes emphasize that the landscape stretches beyond the edges of the picture. Ornamental compositions, such as the oval in which he places depictions of Lake Geneva, conform to his idea of a great order in nature.
At his first appearances in the Berlin Secession Hodler initially wagers above all on his Symbolist figure paintings. From 1904 onward, however, his landscapes are increasingly seen at the Secession and in the city’s galleries. These works in particularly enjoy great popularity among collectors. In the growing metropolis of Berlin they satisfy a longing for expanse, air, and light.
The exhibition is a cooperation between the Berlinische Galerie and the Kunstmuseum Bern. It is under the patronage of His Excellency Dr. Paul R. Seger, Ambassador of Switzerland to the Federal Republic of Germany. It takes place in the context of Berlin Art Week and is funded by the Capital Cultural Fund 2021, the Kulturstiftung der Länder and the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung.
© Berlinische Galerie, Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Fotografie und Architektur, 2021.
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