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Celebrating Hodler’s harmonious vision

On May 19, 1918, Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler passed away in his lakeside apartment in Geneva. A major new exhibition celebrates the work and aesthetic ideals of one of Switzerland’s greatest artists from his later “Parallelism” period. 

To mark the centenary of the Swiss artist’s death, the Museum of Art and History in Geneva has joined forces with Bern’s Kunstmuseum to show 100 of his works from 1890 onwards. The Hodler/Parallelism’ exhibitionExternal link, which runs from April 20 to August 19 in Geneva, will later move to Bern from September 14 until January 13, 2019. 

“Our challenge with this exhibition was to find a new angle,” Jean-Yves Marin, the Geneva museum director, told reporters on Thursday. Since the beginning of 2000s, Hodler has been the focus of major exhibitions, including those in Switzerland in 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2011, and in Paris in 2007. 

“When you ask people in Geneva about Hodler some say he was a landscape artist, others describe him as a portrait painter, while others will say he’s a painter of historic scenes. But he was all that and much more,” said Marin. 

Poor upbringing

Hodler was born in a poor district of the Swiss capital, Bern, in 1853. At the age of 14, having lost both his parents, he began work in an artists’ studio in Thun which produced pictures for tourists. When he was 18 he moved to Geneva and attended the Academy of Art, where he received a classical training and spent much of his life. 

By the end of his life he had produced over 2,200 paintings, thousands of sketches, and was considered one of Switzerland’s leading artists. 

His early works were mostly realistic portraits and landscapes, drawing inspiration from the Bernese Oberland, and lakes Thun and Geneva. He developed a unique approach to landscape painting through his knowledge of nature, mineralogy and geology, which he studied at university, and by making thousands of sketches, which he then developed in his studio using his memory and imagination.  

Towards the end of the 19th century, his work evolved to combine influences such as symbolism and art nouveau styles. He explored nature and themes such as love, death, faith and hope. 

Symmetry, order and unity

Hodler called his simple new style “parallelism”, with compositions that sought to reflect the symmetry, order, rhythms and unity he felt were inherent in nature. 

From 1900, his work developed further taking on an expressionist style with strong colours and geometrical figures. Towards the end of his life he returned to his favourite subjects: mountain and lake landscapes, and women. 

Hodler was in close touch with the artistic upheavals of his time. He also won numerous awards for his paintings, including a gold medal at the 1900 World Fair in Paris. For many years his historical paintings and reputation as a patriotic painter obscured the leading role he played in the transition of European art from the 19th century to modernism. 

“The difficulty with this exhibition is that everyone knows everything about Hodler, so we had to renew our view of the artist,” said exhibition curator Laurence Madeline. 

“This is the first time that I’ve created an exhibition that doesn’t tell a story or simply go from A to Z. This is another type of exhibition which approaches Hodler’s paintings and the spirit of his work and goes in the direction of what he was trying to do – to go straight to the most essential aspects and to open our eyes to nature as he saw it.”

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR