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Hodler climbs to new heights

Les Dents-du-Midi has an estimated price of SFr5-7 million ($4-6 million)

(Keystone)

Ferdinand Hodler, one of Switzerland's best-known and most widely admired artists, continues his inexorable rise among collectors of 20th century art.

Over the past few years there has been a surge of interest for the Bernese artist, whose figurative landscapes have repeatedly smashed Swiss auction records. Last week Sotheby's unveiled his latest masterpiece to go under the hammer on November 27.

"Les Dents-du-Midi" is a view of the spectacular, jagged chain of mountains that Hodler painted in Champéry, canton Valais in 1916. And it's a mere snip – with an estimated price of SFr5-7 million ($4.2-5.9 million).

"Hodler is the most important painter in 20th-century Swiss art," explained Urs Lanter, the auction house's Swiss art expert. "Hodler's prices were always high – even during his lifetime - but now there is a bigger market with new buyers so prices are going up."

Hodler painted over 700 landscapes during his long career, drawing inspiration from the Bernese Oberland and Lake 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.

According to Mathias Oberli, a Hodler expert from the Swiss Institute for Art Research (SIAR), Hodler is a prominent figure in particular for his symbolism and art nouveau style.

Higher and higher

So why has this particular painting, which remained in the hands of the same Swiss family for around 90 years, suddenly surfaced? No doubt the anonymous owner has been watching the rising market for Hodler with great interest.

In June 2007 a Hodler oil painting of Lake Geneva, "Lac Léman vu de Saint-Prex", sold for SFr10.9 million at an auction in Zurich, a record price for the artist. The painting had been expected to fetch SFr4-6 million.

The previous Hodler record was SFr5.7 million, set by "Thunersee mit Stockhornkette" also in Zurich in December 2006.

According to the SIAR, "Les Dents-du-Midi" belongs to a series of four paintings of the mountain range but is said to be the most accomplished due to its "greater precision".

"The blue of the mountains radiates an incredible power and the rising mist creates an extraordinary atmosphere," said Lanter.

"This particular painting is a synthesis of his alpine work. It is one of his last paintings of the mountains. Afterwards, he retired to Geneva where he died one-and-a-half years later," explained Oberli.

Booming market

The Swiss art market is currently thriving, driven by Switzerland's booming economy and is cashing in on growing international trade. Switzerland is the fourth largest art market in the world behind the United States, Britain and France.

Art enthusiasts and investors – mostly Swiss, but also from Europe and the US - have been increasingly turning their attention to and opening their wallets for 20th-century Swiss art.

"The international art market has strengthened incredibly since the beginning of 2000 and of course Swiss art has benefited from this excellent health," explained Stephanie Schleining, from Sotheby's in Geneva.

"But the interest for Swiss art is quite obvious. More and more we see that people are considering the "Swiss option" when building a diversified collection."

They are particularly interested in works by Hodler and others "in the high price sector" such as Albert Anker, Félix Vallotton, Alberto and Giovanni Giacometti ,and Cuno Amiet, and are "rediscovering" this period, explained Schleining.

"The early 20th-century period (1900-1940) is the most productive and most in demand. Swiss artists travelled widely and participated in all the major avant-garde movements in France, Italy and Germany before returning to Switzerland to develop their own artistic language," she said.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Champéry

Key facts

Jackson Pollock's "No.5, 1948" was sold for SFr175 million in November 2006, becoming the most expensive artwork in the world.
Before that the record had been held by "Adele Bloch-Bauer" by Gustav Klimt, which fetched SFr135 million.
In Swiss art, the most expensive work sold was the sculpture "L'homme qui chavire" by Alberto Giacometti, bought in New York in May 2007 for $18.5 million (SFr21.8 million).
Hodler's oil painting of Lake Geneva "Lac Léman vu de Saint-Prex" was sold for SFr10.9 million ($8.9 million) at an auction in Zurich in June 2007, a record price for the artist.
The previous record for a Hodler painting was SFr5.7 million, set by "Thunersee mit Stockhornkette" also in Zurich in December 2006.
"Les Dents-du-Midi" will go on sale at Sotheby's in Zurich on November 27. Beforehand, the painting can be viewed at the Beau-Rivage Hotel in Geneva (November 10-12) and at Sotheby's Zurich (November 23-26).
A Hodler exhibition is being held in mid-November at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and next year in Bern and Budapest.

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Ferdinand Hodler

Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) was born in a poor district of the Swiss capital, Bern. At the age of 14, having lost both parents, he started his career in an artists' studio in Thun which produced pictures for tourists.

He then attended the Academy of Art in Geneva, a city where he spent a large part of his life.

During the years which followed, he won numerous awards for his paintings, including a gold medal at the 1900 World Exposition in Paris.

Hodler was expelled from all artists' federations in Germany after signing a petition in 1914 against the German bombing of Chartres cathedral by the German forces. His international reputation was slow to develop as a result.

He was best known for his canvases on historical or mythical themes as well as for his depictions of the countryside.

Hodler's favourite subjects included the mountains of the Bernese Oberland, Lake Thun and Lake Geneva.

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