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Wolf and Hodler's Alps: two differing perspectives

The Jungfrau with Silberhorn, as seen from Mürren by Ferdinand Hodler 1991, courtesy of the Im Obersteg Collection in Thun

(swissinfo.ch)

Millions of visitors flock to the Swiss Alps each year. They ski, hike and climb or simply take in the fresh mountain air. But the natural beauty of the alpine environment has also been a source of inspiration for countless artists over the centuries.

Ferdinand Hodler and Caspar Wolf, two of Switzerland's most famous artists, captured many alpine scenes on canvas and even though they painted almost a century apart their work shows a great deal of overlap, both in subject matter and style.

This summer two exhibitions pay tribute to their work with Wolf's pictures on display in his hometown of Muri in canton Aargau and Hodler's on show at the Im Obersteg gallery in Oberhofen on Lake Thun, outside Bern.

The Wolf exhibition in Muri's 19th century monastery is aptly named, "Caspar Wolf, a panorama of the Swiss Alps". It shows a handful of the 200 pictures Wolf painted between 1774 and 1778, when he hiked into the Swiss Alps and became the first artist to paint the scenery from close range.

Visitors to the exhibition are treated to mountainous landscapes which all display a certain photographic quality in their fine detail. The detail however was not just as a result of the artist's keen eye.

Wolf was commissioned to paint the landscapes by the Bern-based printer, Abraham Wagner, who wanted to publish a book of pictures of the Swiss Alps. Wagner wanted to move away from the romanticised paintings, which were popular at the time and show the Swiss Alps as they really were, warts and all.

"Wagner asked a lot of people to do the commission." Julia Vogel, a volunteer at the exhibition explains. "He had a look at their pictures and found that they were not exactly the right person, but as soon as he saw something done by Wolf he recognised the talent and thought 'this is the man for me'".

Paintings help glaciologists

As a result of their fine detail and accurate depiction of areas in the Bernese Oberland, Wolf's pictures have a far-reaching appeal ranging from art lovers and hikers to scientists and geologists.

Hans-Peter Holzhauser, a leading glaciologist who has tracked glacial change in Grindelwald, for example, has used Wolf's paintings to trace glacial retreat during the 18th century.

One picture in particular, "The Rhone glacier as seen from its base", painted in 1778, has surprised many visitors as the area looks so different today.

"So many of the visitors stop in amazement and say good heavens I was there last week or last month or last summer and it's gone," Vogel says. "The foot of the glacier, the huge paw looking thing has disappeared completely."

Mountain symbolism in Oberhofen

In contrast, Ferdinand Hodler's work is overtly modern and symbolist. He abandoned fine detail in his paintings in favour of colour and angular symmetry.

However, in his earlier work, before he finely tuned his artistic skills in Geneva, his alpine pictures bear a close resemblance to those of Wolf who was painting more than a hundred years before him.

The exhibition of his work in the former wine-growing estate in Oberhofen is called "Ferdinand Hodler and the Jungfrau: the mountain world of the Bernese Oberland" and like Wolf, it's being staged on Hodler's home turf.

The building is the perfect setting to display his landscapes as the pyramid shaped Niesen mountain, which is featured in a number of the paintings, can be seen out of the windows across Lake Thun cutting out a perfect triangle against the clear blue sky.

19th century postcards

The pictures chart Hodler's development from a mere painter of tourist pictures - the 19th century's version of postcards - to an acclaimed artist in his own right.

The first painting you come across shows fishermen in small boats on Lake Thun with the snow-capped Jungfrau mountain in the background and a little church nestled in between.

"It's a figurative, romantic, realistic painting," says Henrietta Mentha, the curator of the exhibition. "It shows us every detail of the landscape. It was really for the tourists to take home and show people where they had been and how nice the landscape was."

Hodler left Thun in 1872 and went to art school in Geneva where he was influenced by a new breed of modern artists, such as the French painter Paul Cézanne.

He returned to Thun almost every summer and his mountain pictures became more and more abstract. The painting which encapsulates the essence of his later style is the "The Jungfrau with Silberhorn as seen from Mürren" which he painted in 1911.

The colourful view of the peak of the Jungfrau mountain grabs every visitors' attention. The splashes of lilac, olive green and orange pick out the different rock formations with a contrasting citrus yellow dusting the snow. It's all framed against a cobalt blue sky which gives the picture its distinctive symmetry.

"He only shows us the top of the mountain, " Mentha explains. "It was at this time that he was interested in high mountain situations. He went up to Mürren so he could paint the mountain close-up. He was interested in the geology of the mountain."

Despite the many differences between Hodler and Wolf, the two artists remain united by the love of their subject matter, a passion which lives on in their paintings and part explains their enduring popularity.

The Hodler exhibition runs until October 14 with Muri's Wolf montage closing it's doors a month before on September 16.

by Sally Mules

(From August 26 to September 4, swissinfo will be following a group of British climbers, including Les Swindin, and Swiss guides as they re-enact a 19th century expedition in the Alps. The expedition will highlight the effect mountaineering and tourism have had on the Alps, and illustrate how the alpine environment has changed because of man's presence and climate change.)


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