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Hodler: an artist to match his mountains

THE Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) gained considerable success in his own country during his lifetime and was known to some extent on the continent of Europe. But to a great degree the world remains unaware of his forceful, dynamic landscapes and figure paintings. Hodler was hardworking, financially shrewd, studious, a good organizer; he needed these attributes, having been bereft of his many siblings and losing his parents when he was still a boy. His artistic talents being early evident, he was apprenticed at 14 to a painter in Thun, a man who was also a decorator; here the youth gained a sense of color and of the importance of decoration which afterward marked his work.

The Bernese Oberland, where they were, was a center for tourism, and, as photography was not yet in general use, there was a ready market for paintings of the region, which these people would take home. The apprentice recognized this, and made a great many small watercolors of the local sights, thus gaining experience and self-confidence.

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After a few years in this post, Hodler went to Geneva, where he attended the 'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, continuing to paint and studying a wide range of subjects, including geometry and geology. In 1878 he went to Madrid, coming back home the next year, always painting, always able to get commissions and to sell his work, which included murals and panoramas, landscape and figure paintings. He went to Paris and to Vienna, to Germany, and in these places was given his due as a strong delineator of fresh and arresting views.

MEANWHILE he considered the Barbizon School and the Impressionists, but was never drawn into these circles - the French symbolist movement was the one that interested him. These artists were advocates of the idea that art was primarily decoration, and saw in it a moral vein that must elevate mankind. Extremely analytical and self-conscious, Hodler made up a set of rules clarifying his views, containing such axioms as: ``Form is superior to color because it is less deceptive,'' and stating, ``The painter must practice seeing nature as a flat surface.'' He even came to feel it was wrong to include human figures in a landscape, as they would detract from nature, and painted out those he had in some of his earlier works. His figure painting was anatomically nearly perfect, but most of his people are types, though a self-portrait is highly individual in a rugged, furrowed, strong-willed manner.

Nature he envisioned almost as a sort of architecture, geometrical and structural, an affair of angles and parallels, of rhythm, symmetry, and reflection, and he thought that mankind partook of this order in its own way, being given to repetitious and parallel movements, which he admired, as though this made for a controlled existence. It is easy to see in his canvases of cliffs and boulders, lakes and snowy heights, willows and streams, these elements of reflection and parallelism. Some of his pictures can even be hung upside down.

Certainly there is nothing here of the lyrical, romantic, or spontaneous - and it is perhaps a little repelling. His theories and didactic views are odd, and seem coldblooded, too regimented for many other artists or critics. For instance (as in the picture shown here) occasionally his clouds are extraordinarily wooden and heavy.

Yet, when one enters a room hung with his landscapes the effect is startling and rewarding - the pictures are beautiful, with wonderful colors. On the whole they are vivid, and evidently done with a love of what the artist saw and what he tried to see beyond physical sight. Apparently he painted in spite of himself. His brush must have taken over (one hesitates to say his heart, but perhaps that was true too). The most markedly symbolist paintings, however, stand apart from this enthusiasm, being too contrived and patterned.

In this bold picture the massive, rocky peak is streaked with deep shadow, and is shown as a dark violet-gray with lighter tones in the hollows. The sky is a light blue with stylized clouds slightly suggestive of the Chinese cloud motif, a pattern is strangely repeated in the snow patches on the mountainside, while around the silhouette of the Monch is an area of pale, agitated mauve adding enormously to the effect.

It is an arresting and very memorable view.

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