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Ferdinand Hodler: Landscapes (Anglais)
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One reason why Hodler is interesting as a landscape artist is because he has explored the subject matter of mountains as no other painter before or after him has done (apart, perhaps, from his contemporary Giovanni Segantini). He painted about 250 landscapes, the majority of which featured mountains in some way. This book shows 70 of the most important paintings, the earliest of which dates from 1871. Most are examples of more mature work, starting around 1900.
The book is conceived in such a way that it invites us to retrace the emergence of Hodler's compositional principles in his landscape art. After an introductory section with some his early works, the book surveys how - in his treatment of trees and rocks - Hodler came to grapple with the tension between, on the one hand, his desire to creatively reduce natural scenes to their very essence and, on the other hand, nature's irreducible tectonic complexity. This tension becomes even more outspoken in his approach to the monumental subject of mountains. Hodler liked simple compositions based on obvious symmetries and geometric templates (pyramidal, striped, apsidial and ovaloid) and occasionally developed more complex forms as superimpositions of these basic schemes.
The straightforward compositional approach is backed up on his choice of vantage points which allowed him to focus on individual mountain peaks. And so it is no surprise to see the notion of "mountain portrait" evoked by one of the authors: "(Hodler) created images that no longer showed individual mountain peaks as part of a panorama but in close up view and in almost total reduction, transforming them into individual portraits." Furthermore, Hodler accentuated his motifs by eliminating irrelevant details, emphasising their linear structure. Hence the interesting tension between reduction and tectonic complexity. Hodler seemed to have said that "the viewer must be able to perceive the entire image at a glance": a thesis which deviates conspicuously from the principles held by Segantini who invited the viewer's gaze to drift across his panoramic tableaux.
In his essay "The Sketched Landscape", Paul Müller links Hodler's approach to the practice of alpine photography in those early days. Both the pioneers of mountain photography and Hodler chose very similar angles and sections. Müller refers to Danielle Nathanson who has photographed numerous motifs in the Bernese Oberland from the painter's likely vantage point: "She concludes that Holder not only adhered to the natural model, but that he also framed it the way it presents itself to the human field of vision - and to a camera lens with a regular focal length (approx. 50mm)."
However, the deeper logic between this correspondence is hardly explained. Apparently, the simple fact that both painters and photographers made use of the technological innovations of the day and chose their vantage points near the cable car stations suffices. That argumentation is weak and I personally think it is wrong to see Hodler's work as a painterly extension of the photographic logic en vogue those days. In fact, I think they may in some ways be very much at odds.
For a start, one should not forget that by the time Hodler developed his mature style, end of the 19th century, photography was around already for a long time. Photography was a technological innovation that, long before the days of globalisation, diffused astonishingly rapidly across the globe. By 1900, photography had been well entrenched for around 50 years. Just as television is a taken for granted fixture in our current media environment, so photography must have long lost its avant-garde lustre already by the time Holder got to work in earnest. Indeed, early examples of Alpine photography date already from the 1850s, not from the 1880s as is suggested in this book. In the late 19th century, Alpine photography had even been thoroughly commercialised: studio portraits were made in heroic poses against the background of a mountain decor and "Kaufbilder" (postal cards) with mountain scenes were all over the place.
Rather than to extend the photographic logic, Hodler may have been interested in "saving" the mountains from disappearing in this inflation of technically reproduced images. So, he paints iconic portraits of mountains, reducing them to their very essence (an essence which photography, infatuated by its ability to reveal tectonic complexity, often obscured) and investing them with a metaphorical rhetoric (cloud arabesques, mystic light) that is at odds with the documentary ethos of contemporaneous photography. Seen from this angle, Hodler's project consisted essentially in salvaging the notion of "the sublime" that had been drifting around the (visual) experience of the mountain world since Edmund Burke wrote his celebrated essay. This line of reasoning, by the way, seems to be more in line with the argument developed in this book by Oskar Bätschmann in his essay "Ferdinand Hodler - Organized Nature".
The book closes with a survey of Hodler's paintings of lakes, many of them dating of the later years in life, followed by a well documented catalogue of the exhibited works.
All in all this is an excellent volume. It shows a coherent, representative selection of Hodler's landscape works, complemented by short, thoughtful essays. The book is nicely produced with quality printing on a fine stock of paper.