The Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918) adhered to a philosophy he termed “parallelism”: the belief that repetition and pattern intensify experience, serving as a source of revelation; separate objects become unified as they mirror each other, and this unity is the highest end of art. His conviction was both aesthetic and methodological, and “Ferdinand Hodler: Drawings—Selections from the Musée Jenisch Vevey,” a one-gallery show at the Morgan Library & Museum, reveals much of the painter’s method. Hodler often produced hundreds of preparatory sketches for a single composition; the fraction of those sketches included in the exhibition suggest adroit skill combined with painstaking labor.
Visitors are welcomed by the show’s centerpiece: two tall oil sketches, fragments of a larger piece reunited for the first time since Hodler cut them apart. These are preparations for Hodler’s The Day (1904–06), a painting featuring five women stretching their arms to welcome the dawn. While painting an early version of The Day, Hodler slashed apart the canvas to sell the figures individually; the Morgan presents two of these women on separate, unfinished canvases, both sold in 1899. The two fragments on display are normally housed in Vevey (Switzerland) and Detroit. Hodler articulates the women’s bodies in pink, yellow, orange, and lilac, soft sunrise shades that contradict the figures’ harsh, wiry looks. On the Detroit canvas, green patches of paint cover up the severed calf, foot, and elbow of the woman from the Vevey canvas.
The Detroit Day fragment is one of the few objects in the exhibition not from the Musée Jenisch Vevey, which became home to one of the world’s largest Hodler collections after a 2013 gift from the collector Rudolf Schindler. Introduced to Hodler’s work when the artist’s widow invited him for a studio visit, Schindler was so intent on understanding Hodler’s method that he marked up many of the pieces he purchased.
Like his collector, Hodler didn’t appear to be preoccupied with the sanctity of his sketches, which are often flecked with oil paint or chopped into irregular shapes. Many of the drawings in the show are positioned near the larger compositions for which they were made. Next to the Day fragments, visitors can effectively follow the painting’s compositional process. In its early stages, The Day was populated by men. The artist gradually arrives at the final arrangement in subsequent studies, laying into the paper with frenetic marks in ink and graphite. These sketches reveal a meticulous artist who saw his work as both a high calling and an intense toil. Hodler’s parallelist philosophy may have been the natural result of a personality that demanded obsessive repetition.
The artist’s parallelism also had a political dimension. In several murals, Hodler employs his highly choreographed compositions to depict and inspire political unity. Various studies for Unanimity (1913), a mural in the Hannover, Germany, town hall portraying the city’s official adoption of the Lutheran Church, show men with their arms raised in oath. Penciled grids delineate identical proportions for each figure. The final mural shows a symmetrical, frieze-like thicket of the oath-takers. Wall labels state that each figure may have been drawn from the same model positioned at various angles. The choice would have been not only pragmatic but also consistent with Hodler’s ideal of unity.
In studies for Departure of the German Students for the War of Liberation of 1813 (1907–08), the outlines of young men march to the battlefield in lockstep, sometimes filled with blocky brushes of black oil paint. A young woman who appears to mourn her departing love is featured in several studies but is elided in the final work; she would have distracted from Hodler’s aim to translate “the great movement of unity of that time.”
The drawings evince Hodler’s skill, both as a draughtsman and as a composer of elaborate scenes. They range from loose silhouettes to careful descriptions of a figure’s every shadow and wrinkle. Sometimes these two approaches appear on the same leaf of paper. It seems to have been inevitable that, after such intensive deliberation, only immaculately controlled final paintings would emerge from Hodler’s hand.
Though the exhibition is titled for Hodler’s drawings, the most remarkable pieces included are oil paintings. These, of course, include the show-stopping Day fragments, as well as Hodler’s near-sublime treatment of the Bernese Alps in The Eiger, the Mönch, and the Jungfrau above a Sea of Fog (1908), and Portrait of Berthe Hodler-Jacques (ca. 1898), in which Hodler depicts his second wife. Berthe, like many of the artist’s subjects, faces forward for maximal symmetry. Her pale blue irises are bordered with dark brown, to piercing effect. Interestingly, the version of the painting on display is not what Hodler or Berthe herself saw last: the artist painted a second hairstyle over the original, but Schindler removed Hodler’s additional coat of paint. One doesn’t know whether to scold the collector for his intrusion or thank him for the painting we see today.
Compared to his other portraits, there is something different, and tragic, about Hodler’s drawings of Valentine Godé-Darel, which take up almost a quarter of the small exhibition. Godé-Darel, the artist’s mistress, is captured in profile on her sickbed as she deteriorates from illness while pregnant. The exhibition claims that these pieces, “eschewing allegory and symbolism,” are unlike Hodler’s other work. His technique changes too. Instead of the coiled scribbles characteristic of his other sketches, Hodler scratches straight lines back and forth to map out the planes of Godé-Darel’s profile. In the last three paintings, she is sleeping peacefully, which might have allowed the artist to observe her more easily—but these drawings become increasingly hasty; perhaps Hodler couldn’t bear to look for too long.
Maybe it is appropriate to end with a touch of sadness. Parallelism is, after all, doomed on this earthly plane: no repetition or symmetry can be perfect. Hodler seemed to know that. Even in Unanimity’s moment of political unification, each of the canvas’s subjects is slightly differentiated by dress, stance, and the light and shadow cast across their figures. Seconds after the moment shown in the mural, each person’s hand will fall to his side, and the group will disperse once again. The parallelist drawings at the Morgan, including those that repeat the same subjects, are compelling even in defeat: each sketch is different from every other, and the discrepancies are as delightful as the parallels.