It’s hard to think of a more inoffensive artist than Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918). From his early realist landscapes of his native Switzerland through to his last sublime views over Lake Geneva, his art was always subtle rather than brash or confrontational. Yet at least three times in his career he found himself at the centre of controversy, suggesting that maybe it was the viewer or jury who was being offensive, not the artist or his art.
Hodler’s The Miller, his Son and the Donkey (c 1888) is a delightful depiction of this classical fable or folk story of a miller and his son who are repeatedly corrected by others for their treatment of the donkey, in particular which of the pair should ride the animal. At this point in the story, it’s the miller who is being borne by the donkey, and his son who is driving the animal. Three women passing by are telling the miller what he should be doing, which is apparently quite different. Little did Hodler realise at the time, but he was soon to play the part of the miller himself.
In 1889, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Hodler’s painting The Boxer’s Procession was awarded a distinction, his first major international recognition. By that time, he had started work on what he considered to be his first truly original and distinctive work.
The Night (1889-90) marks Hodler’s turn towards more Symbolist motifs. Four young men and three young women are sleeping outdoors, under black blankets. In the middle of the group, a black-cloaked figure is crouching between the legs of one of the men, who is alarmed; this figure represents death. This painting can therefore be read as telling the all too common story of early death among adults at the time, notably from tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, something that Hodler knew well, as his mother had died of tuberculosis when he was fourteen.
Hodler submitted this for the Beaux-Arts exhibition in Geneva in 1891, but it caused a scandal. It was first rejected, so the artist put it on display in a separate building nearby. The mayor of the city then deemed it obscene, because of what were seen as intertwined nude figures. It was hurriedly removed from display, and for the first time Hodler was treated like the miller with his donkey.
Thankfully he also submitted it to the Salon in Paris, where it received praise from Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and the sculptor Auguste Rodin. It was exhibited again at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, again to great acclaim. Hodler wrote later that he considered this his first work to have been entirely his own in terms of conception and staging.
He followed that with a series of paintings showing less controversial figures of tired-out old men.
The World-Weary (1891-92) was another important early work on his road to Parallelism, with its emphasis on the symmetry and rhythms seen in society. He painted this from models who sat for him in a local cemetery during the autumn of 1891, and the finished work was exhibited in Geneva in 1892, this time without attendant scandal.
The Disappointed Souls (1892), another in this series, also shows five older men, this time dressed in black robes and sat on a bench in barren fields similar to those seen in The Night. It too was exhibited in Geneva in 1892.
Like the miller with his donkey, Hodler’s critics weren’t done with him yet.
In 1897, Hodler won the commission to paint a large fresco in the Weapons Room of the Swiss National Museum (Schweizerisches Landesmuseum) in the centre of Zurich. Oddly, Hodler proposed depicting the Battle of Marignano, fought between France and the Old Swiss Confederacy near Milan in 1515. The French had been the victors there, leaving the defeated Swiss with around 50% casualties.
This compositional study for Retreat from Marignano was made in about 1897, using pencil and gouache on fabric. From its inception, the painting is composed as a frieze in two planes, with most of its figures in the nearer plane.
This more advanced study for the Retreat from Marignano followed soon afterwards, but Hodler’s theme, style and imagery were controversial, and the whole affair became the subject of intense public debate known at the time as the ‘fresco dispute’. Holder wasn’t allowed to proceed with the painting until 1900, when the outcry had settled.
Then in 1913, the same year that Hodler was made an officer of the Swiss Legion of Honour, another large mural brought him the silent reproach of a reigning emperor, as well as a cacophony of critics.
In 1911, Hodler had been commissioned by the city director of Hanover, Heinrich Tramm, to paint a very large mural in the city’s new town hall, a work which kept him occupied for a lot of the period until its completion in 1913. This small-scale study for Einmütigkeit Unanimity must have been painted in 1912-13, and gives a clear idea of the finished work.
When Hodler was hard at work on the mural during the summer of 1913, his friend Emil Orlík visited and painted this view of Ferdinand Hodler Working on the Hanover Mural in pastels. Shortly after that, the work was completed and was visited formally by the Emperor Wilhelm II, who is reported to have remained completely silent as a mark of his disapproval. In that, he was joined by the critics of the day.
Remarkably, Hodler’s completed mural has survived that adverse criticism, the Nazi regime, and the bombing of the city of Hanover during the Second World War. At its centre is the figure of Dietrich Arnsborg (1475-1558), who on 26 June 1533 brought together an assembly of the (male) citizens of Hanover in its market square, by the old town hall. Together they swore to adhere to the new Reformation doctrine of Martin Luther, as shown here in their unanimous raising of right hands.
Like his miller of 1888, Ferdinand Hodler had again been told what to do with his donkey. It’s wonderful that he turned a deaf ear and carried on painting as he thought he should.