With Japan and Switzerland celebrating the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations, there have been a few Swiss-themed events in town, such as the exhibition “Masterpieces from the Kunsthaus Zurich” at the National Art Center, Tokyo, reviewed earlier this month. That exhibition contained some paintings by Ferdinand Hodler, who is also the subject of “Towards Rhythmic Images,” a major exhibition at the National Museum of Western Art.
While Switzerland has been the home of several world-famous artists, including the sculptor Alberto Giacometti and the painter Paul Klee, it would be hard to pick a better artist to represent Switzerland — at least within the modern period — than Hodler, whose work has much more of a flavor of the country than the thoroughly international art of Giacometti and Klee.
One reason for this is that Hodler was very much a man of the people, coming from a humble background, and became an artist through a series of fortunate chances that propelled him toward the profession he was ultimately suited for. After he became successful, he also remained in Switzerland and continued to paint Swiss people and scenery throughout his career, even though he was strongly drawn to the mysticism of Symbolist art.
It is possible to see a tension between his more conventional work, which was often commissioned, and his symbolist paintings, which seemed to be motivated by an inner drive for spiritual solace in the face of tragedy. As a child, he experienced death first when his father, followed by his stepfather and siblings, died from tuberculosis. In later life, he also had to live through the death of his mistress Valentine Gode-Darel, something that seems to have affected him deeply, as seen in the painting “The Death of Valentine Gode-Darel with Roses” (1915).
The exhibition includes works from both sides of his output, including sketches and preparatory paintings he made for some large-scale historical frescoes commissioned by the Swiss National Museum for its Weapons Room, and featuring the scenes from the Battle of Marignano (1515), an extremely violent conflict, which, it is said, later led to the famous Swiss neutrality.
In this part of his output, an important influence was the French artist Puvis de Chavannes, who was also noted for his frescoes and decoration of public buildings. To modern audiences, these works have some of the same earnestness that we now tend to associate with the totalitarian art of the 20th century.
Another work in a similar vein is “The Woodcutter” (1910), a vigorous image of a man swinging an ax. This was among some works commissioned by the Swiss National Bank to illustrate their new 50- and 100-franc bank notes. Hodler is said to have been greatly disappointed by the loss of dynamism that occurred when the image was reproduced on the bank notes.
Although there are inevitable affinities between the two sides of his art, it is his mystical symbolic art that packs more of a punch, although here, too, his earnestness and evident desire to stretch for spiritual significance occasionally backfires. There is a touch of spiritualist hyperbole and Isadore Duncan-style theatrics to some of the images that I found very amusing. Indeed, I was even provoked to laugh out loud by “The Day III” (c 1900-1910) with its rather odd-looking central figure adopting a “mystical” pose.
More satisfying as artworks were the paintings referred to in the exhibition’s title, the rhythmic works, featuring lines of figures at regular intervals. This attempt to establish a synthesis of the graphic and musical arts was very much in the air at the turn of the century, and can also be found in the art and theoretical works of Wassily Kandinsky, among others. However, there is something almost relaxed and natural about the visual rhythms in “Emotion III” (1905), with its four female figures moving mysteriously across the canvas, as if on their way to a ritual, or in the more somber procession of sage-like figures in “Eurythmy” (1895).
There is something a little cultlikeabout these works that may appeal or repel depending on your taste. Less polarizing are Hodler’s landscapes, something the artist turned toward increasingly as he got older. For Hodler, these works were also full of symbolism; but, unlike his rhythmic processions or dancing figures with their arms stretched out in arcane poses, here the symbolism seems more sublimated. His paintings of mountains and lakes are infused with a unique spiritualism that resonates with the Shinto love of landscape.
“Jungfrau and Silverhorn, as Seen From Murren” (1911) calls forth strong, masculine brushstrokes, with which we sense the artist actually grappling with the rock face, but in other works, especially those featuring lakes, the landscape seems to take on a sentience as if it were regarding itself.
“Ferdinand Hodler: Towards Rhythmic Images” at The National Museum of Western Art runs till Jan. 12; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.) ¥1,400. Closed Mon. and Nov. 25, Nov. 28-Jan. 1. www.nmwa.go.jp