Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity, Neue Galerie

The newly opened "Ferdinand Hodler: View To Infinity" at the Neue Galerie describes Hodler as the foremost Swiss painter of the early 20th century, an adherent of symbolism, and a significant influence on permanent collection artists Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. The exhibition's pointed introduction leaves the audience well-poised to appreciate the compact but diverse selection of works on display.

Photograph by Hulya Kolabas, 2012, courtesy of the Neue Galerie

I didn't choose to attend the show based on any foreknowledge of Hodler's importance, but simply because I could tell from the posted teaser images that I'd enjoy his use of color (I was not disappointed). By turns reminiscent (to my eyes) of Van Gogh, Cezanne, and even Modigliani, his closeness to Secessionist artists is evidenced in the placement of two of his portraits on either side of Klimt's famed Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, as well as the display of a suite of furniture designed by Josef Hoffman for Hodler's apartment. I was excited about this inclusion (below); perhaps you'll be as intrigued as I was when I read that the accentuated pores of the wood result from a white chalk filling.

Photograph by Hulya Kolabas, 2012, courtesy of the Neue Galerie

The subject of one of these Hodler portraits, Gertrude Dübi-Müller (above right), is responsible for the intimate photographs of the artist filling one gallery. The general similarity of his stance and expression in most images renders occasional glimpses of tenderness and humor even more effective. The final portraits of the painter with his family are touching—particularly when one notices they predate by only one day the photograph of Hodler on his deathbed.

These photographs are worth the close look their small format requires, for they evoke a charming nostalgic atmosphere and engender affection for the artist, and moreover convey important information about his work. For example, the wall label placed opposite Hodler's "final, great monumental painting" entitled "View to Infinity"—reproduced over the central staircase—contains a crucial bit of text informing viewers that the original canvas is twice the represented size. This notice is easily missed, but a photo memorializing Hodler at work on this piece better conveys a sense of its scale.

Photograph by Hulya Kolabas, 2012, courtesy of the Neue Galerie

The exhibition continues upstairs, fittingly requiring visitors to make a metaphorical ascent to the heavens. In the later work on display here we witness Hodler confronting mortality and eternity through intensive series of studies and landscape paintings verging on abstraction. In one gallery his unflinching record of his lover's sickness and demise elicits both compassion and admiration—the drive for expression can easily fall prey to a cartoonish exaggeration or triteness that Hodler adeptly avoids. Somewhat unexpectedly, details for some works are found on four laminate cards housed near the doorway. By eliminating the need for labels on the two more closely-hung walls of the room, this decision eliminates overcrowding but also causes momentary confusion and disrupts the viewing experience.

Were it not for the information that Hodler only recommenced his self-portraits after the death of his lover, I wouldn't necessarily have grasped this emphasis on mortality asserted in the wall text. He paints his own face in a manner resembling his nearby mountain landscapes (an insight I was later gratified to find also noted by the curator), thereby creating a corollary between humanity's transience and the seemingly eternal quality of nature.

Self-Portrait. Image via Wikipaintings

The Rothko-esque landscapes in the next room evolve into abstracted extractions of color, broad planes suggesting the infinite and inviting contemplation. These works flank studies for the aforementioned "View to Infinity" painting (on the blue wall in the image below). These have a spontaneity, even a coarseness of application, that I much preferred to the final work. Here the wall label introduces food for thought: not only do the figures gaze into the great beyond and don blue dresses symbolize spirituality, but the repetition of figures also suggests they might continue forever in the manner of a Greek vase or frieze pattern.

Photograph by Hulya Kolabas, 2012, courtesy of the Neue Galerie

The last room I entered was enshrouded in purple velvet, a funereal space complete with an audio recording of the "Berlin Mass." Founded on the symbolist association of horizontality and death, the curator argues a connection between Hodler's paintings of his dead mistresses and three landscapes executed at the window of his lover's sickroom. Indeed one can almost discern in these expanses an elongated female form. It's not readily apparent how the thesis explored here warrants the inclusion of one additional self-portrait. However, this work is notably distinct from those in other galleries in its slightly ghoulish colors and high level of detail. In the context of this room the portrait takes on the aspects of a religious icon, reminiscent of late Roman Egyptian funereal portraits (c.f. the Met's Portrait of a Boy, 2nd century).

It seems appropriate at exhibition's end to walk down a hallway of unbroken white as though funneling visitors themselves toward infinity. A painted bar of silver on one wall ultimately leads to a Hodler quote reading "Blue is the color that, like the sky, like the sea, speaks to me of all that is not humdrum, all that is transcendent and magnificent."

Perhaps, then, the inclusion of blue walls in several rooms is not meant merely to complement the paintings, but also to conjure this deeper layer of meaning. Unusually, the color often extends onto a portion of the adjoining neutral wall—a decision that, though jarring, might serve to expand the perceived size of the room, and thereby even more closely align the installation with the themes of Hodler's work.

Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc at dawn (Genfersee mit Mont Blanc in der Morgendämmerung), 1918. Image via Wikipaintings

Unfortunately for my own desire to continue contemplating these paintings indefinitely, the works to which I was most drawn were (as usual) nowhere to be found among those reproduced for sale in the gift shop. If you find yourself similarly affected, take the time to commune in person with these profound pieces.

Ferdinand Hodler: View To Infinity is on view through January 7, 2013. The Neue Galerie is located at 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street. Open Thurs-Mon from 11am-6pm, general admission is $20, $10 for students and seniors (65 and over).On the first Friday of every month the museum is open to the public from 6-8pm.

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