Left, ‘Self-Portrait’ (1900); right, ‘The Sick Valentine Godé-Darel’ (1914)

Ferdinand Hodler is one of those artists who have been lazily marginalised by history because they don’t slot neatly into a national movement or an influential school. Born in Switzerland in 1853, he dipped a toe in the international currents of his time, but he mostly followed his own internal muse through byways of naturalism and symbolism. The Neue Galerie’s haunting survey of his last decade, Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity, reveals an artist of idiosyncratic gifts, prodigious struggles and perpetual independence.

Like his fellow maverick, Vincent van Gogh (who was born the same year), he tinged his direct observations with spiritual meaning and channelled his mysticism through an uncompromising scrutiny of nature. In the people and places he faithfully transcribed, naturalism and abstraction collide with occasionally discomfiting results. Like van Gogh, Hodler considered becoming a pastor, but he, too, ultimately found his religious calling in the church of art. Van Gogh loaded every brushstroke with what the critic Meyer Schapiro called “pantheistic rapture”. Hodler likewise infused the mundane world with a quivering desire for reunion and release.

Considering the cumulative tragedies he faced, it’s not surprising that Hodler sought solace in paint. Born into poverty, he had lost both parents and five siblings to tuberculosis by the time he reached adulthood. The same disease felled a beloved mistress and confined his only son to a sanatorium. A second lover, Valentine Godé-Darel, died slowly of cancer, and his devastating record of her illness forms the nucleus of the Neue Galerie show. Hodler veered from one stylistic approach to another over the course of his serpentine career, but in the years between 1908 and his death in 1918 he finally settled on a unique brand of emotionally saturated empiricism. In landscapes and portraits, his fusion of fact and symbol reached an apotheosis.

He already had a wife and a mistress when he met Godé-Darel in 1908, but the porcelain-painter/opera singer seized his artistic imagination. Soon, she appeared as a lissome nude springing across a meadow in “Splendour of Lines” and, a bit later, in two versions of “Cheerful Woman”, arms raised and body torqueing in an awkward jig. We know she was the model for these inert, frieze-like works, even though Hodler rounded off her aquiline nose.

The next time we see her she stares back at us with fixed intensity, her perfectly oval head resting on a slim, graceful neck. She has made the leap from universal symbol of womanhood to unique object of the artist’s love, and he now celebrates the quirks of her appearance – thick, dark brows arched above dusky eyes, hooked proboscis, and wide cheekbones sloping down to a tapered mouth.

This is the last time she appears untainted by illness. From 1914 until she died the following year, each picture charts her step-by-step decline. The swan-like neck grows scrawny and the bones more prominent, the eyes sink deeper into the skull, the mouth twists in pain. In the end she is an emaciated corpse, laid out ceremonially like Holbein’s dead Christ. The Neue Galerie has hung 29 works from this series in a single, wrenching room, but that’s still only a small fraction of the 120 drawings and 18 paintings that Hodler made at her bedside.

The series’ honesty is raw and shocking, and not just because of the subject matter. As close as he was to Godé-Darel, he transcribed her deterioration with a bystander’s curiosity and a clinical eye. Did he set up the work as a screen between himself and his emotions? Was he using his mistress to examine his own mortality, or tapping the magic of his skill to keep her with him always, or perhaps exploiting his own feelings to create a late, great, body of work? These questions are complicated by the fact that all the time he was holding vigil and sketching her wasting body, the gluttonously adulterous artist was courting yet another woman.

In the dark days of Godé-Darel’s illness, Hodler also began the series of wide-eyed self-portraits that fill an entire hall at the Neue Galerie. In all of them, he confronts the viewer head-on, radiating irrepressible vitality. These intense works link Hodler not only with Van Gogh, but also with Edvard Munch, who tapped into the same psychological vein when he glared out at the viewer from lithographs bordered by human bones. Munch was haunted by the deaths of his mother and sister from the same disease that decimated Hodler’s family, and both artists found a way to transmute despair into the play of colour and line.

Towards the end of his life, Hodler evolved a way of projecting feeling on to form, without ever losing the realness of the things he portrayed. This is clearest in the late, transcendent landscapes that flesh out the exhibition. He obsessively rendered the same Alpine views around his home in Geneva, each time translating mountains and mirrored lakes into metaphors for divine immanence. A distant peak hovers over the clouds, inaccessible to mere terrestrials. From an unfixed vantage point, we must make a visual leap into the sublime.

Hodler’s sunsets over Lake Geneva blur into glowing bands of luminosity. They reach backward to the sublimely misted “Monk by the Sea”, by the German romantic Caspar David Friedrich. And they also look ahead to Mark Rothko’s fields of glowing colour. For Hodler, horizontality meant death, early loss, and what he called “life’s ever present despair”. His sunsets bleed upwards, guiding the eye from earthbound clay to the majestic sky.

Until January 7, www.neuegalerie.org

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