Visit: Ferdinand Hodler // Parallelism – Kunstmuseum Bern

screenshot youtube video, copyright Kunstmuseum Bern

During my stay in Bern, now as a visitor and not any longer as a resident, I went to the current retrospective of the Bern born Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853 – 1918). The best exhibition covered 10 rooms on two floors, and one focal point on the ground floor was ‘Parallelism’, the art theory relating to nature’s harmony, symmetry, and rhythm with a cosmic beauty. Through the compositional principles and parallels in cultural and nature that distinction would have become obsolete for Hodler.

For me an opportunity to study a Modernist painter and to see what to take away from this for my own work. Would it give me some new insights? Or a desire to paint figurative and in nature? Compared to my recent visit to Humphries the paintings did not smell any longer of oil paint, more a smell of museums archives. Some picture frames truly conveyed this sense of ‘old’.

‘I love clarity in a painting, and that is why I love parallelism. In many of my paintings I have chosen four or five figures to express a single feeling, because I know that repetition of a single thing deepens the impression. – Ferdinand Hodler, 1904

Hodler made the main large works of ‘Parallelism’ in the 1890s. Compositional formal aspects seeem to have guided the artist in painting human sensations in context of nature: symmetrical elements, lines, repetitive elements. Examples are: Les âmes déçues (The Disappointed Souls)’, 1892 or La Nuit (The Night)’, 1889-90. The number five seems to be quite a balanced number for Hodler, as quite a number of paintings incorporated five figures, two on the left and right side of a central more pronounced figure (besides La Nuit also in The Day, 1900)

I was somehow intrigued by the sharp appearance of the figures, at times with black outlines. I compared them with the reproductions in the exhibition book on site and was a bit disappointed for the ‘bad’ print. But it seemed to be an apt sensation I developed – in front of a painting with the title ‘The Disappointed Souls’ (Fig. 1)

Exhibition view - Hodler ‘Les âmes déçues’ - front reproduction, back painting; photograph: SJSchaffeld

Fig. 1: Exhibition view – Hodler ‘Les âmes déçues’ – front reproduction, back painting; photograph: SJSchaffeld


While posting this as another reproduction as a digital image in this post, I realize how difficult it becomes to express a difference visually through a similar technique, in this case reproduction of lens based captured images.

The more intriguing aspect of those works for me (besides the clarity of the figures) was the interplay between positive and negative space, the contrast between dark nearly black color and light, often skin tone color. I studied composition and tonal contrast more in detail on above mentioned two works (Fig 2)

Sketchbook - composition and tonal studies

Fig. 2: Sketchbook – composition and tonal studies


In another room I was fascinated by another powerful compositional tool: the diagonal.  And the juxtaposition of two paintings Woodcutter, 1910 and Portrait of Gertrud Mueller, 1911. The diagonal, filling the space of the framed painting, adding a sense of tension or balance to the whole picture. Both paintings are dynamic in their expression based on the conscious use of formal compositional elements. However, to a different end.

Exhibition view; photograph: SJSchaffeld

Fig: 3: Exhibition view; photograph: SJSchaffeld

The later work of the 20th Century are without depiction of human figuration, more capturing the essence of the Swiss landscape, a reduction towards essentials, e.g. Moench with Clouds, 1911 or The Niessen on a Rainy Day, 1910 Through their reduction to essentials the pictures turn nearly into symbols. Symbols for a landscape that became nearly a stereotype for Switzerland: mountains and lakes. Artists as J.M.W. Turner but also contemporary artists eg Emma Stibbon went to Switzerland in order to capture that essence. And I could truly relate some of Hodler’s paintings (e.g. Thunersee mit Niesen, 1910) as they reminded me of my own on-site sketchbook paintings of same scenery during my past PoP1 unit (Fig. 4)

'The Mountain Cries' , (c)SJSchaffeld, 2016

Fig. 4: ‘The Mountain Cries’ , (c)SJSchaffeld, 2016


In a smaller separate room were a collection of books, contemporaries of Holder, whose authors had a significant influence on his conceptions. Examples on display:  art theorist Charles Blanc,  zoologist Ernst Haeckel who emphasized symmetry as a constructive principle of nature,  Gustav Theodor Fechner and Ernst Mach who postulated the hypothesis of ‘psycho-physical parallelism’ as a correspondence between the physical and the psychical, body and soul. Especially the latter idea resonates with my approach in art therapy that mental disorders and physical diseases are not separate. 

Take aways:

  • Visual impact of compositional formal aspects
  • Feeling that art theories as Parallelism could lead eventually towards a dead end when seen as a paradigm
  • The difference it makes to me seeing and experiencing paintings versus reproductions in a wider sense.
  • The idea of capturing sensations or human emotions through repetition, as Hodler did do so with repetition of number of figures.
  • The power of simple but accurate execution of paintings

Featured image:

  • Screenshot from youtube video (Kunstmuseum Bern, 2018b), copyright Kunstmuseum Bern


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  • Nov 15,2018 at 1:41 PM

    OH – I would have loved to see this. I quite like Hodler (having discovered him when my husband worked some years in Switzerland). I remember his series mostly for those pale elongated women. Something strange I thought, somehow very dated (very Art nouveau), but then again when I allowed myself to be seduced – some ubiquitous and deep feelings seeped out of the canvases. I am reminded of another Ferdinand (Willumsen) when I see your mountains – his mountains seem to be in the family too.

    • Stefan J Schaffeld - Visual Artist
      Nov 15,2018 at 10:53 PM

      Yes , Hodler is related to symbolism and art nouveau – you are right about the expression in that style in some of his work. Guess it also has to do with the figures depicted , at times kind of romantic and displaced . But a closer look reveals more, otherwise one could consider them as kitsch (building on the effect of some emotions) Thanks for the reference to the danish artist – never heard about it . I think this is a real benefit with OCA – different nationalities and locations bringing in different references, truly enriching a research

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