March 14

Parallelism in Ferdinand Hodler’s Symbolist Painting


Ferdinand Hodler, Self-portrait, c. 1900

On the 14th March 1853, Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler was born in Gürzelen, canton of Berne. Hodler’s friend, Symbolist poet Louis Duchosal described him as “a mystic and a realist, a duality which disconcerts and disorients …. He excels in rendering the things of the past or of the dream and the realities of life.” (‘Le Salon Suisse’, Revue de Genève, 20 October 1885). The artist began his training in the 1870s, as a realist painter of everyday scenes, but as he made more connections with literary Symbolism during the next decade, his interests shifted towards rendering spiritual concepts by means of figurative symbols. In the 1890s he began a series of monumental allegorical paintings that would keep him occupied for the rest of his life.

In most of them there is a strong correspondence between landscape and figure. This relation was the formal manifestation of what Hodler saw as his personal philosophy of ‘Parallelism’, which he felt gave a work deeper emotional resonance. Hodler himself defined the concept as follows: “I call parallelism any kind of repetition. When I feel most strongly the charm of things in nature, there is always an impression of unity. If my way leads into a pine wood where the trees reach high into heaven, I see the trunks that stand to the right and to the left of me as countless columns. One and the same vertical line, repeated many times, surrounds me. Now, if these trunks should be clearly outlined on an unbroken dark background, if they should stand out against the deep blue of the sky, the reason for this impression of unity is parallelism. The many upright lines have the effect of a single grand vertical or of a plane surface …. (…) I must also point out that in nearly all the examples I have just given, the repetition of colour enhances that of form. (…)Parallelism can be pointed out in the different parts of a single object, looked at alone; it is even more obvious when one puts several objects of the same kind next to each other. Now if we compare our own lives and customs with these appearances in nature, we shall be astonished to find the same principle repeated…. When an important event is being celebrated, the people face and move in the same direction. These are parallels following each other. ….


Ferdinand Hodler, The Night, 1889-90, oil on canvas, 116.5 × 299 cm (45.9 × 117.7 in), Museum of Fine Arts Berne

If a few people who have come together for the same purpose sit around a table, we can understand them as parallels making up a unity, like the petals of a flower. When we are happy we do not like to hear a discordant voice that disturbs our joy. Proverbially, it is said: Birds of a feather flock together. In all these examples parallelism, or the principle of repetition, can be pointed out. And this parallelism of experience is, in expression, translated into the formal parallelism which we have already discussed …. If an object is pleasant, repetition will increase its charm; if it expresses sorrow or pain, then repetition will intensify its melancholy. On the contrary, any subject that is peculiar or unpleasant will be made unbearable by repetition. So repetition always acts to increase intensity. Since the time that this principle of harmony was employed by the primitives, it has been visually lost, and so forgotten. One strove for the charm of variety, and so achieved the destruction of unity ….Variety is just as much an element of beauty as parallelism, provided that one does not exaggerate it. For the structure of our eye itself demands that we introduce some variety into any absolutely unified object …. To be simple is not always as easy as it seems …. The work of art will bring to light a new order inherent in things, and this will be: the idea of unity.” (Originally published in Ewald Bender, Die Kunst Ferdinand Hodlers, I, Das Fruwerk Bis 1895 (Zurich: Rascher, 1923), translation from  Artists on Art, ed. Goldwater and Treves).

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Hodler’s work combined several genres including Realism, Symbolism and Art Nouveau. The common denominator which linked these divergent styles was his Parallelism, groupings of figures symmetrically arranged in poses suggesting ritual or dance. Hodler’s work in his final phase took on an expressionist inclination with strongly coloured areas and geometrical figures. In The Night, the painter portrays himself as having been rudely awakened by the figure of death. Sleeping men and women are entwined around him; self-portraits are slipped in along with portraits of the two women with whom Hodler shared his life at the time: Augustine Dupain, his companion since the early days and mother of his son, and Bertha Stuckie, his wife from a brief and tempestuous marriage. In paintings like The Night, Hodler transformed form into an ideology. Parallels and horizontals turn the historic subject into a new decorative monumentality. The landscape is pared down to essentials, sometimes consisting of a jagged wedge of land between water and sky.


Ferdinand Hodler, The Truth II, 1903, oil on canvas, 208 × 294.5 cm (81.9 × 115.9 in), Kunsthaus Zürich

Very much like in the work of Puvis de Chavannes, a painter much admired by Hodler and a great defender of The Night, the couples are placed in a two-dimensional setting where the rhythmic layout of the figures and the lines take precedence. With Hodler, Parallelism is more than a principle of formal composition, it is a moral and philosophical concept, relying on the premise that nature has an order, based on repetition, and that in the end all men are made equal and similar. 

Feature Image: Ferdinand Hodler, Der Auserwählte (The Chosen One), 1893-4, oil and tempera on canvas, 219 × 296 cm (86.2 × 116.5 in), Museum of Fine Arts Berne, Switzerland