barber institute of fine arts
university of birmingham


Hodler’s ‘The Woodcutter’ on display at the Barber

A striking painting by one of the leading Swiss artists at the turn of the century, Ferdinand Hodler (1831 – 1918), is now on display at the Barber. Following Francis Bacon’s ‘Two Figures in a Room’ and Monet’s ‘Water Lily Pond’, the Barber continues its winning streak of loans this year with Hodler’s 1910 painting ‘The Woodcutter’ (Der Holzfäller).

Hodler, a leading member of the progressive Secession artist groups in Vienna and Berlin was invited in 1908 by the Swiss National Bank to design the country’s new 50 and 110 franc banknotes. Given only one condition that the motif should be ‘unmistakably Swiss and national in character’, Hodler settled upon the subject of rural labour – a woodcutter for the 50 franc note and a reaper for the 100 franc note. He sought to represent the arduous work that many labourers did in the fields and forests and the perceived strength and energy of Swiss citizens. The banknotes were in circulation between 1911 and 1958.

Hodler, however, was displeased with the results feeling that the reduction in scale did not show the true dynamism of his compositions. This lead to him painting twelve large-scale paintings – one of which is on loan to the Barber from the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, Germany.

The painting transforms the woodcutter into a heroic figure, who has both an emotional connection to and power over the natural world. His wide-legged pose exudes formidable core strength and his posture seems to defy gravity. The dramatic diagonal position of his limbs also echoes the tree being felled, suggesting he is fully in tune with his work.

Hodler is considered to be one of the most significant and successful Swiss artists of his time, and alongside Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944), Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) and Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918), one of the most internationally-celebrated fathers of modern art outside the French School.

The loan of this paintings marks the start of the centenary of the artist’s death. It is on display in the Barber’s Blue Gallery until 25 February 2018.

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