Sometimes pain can be overwhelming, stopping in its tracks the most basic instincts: moving, talking, eating, sleeping … the very will to live. Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler may have known a thing or two about pain, having lost both his parents and all five of his siblings to tuberculosis by the time he reached adulthood. The death of his lover and muse, Valerie Godé-Darel, due to cancer in 1915 made it clear that the shadow of death hovering over his life hadn’t left him. It was bound to stay and influence his art in dramatic ways.
By the 1890s, Hodler was making the transition from realism to a personalized form of symbolism, which he called parallelism. Parallelism was grounded in the symmetry and rhythm that the Swiss artist had observed in society. The style’s ritualistic nature is obvious in his more complex paintings, among them The Disappointed Souls. Five older men dressed in priests’ clothes are depicted suffering on a bench in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing around them except a desolate landscape. Their agony is palpable, but the symmetry and balance that Hodler pursued give the painting a rather absurd and unnatural air. Those men are not interacting in any way, each alone in carrying the burden of their despair, yet the manner in which they mirror each others’ gestures and poses would suggest the communality of human suffering. Thus, instead of being portrayed as individuals reduced to their own existential drama, they become part of a larger narrative.
The Disillusioned One is, most likely, a study done for the previously mentioned painting, which focuses on the man from the left. I very much prefer this study to the final painting, as it shows and singles out a state of being that words could never be able to fully convey – the depths of one’s emotional turmoil. The man depicted, sitting slightly hunched on a bench, his head bowed and with his hands in his lap as if in prayer, looks like he’s lost everything he’s ever had. Spirituality seems to be the last thread that he has left, as indicated by the worn-out priest’s clothes and his bare feet – a wandering monk of sorts, perhaps searching for redemption. Judging from his deeply expressive face, with the empty stare and the wrinkles taking over his forehead like waves, I would say that not even religion is enough for this man. He has lost all hope.