Retreat from Marignano. Fresco on the west side of the Armory Hall at the National Museum Zurich, main piece, 1900.
Retreat from Marignano. Fresco on the west side of the Armory Hall at the National Museum Zurich, main piece, 1900. Swiss National Museum

The Zurich Art Controversy: Ferdinand Hodler and the Swiss National Museum

In 1900, the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler created three frescoes the armory hall of the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. Hodler ignored the wishes of his patrons and sparked a nationwide controversy with the composition of the picture for his work «The Retreat from Marignano».

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a world historian, Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia, writer, and PR specialist, who has taught as a professor in Europe and North America.

Ferdinand Holdler (1853-1918) was no stranger to poverty, hunger, and death. Born the eldest of six children to Johannes Hodler and Margarete Neukomm in Bern’s poorest district, Hodler’s early life was marked by near-constant struggle and deprivation. By the time he was a teenager, Holder had lost both of his parents and several siblings to tuberculosis. Nonetheless, he demonstrated a marked talent for painting and after completing his apprenticeship with the Bernese painter Ferdinand Sommer, he walked to Geneva in 1871, penniless and without a word of French. Encouraged by his instructor in Geneva, Barthélemy Menn, Hodler found artistic inspiration in the works of Holbein, Titian, Poussin, Velázquez, Goya, and Alexandre Calame. The collective corpora of these artists would shape Hodler’s appreciation of form, movement, and color, while simultaneously reinforcing his marked interest in the paradoxes of life, death, and physicality. Hodler’s earliest works completed in the 1870s and 1880s are a mélange of genre paintings, mostly landscapes and portraits rendered in a realistic style. Genevan Art critics found them to be uninteresting, and his submissions to the Paris Salon went largely ignored. It was not until the completion of Night (1889/1890) that finally Hodler received the recognition he craved after years of feeling misunderstood. Depicting a mysterious dark, cloaked figure around seven sleeping figures – including Hodler himself, his wife Bertha Stucki, and his mistress Augustine Dupin – Night feels pessimistic and moody, but also charged with meaning and infused with contrasting color palettes. Although the mayor of Geneva found Hodler’s work so grotesque that he had it thrown out of l’Exposition Municipale on moral grounds, Night received a rapturous acclaim at the Salon du Champ-de-Mars in Paris. Hodler even received personal compliments from the leading French artists of the era, including Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, and Puvis de Chavannes. Night marked Hodler's provocative shift into symbolism and art nouveau. This ultimately culminated in the development of an entirely unique artistic style of composition, which he called "parallelism". Hodler’s new approach to painting emphasized the complementary forces of symmetry and rhythm, which he believed formed the basis of human society.
Night, 1898/1890.
Night, 1898/1890. Wikimedia / Kunstmuseum Bern

Colour exists simultaneously with form. Both elements are constantly associated but color strikes you more — a rose for instance — sometimes form — the human body.

Hodler on the importance of color

A “Quarrel of Frescoes”

Holdler successfully built his reputation as an avant-garde artist in Switzerland during the 1890s in what was a most-opportune time. The reorganization of Switzerland as a federal state in 1848 led to a boom in the construction of new federal buildings, offices, schools, and museums. In 1891, Zurich prevailed against Basel, Bern, and Lucerne to become the host of Switzerland’s National Museum. The following year, the Swiss National Museum’s first director, Heinrich Angst, first put forth the idea to federal authorities of adoring the museum with frescoes of the Battle of Murten (1476) or the Battle of Marignano (1515). As in our own time, the Swiss defeat at the hands of the French army at Marignano elicited considerable debate around the question of Swiss neutrality. To many Swiss citizens living during the Belle Époque, this defeat on the fields of Lombardy constituted a major turning point in their history, which left 12,000 dead and marked the end of the Old Confederation’s era as a great European power. Given Marignano’s perceived significance, Angst desired frescoes that would convey strong sentiments of national pride and reflect the social solidarity of the Old Swiss Confederation. He also hoped that such a work would become a popular artistic attraction among museum visitors and international tourists.
Ferdinand Hodler, around 1909.
Ferdinand Hodler, around 1909. Swiss National Museum
Heinrich Angst, painted by Caspar Ritter, 1897.
Heinrich Angst, painted by Caspar Ritter, 1897. Swiss National Museum
In 1897, Hodler formally received and accepted a request from the Swiss National Museum to execute a series of three frescoes in the museum’s Armory Hall. While Hodler had sketched and executed works with historic or patriotic themes in the past, he had something entirely different in mind for the Swiss National Museum. Hodler, who was a provocateur at heart, bodly ignored the wishes and instructions of Angst. He wanted to startle the spectator and move them toward contemplation just as he had with Night. Moreover, Hodler knew that a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield or a rendering of a military offensive would not resonate with museum visitors; instead, he wanted to center and universalize the experience of ordinary Swiss soldiers off the battlefield. Hodler contended he could delineate a powerful political message about the pathos and steadfastness of the Swiss people, while simultaneously capturing their moment of defeat and subsequent retreat. In breaking with the expectations of his patrons at the Swiss National Museum, Hodler unknowingly redefined historical painting as it was understood in Switzerland and launched the opening salvo in the “Quarrel of Frescoes”.
Study for the third carton of the mural Retreat from Marignano, around 1897.
Study for the third carton of the mural Retreat from Marignano, around 1897. Wikimedia
Angst neither welcomed nor appreciated Hodler's novel interpretation, and he tried to prevent its progress within the museum. The local press was outraged and hostile too: Tagblatt der Stadt Zürich denounced the frescoes for their “repulsive ugliness”, while other publications encouraged Zürchers to organize themselves in groups to oppose Hodler throughout 1898. Although some praised the sobriety of Hodler’s forms and tonalities, as well as the clarity of his order and monumental scale, others found fault with perceived anachronisms in the representation of weapons, costumes and flags, in addition to the butchery of the Swiss soldiers. For his part, Hodler was neither dismayed nor particularly troubled by the heated discourse or wave of public disapproval. Based on his earlier experiences with Night, Hodler had developed an astute acumen for business, figuring provocation was a most useful way of garnering further attention and securing lucrative commissions. He chose to bide his time – after all, he had dealt with far more difficult circumstances in his early years.

My paintings of Marignano represent and characterize the Swiss people by showing their heroism, their force, their perseverance, and the fraternity of our warriors in misfortune.

Ferdinand Hodler in "Notice sur les trophées", 1898.

A Swiss National Treasure

Ultimately a jury convened, which included the architect of the Swiss National Museum, Gustav Gull, and the Swiss painter and illustrator, Albert Anker. They both demanded a cessation of activity and that the Hodler present a series of new sketches for further consideration. Holder acquiesced, completing a series of sketches in due course. These were exhibited at the Swiss National Museum in November 1898 and over the first four days, over 8,000 visitors came to see them. As a result of the ensuing fracas, the Federal Council ended up intervening in the matter and relocated to Zurich, where they formed an opinion on Hodler’s new sketches. On June 12, 1899, the Federal Council reached a consensus and shared their decision: Hodler could immediately recommence and complete the frescoes. After working through delays and four iterations of his original design in three years’ time, Holder finally completed The Retreat of Marignano in 1900.
Retreat from Marignano. Fresco on the west side of the Armory Hall at the National Museum Zurich, main piece, 1900.
Retreat from Marignano. Fresco on the west side of the Armory Hall at the National Museum Zurich, main piece, 1900. Swiss National Museum
The Retreat from Marignano underscores Holder's brilliance in the sublimation of the human body and in the projection of what he deemed “eternal” in nature, which in turn, reveals hidden and inherent beauty. Pink and gray are the predominant colors in the main fresco, reflecting human tragedy, bloodshed, and military defeat. Enlarged in size but simplified in expression and detail, Hodler allows our eyes to rest upon and contemplate the drama unfolding before us. Hodler’s masterful rendering of a small number of figures, on a very large scale, ensured the legibility of his perspective and gave his frescoes the required monumental character appropriate to a national museum. Though strong and muscular, Hodler’s band of soldiers are solemn in their retreat – bruised, battered, and bloodied after a full day and night of combat. They struggle to maintain their dignity and carry on, but they manage to do so with honour and in a spirit of unwavering camaraderie. Towards the lower right of The Retreat from Marignano, the viewer sees a bloodied halberdier, standing with his legs apart, covering the retreat of exhausted standard bearers and wounded soldiers against the pursuing French army. (This character would later earn Hodler the nickname "Bloody Hodler" in the Swiss press.) To the left of this halberdier, a warrior armed with an ax begins to turn around, as though he is going to meet the spectator’s gaze. In the center of The Retreat from Marignano, there is a stoic warrior with a halberd on his shoulder, who is distinguished by virtue of his red uniform. He is the Battle of Marignano made incarnate. On the far left-hand side, a different warrior advances, holding a sword whose point is dripping with blood. Hodler painted own likeness in this sword bearer here, implying that the loss of Marignano is felt by all Swiss across time and space. Holder's accompanying, two smaller frescoes compliment the main oeuvre. Despite his broken legs, the celebrated Basel flag-bearer, Hans Baer “The Younger”, clutches the cantonal banner straight while dying in a pool of his own blood; in the other fresco, a Confederate soldier protects the retreat, holding his sword with both hands in fierce determination. To the left side of his face, dandelion seeds float by in the air in the foreground and background. Perhaps they signify that in the end, there’s always a new beginning; the valor of peace is recognized only after traversing the depths of war.
Retreat from Marignano. Fresco on the west side of the Armory Hall at the National Museum Zurich, right side, 1900.
Retreat from Marignano. Fresco on the west side of the Armory Hall at the National Museum Zurich, right side, 1900. Swiss National Museum
Retreat from Marignano. Fresco on the west side of the Armory Hall at the National Museum Zurich, left side, 1900.
Retreat from Marignano. Fresco on the west side of the Armory Hall at the National Museum Zurich, left side, 1900. Swiss National Museum
In 1911, the Federal Council entrusted Holder to complete a set of similar frescoes in the Swiss National Museum depicting the Battle of Murten – a celebrated victory of the Old Swiss Confederation. Sadly, he never had the chance to execute this oeuvre, which would have decorated the east face of the Armory Hall. On May 19, 1918, Hodler died in his apartment in Geneva from chronic lung disease. The power and humility of The Retreat from Marignano certainly mirrors the life experiences and core convictions of a man who can be described as “an artist of the people”. The Swiss art historian Gotthard Jedlicka (1899-1965) goes even further when writing of Hodler's masterpiece in Die Grossen Schweizer (1960): “The Retreat from Marignano at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich is the largest fresco that Switzerland has produced in centuries – and it may remain so for a long time to come. Never has a retreat been given such a heroic form. In this fresco, retreat takes on the vigorous appearance of an irresistible attack. It belongs to the tragedy of the artistic destiny of Hodler that one made it so difficult for him to produce this fresco.
Design drawing for the mural Battle of Murten, 1917.
Design drawing for the mural Battle of Murten, 1917. Swiss National Museum

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