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Kunsthaus Zürich presents newly restored version of Ferdinand Hodler's "The Truth"
Ferdinand Hodler, The Truth, 1903. Second version. Oil on Canvas, 208 x 294,5 cm. Kunsthaus Zürich.

ZURICH.- Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1919), the outstanding Swiss painter of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, created two versions of his important composition ‘The Truth.’ The first of these has now been restored and will be on display in the collection, together with the second version and other works by Hodler, from 18 January to 17 March 2013.

Measuring 196 x 273 cm, the monumental first version of the oil painting ‘The Truth’ was created in 1902. It comes from the collection of Alfred Rütschi and was donated to the Kunsthaus Zürich by his heirs in 1929. At the centre of the composition stands a nude woman, flanked to left and right by sinister, symmetrically arranged ‘dark men,’ all of them turning away from her. For Hodler the woman represents the truth from which the forces of darkness are compelled to take flight.

Owing to the techniques used in painting it, the work presented a number of problems: due to the low concentration of binding agents and the almost complete absence of a ground coat the paint layer was friable, exhibited a tendency to serious cracks and dishing, and was flaking off. Over time, the retouching carried out during earlier restorations had changed colour and marred the overall aesthetic impression. The process of restoring the painting began in January 2012 with technological investigations in the Kunsthaus workshop. Kunsthaus staff worked with the Swiss Institute for Art Research (SIK-ISEA) to clarify issues concerning the structure of the paint layer and the materials used. The subsequent restoration work, which continues until December 2012, has involved fixing and stabilizing large areas of the extremely matt paintwork. Even cleaning the surface was a delicate undertaking. Tests were carried out to determine the correct consolidating agent to use, so as to avoid either darkening the colours or creating glossy areas. Fixing the finely cracked paint layer was a laborious and time-consuming process, as were the subsequent patching and retouching of the minute chips in it. Older, wrongly applied areas of retouching and overpainting were removed or reduced, and retouched using gouache paints.

The temporary hanging of the first, newly restored version of ‘The Truth’ along with the second expands our understanding of Hodler’s oeuvre and working methods, as do the draft sketches for both projects made by the artist which, for reasons of conservation, the Kunsthaus can only rarely display.

Hodler painted the second, more strongly stylized version of ‘The Truth’ in 1903 and showed it in the exhibition at the Vienna Secession in 1904. This work is owned by the City of Zurich and has been deposited with the Kunsthaus on loan since 1930. More classical in execution than its predecessor, it is in a better state of preservation and has been regularly exhibited for decades.

The presentation reveals fascinating details of the story behind the works’ creation. In 1904, Hodler himself suggested a link between the underlying concept and the 1899 retrial in France of the army officer Alfred Dreyfus, who had been unjustly sentenced to life imprisonment in a penal colony. The writer Emile Zola had rallied to Dreyfus’s cause and called for the full truth to be revealed. Hodler, it is claimed, was inspired by this controversy and painted the work in support of Zola’s demand. Researchers have however concluded that the idea for the picture may in fact have come about earlier, when Hodler was devising the major composition ‘The Day.’ Could it be that Hodler only renamed the work ‘The Truth’ at a later date, thereby transforming it into a protest picture?

The presentation of the two versions together enables us to study the significant differences of painterly character between them. The second, final version appears smoother and more stylized, the first rougher and more archaic. The Symbolist approach of the first version contrasts vividly with the immediacy of the brushwork of the great painter Hodler. For this reason, the earlier, freshly restored version may well be especially attractive to audiences schooled in the development of modern art.

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