Ferdinand Hodler's The Truth back to its best

Conservation can deliver the most impressive results, as can be observed from the work done on one of the two versions of The Truth by Ferdinand Hodler, which is now on show at the Kunsthaus Zürich in Switzerland.
Time hasn’t been good to it. The large oil painting, which measures 196 cm x 273 cm, might only have been executed in 1902 but it has suffered with the passing of the seasons.
Principally, because of the way it was put together and the interesting choice of materials used to create the scene, the work has been able to stay healthy, for want of a better word. Together they have exacerbated and hastened its deterioration.
There was, for example, a low concentration of binding agents, resulting in a lack of solidity and, as a result of there being a severe dearth of a ground coat, the paint was brittle and prone to cracking easily. The entire painting was beginning to lose its compactness, as well as its aesthetic integrity.
Compounding these issues has been the not so credible and inefficient restorations of the past, which have given the superficial facade of improvement and care, but ultimately contributed nothing.
In some instances, the work done has, paradoxically, invalidated the “true” representation of the painting. What was observed was no longer what was accurate.
The yearlong collaborative project to remedy these mishaps and save the work from being lost was conducted between experts from Kunsthaus and the Swiss Institute for Art Research.
Every effort has been made to deliver bespoke solutions to the painting’s overall restoration, depending on what issue was being addressed. A case in point can be seen in the task of cleaning the surface of the work.
To make certain that it was delicately delivered, the team carried out tests to ascertain which consolidating agent “fitted the brief”. This is a sensitive undertaking, as an incorrect diagnosis can result in two undesired outcomes: a darkening of the colours used or the formation of glossy areas.
Perhaps the most taxing aspect of the conservation was addressing the incongruities of the cracked paint, made even more difficult by the additional faults caused by past work. With regards to the latter, where possible, secondary paint was either completely removed or reduced, and then retouched using gouache paints.
Their work has allowed for what is a seminal piece of art to have the same impact it had on its original release, which was controversial to say the least. In the centre of the painting stands a bright, almost divine-like nude woman, arms bent and held high, radiating a heavenly glow.
Around her stand a small contingent of men, partially draped in black. The suggestion is that they represent darkness and have, in the events leading up to the final image, attempted to oppress the woman’s righteousness.
However, as we see in the painting, they have been thwarted in their plan, and we imagine that they end up dispersing into the dark, dark recesses of whatever hellhole they have been emerged from. You cannot, we are led to believe, suppress the truth.
The idea behind the final composition is potentially grounded in reality. Hodler may have suggested it being an allegory of a very famous case in France at the end of the nineteenth century.
Alfred Dreyfus was an army officer who was convicted in 1894 on charges of treason. He was sentenced to life and sent to a penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he spent the best part of five years in solitary confinement.
Throughout this period, supporters of Dreyfus campaigned day and night to have him freed, and many of the day’s artists and intellectuals were aghast at the vulgarity of this tragic miscarriage of justice.
However, as the painting aims to point out, yes, travesties occur, regularly, even in the most democratic of countries – France’s national motto is liberté, égalité, fraternité – but, through conviction and the resolve of upright individuals, truth will prevail.
Though his experience on the island had been hard on Dreyfus, he lived to be 75, passing away on July 12th 1935, 29 years to the day of his official exoneration.
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