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Counselling, Musee d’Art et d’Histoire and the Inevitability of Change

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The Musee d’Art et Histoire in old town Geneva hosts a gallery largely devoted to a series of self-portraits by the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler. The paintings mainly of head and upper torso, show a gradual transition from a gauche self-conscious young man through to maturity and concluding with abrupt and sudden decline in what perhaps appears to be a final unfinished portrait.

Hodler’s’ apparent fascination with himself as a subject, appears at first sight to be almost narccisstic. A closer analysis reveal the self-portraits providing a powerful biographical narrative.  The first paintings of the young man suggests a subtle indication of what Hodler was to become when transformed into an older man; whilst those portraits of the mature man still allow a glimpse of the youth of Hodler’s earlier years.

The series of paintings encourage reflection on the inevitability of change in the human condition as youth gives way to age. Some aspects of the human ageing process are easily accepted.   Art and in particular literature, provide many well-known examples such as Sophocles’ riddle of the Sphinx and Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. Both provide a vivid illustration of inevitable physical changes as the aging process unfolds.

But if these are physical changes what of our emotional and psychological development. Is the future development of our internal processes also set firm at the outset of life or do we have the capacity to change and amend the emotional person which we seem preordained in our youth to become in later life? Is our personality fixed in the early years by a mix of genes and those initial experiences of life or can we consciously adapt and change?

I retain a strong belief in the human capacity to effect change in our emotional development if that change is desired. It is clear however that to facilitate change we first need to find a way of recognising what is already there.

The artist’s brush can indicate character and creates an impression of a personality. The portrait can hint at underlying aspects of the emotional drivers. Within the youth of Hodler’s early self-portraits is an intimation of an arrogance which appears to have taken firm root by the latter years.

Would it have been possible for that slightly arrogant way of looking at the world to have been modified if the personal trait been had been identified, acknowledged and challenged by the artist during the early stages of his life journey. Was the arrogance intended to impress or instead create a much needed defence against a world which dealt Hodler multiple cruel blows such as the continual loss of those siblings close to him?  Without challenges any defence can easily become an obstruction.

In the twenty first century there are now a myriad of ways in which we can reflect on our way of being beyond just looking in the mirror, albeit one of glass or a self portrait.  The most obvious of these is personal therapy work.  

If we look beyond that very functional counselling such as CBT which is just intended to provide an immediate and often short term fix to problematic issues, the deeper therapies can prove to be particularly reflective and insightful.

As therapists all we ever know of those who sit with us comes from the client’s own words, gestures and ways of presenting within the therapy room. As counsellors we hold up a virtual mirror which allows the client to glance at the picture of themselves, albeit a portrait that has been formed in words rather than in oils or acrylics.

These virtual images accompanied by the therapist’s interpretation can provide an opportunity for the client to pause and consider the image that is reflected back. If the sitter is still at an early stage in life, she or he may identify aspects of an emotional self which can be amended before the trait takes full hold.  And if the therapy work occurs later in life when the shadows of a limited future are starting to reach out, perhaps the client will be able to identify and celebrate optimistic dreams and expectations from youth which have been realised?

If the life of a sitter has seen too many painful challenges the artist can smooth facial lines. Perhaps as counsellors we can also help the client to take some steps to ease the troubled mind.

But real change in the client’s material world of people and events can only ever be achieved through the decisions and actions of the client. Like the painter therapists can encourage people to face up to how they appear. We may be able to embolden and encourage change but only the client can decide whether or not to make real the impressions that are formed.

And back to Hodler. Orphaned at the start of his teens he had to find determination and motivation from within at an early age.  Perhaps what appears as a slightly precocious self-portrait in early life merely reflects an early search for that security which was taken from him when both parents died by the onset of his early adolescence.

The need to be secure and self-sufficient drove Hodler on to a search for public recognition in the artistic world. He certainly achieved success and reward but was that ever enough?   The drive to chronicle his own story through self-portraits may reflect the absence of those parental figures who were not there to offer him the support, praise and understanding that children will continually seek from parental figures whether at age five or fifty five.

A powerful self portrait of Hodler painted two years before his death shows an almost baleful face staring out aggressively at a watching world. Perhaps he has captured in his own work a sense of anger at a world which forced him to confront the death of all his siblings and also his wife.  There is a harshness in the work which perhaps captures the reality of an unforgiving place which saw him face time and time again the fragility of the human condition.  His final self-portrait also provides a disturbing sense of fragmentation and destruction which heralds his death in 1918.

Within the therapy room we will sometimes also face an anger projected outward by clients at a life which has been subjected to pain emanating from a world which lacks compassion. But perhaps unlike the isolation of the artist studio, the support of a therapist and the provision of a safe counselling space can allow for interpretation, reflection and perhaps a reframing by the client of what has occurred.

Therapy allows for change and perhaps where appropriate encourages emotional movement. Hodler’s self-portraits details his own journey. In looking closely at the paintings there is eloquence in his brushstrokes, but also sadness with a sense of isolation in the gaze which seems to have become stronger as the years went by.

So the next time you are in Geneva and you tire of the lake, the restaurants and the panoramas, consider a walk through the old town up to the Musee D’Art et Histoire. Seek out that gallery and meet with Ferdinand Hodler. 

You will form your own view of him and his work.  For my part I am now sure that my earlier immediate assumptions of the portraits were wrong.  The self-portraits provide witness not to narcissistic traits but of a life lived and then bravely exposed through the medium of art.  

Perhaps Hodler as well as the therapist, can encourage you to reflect on the inexorable passage of time and your own story.  You may even start to think about what to change before that series of your own internal self-portraits are completed. 


Geoff Boutle

added on 1st June 2016

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