Hilma af Klint
The spiritual content of Hilma af Klint’s paintings may seem less relevant in our technological culture. We might consider her claim to have painted from the astral plane under the guidance of Higher Beings as delusional, but perhaps, considering the current looseness of the term spiritualism, there is still plenty we might glean from this work.
When af Klint was painting, during the first decades of the twentieth century, Theosophy promised meaning beyond the encroaching mechanistic universe of the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, spiritualism now suggests the possibilities beyond earthbound pragmatics, from the far-fetched to the subtly inexplicable.
Another way to relieve af Klint’s work of the prejudice levelled at mysticism would be to consider it in relation to art history. Af Klint’s figurative compositions have distinct surrealist tendencies — the interleaving of the feasible and the fantastical, the abstract and the figurative, for instance. And she is a precursor of many who explored the symbolic power of the human form, from Francis Bacon to Phillip Guston to Keith Haring.
But in fact even the apparently secular paintings of early twentieth-century Modernism were influenced by spiritualism. A number of artists, including Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, followed the teaching of Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. Although Mondrian is usually thought of as an arch modernist, reconfiguring the natural world into the formal language of painting, some works belie the mystical impulse behind his quest for balance and divine order (see Evolution, 1911). Like af Klint, he pursued the transcendental possibilities of painting, searching for ways to represent a truth beyond positivist sensory evidence.
After meeting Rudolph Steiner, af Klint switched allegiance from Blavatsky’s Theosophy to Steiner’s Anthroposophy. Both advocate the development of man’s latent powers and oppose the materialism of science and dogmatic theology, but Anthroposophy insists on the individual’s empowerment through transcendence — an antidote to the fatalist’s acceptance of a mechanistic order. Steiner described the ability to commune with divine powers as a matter of open-mindedness: ‘There are those who believe that, with the limits of knowledge derived from sense-perception, the limits of all insight are given. Yet if they would carefully observe how they become conscious of these limits, they would find in the very consciousness of the limits the faculties to transcend them.’
Hilma af Klint’s imagery came from her experiences as a medium during séances. A medium experiences information channelled by ‘true’ life forces, transcending the limitations of sensory perception, scientific knowledge and social and cultural conventions. For the medium, death is another state of existence, rather than non-existence, and contactable, as are levels of existence beyond language — states and planes that we don’t even have names for. Even if we are sceptical about af Klint’s claim to paint from the astral plane, her desire to communicate from an inaccessible place is still relevant to art practice. As viewers we often insist that art communicate the extraordinary; we expect art to transcend the mundanity of everyday or, by focussing on it, reveal to us its exceptional qualities. This has a distinct spiritualist ring to it: art as communication of that which is beyond language.
A motif that links the teachings of Blavatsky and Steiner and the paintings of af Klint is the belief in the duality of a realm of the visible, in which illusion presides, and the invisible, where truth exists. Whereas Blavatsky’s doctrine describes a divine order rather like a mechanistic evolutionary programme, Steiner, on the other hand, required individuals to be involved in the process, to work towards divine grace. This attitude manifested itself in af Klint’s prolific and prolonged practice, her working through series and permutations of formal and representational ideas. Af Klint’s rendering of the dualism — between the visible and the invisible, the real and the ideal — is often expressed figuratively, for instance in Series SU, The Swan Nr. 5 (1914 – 15) a black swan falls, shot through and showering blood, while a white swan ascends on a tower of light. Elsewhere, transcendence and spiritual migration is articulated through geometry and text, as in the Parcifal Series (1916), where a square of colour is appended with a word, ‘inwards’ or ‘forwards’, for example.
Throughout her life af Klint moved between figurative and geometric abstraction, often fusing the two — an angel constrained or protected by a circle is a recurring image, and the apparent abstract spiral of The Dove Nr. 1 (1915) has distinct figurative connotations now, in the age of genetic engineering. Geometry, one of abstraction’s basic vocabularies, is an embodiment of the mathematical universe of human construction, as well as an articulation of metaphysical phenomena through such terms as ‘balance’, ‘centre’ and ‘harmony’. The square, circle and triangle have conveyed mystical expression throughout history, from the ancient Egyptian pyramids to mediaeval occult and metaphysical charts to crop circles. For many twentieth-century artists the progression from representational art to abstraction was irreversible: Mondrian and Jackson Pollock are cases in point. Af Klint, however, never entirely abandoned figurative imagery. Unlike Mondrian’s reductive progression towards linear composition, her body of work builds up into a library of reflexive forms, both abstract and figurative — the chromatic symbolism of the sexes, for instance: blue for male and yellow for female, with green as the union of the two.
Hilma af Klint was academically trained in Stockholm and was an accomplished draftsman; during her lifetime she made her living as a portraitist and landscape painter. Why, though, were her spiritualist works, which she considered her life’s work, undiscovered until the 1980s? Just before her death, in 1944, af Klint left her work to her nephew, instructing him not to exhibit it for twenty years. Nobody knows af Klint’s reasoning behind this decision. Perhaps she sensed that the climate of the art world at the time would be adverse for such spiritual content — especially as Clement Greenberg’s assertion of art for art’s sake was in the ascendant. Or maybe in an atmosphere of war the world was rather too visceral. Now, however, the paintings seem to possess a renewed significance, beyond those intended by the artist herself. Viewed from the other end of twentieth-century art history, her innovative attitude towards image construction seems to prefigure the liberated practices of artists today.
Hilma af Klint — The Greatness of Things texts by Gustaf af Klint, Anna-Maria Svensson and excerpts from Hilma’s notebooks selected by Gurli Linden, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (2006) ISBN 0907660991
Catherine de Zegher & Hendel Teicher (eds.), 3 × an Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz and Agnes Martin Yale University Press (2005) ISBN 0300108265
Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still John Golding, Thames and Hudson Ltd (2002) ISBN 0500283591
Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985 Maurice Tuchman & Judi Freeman, DC, Abbeville Press (1999) ISBN 0789200562
Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art M.T.H Sadler (translator), Dover Publications (1977) ISBN 0486234118
The Man and His Vision Colin Wilson, Rudolf Steiner, Aeon Books Ltd (2005) ISBN 1904658261
'Thought defines the universe in geometrical figures.’ Hilma af Klint, diary entry, 1916
Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944) was born in Karlberg, Sweden. She grew up in Stockholm, studying at what is now the School of Arts, Crafts and Design and the Academy of Fine Arts. Having demonstrated her gift as a medium in childhood, she became increasingly interested in spiritualism and the occult after the death of her sister in 1880, founding the séance group The Five — named after its five female members — in the 1890s. Already a well-established portrait and landscape painter, she began to produce automatic drawings and abstract, symbolist paintings from the early 1900s onwards, after receiving information from a spirit guide that she was to execute ‘paintings on the astral plane’. Hilma af Klint’s work was first shown to an international audience in the exhibition ‘The Spiritual in Art — Abstract Painting 1890 – 1985’ at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since then, her work has been seen in numerous exhibitions including ‘Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz and Agnes Martin’, at the Drawing Center, New York (2005) and in a solo exhibition at Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (2004). ‘An Atom in the Universe’ is her first solo exhibition in a public gallery in the UK.
Sally O’Reilly is a writer and critic, and co-editor of Implicasphere.