HILMA AF KLINT
Paintings for the Future
by Chris Clother
Fall of 2018 saw the opening of a solo art exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York by Hilma af Klint, a Swedish painter from the beginning of the 20th century. Called Paintings for the Future, the show outlines her contributions to modern abstract painting, positioning her as one of the unsung instigators of the movement. Many of her non-objective, geometric compositions pre-date what are considered the earliest examples of the West’s forays into non-representational art produced by Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, and Kupka. Of particular note, this large scale exhibition lays bare a working methodology for artistic, creative production that has its source in the unseen, spiritual realm. Af Klint claimed that the groundbreaking work she produced between 1906 and 1915 was at the behest of spiritual guides that had instructed her to make paintings for a temple that was connected by a spiritual path.
In the second half of the 19th century and on into the beginning of the 20th century, Spiritualism was a popular pursuit for many in the West, both in Europe and America. The movement involved commingling Eastern and Western spiritual traditions with direct nods to various occult philosophies and trajectories, including Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, and the theories of Pythagoras. Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy was a widely discussed expression of this culture, and was a point of interest and concern for af Klint. In an effort to directly engage the nature of these ideas, af Klint cultivated an active relationship with unseen spiritual forces by meeting regularly with a group of four other women to conduct seances.
Af Klint was not at all alone in employing her spiritual pursuits as an impetus for art-making. Kandinsky essentially wrote the book on the practice, called Concerning the Spiritual in Art, in which he outlines an approach to self-expression involving a spiritual introspection that can be expressed using non-objective color and form. Kandinsky, Mondrian, DuChamp and Klee were all to some extent engaged in the Theosophical movement, turning to its fresh, yet familiar, claims about the nature, function and purpose of our known reality to invigorate their artistic production.
Af Klint stands apart from these celebrated men on several counts. First, she was a woman, which could be considered grounds enough to understand her peripheral presence in the history of 20th century art. Second, and perhaps because of her being female, she produced the bulk of her most affecting work in relative isolation, showing her paintings only to a select few friends and acquaintances. Third, she received her artistic inspiration from a divine third party, communing with spiritual guides to understand what to make. While the aforementioned men turned to a spiritual conception of themselves and the cosmos to inspire their work, it is not understood that they sought literal transmissions from spiritual beings. These men would consider themselves and their spiritual introspection the locus of artistic insight, while af Klint defers the credit to guiding voices.
There have been several exhibitions in recent history that have looked at the artist as medium, perhaps most notably being LACMA’s 1986 exhibition, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, which marked af Klint’s first inclusion as a key personality in modern art history. This large scale show provided a broad look at numerous examples of occult spiritual traditions and how they informed and inspired familiar trends in modern art, heralded af Klint as a pioneer of abstraction in art, and featured an in depth look at the spiritual philosophies that were explored by her and her male counterparts.
In 2005, af Klint was featured in a show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art called 3x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin. This exhibition adeptly connected the approaches of three women from three different generations who all worked with a gesture of selflessness in their art. Af Klint was fulfilling the instructions of spiritual guides, making her work an effort of careful listening and interpretation. Emma Kunz worked as a holistic healer in the 1930s and 40s, using a divining pendulum and large scale, geometric drawings that she would produce while in trance-like states to provide aid to her patients. Agnes Martin is the outlier of the group as a previously established artist of import, but her inclusion in the show allowed the light of the mainstream to shine on the work of the three women as a whole. Martin’s subtle compositions have provided a counter-argument to the inherent nihilism of the minimalist art movement, demonstrating that quiet, empty compositions can relay substantial spiritual impact.
2013 saw the mounting of a truly revelatory and comprehensive exploration of the themes in question here, with the 55th Venice Biennale curated by the New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni. Called The Encyclopedic Palace, the show collected numerous threads into one elaborate survey which, as the title of the show suggests, had the self-consciously quixotic ambition of holding all the knowledge of the world in one place. On view were the works of many outsider artists driven to creation by spiritual impulses; historical artifacts from magical or occult movements, such as a set of Aleister Crowley’s tarot cards; pages of Carl Jung’s Red Book, a tome that describes a series of his waking dreams/visions; and, of course, the paintings of Hilma af Klint.
The current Guggenheim exhibition counts as the first major solo show in the United States for af Klint, with a focus directed toward her breakthrough years, 1906-1920. She produced 193 sizable paintings during this time, in addition to thousands of pages of sketches and notes. Her paintings register as explorations of form and color, but it is clear that an interactive and esoteric system of signs and symbols are at work; her copious notes illuminating the spiritual language she developed.
Among the numerous forms af Klint employed, several stand out as thematic. Spirals are present in many of her compositions, either as linear elements or filled forms, such as shells. They interact with geometric shapes or spin through colorful fields, creating lively movement and an unfixed levity in the picture plane. As a symbol, the spiral suggests development or evolution—a cyclical movement through time.
Dualities play a significant role in af Klint’s work, described by divided forms or halved picture planes, the use of black and white, and the duplication of subjects. An example of this is her painting “The Swan, No. 1, Group IX,” where we see a white swan on a black field above a black swan on a white field. The canvas is evenly divided horizontally, and the swans nearly mirror each other, touching beaks and wing tips. In this picture, the symbol of ‘swan’ is described as dual, containing both light and dark, and asks us to consider an oppositional quality as inherent to the identity of ‘swan.’ Swans have suggested the ethereal in many traditional mythologies, also denoting a state of completion in alchemical practices.
Other expressions of dualities can be found in additional examples of the symbols used by af Klint. She used a variety letter forms, such as the stylized ‘u’ and ‘w,’ and her notes explain that the former stands for spirit, while the latter stands for matter. Masculinity is described by the color yellow, the rose, and the hook, while femininity is described by the color blue, the lily, and the eyelet. In using these symbols that are positioned in opposition to each other, her compositions aim to commingle these forces, suggesting a concerted effort to unify the dualities.
The spirit of unification and the pursuit of oneness is a theme that runs deep throughout af Klint’s oeuvre, and is perhaps a part of why her work is resonating in our current cultural climate. The celebration of af Klint represents the acknowledgment of several otherwise disregarded facets of the 20th century’s art history: namely, the significant role women have played in the movement of Western culture, the importance of spiritual traditions in the development of contemporary art trends, and more specifically, the value of seeking direct engagement with spiritual realities to access creativity. The survey Paintings for the Future can be experienced as an effort toward a reunification with the opposing force of a 20th century art history narrative that emphasized a masculine, rational approach to creativity.
Chris Clother is an artist and illustrator who works primarily with pen and pencil. He received his BA in Fine Art from Portland State University, and is currently working towards his MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts through Sierra Nevada College. Chris has been illustrating for Cordella Magazine since its inception in 2014. See Chris’ work at chrisclother.com.