The Hilma af Klint retrospective, currently at The Guggenheim Museum, is a game changer. This astonishing exhibition alters the way one must view the trajectory of abstract painting (almost always male dominated) in the early twentieth century. The mystery of how a classically trained female painter in Sweden at the turn of the century moved confidently away from realism to large-scale abstraction before any other painters did (and kept it secret) is a fascinating tale.
In the late nineteenth century there was a burgeoning interest in spiritualism, fueled by both the Rudolph Steiner’s Theosophy and Helena Blavasky’s Anthroposophy movements. Each of these was esoteric and believed in the accessibility of the spirit world as one of its shared components. At the same time that looking inward towards the unseen was becoming fashionable, there were also life changing scientific discoveries being published – such as the discovery of the x-ray (being able to actually see inside the body), Darwin’s theory of evolution and scientific interest in time and the fourth dimension, to name a few. This was a heady time of intellectual, scientific and spiritual inquiry, as well as seismic social change.
In 1896, Klint and four friends started having séances in which they channeled five entities who entreated them to create automatic drawings (a technique that the Dadaists and Surrealists would use later on to access the subconscious). The group of women called themselves The Five (De Fem), and their entities or guides were called High Masters (De Hoga). The group was instructed to keep journals and to “Protect your drawings. They are pictures of drenching waves of ether which await you one day when your ears and eyes can comprehend a higher summons.” From 1896-1903, Cornelia Cederberg, one of the members, did all the drawings. However, suddenly, in 1904 Klint was told by the spirits to take over and to create paintings not drawings. From 1906-1915, Klint created 193 works, many of them enormous paintings, for a future temple. She kept meticulous notebooks, which documented all thoughts, sketches, investigations and instructions. The ten largest paintings (all around 322 cm by 239 cm) were made in sixty days in 1907 (each took all of four days) with apparently no recorded preparatory drawings or designs, which is quite extraordinary.
Group IV, The Ten Largest, No.1, Childhood, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 322 x 239cm (127.65 x 94 in.) is characterized by circles, tangential ovals, orange hued curvilinear lines that mimic cursive writing, with hints of botanical flower shapes and textures, all against a deep blue background. The space is very shallow, almost flat, with only one area of white floral shapes overlapping another series of rose bud-like configurations. The work, most probably, was partially painted on the floor (way before Pollack) as footprints are slightly visible but the occasional drips reveal that it was also painted vertically.
There are two paintings representing childhood, two for youth, four for adulthood and two for old age. The progression is subtle with the lexicon of shapes, lines and colors evolving slowly and delicately. Spiral lines within shapes appear first in No. 3 Youth of this series. The background shifts as each stage progresses from a slightly grayed blue, to a medium burnt orange, to a delicate more scumbled mauve, to a pinkish sienna and finally (in Old Age) to a neutral beige. By (No. 10 Old Age) a grid has appeared and the circular forms are more complicated towards the top and paradoxically, simpler near the bottom (this is poignant as one thinks about heading towards death and the extinction of all sensation and thought). While it is the non-objective imagery that is revolutionary, it is the ambitious scale that makes it so unique.
In 1908, Hilma af Klint contacted the revered Rudolph Steiner and invited him to critique her large-scale paintings that had been channeled through her. He visited her, but it was not a good studio visit. Steiner was dismissive of the mediumistic part of her process and encouraged her to use her own inner voices. Due to this and her mother’s illness, she stopped working on the paintings for the Temple for four years. It has been speculated that this negative interaction fueled her desire to keep these works absolutely private and for a future audience only. However, she continued to show her more acceptable figurative works and was in exhibitions in 1906, 1907, 1911, and 1914 (with Kandinsky). When Klint returned to the paintings for the Temple in 1912, she had eschewed the spirit entities altogether (seemingly taking Steiner’s suggestions to heart) and took complete ownership of all of the next bodies of work.
By 1915, Klint’s work was large-scale and decidedly more geometric. She usually worked in series. In her “The Swan” series she explored the simple shape of a circle suspended in a square canvas. Her painting Group IX/SUV, The Swan, No. 17, oil on canvas, 150.5 x 151cm (59 x 59”) is particularly striking as it pre-dates Jasper Johns’ targets by forty years. Klint’s “target” is a stark image of concentric circles, in the middle of the canvas, painted with hard-edged accuracy, each band painted a different color. The circle is divided in half and the left side is achromatic-just black and white – while the right side has a light red, a yellow and a blue band set all against a medium red ground. What is most intriguing is just how contemporary Klint’s work looks even today.
In her voluminous notebooks, she seemed to be studying many different systems of knowledge and schemes of classification – some mathematical, alchemical, botanical or even astrological and introduced signs and symbols from these into her work. Her drawings and notes were profound investigations into all categories of knowing or seeing. The paintings from 1915 -1920 have the quality of being a study or a diagram. But of what, exactly? The work itself is so specific: and yet what it seeks to explain or define is vague and unknowable. It is this core of mystery, which informs all of her works.
The large-scale Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece, 1915, oil and metal leaf on canvas, 237.5 x 179.5 (93.5 x 70.5”) is part of a series of paintings that Klint hoped would one day be in a temple (hence the title). Klint was extremely thorough and sketched her idea for a spiral architectural structure for this idealized temple in her notebooks. Eerily, it resembles nothing more than The Guggenheim museum itself, where this spectacular retrospective is currently residing. The spiral, to Klint, represented a spiritual journey by illustrating an ascent to the Divine. Ironically, though her works dealt with the spirit world, the imagery bears strong resemblance to scientific diagrams of the flow of electricity, to illustrations of the helix, even to atoms spinning around.
In The Altarpiece series, concentric circles still are visible but the emergence of strong triangular forms is most noticeable. These hard-edged shapes are reminiscent of Egyptian art in its symbology and suggest a hierarchy of importance. The Group X, No. 2, Altarpiece, 1915, oil and metal leaf on canvas, 238 x 179 (93.7 x 70.4”,) is similar but reverses the triangular shape and has it pointing down. Spiral lines racing around the ochre sphere on top, imply heavenly highways, or even orbiting moons. While these are predominately flat, they also indicate movement not only vertical and horizontal but both backward and forward in space. British art historian Briony Fer, while discussing Klint as a diagrammer, says Klint “was an artist working within, and fueled by a universe of images, rather than an artist who made universal images that tapped into eternal truths.”
Before Klint died, she archived her work and put the notebooks in order. Unlike undiscovered artist Vivian Maier who didn’t even develop her photographs, Klint was well aware of the worth of her works. In a notebook, she had requested that the work not be shown for twenty years after her death. The relative that inherited her over 1,200 works on paper and canvas and the 124 notebooks did not show any of it until forty years after her death in 1944 at the age of eighty-two. Erik af Klint, her nephew, managed to save her works and with his son, Johan af Klint eventually created The Hilma af Klint Foundation.
Klint was a prescient time traveler, painting landscapes of an unseen world.
The stunning scale, ambition, intellectual and spiritual diversity of her body of works will dazzle and ultimately confound art critics and historians for quite awhile, as they struggle to add her to the canon of important abstract artists of the twentieth century.
Nancy Kay Turner is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.