Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) may be the biggest thing to come from Sweden since Abba but she was anything but an overnight success. Originally known as a painter of relatively conventional landscapes, portraits and botanical pictures, af Klint led a double life. Her posthumous claim to fame rests on a remarkable series of spiritualist works we now characterise as abstractions.
It’s an unwinnable debate as to whether af Klint “invented” abstract art c. 1906, beating more famous artists such as Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Kupka and Robert Delaunay by a good four years. If we insist on viewing her cosmic diagrams as bona fide abstraction we might have to cede precedence to the British artist, Georgiana Houghton (1814-84), whose mediumistic drawings and watercolours were created through contacts with the spirit world.
Houghton was an amateur, af Klint a trained professional, so the Swede has all the credentials. In these days when repentant museums are competing with each other to show more work by women artists, af Klint is a curatorial dream-come-true. How marvellous to find that abstract art was created by a woman whose achievements were ignored by generations of (male) art historians!
The only problem with this story is that it’s not strictly true. In her will af Klint left instructions that her spiritualist works should not be exhibited for at least 20 years after her death. When the great unveiling took place at the end of the 1960s her heirs were uncertain about what they should do with thousands of drawings, paintings and journals. They offered to donate the lot to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, only to be be knocked back by director, Pontus Hultén, who saw it as spiritualist ephemera.
A private foundation was duly created and word began to seep out. The first public eposure of these visionary works would come in Maurice Tuchman’s landmark exhibition, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986. One of the aims of that show was to challenge the formalist narrative of late modernism and look again at artists’ spiritual motivations.
For many viewers af Klint was the major discovery of the LACMA exhibition. All over the world there was a growing interest in her work, but the past decade has brought an avalanche of shows and publications. As everything has remained with the foundation this makes it relatively simple to organise a survey. I saw a major exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2018, and many of the same works have been included in Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Even allowing for af Klint’s soaring global popularity this is the kind of show we don’t normally see in Australia, so the AGNSW deserves credit for taking the risk with an apparent non-blockbuster. There are bound to be a few visitors who expect to see The Kiss by Gustav Klimt.
As the Guggenheim show reputedly attracted 600,000 visitors one wonders how much of this popularity will be rub off on Sydney. It seems af Klint was prescient in keeping her works under wraps for two decades because today there is a renewed fascination with alternative forms of spirituality and seekers after mystic truths.
For a decade, from 1896 onwards, af Klint and four female friends would meet and participate in esoteric rituals that included séances and communion with the spirits. Like characters from a pulp novel they called themselves The Five, not to be confused with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. They would experiment with automatic writing and collaborative drawings but it was left to af Klint to take on the grand projet of creating a series of large-scale paintings for a temple that would be built in some enlightened version of the future.
“Amaliel offered me the task,” she wrote, “and I immediately said Yes. It was the one great task that I carried out in my lifetime.”
Amaliel was one of the spirit guides with whom af Klint and her friends were in regular communication. It’s a curious observation that whenever art historians write about these spirit dialogues they are presented as simple facts. There are no Richard Dawkins-types to scoff at af Klint’s claims, or suggest her supernatural contacts were anything more than congenial delusions.
Af Klint described her works as “mediumistic”, stating: “the images are painted directly through me, without preliminary sketches, with great force.” In a catalogue essay, Julia Voss softens the idea that af Klint was merely a conduit for cosmic forces, by emphasising that the artist enjoyed an exchange of questions and answers with her ghostly mentors. In other words there was a lot more conscious planning involved than af Klint would have wanted to admit, even to herself.
This may lessen her status as a medium, but it enhances af Klint’s standing as an artist who may be credited with a series of unheralded stylistic breakthroughs.
The smaller works in af Klint’s Primordial Chaos series of 1906-07 show her working through various ideas in preparation for the promised, large-scale paintings. Incorporating a bewildering range of images, symbols and words, these are startlingly original pictures, but only a preface to what comes next: the paintings grouped under the heading, The Ten Largest (1907), and three Altarpieces of 1915. These works, which appear rigorously abstract at first glance, are packed with imagery drawn from af Klint’s studies in the doctrines of the Rosicrucians and Theosophists; and the books of evolutionary scientists such as Darwin and more particularly, Ernst Haeckel – whose studies of patterns in nature made him a favourite among artists of the Belle Époque.
The vivid colour schemes of the large works have been determined by a rigorous code. Yellow, for instance, represents a masculine principle, blue a female principle. The overall aim of af Klint’s labours was to lay the foundations for a unification of opposing forces – male and female, spiritual and materal, and so on. Once again, this is an appealing idea in an era in which gender is being rethought as a plurality, and rampant materialism is threatening the very existence of life on earth.
Af Klint’s large-scale works are impressive no matter how we choose to interpret them but this exhibition delves under the surface, incorporating her writings and a cache of late watercolours that reveal much more about the totality of her thinking. For every painting there were pages of complex analysis, collected in 124 notebooks. Between 1917-18 alone, she wrote 1,200 pages on “the Spritual Life”.
Viewers are not expected to wade through this stuff which is heavily influenced by the writings of figures such as Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and ultimately, Rudolf Steiner – the latter being the founder of Anthroposophy, the breakaway doctrine that largely superceded Theosophy.
Jennifer Higgie quotes the Theosophical credo: “to unify all religions, create world peace and further unlimited capacities of man.” It sounds attractive, but these noble aims were entombed in volumes of impenetrable mumbo jumbo such as Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888).
Even though Pontus Hultén’s high-handed rejection of the af Klint estate now looks like one of the worst decisions in museum history, it’s easy to understand his distaste for the spiritualist worldview. The fact that we now see af Klint as an artist of huge historical importance owes a great deal to the ability of acolytes to focus on the aspects of her work and life they find inspirational while ignoring the tedious, problematic bits. The result is an abridged version of af Klint that provides something for everyone. Those with no taste for spirits can still be astonished by her paintings.
Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings
Art Gallery of NSW, 12 June – 19 September, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August, 2021