Hilma af Klint (1866-1944) was an early Swedish-born modernist previously relegated to the margins but whose fortunes are changing. An extremely gifted abstract artist whose work draws from coeval mystic philosophical movements such as Theosophy and Anthroposophy, af Klint is best known for paintings made around the turn of the 20th century and then up to its middle years. Her art centers around sometimes simple, sometimes intricate abstract imagery–curving shell-like forms, simple circles, more complex arrangements of nonobjective shapes, often circular, that describe the inner reality af Klint often obtained through the experience of a spirit medium. While the spiritual efficacy of these experiments with contact from an eternal world can be debated, in this artist’s case, they resulted in art that rivals the best, and more publicly prominent, work of male artists alive during the time. The notes and wall plaques make it clear that those working on the show feel strongly that the paintings are to make a prominent re-entry into the history of modern art, which until very recently has failed to give the artist the attention she deserves.
The spiritual movements mentioned above consist of an amalgam of influences from both the East and the West, but it is a bit hard to see their direct visual influence on the way af Klint worked. Her style was profoundly nonobjective, with an orientation toward the geometric–circles with openings suggesting portals into the artist’s complex inner life often come up. In light of the other male artists working at this time, men such as Kandinsky and Mondrian and Malevich, it can be argued her work is the visual and spiritual equal of the paintings made by those mentioned. Mysticism cannot be separated from the visual exploration in her career. This embraced a number of spiritual movements, although her work tended to distance itself from these movements’ heavy influence late in her life as an artist. Still, from the start, it can be said she actively sought a mystical reality that can be felt and perhaps seen in the way she proceeds in her paintings. Those among her audience who want to separate her metaphysical leanings from her output will not be entirely successful, although it is possible to see the work purely as an early formal exercise in abstraction. Still, that would not do justice to the endeavor toward a higher spirit world in most of her paintings and drawings. The occult movements that took up her imagination over decades cannot be excluded from the formally innovative nature of her art, even when she moves further and further toward a pure abstraction, free of spiritualist cant, late in the game. This means that her art both reflected the radical formal advances of the period, as well as the impressive, if also eclectic and disorganized, philosophical thinking that influenced her so much.
The exhibition is intended to revise art history, so that af Klint’s early contribution to a pure abstraction early in the 20th century may be recognized. The question is whether the work stands up to her more famous colleague painters active–and still far better known–during the same period. Af Klint’s art reveals an intense quest on her part to know more or less unknowable, unprovable realities that nonetheless successfully influence her art. Generally, in art worlds everywhere, a revisionism is occurring, in which underknown women artists are coming to the fore. Usually, the work stands up to its placement in a pantheon inhabited primarily by men. In the case of af Klint, we can see how her spiritual yearning took place as a radical estimation of the power of abstract art. For her audience today, the philosophies she pursued may seem outdated or quaint; certainly, they do not have the force they possessed when the artist was creating. But that does not mean we can summarily dismiss such thinking’s efficacy on the artist’s efforts even now, since we cannot downplay the intellectual reality that inspired af Klint. So the ideas she embraced for several years in a group with four other women called The Five, for which she acted as the medium to a higher reality (so they felt), must be seen as effective in their promulgation of a spiritual life af Klint readily engages in while making work that is resolutely abstract.
In addition to bare a hidden artist, the Guggenheim’s show is also an indication that, as I have said, museums are actively revisiting and revaluing the achievements of women artists who used to be relegated to the margins. Af Klint benefits from this renewed focus, and to her credit, her art stands up to the close scrutiny of a major museum show. One might worry about whether the exhibition fully demonstrates af Klint’s insight and formal achievement while asserting her, a fairly unknown artist, as a major candidate for the canon. I think it mostly works–she is a painter of high magnitude, someone whose mystical energies are perfectly realized in her art. More precise than Kandinsky, af Klint nonetheless shares his penchant for an abstraction adumbrated by visionary, and purely abstract, feeling. But while Kandinsky is intuitive, with usually inchoate waves of emotion brought into play by the contrast between object and ground (both highly nonobjective), af Klint turns to specific, if also nonobjective, forms that suggest inner realities just as distant from easy comprehension as Kandinsky’s compositions. Both proceed intuitively, although a formally free intuition is more evident in Kandinsky. Af Klint is tighter in her forms. But, despite her lack of recognition, al Klint does take part in a dialogue in which she corroborates the achievements of her better-known fellow painters, even though she asked that her work not be brought into the public until twenty years after her death. This resulted in a hiatus that we are only now starting to seriously address.
To introduce a basic biography: af Klint was born in Solna and educated at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Before she embarked on her long sequence of 193 paintings, done in the years between 1906 and 1915 and guided by a spirit whose occult name was Amaliel, af Klint worked on a variety of interests–she produced both portraits and landscape work and did illustrations of botanical and veterinary materials (see Nora Kipnis’s article “Waiting for the Temple: Art of Hilma af Klint” in the Internet publication Sabat Magazine, from which details of the artist’s life are taken). While still a teenager, af Klint began her interest in the spirit world, and a while later, in 1896, she was conducting séances with four women in an attempt to systematically make contact with a spiritual world beyond their realm. Perhaps to a contemporary audience, this seems a bit silly; the writings of Blavatsky and Steiner are often dense and obscure to the point of absurdity. But at the time, their eclectic amalgam of spiritual disciplines was considered important and new. Indeed, af Klint made use of and revisited their ideas her entire adult life. Interestingly, in the last part of her life, the artist spent time explaining what she did; moreover, she asked that the work not be shown for twenty years after her death–the major factor for her long obscurity and existence on the margins of art history.
But now this obscurity is changing; the Guggenheim show makes a strenuous effort to place al Klint among the artists on the front line of early abstraction. This attempt needs to be discussed here, along with an impartial evaluation of her art. Incorporating af Klint into the canon so suddenly is not without its hurdles; it is important to see the work for what it is, rather than inflate its value because of the current wish to assert the contributions of women (certainly, this is something that needs to be done, but work that does not live up to the achievements of the period it belongs to cannot summarily be brought into a reading of high value). At the same time, it is clear that al Klint is an artist of real substance, someone whose gender relegated her to a much smaller recognition than she deserves. It has always been this writer’s contention that we need time–at least two generations or forty or more years–to gauge the achievement of an artist correctly. Given the vagaries of a visible career, af Klint showed remarkable presence and patience in asking her audience to refrain from exhibiting work for some twenty years after her death. If her repertoire of abstract imagery was relatively limited, it was no more narrow than the general visual languages of far better-known painters. Usually, in abstraction, we see a single style developed that is then repeated in a fugue-like repetition. Af Klint’s style is more various than that, albeit only slightly. She consistently experimented with a language of accessible and known abstraction, but her idiom was made abstruse by her interest in occult thought.
This slight obscurity can be seen throughout her career. A relatively late painting, called The Swan (nr 17, Group 9, SUW [October 1914]), never shown during the artist’s lifetime, can be looked at as a powerful example of art and mystical insight. Consisting of a circle made up of four parts–an outer band, half white (on the left) and half blue (on the right), encircling an inner compartment also divided in half (black on the left, with a yellow outer band encasing a pink half-circle on the right), the painting occurs against a red background. It doesn’t resemble a swan in any way, but it does seem to present an entrance to another, more spiritual existence. This happens regularly, although it is hard not to narrow the context of this painting and others to a purely formal reading–primarily because we don’t take much of an interest in the spiritual life now, especially the eccentricities of Blavatsky and Steiner. But should we jettison whatever surrounds the actual work of art, we find it to be a remarkably sophisticated abstraction, more than equal to other abstract paintings being made at the time. Another painting, given the extended title Group 1, Primordial Chaos, Nr 16 (1906-07), is an exquisitely beautiful painting, free of direct or specific references to her life as a spiritualist. It offers three looping, light green lines occurring vertically at a slight angle over a deep blue ground; on top of these looping patterns, a vortex constructed from yellow lines exists. Considering when it was painted, very early in the 20th century, we can see how advanced af Klint was in her approach to painting, as well as being equally developed in her appreciation of visionary phenomena. One intuits, immediately, the high integrity and insight of the painting–even if its subject matter is beyond our ken.
The painting named Group V, The Seven Pointed Star, Nr 1 (1908) would seem, at first glance, as flower-like as astral: a group of rounded elliptical tan forms, outlined by a thin, yellow line, dominate the composition. Blue lines repeat the general forms of the tan ellipses, while in the upper-right corner, we see a small red oval adding a sharply contrasting, bright color to the generally subdued color atmosphere of the painting. But the title indicates a sidereal representation, which frames the image but does not explain it completely. This is organic form at a very high level, but one may wonder if the intuition behind it–the artist’s interior language shaping the composition–doesn’t blunt a bit the experience of the work. Such a problem cannot be singled out as af Klint’s alone; it may be a difficulty of abstract art generally, in which the forms suggest without detailing the feelings and ideas that went into their making. Group X, No. 1 Altarpiece (1915) deliberately joins an abstract vision to a spiritual one; the work offers a reality that cannot be separated from devotional feeling. It is composed of a sun-like disk at the top, from which short, yellow rays radiate at regular points from its surface. Rising upward, with its point reaching into the sun image, is a pyramidal form, with differently shaped stripes, each divided by regularly space white horizontal lines. The feeling is inevitably one of ascension. This work, like most in the show, comes from the large overarching sequence called “Paintings for the Future.”
One beautiful, untitled work from 1920, a small watercolor belonging to the series “On the Viewing of Flowers and Trees,” develops the imagery of a red and pink flower with a pale, blue-green center inside of which, in the very middle of the painting, is a small white center. It anchors the beautiful red efflorescences around it. Flowers, at least at the time af Klint worked, were primarily the domain of women artists. This work shows an intuitive understanding and sympathy that is truly impressive in the artist’s portrayal of the bloom. Discussing the portrayal of flowers as a particular vocation of women no longer carries much weight; we now accept the use of the word “decorative” as objectively descriptive and indeed supportive of a certain way of making art, without overt reference to women’s authorship. At the same time, af Klint is really working with an object of beauty, and she communicates this in the artwork. The flower exists in an expression of pure beauty, and calling the image decorative is neither accurate nor truthfully appreciative of the image’s great presence as art. The final image to be discussed, Group IV, the Ten Largest, Adulthood (1907) repeats themes we have already seen in af Klint’s art. Made with tempera on paper, affixed to canvas, this work is an amalgam of imageries: red flowers on the left, with rounded leaf-like forms, mostly green with some yellow, on the top of the composition, along with a series of yellow organic pouch forms, accentuated with blue lines repeating their overall shape. Various other embellishments occur; we see abstract doodles, mostly organic, on the bottom left and at the lowest end of the painting. These forms occur against a light-mauve background. The image communicates a love of nature generally but more particularly, the organic forms that exist in nature. Being the productive and insightful painter she was, al Klint would, of course, gravitate toward a specific visual language rather than a generalized one.
As impressive an artist af Klint is, it is fair to reserve judgment on the work. It is a bit of a parlor game to say whether one artist is better than another; tastes change, and it is very difficult to place an artist so new to us immediately at the zenith of modernism. Only the passage of time will tell if the consensus now being formed on the achievement of af Klint is truly accurate. Only over time. In light of ongoing public scrutiny and discussion, does an unknown artist enter the ranks of the painting gods. Af Klint is a terrific painter, someone whose interest in an obscure otherworldly perception miraculously extended and strengthened her output–I say “miraculously” because Theosophy and Anthroposophy are rather shallow pastiches of a spiritual view that do not stand up as equals to the various traditions they quote–or, for that matter, the achievement of af Klint. Still, the movements meant more than a little to af Klint. The real question is whether the high professional attention now being given to her will continue to have weight in the future. My answer is that it is too soon to say. One wants this happen, but the elevated estimation may not be fully accurate. It is clear that the regard is also a consequence of a concerted effort to rewrite art history, and there is much good to be gained in doing so. Still, it is unfair to the artist herself to accord her an exalted positions in the annals of art history when we have only just begun to know her. Her circumstances and her achievement are more complex than we now allow them to be.
Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 12, 2018–April 23, 2019