JANICE MCNAB – PUBLISHED IN RELIGIOUS STUDIES REVIEW, RICE UNIVERSITY, HOUSTON, ISSUE 47.1., SPRING, 2021.
The work of Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) was barely exhibited in her own lifetime, and failed to be written into art history. The story of abstraction instead evolved in relation to the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, František Kupka and Kazimir Malevich. A century later however, there is a public hunger for af Klint’s paintings that has surprised even the organisers of recent blockbuster exhibitions, and full-colour publications and a documentary have followed in their wake. This review will note which new research material can be found in each of four key museum publications and the documentary film, and discuss how these extraordinary paintings, and the artist who made them, are being historicised today.
Hilma af Klint left behind an archive of over 1300 paintings and sketches, supplemented by a self-edited 26,000 pages of notes. These reveal a hard- working artist fascinated by the intense pace of scientific discovery going on around her, especially the invisible world being revealed through electromagnetic and early atomic research. They also reveal a fascination for how these scientific findings might entwine with religious belief. This led the artist toward Theosophy, which combined these discoveries with a universalist religious ideal and a power structure designed by and for women. Af Klint’s research, first into Spiritualism and then Theosophy, throughout her twenties and thirties, included an automatic drawing practice, many years before Surrealism validated this as an artistic method and route to self-discovery.
It is from this grounded research into the ideas and beliefs of her time that the artist’s spectacular 1906 transition into abstraction was possible. From that point on, her work is dedicated to the creation of a new artistic language with which to record her experience of what cannot be seen. This body of paintings has taken a hundred years to find a ready audience. Af Klint had no contemporary biographers, and she carefully edited her own writings shortly before her death. These writings have not yet been fully studied or translated into English, but what has been made available so far reveals few day-to-day biographic details; the story of this artist’s life and work is still being written. Contextualising af Klint within the art history of the time therefore means that this history also needs to be rewritten.
Hilma af Klint, Seeing is Believing, edited by Kurt Almqvist and Louise Belfrage, Koenig Books, London and Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, Stockholm, 2017, 132 pages, paperback.
This volume was published in conjunction with the exhibition Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen, at The Serpentine Galleries, London in 2016. It includes the first full reproduction of seven painting series completed between January and July 1920. These are the last paintings the artist made before she began studying at Rudolph Steiner’s Goetheanum in Switzerland. After this point her paintings become recognisably influenced by Anthroposophical doctrine. The seven series are beautifully reproduced in full page glossy colour. There are also three insightful art-historical essays by Briony Fer, David Lomas, and Brandon W. Joseph, which are based on the exhibition’s lecture series and contextualise the work from a contemporary viewpoint.
Hilma af Klint, Notes and Methods, edited by Christine Burgin, co-published by Christine Burgin, New York and The University of Chicago Press, 2018, 288 pages, hardback
This volume focuses on af Klint’s notebooks and works on paper. It is an invaluable research resource, as these materials are particularly difficult to share in exhibition format. The book contains the first complete reproduction and translation of The Blue Books, ten volumes in which af Klint documented the complex series that made up her pivotal work, The Paintings for the Temple. It also contains the first reproductions of most of The Atom Series and the artist’s handmade book Flowers, Mosses, and Lichens 1919–20, as copied by the artist in 1927, both with translated notes. Letters and Words Pertaining to Works by Hilma af Klint is translated in its entirety. It is thought that the artist wrote this “code-book” to her paintings in the 1930’s. Each chapter of Notes and Methods is introduced by Modera Museet director Iris Müller-Westermann, who also worked on the selection. The notebooks are extensive, and one hopes that more editions will appear in future years.
Hilma af Klint, Visionary, edited by Kurt Almqvist and Louise Belfrage, Bokförlaget Stolpe and Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, Stockholm, 2019, 124 pages, hardback
This volume developed out of seminars held in conjunction with the exhibition Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2018. The reproduced paintings do not add to what is already in print, but important notebook pages and other historical documents appear here for the first time. Five contextualizing essays, by Julia Voss, Tracey Bashkoff, Isaac Lubelsky, Linda Dalrymple Henderson and Marco Pasi, provide valuable new research findings.
Hilma af Klint, Artist Researcher Medium, edited by Iris Müller-Westermann and Milena Høgsberg. Moderna Museet, Hatje Cantz, 2020, 272 pages
High production values define this extensive exhibition catalogue, which accompanies the 2020 exhibition of the same name in Malmö, Sweden, and is the most recent publication treated in this review. The 1908 Evolution Series and the 1917 Atom Series are here reproduced in full for the first time, alongside The Ten Largest, most of The Eros series (both 1907), The Seven Pointed Star series (1908), a selection from The Swan (1914), The Dove (1914–15), Parsifal (1916), and a number of botanical studies. A detailed biographic time-line collates most of the known details of the artist’s life, and there is a useful chart recording the dates and number of works within each serial part of the confusingly complex Paintings for the Temple. Five essays, by Iris Müller-Westermann, Hedvig Martin, Milena Høgsberg & Tim Rudbøg, Anne Sophie Jørgensen, and Ernst Peter Fischer consider both individual works and the wider historical period.
Beyond the Visible, 2019, Ambrosia Film, director Halina Dyrschka, produced by Eva Illmer and Halina Dyrschka
This well-researched overview of the artist’s life is pieced together through interviews with key af Klint scholars, whose findings can also be found in the above publications. These interviews are interspersed with selections from the artist’s notebooks and family interviews, including 2001 archival footage with Ulla af Klint, wife of the artist’s nephew Erik, to whom af Klint bequeathed her entire oeuvre. Erik in turn bequeathed the work to his son Johan af Klint, who is also interviewed. As the artist’s biography remains incomplete, recordings of these first- and second-generation family memories are invaluable.
At one point in Beyond the Visible, a tracking shot follows Iris Müller-Westermann into a hi-tech restoration workshop where af Klint paintings have been unrolled for the first time since the artist’s death in 1944. The oeuvre was protected by the family in its entirety, and donated to the foundation they established for it in 1972. As a condition of the 2013 Moderna Museet exhibition, the museum agreed to take on the burden of restoring works that had never been circulated on the art market. A number of interviewees in this absorbing documentary reflect on the ways this lack of financial traction may have contributed to the art world’s still limited acknowledgement of these important paintings.
Three of the four books reviewed reproduce significant serial works for the first time. Many of these paintings are therefore new to the world, and there is still an active debate over which frames of reference are most useful for approaching them. This sort of high-quality image material and notebook translation is therefore essential in supporting the wider scholarship now needed into the radiant Modernism of a previously ignored woman artist.
The Artist Was Not a Recluse
The Blue Books reproduced in Notes and Methods look like the hand-painted prototypes of a contemporary artist’s website. Black-and-white photographs of The Paintings for the Temple are glued into satchel-sized notebooks and accompanied by a watercolour of the overall composition and enlarged inserts of key details. The dedication needed to complete this work is staggering. The artist has created a portable archive that both Müller-Westermann, and af Klint biographer Julia Voss, in Visionary, argue must have been designed as a travelling presentation tool. Voss has uncovered exhibition pamphlets, personal postcards, and other material that trace the artist’s visits to kindred spirits in the art world, in Dornach, Amsterdam, and finally London, where some of The Paintings for the Temple were exhibited as part of the 1928 World Conference on Spiritual Science. Voss points out that it is only in a notebook of 1932, and at the age of seventy, that af Klint decides to gift her work to the future, and to edit her notebooks in the management of her legacy.
This is the story of a professional artist seeking to share her work with the world, and they are important findings as they demolish a somewhat misogynistic myth that has grown up around this work: that Hilma af Klint was a wilful and dreamy recluse who refused to share her work because she had no idea what she was doing. In his afterword to Seeing is Believing, however, Daniel Birnbaum sees a “school of af Klint” developing, though with an unusual hundred-year delay, and suggests the key question today is actually not to try to figure out what the artist thought she was doing, but to focus on what she actually did—that is, to consider the cultural value of the paintings themselves.
Af Klint Was an Artistic Researcher
The Atom Series (1917) reproduced in Artist Researcher Medium reveals the clear-headed and systematic approach to artistic practice that The Blue Books show in relation to the wish to share her work. Twenty watercolours with handwritten notes reveal themselves as the remains of a process of visual thinking that the artist may have struggled to define in words, but which we can now appreciate as the systematic unfolding of a set of formal relationships within a complex and self-generating set of artistic conventions. Historian of science Ernst Peter Fischer finds parallels to this visual thinking in the diagrams of atomic structures being produced by Neils Bohr at the same time, just across the Swedish border in Denmark. Such an ongoing visual exploration, across multiplying serial projects that the artist understood to be a single unified work, constituted a radical approach to art-making that the curators relate to our contemporary understanding of artistic research.
In the earlier Seeing is Believing, Briony Fer also saw the artist assimilating a diagrammatic mode belonging to an industrial or mechanical world-view, before completely refiguring it as an artistic structuring system. Fer concentrates on the themes and variations within the 144-sheet Parsifal series of 1916. She reads the contingencies of watercolour paint marks and pencil lines as aesthetic possibilities brought out by a set of strict parameters, revealing the work of a professionally trained artist absorbing an image-world her peers were simply not looking at.
Fer argues that it is the way af Klint has researched the diagram, the “how” of her work rather than the “why,” that defines it as an artistic practice. It is the nature of a diagram to be abstract and yet representational; it is a way of coding information pictorially that is not dependent on naturalism. Fer suggests that af Klint’s early experience as a scientific illustrator may have suggested this method, which she could then call on to create diagrams of a visionary process, of an ecstatic, rather than rationalist, paradigm. Fer thus situates this work within an ecstatic tradition going back to William Blake, remarking that both artists necessarily worked within “a complex of available cultural and artistic forms” from their time. For af Klint, these forms would have been both scientific and occult diagrams in conjunction with imagery from nineteenth-century colour theory and Theosophist artist Annie Besant’s Thought-Forms.
A Complex of Available Cultural and Artistic Forms
The four books and one film reviewed here all address the substructure of occultism that ran alongside scientific developments in the first years of the twentieth century, and the ways both were involved with invisible realities beyond the reach of the human eye. Atomic and electromagnetic research is shown to have inspired artists, novelists, and mystics to imagine new responses to questions of belief that the discovery of a universe built on invisible forms and vibrations seemed to raise. Af Klint’s painting is situated within the tumult of this new thought, and much current research focuses on unfolding the particular influences that can be traced in relation to it.
Theosophy is explored in relation to women’s liberation, as on the one hand it posited that all religions were basically the same and, on the other, that it offered women the opportunity to participate in the rituals and power structures that this amalgamated version of the world’s theological thought had to offer. This is essentially an anti-authoritarian and liberationist world view, masked as tradition. Anne Sophie Jørgensen, in Artist Researcher Medium, makes the further point that while the artist clearly drew from the imagery of the world’s religions, her work is not in service of any spiritual tradition, even Theosophy. Echoing both Fer and Birnbaum, Jørgensen asks for the work to be seen as art, as aesthetic presence. This approach might seem obvious to some readers, but as I discuss below, it is a key sticking point in its integration into art history.
In Visionary, Linda Dalrymple Henderson notes that af Klint’s interest in painting as a revelatory practice was something she shared with the artists history currently associates with early abstraction: Mondrian, Kandinsky, Malevich, and Kupka. Henderson traces some of these artists’ shared networks of thought, then focuses on Charles Howard Hinton’s influential writing on “astral vision,” which imagines being able to see all sides as well as the inner reality of forms simultaneously—a sort of all-seeing x-ray vision unconstrained by a specific point of perspective.
Hinton is shown to have influenced a number of Theosophists; Henderson finds Rudolph Steiner quoting Hinton in lectures from 1905 on. Like the Theosophists, Hinton used diagrams to illustrate his ideas, especially the “hypercube” or tesseract. Henderson then discusses af Klint’s use of a similar diagram throughout The Swan Series. The astral plane that Hinton describes is an idea af Klint also directly refers to in many drawings and notes. This astral plane is where af Klint believed male and female gender identifications might fuse into one. Although this idea is not pursued further in any of these volumes, nearly all of the post-1906 work has some iteration of this deconstruction of gendering through the creation of a new visual language for lived experience. Af Klint continues to occasionally include naturalistic body imagery, but her work in breaking away from social gendering was part of a revolutionary movement towards the visualisation of a post-gender world that is also only now finding its audience.
In the film Beyond the Visible, viewers find one flat painting surface diffusing into a cup of coffee, while another turns into ripples on a lake. An “inner eye” suggested by an abstract orange screen, the colour we see when looking at the sun through closed eyelids, bleeds into the orange background of The Ten Largest, Youth. No 4. There is a clear but unvoiced suggestion of an artist in close visual connection with her world, but who, in seeking to paint “what lies beneath,” found a way to process this input into an aesthetic language that had never before been seen. These ideas are left hanging, but the film’s creative bridges to rainbows and sunsets remind us of the material thinking that happens within the act of painting, an expression of an artist’s embodied aesthetic knowledge mingling with directional thought.
In Visionary, Voss also touches on innate knowledge when she notes the possible influence of map-making on af Klint’s work. Af Klint grew up in a naval family. Her grandfather, Gustaf, whose portrait hung in the artist’s studio, charted the seas that surround Sweden. Af Klint’s schooling included map-making and astronomy, a history recounted by Johan af Klint, in Beyond the Visible, as he opens a portfolio of the original sea maps on the family dining table. Maps, like diagrams, represent the world with graphic codes independent of naturalism. More detailed research on this relationship to maps is still needed, but Voss offers one way forward, noting the way maps of water also make the invisible visible.
Notes and Methods reproduces rarely seen 1904 mediumistic drawing experiments made collectively by af Klint and her four companions in the Spiritualist group De Fem (The Five). Detailed background to this period in the artist’s life is to be found in a considered essay by Hedvig Martin in Artist Researcher Medium. Notes and Methods also includes the first translation of Letters and Words Pertaining to Works by Hilma af Klint, the code-book the artist wrote for her paintings in the last years of her life. Seeing these works together in a single volume presents us with the tension that lay at the core of all af Klint’s work: a need for order in a practice the artist herself could not fully conceptualize. To take only one example from Letters and Words, H A H, in various capitalizations, is given nine different meanings. In an interview in Beyond the Visible, Müller-Westermann argues that we will not come closer to the power held within these paintings by trying to make sense of this system, but only through our experience of each work’s overall aesthetic. “Hilma af Klint works are not intellectual maps to be understood rationally. You need your whole body to receive these works in a way in which the intellect only plays a small role, certainly not everything.”
In Artist Researcher Medium, Müller-Westermann and curator Milena Høgsberg argue that only by acknowledging that af Klint was an artist, researcher and medium, can we hope to understand her work today. These writers approach the artist’s mediumship in a quite particular manner. They argue that the notebooks clearly record af Klint’s conviction that it was her contact with what she believed to be external consciousnesses that inspired her painting, that “this became the very crux of her artistic enquiry, which she would return to throughout her life, trying to understand its significance.” This is undoubtedly true, but they go on to say that for us to experience the work as fully as possible today, it is necessary to take the artist’s understanding of her own work seriously, and to find inroads to this difficult idea of a fully external impulse. They ask us to entertain the idea that the paintings contain vibrational messages that we need to tune into in order to read on the level of energy.
The terms the writers use derive from Theosophy, but approached with a little intellectual leeway, removing the cloak of religious language, they are not far from mainstream writing on aesthetic affect. The curators themselves do not make this move, and in an essay in the same book, by Anne Sophie Jørgensen, we read that “we may have the experience that the work is not two dimensional … some of the paintings even open up the dimension of time.” Our flickering appreciation of both illusionistic space and the flat surface of a canvas, alongside our awareness of time as held within hand-made marks, are essential aspects of painting that are also more commonly addressed with recourse to aesthetics. Whether we adopt this perspective, or instead view the paintings primarily as guidebooks to an artist’s journey into esoteric belief systems, continuing to employ the language of this journey in discussion, is where the writers in these books part ways.
In Seeing is Believing, Fer takes a quite different approach to mediumship, placing the external voices that af Klint became aware of within the séance squarely within the artist’s own mind. Fer discusses the Parsifal series as a graphic system created to make diagrams of a visionary process, but as a re-imagining of artistic process. If the artist believed herself to be recording external messages, “the normal protocols of painting” need not apply. The artist’s occult belief can then be understood as an essential key unlocking artistic license, as she was “getting it down on the page […] in an improvisational manner suited to her task.” The artist was steeped in visual forms outside of the fine-art tradition and the lines and washes that we now see are the traces of a making process that allowed all of this knowledge to be re-directed into fine art. Fer argues that this makes af Klint a recording instrument, not of external voices, as the artist herself stated, but of her own aesthetic sensibilities. The outsider voices were those of the outsider within herself, and her practice as a medium was the instrument with which she took ownership of an artistic voice very different from the one that was trained in a late-nineteenth-century art academy.
The problem concerning which conceptual framework we might choose is one that is visited by Fischer in Beyond the Visible, when he repeats physicist Werner Heisenberg’s realization that “at the very core of the world, humans obviously encounter themselves. The orbits of electrons in an atom only exist because humans describe them in that way.” So what these paintings might “be” rather depends on who is doing the telling.
A Question of Influence
In Seeing is Believing, Joseph considers the argument that one of the key sticking points to this work being included in art history is that the paintings were created as occult objects, designed for a temple, and therefore not autonomous works of self-reflexive modernism—art for art’s sake. His arguments against this reading are supported by Fer, and by Voss in Visionary, where she points out that the temple af Klint designed to house her great cycle was a classic Theosophical merger of science and art. It was to be built on the island of Ven, where sixteenth-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had once built an observatory. Voss’s detailed study of the temple plans in the 1930/31 notebooks reveals that af Klint’s spiralling gallery for her paintings also culminated in an observatory. Af Klint had been taught astronomy in her youth. According to the design of the temple she imagined, after contemplating her paintings, one would look to the stars. In the same publication, an essay by Tracey Bashkoff reveals that the idea of a “temple” for art was not an occult diversion, but an idea very much of the time. She first traces the importance of the spiral to Theosophical thought and then makes a compelling parallel with the thinking of woman artist Hilla Rebay in New York in 1930. Rebay and af Klint would not have known about each other, but they were both influenced by the same Theosophical worldview. Rebay was a friend of Wassily Kandinsky, and she advised Solomon Guggenheim on his collection. In 1930 she began to imagine a museum for this collection, a “temple of non-objectivity and devotion.” Bashkoff has tracked down both a 1937 Rebay sketch for a temporary pavilion for the collection, which reveals a circular structure reminiscent of af Klint’s sketches, and a 1943 letter to Frank Lloyd Wright about building a permanent “temple of spirit—a monument,” a plan that would eventually become the spiralling Guggenheim Museum.
Beyond the Visible pursues the other problem art historians encounter in af Klint’s work: historical influence. Julia Voss argues in an interview that our current conception of early-twentieth-century abstraction is the creation of Alfred Barr at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1930’s, and based on the art historical notion of influence—in other words, that one artist looked at the work of another, and that this flow of influence is what art history is. Müller-Westermann and artist Josiah McElheny continue this line of thought by proposing that, if history is composed of a stream of influence, an artist whose work was not acknowledged in their own lifetime cannot retrospectively become part of the story—an approach that neatly excises value from the work of all but the most intersectionally privileged. These interviews are accompanied by a series of images that position an af Klint painting next to a series of strikingly similar compositions by Albers, Klee, Twombly, Warhol, Kandinsky, and Mondrian. The filmmaker thereby makes an important point about the writing of history, one taken up in different ways by all of the publications under review here. In Seeing is Believing, both Fer and Joseph make the seemingly simple suggestion that an artist’s image-world might be wider than that of art, and that if we shift focus onto the historical conditions within which af Klint was working, we can easily see influences shared by many others in the avant-garde of the time.
There is still no “school” of af Klint, however, and Birnbaum suggests, in his introduction to Visionary, that rather than struggling to fit this work into an existing schema of early-twentieth-century Modernism, which it in some ways resists, the more important question might be to consider the ways it challenges this approach. “There is no obvious spot waiting to be filled by her radiant imagery in the formalist scheme created by Alfred Barr […] Rather than present a domain of static mathematical truths or platonic forms, af Klint seems to enact a realm of vibrant life, of spiritual evolution and immanence […] compatible with the processes of teeming nature rather than the precision of heavenly geometries.”.
In Seeing Is Believing, Joseph perhaps takes the repercussions of this argument furthest, stating that the requirement of influence is an impossible one to ask in these historical circumstances. The artist was a relatively successful painter in Stockholm at the time, but no one within that community would have encouraged the painting of huge abstract works, as abstraction itself would only be “invented,” according to The Museum of Modern Art, three years later. So since “nobody on earth” was in a position to legitimize af Klint’s intentions, she sought to realize them within a spiritual realm. Joseph points out that she was not alone in doing this, and there is a growing body of literature that examines the ways Spiritualism helped women in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to find a public voice, legitimized as the voice of an “other.” It is easy today to think of these voices as irrational, but Voss, in Visionary, questions any quick categorizations like this when she reminds us that while af Klint was participating in drawing séances, the successful Austrian neurologist Richard Krafft-Ebbing was thought to have proved that education could cause fatal nerve damage in women.
Joseph’s take on these legitimizing spirits is, like Fer’s, to see them as fundamentally an artistic method for the production of new imagery. He presents a Foucauldian idea of the modern subject, formed by the folding inward of forces and drives we now see as belonging to the unconscious, but which, prior to this twentieth-century Freudian paradigm, were believed to be generated by, or certainly in traffic with, a realm outside of the Self. Af Klint’s phantasmatic “others” might best be understood today as a hyperproductive form of self-estrangement. Joseph argues that will, or desire, is often decoupled from knowing when it is required as an agent pushing for a change in the given order. All knowledge is created within networks of dominant opinion and hierarchical values of voice. Rebellious knowledge must find its power beyond such a system. He thus argues that af Klint’s estrangement of her own intent through mediumship was a necessary movement for a woman artist with the wish to make images that no one had ever seen before.
Because this way of working goes against the grain of a self-reflective Modernism based on an Enlightenment notion of intentional knowledge, Joseph situates his argument in relation to the agency of any subaltern subjects who believe themselves to be rebelling in the name of God. The question then becomes how to take the subaltern viewpoint seriously, as Müller-Westermann and Høgsberg wish to do, while also conferring agency on this subject in a way that conforms to a contemporary Western viewpoint. Joseph proposes that it is with this question that we take difference seriously. Differences in time and life experience create the possibility of belief in different forms of knowledge, and so in different forms of life. Respecting this tension of comprehension is an accepted aspect of decolonizing our political histories. But by extension, it is also a way of approaching the gender bias within art history. Joseph presents af Klint’s work as a Derridean supplement to the current writing of art history, but suggests that it is art history itself that needs to make way for the alterity her work presents.
Dr Janice McNab is an artist and Head of the MA Artistic Research at The Royal Academy of Arts, The Hague, in the Netherlands. Her PhD research, ‘The Ghost Artist’, explored spectral embodiment as a form of aesthetic resistance in the work of Hilma af Klint and other women’s art practices across the last three centuries. From 2020‐2022 she is a post-doctoral scholar at The University of the Arts The Hague / Leiden University, pursuing experimental painting research in relation to Hilma af Klint’s serial work ‘The Ten Largest’.