The Bigger Picture

In the early 20th century, Hilma af Klint created abstract paintings under the direction of a spirit guide. What impact does the Swedish artist’s work have on the art-historical canon?

Hilma af Klint was a professional artist working in Stockholm as the 19th century turned into the 20th; she was also a spiritualist and medium who believed that her paintings were dictated by higher powers. Trained in the 1880s, Af Klint produced two distinct and different bodies of work: the conventional landscapes and portraits of her professional persona and also — of far greater interest — numerous paintings that we would now count as ‘abstract’. This was several years before the project of abstraction — as identified with the work of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian — really got underway in the 1910s.

Af Klint’s split artistic identity is unusual because of its particular circumstance and the scale and ambition of her radically innovative and abstract work. She succeeded in creating a self-generating occult symbol-system elaborated not only across many thousands of notebook pages but in several cycles of large-scale paintings, including the mural scheme for a planned temple that included the series ‘The Ten Largest’ (1907). On her death in 1944, her will stipulated that her work, which she bequeathed to a nephew, should not be seen in public for at least 20 years because, according to Af Klint, the world was not yet ready for its spiritual message. This led to an entire body of work remaining intact and untouched by the market; it’s like a time-capsule but one which is remarkably fresh in the way it relates to art now.

In fact, Af Klint’s work has taken even longer than she imagined to command the art world’s attention: it was shown internationally for the first time by Maurice Tuchman in his exhibition ‘On The Spiritual in Art’ at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986. More recently, she was given a solo show at the Camden Arts Centre in 2006 and she was one of three women artists included in the ‘3 × Abstraction’ exhibition at the Drawing Center in New York in 2005 alongside another medium, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin. Catherine de Zegher, the curator of the Drawing Center exhibition, insisted on the generative role of a spiritual Utopianism for women artists, who were otherwise constrained by social as well as artistic conventions, whilst at the same time complicating all the old myths about the spiritual in art that the earlier exhibition had celebrated.

But it wasn’t until the much more thorough retrospective curated by Iris Müller-Westermann at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm earlier this year that we had the opportunity to fully examine what the work Af Klint made so prolifically as a spiritualist means as a body of art (the exhibition is currently at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin). That is to say, her vast oeuvre, made in the name of the occult and never exhibited, has finally entered the world. How we view these paintings is a challenge to existing narratives about how art gets produced. Whilst we need to address how it was possible historically for a woman artist to create these often very decorative as well as highly abstract paintings when she did, we also need to think about how her work has been de facto ‘born’ latterly, as we encounter it now over a hundred years later and understand it from a contemporary perspective.

The argument that Af Klint was a pioneer of abstract art who has been unfairly excluded from the canonic histories because she was a woman and a spiritualist (and is still excluded from major exhibitions, such as ‘Inventing Abstraction, 1910 – 1925’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012–13) might seem initially seductive. However, it also rests on some misconceptions, not least in its preoccupation with a pioneer rhetoric that is a throwback to traditional Modernist preoccupations with the origin myths of abstraction. It is undeniable that many early 20th century abstract painters drew on spiritualism to fuel their artistic projects but this does not mean their interest in occult sources exhausts the meaning of the work. Nor should we assume that Af Klint’s paintings and drawings, any more than Kandinsky’s, can be reduced to the esoteric theosophical meanings and functions she intended for them.

A certain amount of care needs to be taken: it is likely Af Klint drew on her artistic training to fuel her spiritualist mission rather than the other way around, but still, she produced an astonishingly complex body of work. I am not sure chasing the meanings of each symbol does her images justice, yet it is clear that her schemes were elaborate symbol-systems, and so out of kilter with the project of abstraction as the historical avant-garde most ambitiously conceived it: hers was a personal cosmology at odds with models of social and revolutionary utopianism. So, if she counts, which I think she does, we need a more elastic approach to the history of abstraction.

It is Af Klint’s interiority — the very fact that her work was not public-facing or socially Utopian in any direct sense — that is its extraordinary force. If Af Klint believed her paintings were supernaturally ‘dictated’ to her, then she was merely a recording instrument, which gave her license to create images that were not constrained by prevailing conditions of naturalistic representation. As a woman artist, this had even greater transgressive potential. Not only did it allow her to make what I would call ‘spiritual diagrams’, but also to work collectively with a group of other women — known as The Five — to produce automatist drawings in a state of trance. This was the 1890s, but compares with the famous Surrealist trance sessions some 30 years later.

It is more enlightening to situate Af Klint’s work in an image-world rather than a spirit-world. Even though her paintings do not obey the laws of composition she was taught in the Academy, they do relate to well established historical conventions for drawing diagrams, not only in esoteric but in scientific sources. It is striking to note how much Af Klint’s abstractions owe to the diagrams found in the science of optics — which, of course, schematizes the working of light — such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s seminal Theory of Colours (1810) with which she was no doubt familiar.

Of course, despite the prevalence of the revelation of light through prisms and other motifs and symbols, the parallels between the scientific and spiritual realms are not confined to optics. The notion of being a recording instrument relates to shifts in technologies that were gaining pace during the period in which the artist was making her most radical works. From this point of view, the artist as a ‘receptor’ becomes more like a technological apparatus and, as such, almost an allegory for the art-making process itself. Even the word ‘medium’, in its conventional artistic sense, comes into play here, as if painting works by picking up traces and transmitting past to future. This is, after all, what art does.

The trope of being a receiver is permissive in the most important way, as it had been for the visionary William Blake, who was able to make subversive imagery of a kind that was at the edge of what was possible to paint in his time, where conventional expectations of the right and wrong way to paint a picture were temporarily suspended. In Af Klint’s case — for example in the extensive series that she made between 1915 and 1920, such as ‘World Religions’ — being a receiver made it possible for her to not to prime the raw canvas but leave parts of it bare, so the oil seeps out from a series of geometric shapes. It also allowed her to leave in pencil lines, as well as all sorts of tiny errors, mistakes and diaristic notes, such as dates, series numbers and so on. In the larger-scale works, it permitted her to paint in flat, affectless colour — purples, reds, violets, pinks, blacks — without worrying about the direction or texture or facture of the strokes. These are the aspects that make them significant as paintings rather than mission-statements. Not everything that is interesting about them as paintings, I suspect, is explicable in terms of the occulted meanings that they contain.

In the end, though, it is neither simply the elaborately encrypted symbols nor the formal characteristics alone that mark out Af Klint’s work, but the fact that she created an entirely self-generated and self-generating system. Her paintings show very vividly the systematic character of image-making and the relationality that drives all symbol-formation. Once triggered, it seems the problem was not where to start but where to stop — the proliferation of her various series is striking for its sheer excess. Surely, part of the interest in her work is the way that it demonstrates so vividly this drive to make art, under whatever name you care to call it. Af Klint is not the only medium to have produced abstract images but, as a professionally trained artist, she is no ‘outsider’ either, even though her current exposure is arguably part of a wider cultural interest in the personal cosmologies of the untrained and self-taught. Though this trend can veer perilously close to a mystificatory as well as mystic re-enchantment of a culture in trouble, it can also reveal to us the possibility of bringing art and life together in the most compelling as well as compulsive of ways.

Af Klint’s paintings and drawings can be seen as ecstatic diagrams rendering a visionary artistic process and, as such, a different order of knowledge. Contemporary artists such as Susan Hiller and Lindsay Seers have critically tapped into the same kind of supernatural fields to subvert what we think we know. It is not anteriority — who came first in the history of abstraction — that matters, but interiority, here turned radically outwards onto multiple series of self-generating and hyper-sensitive geometries. Not to believe in, but positively to try to wrest her paintings from the mythologies surrounding their production is not to diminish Af Klint’s contribution but to face its consequences and contingencies — as indeed it has been, flung into a future which is now — as art. From this point of view, Af Klint’s work forces us to think again about how images come into being, both in the sense of how they get made and how they come to circulate in the world.

Briony Fer is a writer on modern and contemporary art who lives London, UK. Her books include On Abstract Art (1997), The Infinite Line (2004) and Eva Hesse: Studiowork (2008). She is Professor of History of Art at University of College London. 

Issue 2

First published in Issue 2

October 2013

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