Occultist, mystic, painter: the life and legacy of Hilma af Klint
When Hilma af Klint died in 1944 at the age of 81, her last wish was that her occultist oeuvre – which comprises more than 1,000 paintings and drawings – should not be exhibited until 20 years after her death. As fate would have it, it took substantially longer for the work to resurface. It wasn’t until 1987 that Maurice Tuchman included Af Klint in his exhibition ‘The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985’ at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). So secular have western societies become that interest in the work of artists like Af Klint (devoted to the spiritual, mystical and occult), not to mention exhibitions of the calibre of Tuchman’s, has been rare, if not an oddity. Aside from ‘The Spiritual in Art’, Jane and John Dillenberger’s 1977 exhibition ‘Perceptions of the Spirit in 20th-Century American Art’ and a few others, there was little else notable in the closing decades of the last century. Historian John Dillenberger argued that lacma mounting an exhibition with ‘the subject matter of the spiritual in art represents a major shift in contemporary sensibilities. Two decades ago this would have been unthinkable.’2
More than two decades later it still seems unthinkable. Findings by the World Values Survey (an international academic research project) suggest that Dillenberger’s claim for shifting sensibilities was woefully premature. For decades, religion’s declining authority has been steady, especially in post-industrial countries. As one unfaltering indicator, attendance at religious services across all denominational groups stands at 26 percent worldwide.3 The Inglehart Values Map, which visualizes the correlations between traditional–religious and secular–rational values across numerous countries, clearly indicates a strong contrast between the dwindling number of nations in which religion remains an important value and those where it is increasingly losing ground.4 Indeed, the country which shows the strongest belief in secular–rational and self-expression values (as opposed to ‘survival values’) is Af Klint’s home country of Sweden. And yet fresh research conducted this year by the international future forecasting firm Quattroporte indicates that a shift in sensibilities. Conducted among 1,200 individuals in Sweden, the study revealed a number of surprising spiritual trends. According to Peter Majanen, the future forecaster who organized the research, ‘there is a strong interest in the spiritual among 15–19 year olds in the study. I believe that people born in the ’90s will be a spiritual generation. This generation is actually twice as interested in spirituality as compared with the oldest age group, 65 and older. Their value system, what they believe in, includes reincarnation, life after death, and psychic powers.’5
One early conclusion is that ‘Spiritual Capital’ – the term referring to the benefits of spiritual development in individuals – seems to be on the rise, even if church attendance in Sweden remains at four percent. Of course, there is a significant divergence between attending religious services and a belief in a spiritual life. Majanen continues: ‘This is something new – we didn’t see it among the same age group ten or 20 years ago. What the study also tells us is that it seems to be a growing belief in spirituality without a connection to traditional religions.’6 Because Sweden is one of the most secular countries in the world, the unexpected results of this study may be the harbinger of something global.
Since the early 20th century the default setting for the rapport between modern art and religion has been anticlerical. Max Ernst’s The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: A.B., P.E. and the Artist (1926) may be the wittiest example, while Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph, Piss Christ, which stirred up more theoretical moonshine than any other Postmodern relic, remains memorable only for its adolescent awfulness. Nevertheless, the question remains: what does it mean to make religious art within a secular age? Apart from a highly individualized practice, as in the case of the devout Catholic Henry Darger, where the Christian nation of Abbiennia always wins out against the atheist Glandelinia (two fictional nations that Darger dreamt up), the answer is: not much. There’s simply no longer the audience in most western societies to invest religious art with the meaning and relevance it once had. However, if we turn the question around to ask what it means to make spiritual art within a secular age, then we might find some creditable answers – from Tuchman’s exhibition to Suzi Gablik’s contemplation of the spiritual in her The Reenchantment of Art (1991), which begins with this sentence: ‘This book is a sustained meditation on how we might restore to our culture its sense of aliveness, possibility and magic.’7
It’s crucial to make a distinction between religious art, which is largely dormant, and emerging forms of spiritual art which correspond to the aforementioned idea of a ‘belief in spirituality without a connection to traditional religions’.8 Quite a few younger artists manifest an interest in spiritual, mystical and occult dimensions in their work as expressions of ‘authenticity’ within a culture they read as inauthentic as the result of relativism, the ambiguities of Postmodernism and fashionable pessimism. Improbably, many of them they have a common interest: Hilma af Klint.
Af Klint was an old-school spiritualist who believed that she channelled psychic and esoteric messages from the so-called High Masters – who existed in another dimension – into abstract paintings. Between 1906 and 1915 she completed ‘Paintings for the Temple’ (182 paintings divided into a number of different series) in which she sought to represent the path towards the reconciliation of spirituality with the material world, along with other dualities: faith and science, men and women, good and evil. She used seances to make contact with ‘the other side’, and saw her paintings and drawings as symbolizing, if not inspiring, the cosmic equilibrium the High Masters told her to seek. She recorded that one of them, Gregor, spoke to her, saying: ‘All the knowledge that is not of the senses, not of the intellect, not of the heart but is the property that exclusively belongs to the deepest aspect of your being […] the knowledge of your spirit.’9 This was the knowledge Af Klint sought to reveal in her paintings, as for example in No. 30 (1907) from ‘Series WU (Rose), Group 2’: the pastel painting of four heart shapes forming a cross is covered with esoteric script. Af Klint explained the language in a notebook from 1907 writing: ‘The purpose of these letters is to prepare the way for a symbolic language which existed in all times and is now assigned creative spirits to re-write down to humanity.’10
Af Klint’s earthly influences ran the gambit from Rudolf Steiner, the mystic philosopher and founder of Anthroposophy, to Annie Besant, the clairvoyant and advocate of women’s rights, who became President of the Theosophical Society. Af Klint worked with ‘The Five’, a group of women who shared her belief in the High Masters; they devoted themselves to tracing, in art and literature, the system of mystical thought passed down to them. Af Klint would make drawings during seances when she was psychically untethered; working in her studio, she often attained a transcendent state, understood as first-person expressions of her spirit.
The first painting Af Klint made in a meditative state was Ur-Chaos (1906): a biomorphic shape is covered with what can only be described as a form of automatic drawing. On the same day she made this significant picture, Af Klint described what happened as she meditated: ‘Amaliel sign a draft, then let H paint. The idea is to produce a nucleus from which the evolution is based in rain and storm, lightning and storms. Then come leaden clouds above.’11 The title refers to the original chaos or the state of unpredictability. The Theosophical Society also influenced artistic contemporaries of the Swedish artist such as Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich; spiritualism was obviously in the air, but how much interest Af Klint had for continental abstraction is hard to know. What we do know is that by 1892 she had started to explore automatic drawing in prayers and seances – 30 years before the Surrealists.
More than a century later, Fredrik Söderberg makes paintings using Sigilization – a method by which geometric symbols are generated with a magical purpose in mind – symbols that the artist believes possess the power to trigger psychic insight. The sigil symbolic system is associated with the visionary artist and magician Austin Osman Spare (1886–1956) and his ‘alphabet of desire’; in most respects it provides the foundation of Söderberg’s ‘chaos magic’. The essence or spiritual power of each symbol is known only to Söderberg and he makes solemn claims for his art spawning alternative experiences, especially where the mysteries of life are concerned. In this sense, Söderberg’s art – while being earnest, proactive, pre-scientific and post-critical – discovers new spiritual vistas. His art is allergic to irony. The ‘sacred geometry’ in a painting such as Summer Solstice II (2010) – a complex and ascending maze that alludes to temple architecture – is where he finds his comfort within the realm of the esoteric and occult, especially from the teachings and prophecies of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a complex fusion of teaching and ritual magical practice. To stare into Söderberg’s paintings is to see the hand of a seeker; like Af Klint, his art instrumentalizes his spiritual search.
While her iconography is far more subtle than Söderberg’s, Agnieszka Brzezanska has committed her art to drawing back the veil on unseen worlds. In Occultation (2009) she opens the door to galactic mysteries. In its style and composition Occultation recalls a number of Af Klint’s cosmological paintings from ‘Paintings for the Temple’. The scene appears as an improvisation on the effect of a total solar eclipse known as Baily’s Beads (after Francis Baily, who first noted the phenomenon in 1836). As the sun disappears behind the moon and then re-emerges, the rugged lunar topography, in play with the light of the sun, creates bright ‘beads’ along the edge of the lunar silhouette. Generally speaking, ‘occultation’ occurs when one object is hidden by another that passes between it and the observer. Occultation is the perfect metaphor for Brzezanska’s ambition to reveal experiences shrouded from the rational. Just as the phenomenon of the bead effect is only made visible through a total eclipse, spiritual experiences are imperceptible unless seen through the portal of her pictures. Brzezanska has a charming touch, even a droll manner towards the magnitude of the mystical subjects she addresses. In a 2002 interview she quipped: ‘I had been planning a trip to the end of the world for years.’12 In her paintings and photographs, she makes that trip over and again, opening up the spiritual world where this world ends.
Besant shared Af Klint’s ambition to frame psychic phenomena as a science; the path that would satisfy not only the High Masters but lend creditability to what seemed, to many, incredulous. In Thought Forms, the book Besant published in 1901 with C.W. Leadbeater, she writes: ‘Telepathy, clairvoyance, movement without contact, though not yet admitted to the scientific table, are approaching the Cinderella-stage. The fact is that science has pressed its researches so far, has used such rare ingenuity in its questionings of nature, has shown such tireless patience in its investigations, that it is receiving the reward of those who seek, and forces and beings of the next higher plane of nature are beginning to show themselves on the outer edge of the physical field.’13 As a clairvoyant theosophist, Besant claimed to be able to see the psychic auras around people, or ‘thought forms’ emanating from, for example, the music of Richard Wagner. Sometimes she reached too far, as when she wrote that Dr Hippolyte Baraduc, the French psychical researcher who was trying to obtain photographic ‘proof’ of auras, ‘had nearly crossed the barrier, and is well on the way towards photographing astro-mental images, to obtaining pictures of what from the materialistic standpoint would be the results of vibrations in the grey matter of the brain.’14
Besant’s aim was aligned with Steiner’s Anthroposophy, which claims the existence of an objective spiritual world that can be understood rationally and nurtured as sovereign experiences, set aside from experiences grounded in nominal phenomenology. Steiner’s notion of Geisteswissenschaft, or the science of spirituality, was an expression of his aspiration to bring to the spirit world the same exactitude and transparency that we assume in the natural sciences.
Attempting to elevate a scientific appreciation of imperceptible worlds, Christine Ödlund has picked up the threads left by Steiner and Besant. Her art explores claims about mystical, spiritual and occult worlds as if they were scientific hypotheses. Atlantis (2008), a highly detailed animation of decidedly exotic but convincing life-forms, bridges the gap between mystery and evidence, planting the question ‘what if?’ – for example, what if Atlantis, the legendary island first mentioned by Plato, was as real as it appears to be in her animation? Ödlund’s art celebrates Besant’s maxim that the ‘denial of all outside of our own limited experience is absurd’. As spiritual–scientific hypotheses her work is never entirely persuasive, but crucially, this doesn’t worry Ödlund or her fellow travellers in the spirit world. Her work is in league with theoretical astronomy’s claims for stellar black hole ‘candidates’, which they can only speculate exist. In Thought-Form (2009), Ödlund pays homage to Besant’s influence and inspiration by breathing animated life into the 1901 drawing Besant made of the ‘thought form’ she witnessed rising from the music of Charles Gounod. Without making the sort of errant claims Besant made for Dr Baraduc, Ödlund is actively and systematically producing enough wonder about the imperceptible realm to give us pause.
What does all of this mean? Is there an audience for spiritual art that recognizes it as meaningful, who will lend it relevance in the larger world? This much can be said: there are emerging artists – many more than the three discussed here – who have become a new audience for Af Klint and other occultists from the last century. And if Majanen’s estimation is correct – that the generation born in the 1990s will be a spiritual generation – then it seems likely that the audience will expand rapidly. Significantly, the reappearance of the spiritual in art doesn’t signal a growing commitment to religious life but rather a longing for authenticity and this may tell us more about the after-effects of Postmodernism and relativism than anything else.
There are other cultural symptoms to recognize, from Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love (2006) to Terry Eagleton’s celebrated book Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009), which sit comfortably next to the rise of spiritual art; they all hover between mystery and evidence. It’s too soon to say what it all signifies for this moment in time, but it brings to mind the story of Bertrand Russell speaking in public about his devotion to atheism. In the questions that followed his talk, a woman asked: ‘And, Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?’ Russell thought for a moment and replied, ‘I will say: “I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.”’
1 Annie Besant, Annie Besant: an Autobiography, Fisher Unwin, London, 1908, p.237
2 John Dillenberger, ‘The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985 by Maurice Tuchman at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Abbeville’, Los Angeles Times, 22 February, 1987 Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005, p.64, based on the World Values Surveys, cf. www.worldvaluessurvey.org
5 Peter Majanen, ‘Values, Spirituality and Traditional Religious Practice’, representative study among 1200 Swedes, conducted March 2010 by Quattroporte, presented at a seminar in Stockholm, 22 March 2010
7 Suzy Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames & Hudson, London and New York, 1991, p.1
8 Peter Majanen, ibid.
9 Sally O’Reilly, ‘Hilma af Klint’, frieze, issue 90, April 2005, p.106
10 Åke Fant, Hilma af Klint. Ockult målarinna och abstrakt pionjär, Stockholm, 1989, p.38
11 Ibid., p.37
12 Quinn Latimer, ‘Agnieszka Brzezanska’, Modern Painters, September 2006–January 2007
13 Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, Thought Forms, London, 1901, p.11–12
14 Ibid., p.12
Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.
Liv Stoltz is a freelance curator currently working with the Experience Design Group at Konstfack, University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, Sweden. She has organized numerous exhibitions, and worked as curator and Director of the CFF Centre for Photography in Stockholm.
First published in Issue 135