Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Futureby Ann McCoy
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | Through April 23, 2019
With this first American large-scale exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s profoundly moving art, it is as though a needle has been lifted from a well-worn record called “the entrenched history of abstraction,” and any attempts to place the needle back into the grove will henceforth prove difficult. The pioneering approach to the psyche by af Klint, and other women spiritualists of her period, may also require some historical revisionism, that will resonate even today. Af Klint was steeped in studies of Rosicrucian mystical and alchemical Christianity along with Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, Goethe’s Color Theory, Automatism, Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy, as well as scientific discoveries of her age. Hers is an abstraction that emerged first from the ethers under the direction of her spirit guides Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg, and Gregor, who were led by the even greater “High Masters.” Much lifeless abstraction being produced today might benefit from a séance and some aid from the astral plane; her work has a numinous dimensionality that springs from an extraordinary authentic spiritual life. Hopefully “invisibles” and other psychic phenomena, like wil–o'–wisps, may be reintroduced into today’s art conversation, which often tends to march stridently in the service of the positivistic, materialistic, and rationalistic.
There is a synchronicity in operation here, with the snail shell of the Guggenheim, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1940s, being not dissimilar to the never-realized ascending spiral temple af Klint planned in 1931 for the display of her own work. From 1906 to 1915, Af Klint created 193 paintings titled The Paintings for the Temple, a “great commission” she received from her spirit guide Amaliel in 1906. We see a selection from this series here. It is as though Tracey Bashkoff, a curator of superior sensibilities, has channeled af Klint to at long last fulfill the artist’s vision. For this critic, who has seen af Klint’s works displayed at five different venues over the years, it is as though we now see them as they were meant to be exhibited. The chapel-like Guggenheim installation of Group IV, the Ten Largest (No. 1-10) inspires reverence in the viewer as we take in af Klint’s journey from childhood through adulthood and into old age. Both af Klint’s work and the spiral installation at the Guggenheim make us feel like pilgrims on a path of assent. In our age obsessed with money and art-market madness, the purity of af Klint’s vision, aided by a foundation that will keep this body of work intact and free from the market’s tentacles, is a relief.
Af Klint was primarily a reclusive woman, never married, yet she held séances with a group of women from the Royal Academy of Arts (Stockholm) called “The Five,” traveled to Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum in Dornach, and did a European Grand Tour. Like Joseph Beuys, af Klint embraced Anthroposophy for a period (1920 - 1930), but left after finding it too restrictive; both af Klint and Beuys made art that surpassed that of Steiner and his disciples. Paintings by the Anthroposophists of that period tend to look alike, pastel-colored swirls of vapors surrounding mythological and Christian figures, along with awkward expressionist sculpture. While not embracing this aesthetic, the artist, during her Dornach residences benefited from Steiner’s re-editing of Goethe’s Theory of Colors (1810), lectures on sacred geometry and the fourth dimension, and his paradigm of architectural temple building. The scholar Linda Dalrymple Henderson has done brilliant commentary and comparison studies of af Klint’s paintings and drawings to fourth-dimensional forms. Steiner was a scientist originally, and in af Klint’s Group IX/SUW, the Swan no. 9, we see horn-like shapes filled with the transparent cubes described by Steiner in his Berlin, May 24, 1905, lectures on fourth-dimensional space.
Many modern scholars tend to dismiss the occult as a curious relic since debunked. Frankfurters like Ernst Bloch and Theodore Adorno abhorred Steiner, and felt all occult studies were to be avoided like the plague, and lead directly to Himmler’s Grail Castle. It is curious that this theoretical lockdown has produced a revolt, of sorts, by mavericks like Harry E. Smith. Imponderable: The Archives of Tony Oursler (2016), Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale inclusion of Steiner’s blackboards and Jung’s Red Book, and exhibitions like NYU’s Language of the Birds: Occult and Art (2016) and the 2015 Istanbul Biennial SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, are door openers.
It is easy to take a sociological fix on women of the period embracing spiritualism to escape the restrictions of the patriarchy; this is true but also diminishes their contributions. Dynamic, trailblazing spiritualists like Victoria Woodhull (libertine, Suffragette, and first woman to run for U.S. president) and af Klint, who relied on spirit guides, had a direct relationship to what Carl Jung called the animus, or soul guide in the unconscious, which is often projected upon a male figure. Jung, whose mother was a spiritualist, participated in séances and did extensive research into the psychology of the occult. Helena Blavatsky (a cofounder of the Theosophy movement) and af Klint were both encyclopedists, and they produced original and significant bodies of scholarly writing. They made their own inroads into the unconscious and the spiritual realm, and did not need psychologists like Sigmund Freud or Pierre Janet to dismiss them as hysterics, or to interpret their research. Af Klint also studied her period’s advances in science and wrote about subjects like atoms, ethers, and higher dimensional space. The exhibition visitor can only dream of the day when more of af Klint’s notebooks appear in translation.
Mesmerism and Swedenborgian ideas had been part of a European conversation decades before af Klint. Invisible forces had occupied artists such as Futurist Umberto Boccioni, who felt painting should portray that which was previously regarded as invisible, and the artist should be a clairvoyant and medium. Georgiana Houghton (1814 – 84), an English spiritualist artist whose work resembles much of the artwork around Steiner, with its abstract swirls, has recently been rediscovered. What sets af Klint apart is her scale, bold abstraction, and geometric forms unlike anything seen before. Her Group IV, The Ten Largest (1907) dwarfs the works of Kazimir Malevich and artists of her period in scale. Af Klint’s work is stylistically radical, although her interests in mediumship, Automatism, and Theosophy were shared by many artists of her period.
Pavel Florensky, Rudolf Steiner, and others wrote about the relationship of the spiritual to science. Tessel M. Bauduin, in a catalogue essay, discusses two of the artist’s series dealing with scientific topics: “The Atom Series” (1917), and “Evolution” (1907). New discoveries following the deconstruction of the atom led to new transparency of perception: X-rays (1895), radioactive decay (1896), and electromagnetism. Waves, rays, and energetic forces abound in works like Group IX/UW No.25, the Dove No.1 (1915) and Group IX/UW No.27, the Dove No.3 (1915). Catalogue reproductions of Theosophist Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater’s drawing Occult Chemistry: A series of Clairvoyant Observations on the Chemical Elements (1908) loop the scientific back to the occult. Today we see similar happenings in physics, where the concept of “observer shift” can be found in alchemical literature of the fifteenth century.
This exhibition feels inspired, not merely curated, and this critic left bowed and grateful to the Hilma af Klint Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and curator Tracey Bashkoff. After seeing selections of the work at other venues, it has been worth the wait to see it displayed as intended. Bashoff’s research into Hilla Rebay’s (another Theosophist and Steiner disciple) advisement of the Guggenheim collection, links two women who never met but shared similar ideas for the planning of temples in which to house art. The title, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, says a lot. It is as though, in our apocalyptic time, we need af Klint’s work now more than ever, and the purity of vision and intent it represents.
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and frequent contributor to The Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design.