04 Dec Hilma af Klint, the Woman Who Painted the Future
“That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular, and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called ‘visions,’ the whole so-called ‘spirit-world,’ death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out by life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.”
“You have mystery service ahead, and will soon enough realize what is expected of you”
“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” : a Swedish woman, born in 1862, was making ravishing abstract paintings on an enormous scale several years ahead of the modern artists usually credited with inventing abstraction — men such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and Frantisek Kupka. This fact — news to many — forces a rewrite of art history. As such, it deserves all the emphasis it has been getting. But the show — perhaps the most mind-altering, historically significant event of the year in art — is more interesting than even its headline.
Klint made these paintings thinking she was taking instructions from a brotherhood of spiritual sages communicating telepathically from Tibet. So, a question arises: Does the image of Klint attending Stockholm séances with her four female friends (they called themselves the Five) and channeling invisible guides they called Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg and Gregor dilute the significance of her achievement, or need it have no effect at all? Klint’s spiritual convictions were by no means out of step with the times. Spiritualism was part of the intellectual climate in Europe at the turn of the century and attempts to communicate with higher levels of consciousness were common. Kandinsky, Mondrian, Kupka and Malevich were all influenced to some degree by an interest in the occult, and by theosophy in particular.
Established in New York by the Russian émigré Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy was a fast-spreading spiritualist movement that sought to reconcile Eastern philosophy and religion with its Western counterparts. Addressing itself to Darwin’s theory of evolution, to the invisible forces (X-rays, atomic particles, radio waves) recently uncovered by science and to a growing awareness of relativism in religion, it sought to lend stability to the era’s dizzying intellectual flux. Much of the order it posited seems ridiculous in retrospect. But many great minds were drawn to it.
Klint participated in her first séances in 1879, at age 17. Her sister died the next year. She enrolled to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the 1880s soon after the school began admitting women. After graduating with honors, she pursued an active public career, accepting portrait commissions, exhibiting landscapes, making exquisite scientific illustrations and joining the board of the Association of Swedish Women Artists, even as her heart’s desire was secretly blossoming into the 20th century’s first and most splendid abstract paintings. When the Theosophical Society opened its Swedish lodge in 1889, Klint immediately joined. Seven years later, she and the rest of the Five began participating in séances and communicating with the High Masters in Tibet. They practiced automatic drawing — a form of channeling the unconscious, or unseen spirits, later practiced by the surrealists and their progeny, including Pollock.
Fearing madness, the other members of the Five pulled back from acting as mediums. So, in 1903, Klint took over as the group’s conduit to the High Masters, two of whom (Georg and Ananda, if you’re wondering) urged her to build a temple the next year.
A century on, what are we to make of a story that attributes groundbreaking artistic innovation to séances, telepathy and spiritualist hokum? I think a bit of imagination is in order. First, we might ask: What was it like being an intelligent, middle-class young woman in Sweden at the turn of the last century? What was it like, in the wake of the death of a sister, arriving at a passionate belief — deriving not from ignorance but from education in science, art, and comparative religion — in the existence of worlds beyond the observable one? And what was it like as a woman facing near-constant condescension and exclusion, possibly even fear of madness?
Hilma af Klint in Stockholm, ca. 1910. (Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm/Courtesy The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm)
In what sanctuary, given these conditions, might you seek consolation, meaning and stimulus? In four female friends, perhaps, and a regular routine of meditative gatherings, and a spiritual system established by a woman. In 1914, months before the outbreak of a war so catastrophic it would spark a civilizational and spiritual crisis, Klint exhibited some of her conventional, naturalistic paintings in the Baltic Exhibition in Malmö, Sweden. In the same exhibition, Kandinsky exhibited the abstract works that were already revolutionizing modern art. What must it have felt like, at that moment, to be Hilma af Klint? Her temple paintings, made several years before Kandinsky’s first abstractions, languished unseen in her studio. But perhaps she didn’t care. She may have been more interested in her own spiritual progress than in claiming her rightful place in the history of modern art.
“Life, is a farce if a person does not serve truth.”
Text by Sebastian Smee / Susanna Barla