Hilma af Klint: Painting a Soul’s Journey

Easter Day, Orthodox, 2019

 

 

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY has seen the largest attendance they have ever seen and this for the work of the Swedish artist and spiritual pilgrim, Hilma af Klint, 1862-1944.

 

             

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The Guggenheim, NY during this exhibition, April 2019

 

 

Its exhibition of her works, Paintings of the Future, has closed after six months attended by more than 600,000 visitors. 

 

 

 

 

On the left, unknown date.  On the right, Hilma af Klint in the early 1900s

 

 

 

This work piques curiosity and has an appeal beyond the traditional art community. 

This is for its other-worldly beauty and symmetry and vivid colour and for the mystery of its creation and history: 

 

The artist began her work under the channeled direction of spiritual intermediaries.  She continued after 1912 by interpreting messages which she received from her spiritual guides.  After 1916 and for the rest of her life, she worked under own agency.

She and her family held her work privately for decades; and have subsequently protected it from entry into the art market.

 

 

 

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The Guggenheim, NY during this exhibition, April 2019

 

 

Hilma af Klint trained as an artist.

She made three kinds of paintings.  The first conventional landscapes and portraits.  The second botanical drawings.  She sold these to make a living.

 

 

DSC05664Ketty, oil on canvas, n.d.

 

 

 

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Summer Landscape, 1888, oil on canvas.  Dorsia Hotel, Gothenburg, Sweden

 

 

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Poppies, 1890s, detail, watercolour, ink and graphite on paper

 

 

 

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Portrait Study of a Sitting Woman, 1918?, charcoal, crayon and graphite on paper

 

 

 

The third kind of painting was an exploration of  aspects of our spiritual life, each subject expanded in a dedicated series.

 

These are abstract paintings, patterned, coloured and  freighted with symbols.  They represent the artist’s received wisdom about the spiritual life and, after 1916, her own wisdom.

 

This wisdom was informed by her almost lifelong adherence to the Lutheran Church and her readings in Buddhism,  Rosicrucianism, and Theosophy with its Buddhist and Hindu antecedents and emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge through mystical experience.

In 1908, Rudolf Steiner initiated her into his Anthroposophical ideas and she visited him several times thereafter.

She was open to occult beliefs and spiritualism; and was interested in Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory and the developing science of the nature of the atom.

 

 

 

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A grouping of paintings – watercolour and graphite on paper – dating from 1916 in the Parsifal series.

 

 

From 1896 onwards and for a period of more than 10 years, Hilma af Klint began to meet with four women (The Five). They created seances and were guided to create automatic drawings on paper. This practice had a very large effect on her practice of art alone.

 

 

 

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Collective Work of the Five:  Spiritual Drawing, 1903, graphite on paper

 

 

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Collective Work of the Five:  Spiritual Drawing, 1903, graphite on paper

 

 

 

During one such seance Hilma af Klint was advised by a spirit intermediary that she would create paintings to represent the immortal aspects of Man. 

Subsequently she was directed to build a temple to house these paintings.

 

The first she accomplished. The second she did not.

 

 

 

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Collective Work of the Five:  Spiritual Drawing, 1908, dry pastel on paper

 

 

No other of the five agreed to join Hilma af Klint in the charges she was delivered. 

 

 

 

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Collective Work of the Five:  Spiritual Drawing, 1908, dry pastel on paper

 

 

In 1906, she began the paintings with which she was charged: 1000 of them in which there is a core  of 193 designated for the Temple.  

She said that she channeled them.  She spent the rest of her life trying to understand the meaning of the largest of these works, The Greatest Ten.

 

 

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One of the series The Dove, 1915, oil on canvas

 

 

The paintings were never sold or disbursed.  

The artist left them to a member of her family, along with a large trove of notes, among which a very long spiritual treatise.

She asked that they not be exhibited until 20 years after her death because she was apprehensive that they might be misunderstood.  

 

 

 

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 One of the Blue Books, nd. These contained reproductions in colour and in black and white of almost all the paintings for the Temple.  These images the painter would share selectively.

 

 

 

These facts have left a mystery for art historians: whether to account for this work as ‘art’;

if it is art, what it means when the artist denies that creative agency was hers;

and how to accommodate this work in the history of Western art. 

 

 

 

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Visitors in the Guggenheim, April 2019

 

 

 

The artist kept her work close. The only display of this work shown publicly in the artist’s lifetime was in 1928  of The Altarpieces in London.  

The first ‘real’ presentation of her work was in Finland in the mid 1980s. 

With exhibitions which began in 2013 and with a commitment now from the Moderna Museet in Stockholm for professional expertise, and with dedicated space and continuous exposition at this museum, the first question has been resolved if not for the world-wide art community, at least for an important part of it. 

 

 

 

 

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The Mohammedan Standpoint, 1920, oil on canvas

 

 

What agency means in the creation of this artist and how to accommodate this work in the history of Western art will probably be a matter for debate and evaluation for years to come. 

 

 

Hilma af Klint was a trained artist. 

What she wanted, she said, was for people visiting her art to be led out of our daily reality of the dualities of light and dark, body and soul, this and that to the unity which the artist believed was lost at the creation of the world. 

 

This is a statement, of course, of spiritual and not artistic intent.

 

 

 

DSC05973Untitled, 1941,  (a late) watercolour on paper

 

 

 

 

This being the case, it is interesting to reflect whether, if Hilma af Klint‘s art is difficult to place in the history of Western art, it be would benefit from categorization with the art of many traditional and ‘pre-modern’ societies: art whose purposes are ritual or religious.

Such art, while it may contain figures, is often in non-figural, abstract forms.

 

 

 

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Art of the Coastal Salish, Pacific northwest coast, Canada and the United States

 

 

Perhaps, then, it is not Western art historical methods which should be being used to decipher this artist’s work, but anthropological methods relating to the evolution of religious and spiritual thought, and its representation and uses in society.

And the philosophical methods of the philosophy of mind.

And the poets who can sometimes see when the rest of us are stumbling blind.

 

 

 

DSC05976Untitled, 1941,  (a late) watercolour on paper

 

 

 

 

Because the fact is that Hilma af Klint‘s abstract art developed with no links to the modernist movement which began within a decade of her first such work.

 

 

 

As to the spiritual sense of this work, one would have to engage with the teachings which Hilma af Klint studied in order to make precise meaning of it.

Even then evaluation would be hard because this was her soul’s path:  an idiosyncratic mix of doctrine, practice and belief, some of which was occult.

 

 

 

 

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Untitled, 1941,  (a late) watercolour on paper

 

 

 

Hilma af Klint said herself that she struggled her whole life to understand the meaning of The Greatest Ten. 

These soul paths belong to individuals, cannot be shared and are cross-interpreted with care.

 

That this is true is supported by the fact that Rudolf Steiner in 1908, when he visited her in Sweden, discouraged the artist from using mediums even if he liked some of her work for the Temple.  He was disappointed with such use.

 

 

 

 

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Untitled, 1941,  (a late) watercolour on paper

 

 

 

The artist stopped working for four years. The extent of her disappointment cannot be known now.  She continued her reading and cared for her ailing mother.

 

And then she started again in 1912: working with messages from her spiritual intermediaries until she was done the paintings for the Temple. Her soul’s path.

 

 

 

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Visitors viewing a part of the The Greatest 10, April 2019

 

 

I cannot, then, like or dislike this work any more than that I can pronounce upon a Buddhist sand painting or an Aboriginal painting relating to The Dreamtime. 

 

It is for me only to try to understand the context of its making in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century;  and  witness the result of its creation.

 

 

 

 

 

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Series V. No. 2b and No 5, 1920, oil on canvas

 

 

 

Until 1908, the artist said that she was the medium for this work and not its creator. 

Then came a change. 

 

 

 

 

 

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No. 1, Starting Picture, 1920, oil on canvas

 

 

 

On the left, The Current Standpoint of the Mahatmas

On the right, Buddha’s Standpoint in Wordly Life; both oil on canvas, 1920

 

 

 

 

When she returned to painting in 1912 after a period caring for her mother, she no longer acknowledged her spirit guide(s) painting through her.

Instead, she received messages which she interpreted on canvas. 

 

In 1916 and to her life’s end, Hilma af Klint acknowledged her own agency and worked without guidance or messaging of any kind.  Even if, in her late watercolours, she wanted the subjects to emerge of themselves (a partnership suited to this headstrong medium?).

 

 

 

 

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No 3d+, The Christian Religion, 1920, oil on canvas

 

 

 

One wonders if this trajectory would have developed at all if Hilma af Klint had not begun her journey as a medium to move by stages to the expression of her own voice.

 

I say this for two reasons:

First, a prominent place for women in the arts  and in religious life  (in Europe certainly) was (is)  rare and Hilma af Klint was the first person in the West to paint using abstract forms.

Her presentation of herself as the originator of her work as of 1906 may well have been met with incredulity if not scorn; and then neglect. 

Second, we are all socialized in ways which are – to significant extent –  beyond our unraveling.

 

I ran and read my Ibsen, her father’s generation: 

it is not likely that Hilma af Klint was raised, an upper-middle class girl in a naval family, to live and work primarily among women, remain unmarried and childless;  and to evolve as an artist in the way she did.

Channeling is one way to break free from our remorseless restraints.

 

 

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The Guggenheim during the exposition of this artist’s work, April 2019

 

 

 

 

As to what exactly went on here with the throngs of people, women exulting, everyone absorbed and circulating quietly, and school-age children being called to order  every other minute by their docents because the paintings were pulling them away into themselves,

I am not sure.

 

 

 

 

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Viewers of The Ten Greatest

 

 

 

but I might think the following:

 

Hilma af Klint was a rare woman of whom it cannot be said that, if she had told the truth about her life, the world would have split open.

Split open, the poet meant, in the destructive sense of the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb.

  

(What would happen if one woman told the truth about 

her life?

The world would split open, Muriel Rukeyser in her poem ‘Käthe Kollwitz’).  

 

Hilma af Klint told the truth about what was most important in her life – her soul’s journey – and in so doing, the world has split open for many who have seen her work.

 

Not to let loose the customary griefs of swallowed harm, armies marching through and over our bodies, and often the underachievements of the life of a woman. 

 

But to coax into view the very rich spiritual potential of our species, a double Sapiens no less, the only one gifted with the type of consciousness with which this artist executed her spiritual legacy using her artistic skill:

with tenacity and in brilliant colour, tableau after tableau, to such spectacular effect

as a gift, an incentive, a nourishing feast for our own soul journeys.

 

 

 

 

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Untitled, 1941,  (a late) watercolour on paper

 

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Symbols

Warning that symbols cannot be taken to mean only one thing and that their meaning may shift in the context of their relationship to other symbols, the Moderna Museet, Stockhom, offers this guide to the symbols this artist uses.

The snail or spiral represents development or evolution.

The eyelet and the hook, blue and yellow, and the lily and the rose represent femininity and masculinity respectively.

W stands for matter, while U stands for spirit.

The almond shape arising when two circles overlap is called the vesica piscis and is an ancient symbol for the development towards unity and completion.

The swan represents the ethereal in many mythologies and religions and stands for completion in the alchemical tradition.

In Christianity, the dove represents the holy spirit and love.

 

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(Some) Paintings for the Temple

 

 

Primordial Chaos, 1906/07, oil on canvas

 

 

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A few works in the The Eros Series (The WU/Rose Series), 1907 

 

 

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A few works in the series called Evolution, 1908, oil on canvas

 

 

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Some works in the series named The Swan, 1915, oil on canvas

 

 

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Some works in the series called The Dove, 1915, oil on canvas

 

 

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The Ten Largest,  November and December, 1907, oil and canvas

 

 

 

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No. 5, Adulthood, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 1907

 

 

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On the left, Group IV, No. 6, Adulthood, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas

  On the right, Group IV, No. 7, Adulthood, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas

 

 

 

 

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Group IV, No. 9, Old Age, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas

 

 

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No 8, Adulthood, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas

 

 

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Group IV, No.1, Childhood; tempera on paper, mounted. Credit Albin Dahlstrom

 

 

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Group IV, No. 3, The Ten Largest, Youth, 1907

 

 

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Group IV, No. 4, Youth, 1907, tempera on paper, mounted on canvas

 

 

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In the center, Group IV, No. 2, Childhood, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas

 

 

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Group IV, No. 10, Old Age, 1907, tempera on paper, mounted on canvas

 

 

 

 

The Altarpieces, 1915, oil on canvas, embellished with gold leaf. 

The last paintings made for the Temple, these resolved the dualities depicted in  much of the artist’s work.

 

 

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Explanation from the website of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm:

Altarpieces sum up all the previous series where the spirit migrates downwards through the material world, before turning upwards again. The equilateral triangle is a central symbol in many cultures and religions. The triangle, which reaches towards the sun, can be seen as an upward development through the spheres, while the inverted triangle describes the opposite process.

In the middle of the circle in the third and final painting, two triangles are combined into a six-armed star. This star is an esoteric symbol for the universe.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Hilma af Klint: Painting a Soul’s Journey

    1. Oui, etonnants.

      They were hidden for 40 years. There was one lecture in Finland in the 1980s and no exhibition until 2013. It is hard to see them even online because they have not been available in the world.

      Here is a family who defeated the workings of the market! Amazing. Sarah

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