Hilma af Klint: a soul’s journey

 

In 2019, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY saw the largest attendance it had ever seen and this for the work of the Swedish artist and spiritual pilgrim, Hilma af Klint, 1862-1944.

 

            

   Hilma af Klint in the early 1900s. 

Unknown provenance.

 

 

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

 

 

 

A young man in front of Group IV,  No. 4, Youth, 1907, tempera on paper, mounted on canvas

 

 

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;  for the mystery of its creation and guardianship.

 

 

 

The Guggenheim, NY during this exhibition, April 2019

 

 

The artist died in 1944.

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

 

Her abstract paintings have never been 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.

 

Hilma af Klint asked that the paintings not be exhibited until 20 years after her death because she was apprehensive that they might be misunderstood. 

 

 

 

 

The Guggenheim, NY during this exhibition, April 2019

 

 

 

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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 her spiritual life, each subject expanded into a dedicated series.

 

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

 

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 (1861-1925, Austrian) initiated her into his Anthroposophical ideas. 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).

 

The Five conducted sé​ances (in which there was widespread interest at the turn of this century).  The Five were guided to create automatic drawings on paper.

 

This practice had a large effect on Hilma af Klint‘s practice of art when she came to work alone.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

During one such sé​ance Hilma af Klint was advised by a spirit intermediary that

 

she would create paintings “to represent the immortal aspects of Man.”

 

She said that she was the channel for these creations.

 

It was also during a sé​ance that the artist heard a voice telling her to paint “on an astral plane” in order “to proclaim a new philosophy of life.” 

 

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. 

 

In 1906, the artist began the paintings.

 

Channeling these creations, the artist said that, while she had no idea what she was supposed to depict, nevertheless she worked “swiftly and surely without changing a single brushstroke.”

 

1000 paintings in which there is a core  of 193 designated for The Temple.

 

 

 

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

 

 

Hilma af Klint 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 of The Dove, 1915, oil on canvas

 

 

 

 

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 One of the Blue Books. 

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 the 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

 

 

Between her death and the exhibition at the Guggenheim, very few exhibitions of her work were held. 

 

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

 

The first exhibition of a larger representation of her work was in Finland in the mid-1980s. 

 

Her paintings are now in the care of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

 

A 7-volume catalogue raisonné has recently been finalized:

 

HILMA AF KLINT: Catalogue Raisonné (Bokförlaget Stolpe); editors:  Kurt Almqvist and Daniel Birnbaum. 2022.

 

With exhibitions which began in 2013

and with a commitment from the Moderna Museet for professional expertise, and with dedicated space and continuous exposition at this museum,

and with the publication of a catalogue raisonné

 

the first question – is this art? – has been resolved if not for the world-wide art community, at least for a part of it. 

 

The artist’s work has been placed in the vanguard of the movement from realism to non-representational work.

 

 

 

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The Mohammedan Standpoint, 1920, oil on canvas

 

 

The artist claimed that the agency for her work after 1906 was outside of her control, beyond her consciousness, and firmly, flawlessly directive of her hand/eye.

 

This agency is a mystery as is her subject matter.

 

 

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,

good and evil

this and that

 

to the unity which the artist believed was lost at the creation of the world. 

 

This is a statement of the non-dual principle; 

and of course, of spiritual and not artistic intent. 

 

Her work used colour, geometry, biomorphology, botany, and religious and occult symbolism.

 

 

 

DSC05973Untitled, 1941,  (a late) watercolour on paper

 

 

 

It is interesting to reflect if Hilma af Klint‘s art 

would benefit from study techniques of the art of traditional and ‘pre-modern’ societies.

 

This art is often a spiritual practice to express a spiritual value.

 

This art seeks to accommodate individuals to an identification with the common good necessary for a people to flourish on earth;

to reveal to the individual his/her place in the biological and cosmological world;

and to prepare the individual for the inevitability of his/her death that Life may endure.

 

Such art is often non-figural and abstract.

 

 

 

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

 

 

Labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral, France. Credit Sylvain Sonnet/Corbis

 

 

 

Perhaps, then, as well as Western art historical methods, this artist’s work might usefully be studied with anthropological methods relating to the evolution of religious and spiritual thought, and its representation and uses in society.

 

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

 

 

 

DSC05976Untitled, 1941,  (a late) watercolour on paper

 

 

 

Hilma af Klint‘s abstract art developed with no links to the modernist movement which began outside Sweden within a decade after her first work

among artists she did not know and who did not know her.

 

 

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

 

Even then evaluation would be hard because this was her soul’s path: 

 

an idiosyncratic mix of intuition, doctrine, practice and belief, some of which was occult. 

This mix related to the evolution of her consciousness in the particular, unique experiences of her life.

 

 

 

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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

 

 

For my part, I believe that soul paths, are made by individuals – sometimes with the aid of others and even paralleling others’ –

but that they cannot be shared with anyone else for very much of their length without a loss of meaning and direction. 

 

Soul paths are built of the materials of our unique experiences and are cross-interpreted with care.

 

That this is true in the case of this artist is supported by the fact that Rudolf Steiner, an important mentor of the artist’s and a philosophically and spiritually experienced man,

discouraged  the artist when he visited her in Sweden in 1908 from using mediums even if he liked some of her work for the Temple. 

He expressed his disappointment with such use.

 

 

 

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Untitled, 1941,  (a late) watercolour on paper

 

 

 

The artist stopped cold and painted nothing for four years after this visit.

She continued her reading and cared for her ailing mother.

 

And then she started painting again in 1912:

working with messages – which she interpreted – from her spiritual intermediaries until she was done the paintings for the Temple

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 The Current Standpoint of the Mahatmas, 1920, oil on canvas

 

 

 

Buddha’s Standpoint in Worldly Life; oil on canvas, 1920

 

 

 

Four years later, starting 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 whose flow over paper is hard to control?).

 

 

 

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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  was (is, everywhere?)  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 in 1906 may well have been met with a discouraging incredulity, if not scorn.

 

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

 

Is it likely that Hilma af Klint, who was raised, an upper-middle class girl in a naval family,  deciding to live and work primarily among women,

could remain unmarried and childless; to evolve as an artist in the way she did?

 

Channeling was, perhaps, one way to break free from these societal restraints.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

I cannot like or dislike this work any more than I can like or dislike 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 experience how the work meets the artist’s stated intent.

 

 

 

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Visitors viewing paintings in the series: The Greatest 10. April 2019

 

 

 

As to what exactly went on at the Guggenheim with the throngs of people,

women exulting, everyone absorbed and circulating quietly,

and school-age children being called over every other minute by their adults because the paintings were pulling them away from their groups and into their own quietness……..

 

I am not sure.

 

 

 

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Viewers of The Ten Greatest

 

 

 

Hilma af Klint persisted in the expression of a truth in her life – her soul’s journey

and in so doing, the world may have split open for some who have seen her work.

 

One would say she documented the ways and means of her spiritual journey: ways and means constructed first under tutelage and then under her own autonomous authority.

 

The means here are of her own soul’s journey; as ours must also be of ours;

 

even if our paths – as hers was – are freighted with the disappointment and discouragement of others, and troubled by our contravention of our conventional social norms.

 

Hilma af Klint’s means and ways are a sacred legacy of an example and an encouragement to us.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Hilma af Klint: a soul’s journey

  1. I like her conventional paintings, the ones she showed to the world, but after reading what you write about her evolution as a painter, I find the “spiritual” ones really fascinating!

  2. I agree and find most heartening of all the fact that she persisted in a path which where she was alone and felt she had to be careful for the misunderstanding and the disapproval that might come of her abstract paintings.

    Now everything has changed in the reception of her work!

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