September 2021

Arts & Letters

A shock of renewal: ‘Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings’

By Quentin Sprague

The transcendent works of the modernist who regarded herself not an artist but a medium

The paintings of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint – a cusp-of-the-modern visionary who created a “secret” body of abstract-seeming art in the early 20th century, and who, more than half a century since her death, has come to secure near-universal acclaim – arrive freighted with the kind of backstory that risks obscuring the work itself.

Many readers will be aware of this story’s broad outline: how af Klint “received” her paintings from higher powers; how she came to suspect the world was not ready for them in her lifetime; how she stipulated that much of what she produced in a dizzyingly productive late-life outpouring should not be shown until at least two decades after her death. Her paintings would eventually become for the art world something like divine revelation. They arrived at first quietly in a 1986 survey of spiritual abstraction at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and then, decades later, in two major solo exhibitions organised in London and Stockholm (2006 and 2013 respectively). As far as the development of Western abstraction goes, af Klint’s work shook the accepted historical narrative: it anticipated by a slender margin the inroads made by artists such as Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee and Kazimir Malevich – all of them long-recognised as key innovators, and all of them, of course, men. To view af Klint’s current survey at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings – a major coup for the independent Melbourne-based curator Sue Cramer – is to not just sense the substance of this challenge but to understand something of its oddness. It’s almost as if a crease in time had been opened, and a glimpse revealed of a parallel world, one in which the development of abstraction was turned towards wholly spiritual ends.

It’s a world that’s easy to get swept up in. By any objective measure, af Klint’s work is often seductively beautiful. It is fascinating too. The first gallery of the exhibition’s impressive and spacious display (now impossible to see in person) is hung with collaborative drawings – a series of works on paper produced among, and often between, a group of female spiritualists that af Klint co-founded, known as The Five. From 1886, the group met regularly to practise meditation and prayer, discuss esoteric texts, read the Bible and undertake seances. In a foreshadowing of techniques practised by the surrealists, they also worked together to create automatic drawings and writing, in which anything like individual authorial control was vested to the vagrant energies of the spiritual world. For af Klint, who had formal art training and was known for meticulous botanical paintings, the process freed her up in many ways. Not least was the fact that during these sessions she first made contact with the spirit guides – among them Ananda, Amaliel, Georg and Gregor – who would be her lifelong companions, and responsible for “commissioning” her major works. As with much early abstraction, the drawings themselves possess the quality of artefacts reaching out from another time. That they were made through collective action only adds to their confounding obscurity: they are unavoidably inflected not just by their age but also by the strange and quasi-ritualistic means of their production.

It’s a quality that plays through the exhibition, and which lends af Klint’s work a pervasive sense of what the art world refers to as “performativity”: the idea that the paintings relate directly to bodily movement, which grants them a certain energy and power. The show-stopping centrepiece of the exhibition is a series of 10 immense paintings titled The Ten Largest, which combines this kind of performativity with a scale that dwarfs the viewer, and thus draws them bodily into each canvas’s painted depths. All of this also foreshadows key developments in abstraction: as that movement’s vanguard shifted from Europe to America in the mid 20th century, paintings famously became bigger and bigger, while artists such as Jackson Pollock strove to connect their work directly to the fluid actions of the painter’s body. But whereas paintings like Pollock’s quickly became weighted with self-reference – folding ever tighter inwards under the theories of critics such as Clement Greenberg – af Klint, it seems, was never interested in painting in and of itself. As the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue make clear, painting was for her a means to another end entirely, and that end was something like tapping the hidden spiritual powers of the cosmos.

For this reason, the performative aspect of af Klint’s work is only obliquely, if at all, evocative of the act of painting itself. It is instead framed by other actions: the collective passions of seances, for instance, or the complex rituals of some emergent offshoot of the early 20th century currents of spiritualism in which af Klint was so interested. One imagines them, as af Klint herself once did, not in galleries but in places of worship or spiritual increase, in the temples or churches of then-ascendant religious branches: theosophy, for instance, or its Rudolf Steiner–led offshoot anthroposophy, both of which af Klint was aligned with.

This makes af Klint’s works hard to evaluate as paintings, or at least hard to evaluate as paintings alone. To apply a term like abstraction – weighted, as it is, with the vast baggage of history – also becomes difficult. For all their beauty, af Klint’s paintings are diagrammatic and didactic things. Their symbolism is often portentous, sometimes heavy handed. They can be fun too, although one suspects that quality is unintended. A partial list of symbols encountered in the current exhibition would include astral rays, golden staircases, invented writing in cursive loops, snail shells, swans, a tiny figure of an angel, and a crucifix glowing on a hill. Much of it is arranged with a symmetrical precision that suggests it may be more apt to understand af Klint’s paintings as designs, or even prompts, for ecstatic states, which would in turn make her something like an architect for spiritual awakening, and her paintings carefully wrought blueprints or models. But to “build” what she depicts requires vaporous sensations to be somehow made tangible. It’s one thing to see a swathe of rose-coloured pigment dry and dusty on the canvas before you, and another thing entirely to imagine that colour in auratic terms, as a kind of force or energy possessed of its own volition. But this is what af Klint herself saw: that her work provided a kind of portal to another world, and that she was not an artist but a medium. As with the collective drawings, she claimed her paintings as visions over which she possessed little to no authorial responsibility: “the images”, she once wrote, “are painted directly through me, without preliminary sketches, with great force.” Put simply, she believed. And for all the radical re-visioning of accepted art history her work prompts, its most radical aspect now is that she asks viewers to believe as well.

It’s heady territory, and goes to modernism’s most visionary and at times outlandish aspirations. This is not modernism reduced, as it now often is in the minds of many, to an analytical style, or a particular approach to design and form. It is, instead, modernism as a world-shaping spirit, one that would itself be shaped by the cataclysmic upheavals of World War One, and by concurrent advances in science, technology and mechanisation. Mix in a dash of religion, even Eastern-inflected mysticism, and you have the conditions that led not only to af Klint’s major work but also to a whole array of cultural production. Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky were among artists similarly inspired by spiritual beliefs, while writers like Walter Benjamin – particularly in his famous passages on Klee’s print Angelus Novus – regularly trafficked in the messianic imagery that characterises af Klint’s statements on her own working process. For the writer and artist Pierre Klossowski, af Klint’s conception of her work as a spiritual dialogue over which she held little agency would also have surely resonated: he argued that artists, consciously or not, collaborated with impulsive forces, and that the creative act was a matter of “possession” rather than “inspiration”. That Klossowski saw these forces as shape-shifting demons, while af Klint saw them as angels, makes little difference. Both conceptions evoke the vision of otherworldly powers holding dominion over the physical world.

But once again it’s worth remembering that there’s little evidence, at least in The Secret Paintings, to suggest af Klint’s intent was to create a theory of creative practice alone – her energies were ultimately directed towards far more esoteric ends. Either way, when she showed her work it met with a reception that disappointed her. She continued to exhibit figurative botanical and landscape-themed paintings, but turned her real passion away from the immediate world, retreating into a seemingly quiet and studious life. She never married, but lived with her late mother’s nurse, Thomasine Andersson, described as af Klint’s lifelong friend and partner. She drew closer to her interest in spiritualism and, in particular, Steiner’s anthroposophy; she would eventually donate notebooks and a series of paintings to that movement’s gracefully arched and imposing headquarters, the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland. This is not to suggest that af Klint was some sort of outlier: anthroposophy, which Steiner saw as a kind of spiritual science, drew many key 20th century figures to its idea that a parallel world of spirits could be made comprehensible to human understanding. The American writer Saul Bellow would later become an advocate, so too the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Perhaps most interesting from an Australian perspective is the fact that anthroposophy guided Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, who were known to employ spiritual geometry in their designs (whether or not this explains the strange energies that grip Canberra from time to time remains open to conjecture).

In af Klint’s final years, during which she created watercolours, she envisioned her own work in a purpose-built temple not unlike the Goetheanum. She sketched out the design in one of the many notebooks she kept throughout her life, examples of which form a highlight of the AGNSW exhibition. The temple was to be cylindrical, and would spiral upwards in a series of ever tightening curves. The Ten Largest was intended to be displayed within a library annex, the separate canvases pushed together to become, in af Klint’s vision, “a beautiful wall hanging”. The most striking moments in the exhibition come where this kind of vision is evoked by the exhibition design. But it also means that to sit in front of groupings such as The Ten Largest, or the similarly striking group of three from 1915, titled Altarpieces, group X, is to sense not only the power of the works themselves but also something of what by necessity is lost in a gallery setting. Missing is the human element that drew forth these strange pictures, for if they are altarpieces, then where is the altar? And where are the human actors to perform their beliefs upon that altar? As Julia Voss notes in her catalogue essay, af Klint hoped her work would set in motion a gradual revolution, one that “could help us leave behind everything that makes the world too small and too rigid”. She hoped this would be nothing less than “a movement away from materialism and dualistic thinking and towards a new spirituality”. The secular rituals of the art world are of course a mere shadow of the complex religious epiphanies that gripped af Klint, and surely fall well short of the revelations she once hoped her paintings would unleash.

There is a healthy shock of renewal to af Klint’s rise in the 21st century: her work renews an understanding of art history through the simple feat of adding a key female artist to a male-dominated pantheon. In recent years, a flood of scholarship has been unleashed upon her, a fact underscored by the wide array of handsomely produced catalogues in the AGNSW gift shop. But all that speaks to the worldly realm of humans; af Klint was by contrast engaged with a realm of gods and angels – for her, the human element was in service of higher power. It follows that what her works attest to, in the mind of this writer at least, is less concerned with academic art history and more with a deeply felt human capacity, not just for invention and imagination but also for fanciful and creative ways to attempt to capture life’s great mysteries. For this alone, they are striking and urgent things, and if their marked earnestness at times threatens to overwhelm them, it’s also what explains much of their allure.

 

While the AGNSW is closed, the Hilma af Klint exhibition can be viewed online at www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/whats-on/programs/hilma-af-klint-at-home

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer, and author of The Stranger Artist.

Detail from Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 2, Childhood (1907). Tempera on paper mounted on canvas. Courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation. Photographs: Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden

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