Review by Gladys-Katherina Hernando
A medium, her hand was guided to paint by a spiritual guide. Pyramids and spirals speak to a greater meaning beyond a painting. Abstraction with a purpose.
What makes an abstract painting about spirituality appear different from an abstract painting about painting? Hilma af Klint’s geometry and language depict otherworldly sentiments, that of the occult and mystical, nature and animism. Words repeat. Evolution, again and again. Compositions divided by two, man and woman, black and white, mirroring objects and organic forms, a cosmic dualism made manifest. As a theosophist, af Klint painted that world beyond the self.
Af Klint died in 1944. In her will she stipulated that her work should not be exhibited for 20 years, the world was not ready to experience the message. Declined for donation to the Moderna Museet in 1970, her work didn’t receive international acknowledgement until The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting, 1890–1985 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art curated by Maurice Tuchman (1986) and later in The Secret Pictures by Hilma af Klint at P.S.1 in New York (1989).
The catalogues produced by the Moderna Museet details the work of af Klint chronologically, includes extensive historical essays on her life, and outlines her relationship to theosophy and anthroposophy. A second, companion catalogue presents a facsimile of one of her 125 notebooks alongside contemporary responses by artists. Each artist’s essay attempts to place af Klint into the historical canon by reference to their own work or, in the case of artist R.H. Quaytman, in context with af Klint’s historical contemporaries. In a striking example, Quaytman aligns six paintings from 1907 to represent their physical scale and aesthetic progressiveness in relation to Malevich, Kandinsky, Matisse, and Picasso. Together the catalogues bring af Klint into the contemporary moment where questions of spiritualism are once again having a resurgence.
Some have discredited the importance of af Klint for the fact that she thought herself a medium or because of the claim that her work was made in isolation from masters such as Malevich and Mondrian. Yet it is known that she had a studio in Stockholm that was in proximity to a prominent gallery that showed early work by Edvard Munch (in 1894) including the iconic Vampire (1893-4) and The Scream (1893). For me, the originality of her work recalls that of the Tantric Paintings of Rajasthan, India, from the 17th century used to heighten states of consciousness, but also made in relative isolation. This becomes especially clear in af Klint’s later work that takes the shape of purely meditative objects.
The irony of her lack of recognition and discredit for not being part of the abstract community of the early 20th century gives us an example of the historical absence of artists that previously did not fit into traditional categories. The outcome of this is the rare fact that her body of work remains outside of the art market, left almost completely intact at her foundation.
Hilma af Klint spent her life painting in order to understand the meaning of her work and the duality of the earthly and spiritual realm of man, and it might just be true that the art world was not ready to fully grasp the pure creativity and transformative power of her faith in a mind-body-spirit connection until now.
David Lomas, Pascal Rousseau, Iris Müller-Westermann (Ed.), Hilma af Klint: Mystical Abstraction, (Hatje Cantz, 2013)
Images: Cover and interior of Hilma af Klint: Mystical Abstraction.