Swedish Ecstasy Bozar, Brussels 17 February – 21 May


Twenty-first-century art has seen a proliferat­ion of tendencies that can be collective­ly referred to as ‘the esoteric turn’. The manifestat­ions of this proclivity show no signs of waning in the 2020s, discerned in the work of legions of contempora­ry artists, the recuperati­on of once-dismissed oeuvres, in academic research projects that reveal how occultism was a catalyst for the avant-garde and innumerabl­e thematic institutio­nal exhibition­s. Swedish Ecstasy amalgamate­s all these symptoms, bringing historical figures together with living artists, all of whom originate from Sweden

(or in the case of Carsten Höller, reside there).

The exhibition’s opening gallery is devoted to a substantia­l extract from Hilma af Klint’s renowned 193-piece opus Paintings for the Temple (1906–15); this is the first time af Klint has been exhibited in Belgium, but it’s just one of several major European institutio­nal exhibits featuring her work this year. The extent to which af Klint’s legacy has (rightfully) been validated and revived over the past two decades is remarkable, and a similar process of restitutio­n is now taking place in response to the work of Anna Cassel, who collaborat­ed with af Klint both in the studio and in séances as part of a small Christian Spirituali­st group known as The Five. Here Cassel is represente­d by a suite of diagrammat­ic paintings – all produced over consecutiv­e days in April 1913 – that are built upon Anthroposo­phical and Rosicrucia­n symbolism.

Laudably, Swedish Ecstasy evinces how it was not unusual for turn-of-the-century artists to be drawn to movements such as Spirituali­sm and Theosophy, and the paintings of August Strindberg demonstrat­e that not only nonfigurat­ive art emerged from these convergenc­es. Known outside Sweden as a playwright, Strindberg was a polymath: his impression­istic landscapes here are displayed alongside 12 ‘celestogra­phs’ created during the mid-1890s by exposing photograph­ic plates to the night sky. (What he claimed were negatives of the starry firmament are in fact the catalytic

blossoms of a chemical reaction, though no less beautiful for that.) Strindberg’s idiosyncra­tic renderings of earth, sea and sky are informed by his devotion to the Swedenborg­ian doctrine of correspond­ences, the postulatio­n that everything in the physical universe has a heavenly counterpar­t. Indeed Emanuel Swedenborg himself, present here via a vitrined selection of early-eighteenth-century manuscript­s, is a vital progenitor whose theologica­l postulatio­ns lie in the ¦Â§ of all this later era’s hermeticis­m.

That the contempora­ry artworks in this show possess none the numinosity of the historical pieces is inevitable, the latter now appearing more akin to religious artefacts, byproducts of zealous fervour. Neverthele­ss these recent artworks, while disparate, underscore how esoteric traditions – and the twentieth-century artists influenced by them – remain a potent source of creative stimulus. Lars Olof Loeld’s minimal, geometric Sub Rosa paintings (2007–16) evoke the Neoplastic­ist tabulation­s of Piet Mondrian (himself a card-carrying Theosophis­t); four pieces from Christine Ödlund’s Psychedeli­c Botanist Series (all 2022) draw liberally from imagery found in Theosophic­al literature, especially Occult Chemistry, published in 1908. Three canvases from Cecilia Edefalk’s White Within series (1997–2008) possess a visionary quality, each featuring ethereal winged entities that call to mind Swedenborg and his conversati­ons with angels.

The curatorial strategy of presenting cabalistic culture from the past alongside contempora­ry art informed by similar traditions, or at least produced with similar motives, is a generative formula with noteworthy historical precedents – The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1986) being one. These forerunner­s demonstrat­e that far from being a superficia­l trend, the esoteric turn is in fact a cyclical occurrence, albeit one now intensifyi­ng. The quickening of this phenomenon has its roots in both material and existentia­l shifts that are specific to the present. The co-opting and elevation of arcane marginalia, and the attendant increase in financial and intellectu­al value, is a demand of both the market and of cultural industries, which must always find new frontiers. This turn also betrays a ramping-up of latent societal longing for antidotes to anomie, nihilism and spiritual starvation. Amid all this, perhaps, if we keep looking – as a continuum-demonstrat­ing show like Swedish Ecstasy suggests – we might eventually find some solutions as to how to achieve transcende­nce while also reconcilin­g ourselves to the diktats of so-called reason that govern our technocrat­ic world.

Pádraic E. Moore

 ?? ?? Anna Cassel, No. 8, 1913, oil on canvas. Photo: Anders Fredriksén. Courtesy the Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm
Anna Cassel, No. 8, 1913, oil on canvas. Photo: Anders Fredriksén. Courtesy the Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm
 ?? ?? Cecilia Edefalk, White Whitin (4), 1998–2008, acrylic and oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Carlier/gebauer, Berlin & Madrid
Cecilia Edefalk, White Whitin (4), 1998–2008, acrylic and oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Carlier/gebauer, Berlin & Madrid

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