Hilma af Klint saw the fu­ture

Her ab­stract art pre­dated Kandin­sky, Mon­drian

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY SEBASTIAN SMEE sebastian.smee@wash­post.com

NEW YORK — The head­line rev­e­la­tion emerg­ing from “Hilma af Klint: Paint­ings for the Fu­ture” at the Guggen­heim Mu­seum is that a Swedish woman, born in 1862, was mak­ing rav­ish­ing ab­stract paint­ings on an enor­mous scale sev­eral years ahead of the mod­ern artists usu­ally cred­ited with in­vent­ing ab­strac­tion — men such as Wass­ily Kandin­sky, Piet Mon­drian, Kaz­imir Male­vich and Fran­tisek Kupka.

This fact — news to many — forces a re­write of art his­tory. As such, it de­serves all the em­pha­sis it has been get­ting. But the show — per­haps the most mind-al­ter­ing, his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant event of the year in art — is more in­ter­est­ing than even its head­line.

Klint made these paint­ings think­ing she was tak­ing in­struc­tions from a brother­hood of spir­i­tual sages com­mu­ni­cat­ing tele­path­i­cally from Ti­bet. So, a ques­tion arises: Does the im­age of Klint at­tend­ing Stock­holm séances with her four fe­male friends (they called them­selves the Five) and chan­nel­ing in­vis­i­ble guides they called Amaliel, Ananda, Cle­mens, Es­ther, Ge­org and Gre­gor di­lute the sig­nif­i­cance of her achieve­ment, or need it have no ef­fect at all?

Look first at the paint­ings. Klint in­tended for them to cover the walls of a spi­ral-shaped tem­ple that she be­lieved those same sages, the High Masters, had urged her to build. It never was built. But it feels like more than com­pen­sa­tion — some­thing closer to fate — that they should en­joy their Man­hat­tan de­but in Frank Lloyd Wright’s great spi­ral-shaped mu­seum.

The most spec­tac­u­lar of Klint’s paint­ings com­prise a suite rep­re­sent­ing the hu­man life cy­cle. “The Ten Largest,” as she called them, were painted in tem­pera on pa­per in 1907 (the same year Pi­casso painted his break­through mas­ter­piece, “Les De­moi­selles d’Avi­gnon”). They’re huge. Each one mea­sures about 80 square feet. A week af­ter I saw them, their puls­ing love­li­ness re­mains undimmed in my mind, like a self-re­plen­ish­ing sense mem­ory of sum­mer.

Against fields of pow­dery blue, drench­ing or­ange and ethe­real lilac, Klint set cir­cu­lar or spi­ral-shaped mo­tifs, loop­ing let­ters and di­a­gram­matic signs in an ar­ray of har­mo­nious yel­lows, greens, whites and blacks. Cru­cial to the paint­ings’ suc­cess is their re­laxed, asym­met­ri­cal de­sign. Rem­i­nis­cent of im­pro­vised Swedish folk or cen­tral Asian tex­tiles, it con­vinces the viewer they are the prod­uct of im­me­di­ate, dopamine-driven intuition, not stale, or­der­ing in­tel­lect.

Klint pro­duced her tem­ple paint­ings in a pro­duc­tive gush over nine years. Dur­ing that time, she made more than 193 paint­ings and works on pa­per in two phases, the first be­tween 1906 and 1908, and the sec­ond be­tween 1912 and 1915. The four years in be­tween she spent car­ing for her mother, who had sud­denly gone blind. (One looks in vain for an equiv­a­lent hole in the ré­sumés of Kandin­sky, Pi­casso or Jack­son Pol­lock).

Af­ter 1915, Klint con­tin­ued to make art, much of it com­pelling. But none of it pos­sesses the joy­ous, un­bri­dled force of the tem­ple paint­ings. The later work is al­most un­re­lievedly sym­met­ri­cal. It is as though Klint spent the rest of her life try­ing to square her early vi­sion­ary clar­ity with life’s en­su­ing per­plex­i­ties.

Isn’t that so of­ten the fate of true in­no­va­tors? The in­ten­sity is un­sus­tain­able. The limb they are out on even­tu­ally snaps. Too busy try­ing to make sense of the achieve­ment, we fail to con­tem­plate what the af­ter­math must have been like. Klint, who died af­ter a tram ac­ci­dent in 1944, was so be­guiled by what she had done that she in­sisted her paint­ings re­main hid­den un­til 20 years af­ter her death. In ac­tu­al­ity, it was more than 40 be­fore the work be­gan to resur­face. Even then, news of her genius has spread slowly. Klint was all but un­known un­til 1986, when her paint­ings ap­peared in a ground­break­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, “The Spir­i­tual in Art: Ab­stract Paint­ing 1890-1985,” at the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art. Her work has since en­joyed in­ter­mit­tent out­ings, in­clud­ing at the P.S. 1 Mu­seum in Queens in 1989. She was the sub­ject of a ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive at Stock­holm’s Moderna Museet in 2013. This Guggen­heim show was or­ga­nized by Tracey Bashkoff, the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor of col­lec­tions and se­nior cu­ra­tor, with David Horowitz, a cu­ra­to­rial as­sis­tant.

Klint’s spir­i­tual con­vic­tions were by no means out of step with the times. Spir­i­tu­al­ism was part of the in­tel­lec­tual cli­mate in Europe at the turn of the cen­tury, and at­tempts to com­mu­ni­cate with higher lev­els of con­scious­ness were com­mon. Kandin­sky, Mon­drian, Kupka and Male­vich were all in­flu­enced to some de­gree by an in­ter­est in the oc­cult, and by theos­o­phy in par­tic­u­lar.

Es­tab­lished in New York by the Rus­sian émi­gré Madame Blavatsky, theos­o­phy was a fast­spread­ing spir­i­tu­al­ist move­ment that sought to rec­on­cile East­ern phi­los­o­phy and re­li­gion with its Western coun­ter­parts. Ad­dress­ing it­self to Dar­win’s the­ory of evo­lu­tion, to the in­vis­i­ble forces (X-rays, atomic par­ti­cles, ra­dio waves) re­cently un­cov­ered by sci­ence and to a grow­ing aware­ness of rel­a­tivism in re­li­gion, it sought to lend sta­bil­ity to the era’s dizzy­ing in­tel­lec­tual flux. Much of the or­der theos­o­phy posited seems ridicu­lous in ret­ro­spect. But many great minds were drawn to it.

Klint par­tic­i­pated in her first séances in 1879, at age 17. Her sis­ter died the next year. She en­rolled to study at the Royal Acad­emy of Fine Arts in the 1880s soon af­ter the school be­gan ad­mit­ting women. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing with honors, she pur­sued an ac­tive pub­lic ca­reer, ac­cept­ing por­trait com­mis­sions, ex­hibit­ing land­scapes, mak­ing ex­quis­ite sci­en­tific il­lus­tra­tions and join­ing the board of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Swedish Women Artists, even as her heart’s de­sire was se­cretly blos­som­ing into the 20th cen­tury’s first and most splen­did ab­stract paint­ings.

When the Theo­soph­i­cal Soci-

ety opened its Swedish lodge in 1889, Klint im­me­di­ately joined. Seven years later, she and the rest of the Five be­gan par­tic­i­pat­ing in séances and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the High Masters in Ti­bet. They prac­ticed au­to­matic draw­ing — a form of chan­nel­ing the un­con­scious, or un­seen spir­its, later prac­ticed by the sur­re­al­ists and their prog­eny, in­clud­ing Pol­lock.

Fear­ing mad­ness, the other mem­bers of the Five pulled back from act­ing as medi­ums. So, in 1903, Klint took over as the group’s con­duit to the High Masters, two of whom (Ge­org and Ananda, if you’re won­der­ing) urged her to build a tem­ple the next year.

A cen­tury on, what are we to make of a story that at­tributes ground­break­ing artis­tic in­no­va­tion to séances, telepa­thy and spir­i­tu­al­ist hokum?

I think a bit of imag­i­na­tion is in or­der. First, we might ask: What was it like be­ing an in­tel­li­gent, mid­dle-class young woman in Swe­den at the turn of the last cen­tury? What was it like, in the wake of the death of a sis­ter, ar­riv­ing at a pas­sion­ate be­lief — de­riv­ing not from ig­no­rance but from ed­u­ca­tion in sci­ence, art, and com­par­a­tive re­li­gion — in the ex­is­tence of worlds be­yond the ob­serv­able one? What was it like as a woman fac­ing near-con­stant con­de­scen­sion and ex­clu­sion, pos­si­bly even fear of mad­ness?

In what sanc­tu­ary, given these con­di­tions, might you seek con­so­la­tion, mean­ing and stim­u­lus? In four fe­male friends, per­haps, and a rou­tine of med­i­ta­tive gath­er­ings, and a spir­i­tual sys­tem es­tab­lished by a woman.

In 1914, months be­fore the out­break of a war so cat­a­strophic it would spark a civ­i­liza­tional and spir­i­tual cri­sis, Klint ex­hib­ited some of her con­ven­tional, nat­u­ral­is­tic paint­ings in the Baltic Ex­hi­bi­tion in Malmö, Swe­den. In the same ex­hi­bi­tion, Kandin­sky ex­hib­ited the ab­stract works that were al­ready rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing mod­ern art.

What must it have felt like, at that mo­ment, to be Hilma af Klint? Her tem­ple paint­ings, made sev­eral years be­fore Kandin­sky’s first ab­strac­tions, lan­guished un­seen in her stu­dio.

But per­haps she didn’t care. She may have been more in­ter­ested in her own spir­i­tual progress than in claim­ing her right­ful place in the his­tory of mod­ern art.

I, too, find my­self drawn to the spir­i­tual ques­tion when con­tem­plat­ing Klint’s achieve­ment. What force was puls­ing through her when she painted these pic­tures? And was it re­ally com­ing from Ti­bet?

Per­son­ally, I sus­pect not. But then, I re­mem­ber that when Peter Matthiessen wrote “The Snow Leopard,” his cel­e­brated ac­count of a spir­i­tual jour­ney in the Hi­malayas, he be­gan it with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke that bears di­rectly on this baf­flingly beau­ti­ful show: “That is at bot­tom the only courage that is de­manded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most sin­gu­lar, and the most in­ex­pli­ca­ble that we may en­counter. That mankind has in this sense been cow­ardly has done life end­less harm; the ex­pe­ri­ences that are called ‘vi­sions,’ the whole so-called ‘spir­it­world,’ death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily par­ry­ing been so crowded out by life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are at­ro­phied. To say noth­ing of God.”

Hilma af Klint: Paint­ings for the

Fu­ture Through April 23 at the Guggen­heim Mu­seum, 1071 Fifth Ave., New York. guggen­heim.org.


Hilma af Klint, ca. 1910.


LEFT: Hilma af Klint, “Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 2, Child­hood,” 1907, from “Un­ti­tled Se­ries.” Tem­pera on pa­per, mounted on can­vas.

ABOVE: “Group V, The Seven-Pointed Star, No. 1n,” 1908. Tem­pera, gouache and graphite on pa­per mounted on can­vas. The ret­ro­spec­tive “Hilma af Klint: Paint­ings for the Fu­ture” is at the Guggen­heim Mu­seum.

“Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 17,” 1915. Oil on can­vas. Klint cre­ated her huge ab­stract paint­ings think­ing that she was tak­ing in­struc­tions from a brother­hood of spir­i­tual sages com­mu­ni­cat­ing tele­path­i­cally with her from Ti­bet.

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