Kathleen Hall – Canada
Hilma af Klint
No form can come into objective existence — from the highest to the lowest — before the abstract ideal of this form — or, as Aristotle would call it, the privation of this form — is called forth. Before an artist paints a picture every feature of it exists already in his imagination; to have enabled us to discern a watch, this particular watch must have existed in its abstract form in the watchmaker’s mind. So with future men. (Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled 1:310)
The world is often not ready to accept what pioneers working on the spiritual plane have discovered in their lifetime, and therefore some things must wait to be revealed. In 1986, 42 years after her passing, a small collection of Hilma af Klint’s remarkable paintings were publically shown in “The Spiritual in Art,” Maurice Tuchman’s ground breaking exhibit held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Prior to her death in 1944, all of Hilma af Klint’s works were given in trust to her nephew, requesting that they not be publically revealed until at least 20 years after her passing.
It was not until 2013 that the first major exhibition of her work was shown at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The museum curated more than 1000 paintings and 125 notebooks. These works were unpacked from mysterious trunks, some of which had never been opened, and included her thoughts, mediumship experiences, and notes about her paintings.
View of the series ‘The Ten Largest’, at the Moderna Museet exhibit, 2013
Until recently very little was known about the artist Hilma af Klint and her mystical paintings. Born in Sweden in 1862, she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and became an accomplished landscape and portrait artist in her early years. This was her public art and how she earned her living; however there were other sources from which quite different paintings were inspired. It was sometime after the death of her sister in 1880, that Hilma af Klint became interested in spiritualism and mediumship. In 1886 she formed a group called “The Five” or “The Friday Group.” This was an occult gathering of women who, John O’Rourke writes, “claimed to have ‘spirit world’ leaders, or ‘High Masters,’ Gregor, Clemens, Ameliel, Ananda and Esther among others. . . . according to af Klint, in 1904, Ananda told her to begin producing paintings from the Astral Plane. This, she was informed, would follow a period of preparing to mediate a message.” Many of Hilma af Klint’s works were the expression of these mediumistic sessions in which she said she channelled symbolic messages from the Masters. “The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke” (With Great Force Swiftly and Surely).
In 1888 Hilma af Klint joined the Theosophical Society and became interested in the work of Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, and most likely read Thought Forms, their ground-breaking book that discussed how thoughts could be seen as colored forms carrying the intent of the sender. She also met Rudolph Steiner and studied his Rosicrucian, Theosophical, and later Anthroposophical teachings, though Steiner questioned af Klint’s involvement with mediumship. All of these encounters informed her spiritual development and influenced her esoteric practices.
Hilma af Klint’s early works were direct translations of what she saw on the spiritual plane; later she took charge of interpreting her messages. This evolution in her approach could be considered as the progression of an initiate to that of an advanced pupil or adept who learned how to manage her spiritual teachings. “Mediumship is the opposite of adeptship; the medium is the passive instrument of foreign influences, the adept actively controls himself and all inferior potencies” (Isis Unveiled 2:588).
Hilma af Klint considered the works she produced during her mediumship experiences as a “commission,” the fundamental idea being “to convey knowledge about the unity of all existence, which lies hidden behind the polarized, dual world in which we live” (Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction). Her first painting series of the commission, The Temple (1907-1915), consists of several large groups of paintings on various themes. Some are composed of organic shapes — others are more geometric.
Several notebooks document Hilma af Klint’s working processes for many of her paintings with notes and sketches, giving clues to the symbolism and Theosophical ideals she embedded in her works. Spirals and snails depict the spiral of evolution, and the tendril, as seen in plant growth, represents the consciousness that embodies life and seeks to grow. Color has important meaning in Hilma af Klint’s paintings: “white is the ‘holiest of all colours’, blue ‘the colour scale of powerful, real nature, the faithful’, and yellow, ‘the splendid colour of light, of the foundation of knowledge’.” Yellow also represents the masculine, blue the feminine, and green the merging of the two. Words and letters also have significance in her work. The letters AO and WU respectively represent spiritual evolution and the duality of spirit and matter. The word avonwener written across the top of one of her paintings means “those who try to shed light on the earthlings” (Hilma af Klint, p. 42).
Evolution, No. 15, Group IV, The WUS/Seven-pointed Star Series, 1908
Many of Hilma af Klint’s paintings (specifically in the Swan series) were the result of her study of polarities, as shown in her use of color, male and female figures, and the dual concepts of above and below (the connection between humanity and the universe), the stages of life, and the evolution humanity.
The last group of paintings in The Temple series consists of three large paintings that are called altar pieces. Bernitz writes: “They were painted at the end of 1915 and, according to af Klint, they represented a ‘summary of the series so far’.” The paintings are heavily infused with Theosophical symbolism such as the triangle, the six pointed star, and the circle. These works depict Theosophical concepts of spirit descending into matter (involution) and matter ascending into spirit (evolution) — an unending cycle, the universal dimensions of time and space without beginning or end represented by the circle. The first painting, Altar Piece No. 1, may also depict the teachings of the seven rays as discussed in Blavatsky’s,Isis Unveiled (1:514): “The Rosicrucian theory, that the whole universe is a musical instrument, is the Pythagorean doctrine of the music of the spheres. Sounds and colors are all spiritual numerals; as the seven prismatic rays proceed from one spot in heaven, so the seven powers of nature, each of them a number, are the seven radiations of the Unity, the central, spiritual SUN.”
Altarpiece, No 1, No 2 and No 3, Group X: 1915
Following The Temple series, Hilma af Klint’s work became very geometric through the years 1916-1920. During this time she painted the Parsifal and Atom series and a set of paintings on the great religions of the world. The title “Parsifal” may refer one of the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table who went in search of the Holy Grail, or in allegorical terms, spiritual knowledge.
The Atom series seems to be a working process to gain greater insight into duality principles and planes of existence. Hilma af Klint stated: “The atom has at once limits and the capacity to develop. When the atom expands on the ether plane, the physical part of the earthly atom begins to glow” (Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction). As Hilma af Klint was a member of the Theosophical Society, she most likely studied Blavatsky’s teachings and may have read such passages as the following: “It is a law of Occult dynamics that ‘a given amount of energy expended on the spiritual or astral plane is productive of far greater results than the same amount expended on the physical objective plane of existence’ ” (The Secret Doctrine 1:644).
“Occultism tells us that every atom, like the monad of Leibnitz, is a little universe in itself; and that every organ and cell in the human body is endowed with a brain of its own, with memory, therefore, experience and discriminative powers. The idea of Universal Life, composed of individual atomic lives, is one of the oldest teachings of esoteric philosophy” (Lucifer 6 (April 1890): 90.
“Every star is an independent planet, which, like our earth, has a soul of its own, every atom of matter being impregnated with the divine influx of the soul of the world. It breathes and lives; it feels and suffers as well as enjoys life in its way” (Isis Unveiled 1: xxi).
After meeting with Rudolph Steiner again in 1920, Hilma af Klint joined the Anthroposophical society and became immersed in the literature. These teachings influenced her to give up geometric abstraction and she started to paint predominantly formless watercolours. These later works focused on showing the unconscious life of plants in soft, flowing watercolours, not unlike the works of Rothko and other color field painters.
Hilma af Klint’s last known paintings were completed in 1932. They were visionary maps foretelling the London blitz and the naval battle in the Mediterranean during World War II. On October 9, 1944, she wrote her last journal entry which seems to tell us that her work on earth was done, but would carry on elsewhere: “You have mystery service ahead, and will soon enough realize what is expected of you” (Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction, p. 279)
The next exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s work is being held at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, (Copenhagen) from March 7 to July 6, 2014.
Bernitz, Anna. “Hilma af Klint and The New Art of Seeing.” Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries 1900-1925.Ed. Hubert van den Berg, Irmeli Hautamäki, Benedikt Hjartarson, Torben Jelsbak, Rikard Schönström, Per Stounbjerg, Tania Ørum, Dorthe Aagesen; Avant-Garde Cultural Studies 28:587-597.
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. Isis Unveiled. 2 vols. Collected Writings ed. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972, first published 1877.
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Secret Doctrine. Collected Writings Edition. 3 vols. Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978–1979.
Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction. Ed. Iris Müller-Westermann with Jo Widoff. Essays by Iris Müller-Westermann, Pascal Rousseau, and David Lomas; and a conversation with Helmut Zander. Stockholm, Sweden: Moderna Museet / Hatje Cantz, 2013.
O’Rourke, John. “Hilma af Klint and the Theosophical Roots of Abstraction in Western Art.” Insight (Journal of the Theosophical Society in England) 47 (2006):3.
“With Great Force Swiftly and Surely.” A book review by Cindi Di Marzo of Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction, in Studio International: Visual Arts, Design and Architecture (http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/with-great-force-swiftly-and-surely), 2013.