Decades before Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian and abstract art as we popularly know it, before all the colors and lines and shapes and the symbolism and spiritualism that you may have learned undergirds it all, an unassuming Swedish woman was listening and creating something monumental.
In the first years of the twentieth century, Hilma af Klint, artist, mystic, visionary, produced hundreds of astonishing works revealing and describing an unearthly, unsettling world beyond our own. She also created a purposeful, deliberate art intended for all of us now, a century later. Her vision was as missional as it is magnificent. It contained a message she carefully depicted, described, and documented in her voluminous notebooks and countless canvases. She then said to hide it until twenty years after her death.
Essential selections of her spiritual corpus slowly ascended the Guggenheim’s heavenward spiral in Paintings for the Future, an exhibition of works rarely seen since the mid-1980s. It was the most-visited exhibition in the museum’s history. So agitated was I by her paintings, I twice made the pilgrimage, and each time I became physically upset and shaken by her cool colors, languid radicality, and dizzying palate. I encountered a vision of a future for which I remain unprepared.
The encounter is no small event. In her series The Ten Largest, her colors burst forth from their giant, looming vertical canvases. These ten panels depict the life-cycle from birth through old age, towering more than twice the size of any viewer. Rarely is there a straight line; the most common straight lines are the canvas’s frames themselves. Again, this was years before the most famous abstract painters–men like Kandinsky–would free their work from representation. And yet according to the Guggenheim, af Klint’s work was “all but unseen until 1986.”
The world of her paintings is the whirl, the cycle, the spiral. There are coils, egg-like ovals spiraling diagonally from one corner to its opposite. There is intersection that increasingly points to Venn diagrams. Eggs and flowers, reproduction and birth. There is a fecundity with fallopian tubes and bodily curves. But to call it traditionally “feminine” would be inaccurate.
The works are like spring itself.
Curves and loops defy a Cartesian axis, creating depths even in within cursive letters. Some of these letters are Swedish words, others swoop tightly spelling out “ave maria.” Some are indecipherable, alluding to a lower case omega. The text reads like Gnostic spells seeking to name deities by stringing together seemingly nonsensical vowels.
The work is not purely emotive. There is underlying complex structure. There is a kinship here with the Icelandic musician Björk’s biophilia project– multimedia explorations of music, nature and technology that engage life on a mystical level.
Starting with these first ten paintings and curving up the Guggenheim’s slope, the whole exhibition exuded a calm, arresting intensity, a northern European sensibility. This is not a Bacchic experience. There is order. There is timelessness. There is no hurry. There is never any kind of hurry. The future will come.
I watched a woman stretch her whole body up toward paintings VIII and IX, as if absorbing some kind of radiant warmth.
Hilma af Klint was situated in a time of scientific advancement and spiritualism’s cultural moment, inhabiting a space of new freedoms and opportunities for Swedish women. Classically-trained as an artist and employed as an anatomical illustrator, she took her place within the establishment, surrounded by scientific insight, advancement and achievement. Scientific study was proving the existence of hidden worlds, with entire fields of study manifesting in quick succession: quantum physics, x-ray photography, radio. Veils were rent. Scales fell from eyes. Western Europe was abuzz, seeing through a mirror less-darkly. What else could be known? What else could be true? In such a world, spiritualism also thrived.
While her all-female seance group, De Fem (The Five), were communicating with ethereal messengers, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Max Planck were revealing a world Isaac Newton couldn’t have imagined. In 1906, af Klimt agreed to take on “a great commission” from spirit guides to paint works for a temple. Such a weighted term, echoing the resurrected Jesus to his disciples, is difficult to ignore, and af Klint’s art is evangelical, to be sure, even if her good news seems impossible to discern. And yet, in the Guggenheim, that spiraling temple to modern art, we found ourselves moving up, up to the pinnacle of her vision.
Af Klint made the worlds she encountered accessible through cool color and symbol. Seductive is not the right word, nor is inviting. Beckoning comes closer. Perhaps the proper word is a Swedish one. She shares the curiosity of esotericism, the simultaneous inability and strange desire to understand what is going on just behind the veil. This is not about power or authority, nor a possibility of theosis. The art of af Klint is about the liminal. The canvas is that limen, that edge, that horizon to a world we’re unsure of. She brings us the horizon and shows a glimpse of what lies beyond.
Her artistic corpus is so vast and so deliberate, so internally consistent, so logical in its grammar that the viewer, among the cool colors and coiling spirals, is tempted to wonder “maybe, she’s right!” We feel the threat that comes with the potential disturbance of one’s understanding of the cosmos and one’s place within it. We realize that our senses have limits, that perception won’t provide all the answers that can satisfy and reassure us.
These works are beautiful, yes, but there is something unwieldy and unfathomable about them, and they are also terrifying. They are incomprehensible, which is mysticism sophomorically described, but wholly accurate. Hilda af Klint is one of the most extreme artists I have ever encountered, and her work upsets me in entirely new ways. At the Guggenheim, I was forced to reconsider the relationship of art and religion and what art can do.
Words fail. But that, esoterically, is the point.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.