Friday, May 6th, 2016

“If a spirit told me to do this, I’d do it”: Painters Respond to Hilma af Klint

Report from…London

Hilma af Klint: ‘Painting the Unseen’ at the Serpentine Gallery, London until May 15, 2016

Installation view: Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen Serpentine Gallery, London, 2016. Image © Jerry Hardman-Jones
Installation view: Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen Serpentine Gallery, London, 2016. Image © Jerry Hardman-Jones

A hundred years after they were made, the paintings of the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) are dazzling viewers and perplexing historians. Convinced they were too far ahead of their time to be understood, af Klint stipulated that her work should be kept secret for twenty years after her death. As well as thousands of pages of notes and texts, 1,200 paintings – many of them enormous – hibernated for decades in an attic but have reappeared looking fresh and new, and perfectly at home in the 21st Century.

Predating the pioneers of abstraction by at least ten years, af Klint’s geometric structures and floating forms seem closely related to Kandinsky, Malevich, Miró, Mondrian, both Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Klee and others, none of whom knew of her. But the physical size and eclecticism of her work, and somehow its artlessness – the flat, chalky surface of the paint, the impersonal line drawing – make it appear more contemporaneous than theirs. A precursor also of Surrealism, af Klint brings in figures, diagrams, symbols and automatic writing. It is as if her paintings have leapfrogged Modernism and landed neatly in front of today’s receptive audience.

The difficulty for art historians and curators is where to position this hitherto unknown, who never exhibited, taught, or wrote manifestos, and therefore had no influence on her peers. Was she the inventor of the most important movement in modern art? Or was she an outsider artist whose work is out of the mainstream and therefore, in art history terms, too weird to take seriously and essentially irrelevant? But as a painter who loves looking at painting, the question is of little concern to me.

Installation view: Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen Serpentine Gallery, London, 2016. Image © Jerry Hardman-Jones
Installation view: Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen Serpentine Gallery, London, 2016. Image © Jerry Hardman-Jones

Af Klint was very much a child of her generation at a time when evidence of the unseen was popping up everywhere, with the discovery of x-rays, electromagnetic waves, and evolution; and in the fashion for conducting séances. Like Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian, she was influenced by Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical movement, and by Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, where meeting points between spiritualism, symbolism and geometry led to new ways of thinking about painting. But according to her own records, it was direct dealings with the occult that impelled the five-foot-high Swedish spinster with piercing blue eyes to make the extraordinary body of work she has left us.

After a solid academic art education in Stockholm, af Klint set herself up as a painter of conventional landscapes, portraits and botanical watercolors. Increasingly, however, she was taken over by what was happening in the séances she ran with a group of women calling themselves The Five. Af Klint never exhibited the work that she said was made under the guidance of spirits. Describing her most important series, “The Paintings for the Temple” (193 abstract works made between 1906 and 1915), she wrote: “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 brush stroke.”

Af Klint died penniless at the age of 81, on a farm outside Stockholm, leaving her estate to a nephew Erik af Klint, whose son Johan has inherited it. It took them longer than the stipulated twenty years, but after the work was eventually shown for the first time in 1986, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, interest started developing in other parts of the world. Af Klint was shown at London’s Camden Art Center, the Pompidou in Paris, and at PS1 and the Drawing Center in New York, but significantly excluded from “Inventing Abstraction, 1910 – 1925” at MoMa in 2012 on the grounds of her isolation from the avant-garde. It was in 2013 that, appropriately, the Stockholm Moderna Museet mounted a blockbuster survey of af Klint entitled “Pioneer of Abstraction”, which reportedly had viewers weeping with emotion, and established her as an artist of international importance.

Group IX/SUW, No. 17. The Swan, No. 17, by Hilma af Klint. Courtesy of Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk. Photo: Moderna Museet / Stockholm
Group IX/SUW, No. 17. The Swan, No. 17, by Hilma af Klint. Courtesy of Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk. Photo: Moderna Museet / Stockholm

Af Klint’s influence is beginning to be seen and acknowledged by a new generation of artists, some interested in the underlying geometry of the work, others attracted by its spiritual, mystical and occult dimensions: both turning away, perhaps, from postmodernist irony and cynicism and finding in her something fresh and authentic. For the New York painter Suzan Frecon, seeing Hilma af Klint at PS1 in 1989 was a turning point. “It helped give me the guts to return (to geometric painting) and go further.” The Swedish artist Fredrik Soderberg, who uses geometric symbols with a magical purpose in mind, and the Polish painter and photographer Agnieszka Brzezanska, whose aim in her work is to “draw back the veils on unseen worlds”.

But, as yet unencumbered by knowledge of the back-story, when I walked into the Serpentine exhibition, I was free simply to feel the impact and enjoy the grave beauty of the three monumental works in the first gallery. How much can you tell about a painting just by looking? They did seem strange, as well as strangely familiar, these imposing abstract compositions, glowing with pastel colors and offset by black. Before reading the titles – Altarpiece 1, 2 and 3 –something ritualistic and liturgical could be intuited. Each has a complex and detailed geometrical structure, with ever-finer details to be discovered, but the complexities fit together so elegantly that the result seems simple.

I was with fellow painter Ansel Krut who said admiringly, when we first arrived, “If a spirit told me to do this, I’d do it.”

Further paintings contain bulbous flower and butterfly shapes in oranges and pinks; strange words in curly writing and decorative curlicues that might be snails; Leonardo-style humans within diagrams; swans and dogs, discs, chains of what we might now think of as DNA, and the word “evolution”. A study of af Klint’s many volumes of tightly written notes may – or may not – explain everything, but the task would be formidable.

As we made our way through the exhibition, our amazement continued but the enthusiasm began to wane. Something pedantic in the work was irritating, we agreed, and something silly about the orange balloons; there was a certain kind of hollowness, a feeling that something was missing.

At a large retrospective, you expect to get a sense of an artist, through seeing what she is grappling with and how she develops over time. Here, nothing is grappled with, the work is serenely presented. Indeed, the artist declares herself absent. So many artists report the feeling that something else takes over when they are at work. For af Klint, it was a specific personage from “the other side” called Amaliel who told her what to do. But looking at a large collection of her work, I felt the same sense of absence as with de Kooning’s late paintings, when he was suffering from dementia. For me, that missing human or rational element turns out to be exactly what I hope to find in a painting.