Spirited Away

Who painted Hilma af Klint’s otherworldly visions?

Anna Cassel, No. 35. (detail), 1915, oil on canvas, 21 3/4 x 16".

Anna Cassel: The Saga of the Rose. Edited by Kurt Almqvist and Daniel Birnbaum. Bokförlaget Stolpe, 2023. 182 pages.

ANNA CASSEL: THE SAGA OF THE ROSEa sumptuously designed book by the same publisher of the seven-volume, thirty-eight-pound Hilma af Klint Catalogue Raisonné, is not only an astonishing revelation of a heretofore unknown visual artist, but one whose recently discovered participation in the creation of Hilma af Klint’s renowned “Paintings for the Temple” necessitates a reconceptualization of this pioneering work, and hence a corrective to the history of modernism itself as it currently stands.

In the foreword, the editors Kurt Almqvist and Daniel Birnbaum (both Hilma af Klint Foundation board members) explain that although it was known that the Swedish artist Anna Cassel (1860–1937) and af Klint were members of the same esoteric circles, most famously Christian spiritualist group The Five, their work together extended well beyond the automatic drawings produced by this female collective. Most significantly, the full extent of Cassel and af Klint’s collaboration on “The Paintings for the Temple”—193 paintings in fourteen series created between 1906 and 1915, planned for a spiral-shaped sanctuary—was not fully understood until the recent discovery, in June 2021, of Cassel’s notebooks and drawings in the archives of Austrian occultist Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society in Järna, outside Stockholm. Although af Klint acknowledged that the “Temple” cycle was a group effort, emanating from “a realm inhabited by a plurality of spirits,” the specific details of this coauthorship have long remained unclear. Spirits aside, the editors go on to state the lesser-known fact that “thirteen women were involved in the creation of the physical works” and that because of this extraordinary new information (thirteen!), they acknowledge that research into the collective nature of these works has just begun.

The first order of business of this volume is to restore Anna Cassel to her rightful place as a cocreator of “The Paintings for the Temple.” Heralded for its innovative abstract imagery, massive size, and exuberant color, this cycle remained largely unknown for almost eighty years until its showing in 2016 at the Serpentine Gallery in London and in 2018 at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, whose coiling architecture momentarily served as the work’s titular temple. Subsequently these paintings have generated enormous excitement and curiosity, although it must be stated that Hilma af Klint studies remain in a nascent phase as scholars continue to sift through the staggering archive left behind by the artist—over 1,000 paintings and some 26,000 pages of notes, all in Swedish. Hedwig Martin’s essay, “Who Created The Paintings for the Temple?,” deals with the issue of collaboration head on, pushing against the mythology of af Klint as a lone artist heroically undertaking this monumental task. Martin insists that the opposite was true: Af Klint had a lot of support—both physical and spiritual—from other women, Cassel primarily, but not exclusively, among them. Both from wealthy backgrounds, the two studied together at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts, a place where unmarried women with no need to work could be trained in a suitable occupation (or rather, kept suitably occupied). As Martin explains in the podcast Stolpe Stories, in all likelihood they were lovers at the beginning, at the very least romantically involved at a time when “romantic friendships” were common and provided a safe gray area socially.

In recent years we have heard much about The Five, the spiritualist group of women—af Klint, Cassel, Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman, and Mathilda Nilsson—who channeled messages from “higher powers” from 1897 to 1907. A gifted medium, Cassel would eventually come to dominate the group, while af Klint played a more subsidiary role. It was working together outside of this quintet, however, that af Klint and Cassel each began to receive messages from the spirit realms asking for their participation in a “special mission.” The ensuing visual collaboration resulted in numerous preliminary sketches and twenty-seven small oil paintings executed between October 1906 and September 1907; this is the inaugural series of “The Paintings for the Temple” and thus a crucial juncture in the history of abstraction. Titled “Series I” or “The First 26 Small Ones” (the title would be changed later to “Primordial Chaos”), this body of work endeavored to visualize the so-called Akashic records: a supernatural compendium, as elucidated by Theosophy’s cofounder and chief theoretician, Helena Blavatsky, of all universal events and thoughts occurring in the past, present, and future and concerning all life forms. Analyzing the works in Cassel’s notebooks, Martin has convincingly been able to parcel out fourteen works belonging to her in this series and includes two comparisons that illustrate the women’s different styles. Cassel paid greater attention to detail, for example, and her application of paint was more careful and smoother than af Klint’s expressive surfaces, resulting in a deeper saturation of color.

Anna Cassel, untitled, n.d., watercolor on paper. 15 1/2 x 10 1/2".

After completing “Primordial Chaos,” Cassel appears to have taken a step back from the project, and other women came to help with the clandestine work that af Klint by then had come to understand from her channeled sources as being part of a temple. From 1913 to 1915, Cassel resumed her work on the temple with af Klint, producing the two series of paintings (illustrated here for the first time) which together constitute The Saga of the Rose, a kind of group prayer book that, like the Akashic records, deals with the collective memory of mankind and beyond. In her notebooks, af Klint presented Cassel as an equal partner and the others more as assistants, but the full extent of each woman’s participation remains unclear, as Martin explains. Most astonishing, for me at least, is Martin’s claim that these women contacted spirits and worked together all while living, traveling, and engaging in romantic relationships with each other. Collective spirit indeed! One of these women, Thomasine Andersson, would become af Klint’s new lover; one wonders if the attraction to occultism had something to do with its philosophical notions of uniting opposites, in particular male and female “energies,” regardless of gender these energies occupied. Esoteric ruminations on the fusion of opposites—for example, the alchemical androgyne—offered symbolic accommodation for nineteenth-century queerness, perhaps even a cosmological justification for same-sex relationships. To say that this topic merits further scholarship is an understatement; with the discovery of Cassel’s notebooks (more meticulously kept than af Klint’s) and hopefully others in the future, this can begin to happen.

It is likely that Hilma af Klint scholarship is on the brink of some radical changes regarding attribution and authorship.

Kurt Almqvist’s essay, “The Significance of Anna Cassel to the Art of Hilma af Klint,” likewise strives to redress the occlusion of Cassel’s influence on and contribution to af Klint’s work, as well as underscore the importance of collaboration and collectives in their milieu. For those of us who seek clarity regarding the plethora of esoteric organizations active in Sweden at this time, Almqvist lays it all out in a marvelously succinct manner along with a timeline of Cassel and af Klint’s memberships and levels of involvement. It is here where we get a better understanding of their move toward Rudolf Steiner’s Rosicrucian theosophy and later Anthroposophy, his educational, therapeutic, and pseudoscientific expansion of the former.

Finally, we get a brief glimpse into some of the ideas behind the extraordinary images by Cassel compiled in this book. The Saga of the Rose, as we have seen, constitutes the first two series presented, dating from 1913 (“Untitled Series I”) and 1915 (“Untitled Series II”). The fifty oil paintings that make up “Untitled Series I,” executed between March and June of 1913, are nothing short of breathtaking in their pictorial diversity and symbolic richness. They appear to amalgamize dreams, visions, and numerous occult traditions, from Freemasonry to esoteric Christianity. “Untitled Series II” counts ninety-eight oil paintings from 1915, the year that “The Paintings for the Temple” were completed (though the temple itself never was). Like the previous grouping, they encompass a dazzling array of imagery, from a bird with a human skull, to mysterious architectural interiors, to iconic symbols (keys, arcane signs, numbers), and totally abstract geometric forms. The stately grandeur of her decorations—their palette largely restricted to grays, soft blues, and gold—seems to foreshadow the secret initiations and unearthly revelations that await their proposed temple.

Anna Cassel, No. 4. 4 January 1911, 1911, graphite and colored pencil on paper. 12 x 15 3/4".

The “Suffering Series” (1910–11) are charcoal drawings of women seated in prayer, silently meditating, reading, and even prone in bed (perhaps sick or dying). These robed and hooded figures possess a monastic aura and remind us that in 1914 Cassel and af Klint founded an esoteric order of thirteen women (based on Steiner’s ideas) whose membership continued posthumously (given their belief in contact with spirits, there was no differentiation made between the living and the dead). “Untitled Series III” (1910) is a group of oil paintings featuring crosses with central white roses, the Rosicrucian emblem. One work betrays its theosophical origins by depicting a bearded man in white robes (reminiscent of images of Blavatsky’s renowned Ascended Master, Koot Hoomi) meditating before a table holding a holy book and rose, while in the background a black cross set in a red disc hovers, radiating white light. The editors wisely included a selection of Cassel’s landscape and botanical drawings and watercolors, if only to remind us of her technical skill and academic training as a nature painter. The color plates end with a stunning group of Cassel’s abstract watercolors (undated) that employ Steiner’s lasur (wet-on-wet) technique, whereby thin veils of watercolor are applied in a fluid manner as to blend organically, creating an otherworldly sense of expansion and immateriality.

Anna Cassel, No. 3. 15 August 1910, 1910. oil on canvas, 14 1/2 x 19".

There has not been enough time since the discovery of Cassel’s notebooks to fully interpret their imagery, let alone their written content (not yet translated into English), but Anna Cassel: The Saga of the Rose generously provides us with enough material to begin the task. Almqvist, the only person who has read through the entirety of the Cassel cache—some sixty-five booklets, numerous notebooks, and other materials such as glass plates—asserts that they represent a major breakthrough in understanding the group and is hopeful that writings from the other members will also be discovered. For the past three years, he has been working on a volume on af Klint’s notebooks; its publication promises to provide us with a more accurate understanding of what has heretofore been considered exclusively her own work. It is likely that af Klint scholarship is on the brink of some radical changes regarding attribution and authorship. Indeed, the most exciting hypothesis in Anna Cassel: The Saga of the Rose is that of a secret collective of women artists, artists who deemed their work so important that it spanned the divide of death. As af Klint told Cassel, who had already passed on, in 1943: “I am still in my physical body and hope to get your and my work into some sort of order before I must leave this Earth. Many circumstances prevented this, but it is now time, and we ought to do this while I am in this world. I dearly hope it will ease your heart to know that I am your friend and I believe we shall work together in the future.”

Susan L. Aberth is the Edith C. Blum Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at Bard College.