Critics’ Picks

Altar Painting, No. 1, Group 10, 1915.

London

Hilma af Klint

Camden Arts Centre
Arkwright Road
February 17–April 16, 2006

Around the beginning of the twentieth century Swedish artist Hilma af Klint used automatic drawing techniques to produce startling formal abstractions. Though her drawings and paintings comprise both these mainstays of modernism, and predate their first historically recognized appearance, she used the ostensibly “unmodernist” method of channeling many of these geometric and abstract forms during séances. Af Klint’s dedication to Theosophy (and later Anthroposophy), along with her gender, has for the most part disqualified her from the canon, despite the fact that many iconic modern artists were similarly influenced, including arch-formalists like Kandinsky and Mondrian, whose progressions toward abstraction were deeply inspired by such mystic movements. The devotional forms that af Klint elicited from her unconscious states demanded the miscegenation of figurative, abstract, and linguistic signs, resulting in a diagrammatic and esoteric visual language that is simultaneously whimsical and precise. For instance, the “SUW” series articulates one of af Klint’s favorite themes: the spiritual synthesis of opposites, whether in a proto-futurist portrait of two swans (one white and alive the other black and dying) or, more simply, in intertwined black and white threads delineating a geometric figure. Even her most expressive gestural drawing is determined by a preset cosmic system, evincing similarities to later modern works that organize the visual field through schematic systems. Will an art-historical niche be devised for this “irrationally” programmatic and nonformalist abstract painter? Many of the remarkable works displayed here have a retro appeal that makes her impending assimilation seem likely.