PRINT September 2021


Hilma af Klint at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm, 1885.  © The Hilma af Klint Foundation.

FOR MONTHS, I’ve been spending evenings working on the Hilma af Klint catalogue raisonné. I regularly doze off with some book about hermetic traditions on my chest. The other night, I read about Giordano Bruno’s theory that the universe was originally composed entirely of primordial, indivisible, immaterial entities, or monads, that ebbed and flowed hither and thither in the immensity of space. That motion lulled me to sleep, and I dreamed about monads that looked like glass beads arranged in intricate symmetries. It was the start of a new phase of lucid dreaming.

Lucid dreaming—during which you know you are asleep and can determine the course of your oneiric adventures—is a rare phenomenon, but its occurrence can be facilitated through exercises. A central part of my training strategy is to regularly question the reality of my waking experience. In the late fourth century bce, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreamed he was a cheerful butterfly. After he awoke, he pondered how he could be sure whether he was a philosopher who had just finished dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly who had just started dreaming he was a philosopher. Am I really a curator and art historian studying the art of a Swedish mystic? Whoever or whatever I really am, I return regularly to the same hallucinatory sequence, and evening after evening I gain more control over it.

I am gliding toward the green island of Ven in the Øresund strait between Sweden and Denmark, approaching Hilma af Klint’s magnificent temple. She sometimes referred to it as a museum, or a church for a new era. It was never actually built—yet in my dream there it stands, translucent and nautilus-shaped. It breathes and swells like the castle in August Strindberg’s Dream Play. I descend upon it, not unlike Indra’s Daughter in Strindberg’s drama:

I followed from ethereal heights the ray
Of lightning, and for a car a cloud I took—
It sank, and now my journey downward tends.
O, noble father, Indra, tell what realms
I now draw near?

I land and find myself among sunflowers. In an entry in her notebooks dated July 11, 1919, af Klint (1862–1944) spells out the heliotropic blooms’ significance: They direct our thoughts to the solar disk itself. They represent a “total image of what happens to humanity in the present era. . . . The sunflower openly displays the meaning of life.” As I ponder these gnomic words, I feel I’m being pulled into the involutions of a logarithmic spiral whose form is an expression of the golden ratio, the principle of morphology governing everything from the pinwheel shape of galaxies to the placement of a flower’s petals. The vortex terminates inside the building in a vast hall vaguely reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. That’s when I wake up.

In his 1591 treatise De monade, numero et figura liber (On the Monad, Number, and Figure), Bruno described three types of monads: God, souls, and atoms. Much later, the concept of the monad was popularized by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In Leibniz’s system, monads are the basic, irreducible components of the universe. Each monad is a unique, indestructible soul-like entity. Monads cannot interact, but all are perfectly synchronized with one another by God.

Did af Klint know any of this when she created “The Atom Series” in 1917, juxtaposing her imagery with such statements as “Every atom has its center, but every center is directly connected to the center of the universe” and “The center of the universe consists of Innocence”? The series would appear to be a survey of the structure of the cosmos, but inner and outer worlds are so intimately intertwined in af Klint’s art that even physics can be described in moral and spiritual terms. The idea of macrocosms that both mirror and are composed of microcosms (universe and atom, body and cell) recurs throughout her notes. It is present in her remarks on the building she intended to construct to accommodate her most important body of work, “The Paintings for the Temple,” 1906–15, a vast cycle whose 193 paintings, grouped in numerous subseries, are bound together through the repetition of forms, the fluid interchange of abstraction and figuration, and the continuous imagining of unseen worlds. Af Klint explains in her notebooks that each of us holds a private temple within ourselves, but at the same time, as she put it on January 1, 1917, “all of humanity owns a common . . . temple, within that temple one finds temple building after temple building. One can compare this to an edifice filled with cells located close to each other.”

Af Klint explains that each of us holds a private temple within ourselves, but at the same time, “all of humanity owns a common temple.”

De Fem (the Five) automatic spiritual drawing, 1905–1906.

“The Paintings for the Temple” followed a decade in which af Klint attended spiritual gatherings with a collective of female friends who called themselves De Fem (the Five). Together, they would enter trancelike states in which, they believed, they could communicate with mystic beings named the “High Masters.” Via automatic writing and drawing, the women transcribed the messages they received. These techniques allowed af Klint to move away from her formal training, with its emphasis on the realistic depiction of nature, and begin crafting a new visual language. “The Paintings for the Temple” share motifs with the transcripts made by the Five; af Klint believed that the High Masters were speaking through these works. But her use of color, her permutations of geometric forms, her symbolic ciphers, and her prescient vision of fractal structures created a groundbreaking and unique oeuvre that is as undefinable today as it was a century ago.

Séance room used by De Fem (the Five), Stockholm, 1890s.

Af Klint had befriended one of the Five, Anna Cassel, as a student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. The other members were Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman, and Mathilda Nilsson. All had been members of the Edelweiss Society, a Stockholm association that promulgated a blend of Christianity, theosophy, and spiritualism. Their meetings would open with a prayer, which was followed by meditation, a Christian sermon, a close reading of a passage from the New Testament, and, finally, a séance. The Five were clearly influenced by the society’s collective mediumistic practice. Given this communal ethos, it is often difficult to say who actually made a given individual drawing in af Klint’s archive, although some of them are marked with initials. In 1907, af Klint claimed to have received a message indicating that she should be leader of the group. The other four members refused to accept this decree, and soon the Five disintegrated. Undeterred, af Klint from this point forward focused on her temple, her great commission from the High Masters. But was it really just hers?

In her notes, af Klint is very clear about the fact that Anna Cassel supported her in the creation of the paintings that were to adorn her tabernacle. “A and H completed the large series,” she jotted on July 4, 1914. It is true that af Klint distinguished her own works, which she referred to as “future pictures,” from those created by Cassel, which she thought represented humanity’s past as set down in the so-called Akashic records (according to theosophy, a supernatural compendium of all events, thoughts, and emotions, past, present, and future). Nonetheless, af Klint apparently thought of Cassel’s paintings as also belonging to the temple that they were planning to design together. The assignment was a shared one.

Plans for the building changed over the years. In af Klint’s notebooks, there are sketches for a structure resembling Rudolf Steiner’s domed Goetheanum as well as the Guggenheim-like one that found its way into my dream. There is mention of a library, a garden, an observatory. Spaces for those initiated into the mysteries of what scholar Briony Fer aptly dubs af Klint’s “self-generating occult symbol-system” are clearly separated from those intended for ordinary visitors. Somewhere in the architectural maze, Cassel’s relatively small paintings would be installed. It’s safe to assume that most of the wall space would have been occupied by af Klint’s 193 paintings, some of which are remarkably large for the period.

Rudolf Steiner, Goetheanum, 1920, Dornach, Switzerland. Photo: akg-images.

The cycle is complicated, nuanced, and elusive, and no reading of it can be straightforward, but the whole sequence can perhaps be understood as af Klint’s pursuit of the originary “oneness” that she believed existed at the beginning of time. This integrity had since been lost, giving way to polarities: good and evil, matter and spirit, woman and man. She saw these dichotomies and the conflicts to which they lead as having become the dominant forces animating all life. Certainly, for her, the desire to overcome them seems to have driven everything she did in life as well as in art. In her note from New Year’s Day, 1917, describing the Temple as a fractal, af Klint elaborates its inner dualism: its two corridors, one built with black cells, the other with white. To move through the temple is to move toward a higher unity. Af Klint’s visionary cosmos is inhabited by beings that transcend all forms of traditional binary gender identity. In the seventh epoch of humanity, the era of Jupiter that the Temple will inaugurate, a new fluidity will be the rule, and “man-women” like af Klint will be able to unite with their “dual beings”—their cosmically ordained counterpartsand reach oneness. Af Klint may have seen Anna as her “dual being”; for her, oneness, perhaps, would be achieved when H and A united.

It is strange how, in lucid dreaming, the same sequence can be experienced repeatedly with only small changes. In my astral journeys to Ven, I find the temple growing bigger and bigger. The temple is a living organism, but on our plane of reality, it is an organism that was never born. The edifice af Klint was dreaming of—a museum or church located somewhere in Sweden but also everywhere, in the inner realms of each human being but also in the external world, accessible to all but also personal—simply could not be realized.

It was Walter Benjamin who observed the prophetic capacity of certain works of art to allude to technologies that have not yet been developed: “The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form.” It has been claimed, for instance, that certain nineteenth-century novels, such as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, anticipate cinema. In what medium could Hilma af Klint’s temple be realized?

It feels a bit irreverent to say it, but the experience she anticipated seems to be substantially compatible with virtual space and digital technology. The internet and social media in particular have made it possible for the local to become the global, for better or worse, and for an artwork or a museum to be everywhere at once. (An even more irreverent question: Is the blockchain something like a human realization of the Akashic records?)

Tomás Saraceno, Maratus speciosus, 2020, augmented reality. From “Webs of Life,” 2020–.

Af Klint’s artistic innovations have been lauded, but her institutional imagination—her dreams about what her temple-museum could be—also deserves our attention. Technology still hasn’t caught up to her, because in her occult symbolic system, the fractal-like structure of reality is realized as a utopian institution, a museum at once salient to every human being and yet truly communal. And the internet these days hardly seems to be a force that, in its net effect on human affairs, is helping to create the conditions in which such an institution can exist.

Or am I wrong? In my day job, I sometimes get involved in things that make me wonder if I’m hallucinating. Geolocating massive AR spiders by Tomás Saraceno in parks and squares in London and New York has become routine. Linking the virtual world to the real spiders that trigger the experience is, according to the artist, part of the urgent exploration of what the Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui refers to as the link between biodiversity and technodiversity. If af Klint anticipated virtual space, then an artist like Saraceno seems to be anticipating some sort of technology not yet invented, a radical rethinking of what “technology” means. With the climate apocalypse in full swing, we need to start thinking in less extractive and destructive terms. And we seem to need a new system and ethos for institutions in general. Perhaps institutions of art in particular could be construed as a new technology. Do we need to “build a dome in air,” as Coleridge said, and then figure out how to move into it?

It feels a bit irreverent to say it, but the experience af Klint anticipated seems to be substantially compatible with virtual space and digital technology.

During the Städelschule’s “Breaking Glass III–Virtual Space” conference on virtual and augmented reality this past May, architect Elizabeth Diller’s speculations about institutional models spurred participants to think about how to reanimate possible futures imagined by innovators of the past: for instance, by Buckminster Fuller or by British avant-garde theater director Joan Littlewood and architect Cedric Price, who collaborated on the Fun Palace, a community space designed to awaken the passive subjects of mass culture to a new consciousness. Their interactive machine for entertainment and education, conceived half a century ago, involved virtual-reality experiences avant la lettre, from Captain Nemo’s underwater restaurant to a lunar journey in a space-capsule simulator. Although never realized, the Fun Palace remains an influence on architectural imagination and curatorial experiments alike. But do we actually need yet another large building? Perhaps not, said Diller—the architect behind moma’s recent expansion, the Shed in New York’s Hudson Yards, and innumerable other museum structures. Her provocative question implied that the art institution of the future might be a network of humble sheds scattered through forests across the globe and connected virtually. But why material sheds at all? Perhaps the forests themselves should be the institutions, networked via some sort of truly immaterial cloud—no server farms, no fossil fuels—that has yet to be devised? Many domes in the air, connected through winds and birds?

I’m reminded of Robert Wilson’s version of Strindberg’s Dream Play, which I reviewed in these pages more than two decades ago. It took place on a physical stage but somehow seemed to appear on a video monitor. Occasionally, someone happened to touch the pause button and the image froze. Rewind, fast-forward. Today, Wilson could have employed virtual- and augmented-reality technologies. (Perhaps my notes can be used as a storyboard for a virtual-reality production?)

This time around, after entering the spiral building through the sunflower, I move upward in the rotunda as if I’m in an elevator built of light. There are sixteen floors in the building, each one corresponding to a petal in the lotus flower of the throat chakra. As I ascend, I recognize the paintings from af Klint’s “Primordial Chaos” (1906–1907) series and other works. Somewhere below me, a dodecahedron is visible underneath the floor. I vividly remember that af Klint put it there herself, just as Steiner famously did at the ceremony that initiated the construction of his Goetheanum. No doubt each floor represents another emanation, a state in the process of creation described by the Gnostics. Above me hover stars. Am I looking through a transparent ceiling?

“Anything may happen; everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist,” according to the foreword of A Dream Play. “The characters split, double, multiply, vanish, solidify, blur, clarify. But one consciousness reigns above them all—that of the dreamer.” I look at the temple from above and remember a question Indra’s Daughter asks as she returns to the castle: “Ought it not to be blooming soon, as we are already past midsummer?”

Contributing editor Daniel Birnbaum is the artistic director of Acute Art in London and a professor of philosophy at the Städelschule in Frankfurt.