Hilma Af Klint

Liljevalchs Konsthall

ART HISTORY HAS NEVER BEEN about who got there first, but who took it to the bank first. The fact that Swedish painter Hilma af Klint was already fully immersed in automatic drawing by 1903, nineteen years before the Surrealists undertook what are generally considered by scholars to be the first automatist experiments, is hardly destined to plunge the History of Modern Art into a Reformation. Af Klint accepted that lesson on her own terms. She died at eighty-one in 1944 and left more than a thousand paintings and drawings to her family, with a stipulation that any public presentation of her work be withheld until twenty years after her death. Af Klint’s wishes were respected, and it was not until 1986 that a few pictures surfaced, in the LACMA exhibition “The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1895–1985.” And while it is true that her reputation in Sweden has been that of the adored but quirky auntie, her appearance in that show sparked newfound admiration. Since then her work has been exhibited occasionally in Scandinavia and Europe and once in Australia. Finally, an impressive survey of nearly two hundred drawings and paintings has been organized by the Liljevalchs Konsthall, providing the first real occasion to get to know Hilma.

Clearly, it was something more fundamental than her dying wish that postponed af Klint’s debut in the art world. To put it directly, the delay seems to have been a result of her artistic isolation in Sweden combined with a general lack of respect for the occultist path she took as an artist. And as for being a woman painting at the turn of the century—well, it didn’t help.

Af Klint belonged to a group of women artists, known as “The Five,” who claimed to channel artistic visions directly from “High Masters” in another dimension. The Liljevalchs exhibition makes clear that from 1907 to 1915 af Klint claimed to be making paintings commissioned by her invisible leaders, pictures that stood as automatic transcriptions of their spiritual and esoteric messages taken down while she was untethered from consciousness. Her theoretical anchor was Rudolf Steiner, the mystic philosopher and founder of Anthroposophy, a heady metaphysical cocktail of Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Christianity, and the writings of Plato and Goethe. Steiner, also an influence on the early work of Kandinsky and Mondrian, professed to have clairvoyant visions and to see ancient events embossed on the cosmic ether. Af Klint’s conviction that she was in synch with Steiner helped insulate her even further from the mainstream of modern art at the turn of the last century.

Yet a first look into af Klint’s oeuvre suggests that what she was encountering in her studio could be closely related to what the Surrealists would experience, only expressed in her own idiosyncratic language. It remains unclear precisely what she understood or cared to know about the goings-on in Paris. For af Klint and The Five, one theme predominated: to directly express a spiritual unity transcending the world’s multiplicity by offering a resolution to the bipolarity of the spiritual life and the material world, of good and evil, or of the sexes. The “snail” or spiral shape, central to works like Urkaos, nr. 4 (Original chaos, no. 4), 1906, and De tio största, nr. 3 (The ten largest, no. 3), 1907, symbolized the progress toward this cosmic equilibrium. These early paintings were meant to decorate a spiral-shaped temple that was never built. The word wu, which refers to the unity of matter and spirit, also appears often in the images, as does a triangle or pyramid shape that represents the development of the human spirit. These elements persist throughout af Klint’s work.

It all brings to mind a passage from André Breton’s 1924 Manifestes du Surréalisme in which he imagined the resolution of the conscious and subconscious: “I believe in the future transmutation of those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality,” he wrote, “into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality. . . .” Af Klint might easily have shared with Breton the notion that such a resolution would pave the way toward a higher order, an absolute reality. Unlike that of the Surrealists, af Klint’s iconography was ultimately programmatic, its parts meant to be decoded, yet it did stem from transcendental voices channeled through dreams. What if the artist’s “High Master” was her subconscious by another name?

It would be rash to use Surrealism to prop af Klint, or by the same token, to recast Breton’s “pure psychic automatism” as his “High Master.” But consider the following analogy: In the sciences it frequently occurs that two research projects in related fields drive across the same discovery from dif fer ent directions. What happens as a result is that highly relative, nascent, and therefore idiosyncratic languages appear simultaneously to describe the same event. And Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle tells us that the scientist must always account for his or her point of view within an experiment. The uncertainty principle has transformed the laws of physics into declarations about relative probabilities instead of absolute certainties. Sometimes, in both the arts and the sciences, languages can differently describe a single effect. If this is the case in art history, then appreciating af Klint’s role is a matter of relativity.

Af Klint’s isolation from the mainstream makes her canvases all the more captivating today. Take, for example, the pure lyricism and poetic color of De tio största, nr. 8, and De stora figurmålningarna, nr. 8 (The large figurative paintings, no. 8), both from 1907. These paintings bring to mind the exuberance of Matisse’s Harmony in Red, 1908, and resonate with some of the Symbolist effervescence of Odilon Redon’s Roger and Angelica, 1910. But in the end, her pictures stand apart, and in their time they were well ahead of the argument modern art was yet to make through automatism. Still, af Klint’s story is not to be told in the language of revisionism—hers was a universe parallel to, but distinct from, the Surrealist automatism that art history has privileged.

Ronald Jones is an artist and frequent contributor to Artforum.