Study Visit Review: Hilma Af Klint
I first saw Hilma Af Klint’s (1862-1944) work in the Encyclopaedic Palace, at the Venice Biennale 2013. The curator of the Palace wanted to show that visual art could be magical, even divine and to present an expanded notion of knowledge and understanding. Outsider art was placed alongside recognised artworks and well-known names, exhibits included Carl Jung’s Red Book and Rudolph Steiner’s blackboard drawings. I had gone to look at Emma Kunz (1892-1963), an untrained Swiss painter and spiritual healer who made geometrical drawings. I found Af Klint’s paintings displayed on the wall opposite Kunz. I say all this because it wasn’t until this Serpentine exhibition that I realised Klint trained at the academy in Stockholm; she was a professional and skilled painter of portraits, landscapes and the natural world, before she began to work with abstraction. How come at the Biennale she was in the company of outsider artists?
Although Af Klint produced over 1,200 works in the first decades of the 20th century they were not seen in public until 1986. She kept her work secret during her lifetime because she felt the European Avant Garde would not understand her. Over twenty years after the first showing of her work in Los Angeles she was still missing from MoMA’s blockbuster show of 2012, Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925. At the Serpentine these paintings, some over one hundred years old, some more than ten feet tall, with an unusual colour palette that delights the eye, are radical and mysterious; they speak to us now. I suspect that the growing interest in her work will eventually establish her as a pioneer of abstraction.
I am fascinated by what seem contradictions in Af Klint’s life. She was a professional, her subject matter was influenced by the scientific thinking of the time and yet she also participated in séances and automatic drawing sessions with a group of 5 women.
Af Klint was immersed in Theosophy, ‘theos’ -divine, ‘sophia’ – wisdom; a state of consciousness beyond the mind to a supra-conceptual, perception of truth. Researching for the study visit, I was surprised to discover how much Theosophical beliefs had had an impact on better known abstract painters such as Kandinsky, Kupka, Mondrian, and Malevich. A paper by Kathleen Hall on the Theosophical website says that all of them “began with the symbolic representation of spiritual concepts, then out of necessity evolved into abstraction. It was an inevitable process. The familiar forms of the visible world were not able to express the cosmic realm. Only line, shape, and color were of use to the artist as a language through which the voice of the universe could be communicated. It was perhaps an experimental translation of Divine concepts.”
The last sentence seems to fit well with Klint’s approach, I often got the feeling, particularly from the early paintings that she was working out ideas and translating concepts through painting. Although the painting below is arguably not abstraction, the split composition, the colour palette and the drawingness gives this series of work its contemporary feel.
It was a small show and inevitably a lot was missing, in my view the later work on display, possibly more recognisable as abstract painting, seemed to be about statement rather than exploration, static rather than dynamic. Then there were the most recent pieces in the exhibition, a few small, wet on wet watercolours where she was looking for the essence of natural objects.
Mick Whyte (OCA painting student) send me a link to this curious book, Thought-Forms written by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater and published in 1905, where similar kinds of images are coded to represent specific thoughts and feelings.
There were 12 of us on the visit, with students from courses in drawing, painting, and textiles, from foundation to level 3. After the Serpentine most of us walked to the V& A to draw from observation with Klint’s ideas and images in mind. Taking this approach gave us a different framework for looking; putting accurate representation to one side we could respond to objects and invite whatever associations came to mind onto the paper. I hope those who found it liberating can carry on looking and drawing with this kind of freedom.
Extracts from paper by Kathleen Hall: https://www.theosophical.org/publications/quest-magazine/42-publications/quest-magazine/1446-theosophy-and-the-emergence-of-modern-abstract-art
Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, Though-Forms available at:
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