The Revival of a Forgotten Mystic
On Hilma af Klint’s new moment
If anyone doubts the power of cultural institutions in the digital age, look no further than the Guggenheim’s new exhibit on the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, which opened earlier this month. (The exhibit is aptly titled “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.”) A quick review of Google searches since 2004 shows exactly how stark the impact of the retrospective is. Before September, her most popular period came in late 2017, likely thanks in part to a plotline in the supernatural thriller Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart (and even that pales in comparison with the search volume she gets today). Given the details of her life, it is surprising that af Klint should enjoy such a new following—she was a “mystic” artist who turned to abstraction in the beginning of the 20th century, way ahead of the movement’s heyday, and decreed that her work be kept private until 20 years after her death.
Only so many people can make it to New York and see the paintings firsthand, but the exhibition’s ripples can be felt elsewhere. Af Klint has recently received coverage in Forbes, Artsy, The Observer, the Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, and The Economist. The New York Times published a feature titled ‘Hilma Who?’ No More. In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl wrote that the exhibit “is so good that it knocked my sense of the show momentarily askew.” For New York magazine, Jerry Saltz wrote that the show is “only a hundred years late.” He has a point. What took us so long? Well, for starters, the very idea of af Klint’s art doesn’t exactly jive with the current narratives of abstract art.
First, some backstory. Af Klint was born in 1862 to a Swedish naval commander and his wife. With a great curiosity for the natural world, and a natural skill for the arts, she attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. She might have been destined for a life of decent landscapes, portraits, and botanical drawings; in fact, these earned her enough to live on (no small feat for any artist, especially a woman in that time period). But around the time her sister died, in 1880, her life took a spiritual turn. (It should be noted that spirituality and all of its attending philosophies were in vogue around that time, especially among artists.) She began to participate in a group of women artists called “The Five” (or, de Fem), united by their interest in the paranormal, and the belief that they could receive messages from higher spirits (“The High Masters”). At some time at the turn of the century, she began to use her painting to express these messages, using a visual language to create works eventually meant for the “Temple,” an institution not even she was sure about. In the years from 1906 to 1908, and then 1912 to 1915, she dedicated herself to painting nearly 200 of these works. They are brimming with meaning, ostensibly, some of it more or less discernible, some of it not at all. Dualities appear throughout: male and female, up and down, good and evil. (The significance of certain colors seem to be consistent.) It is by definition esoteric, its meaning all but lost now that af Klint is. (Over 150 notebooks exist, but its doubtful any translator can make complete sense of them.)
Most art history textbooks will owe the advent of abstraction to a handful of familiar suspects: Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, and friends. So why, exactly, is af Klint excluded? Occam’s razor would suggest it has something to do with her gender—and the fact she stipulated her most important paintings shouldn’t be shown until after her death—but there are plenty of other reasons. She didn’t associate with the other modernists of her time, despite the fact they all sourced from a similar well of spirituality. This spirituality might also have something to do with it. While other artists were merely inspired by mystical thought, af Klint was driven by it; it was the sole reason she painted her most crucial works. Taking her work seriously would also mean taking seriously the “messages” she received from “The High Masters,” something the general public and today’s art historians aren’t likely to do.
The familiar narrative is that she knew her work was ahead of her time, that she needed to wait for the world to be ready for it. It’s not difficult to get on board on this. What is hard is to imagine how af Klint would see her revival—if she would feel her work was divorced from its intended meaning, or if her prophecies were in some way fulfilled. In fact, how else might she interpret the sight of her Guggenheim exhibition—a spiraling structure in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, filled with tourists from all nations, dressed in unfamiliar fashions, taking pictures of her work with blocks that fit in their pockets—than a vision of a futuristic “Temple”?