For six months over the course of 2018 and 2019, the Guggenheim museum in New York is forfeiting its promotion of the self-serving male titans of the art world. In those six months, it hosts a temple built by a woman to honor her spiritual masters.
Walking into the museum (or rather, the temple) is overwhelming. The first room of the exhibit urgently plunges you into an outlandish world with a series of staggering 10-foot-tall paintings, each richly saturated with oranges, blues, and purples. Spirals and interlocking circles surge and gush over the massive sheets of paper, forming an illegible cursive. The rest of the exhibit follows a similar thread—vibrant colors fill every corner, and every work seems to communicate something mysterious with a language of diagrammatic, letter-like symbols.
The temple was created by Hilma af Klint, an artist born in 1862, just a few decades before artists like Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian created their most iconic works. A talented landscape and portrait artist, Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts awarded af Klint her own studio upon her graduation. She achieved a respectable amount of success completing commissions from wealthy patrons for traditional subjects like portraits of their wives and children. When she wasn’t supporting herself with commissions, however, unbeknownst to most of the world, af Klint was creating some of the most revolutionary paintings of the 20th century.
At the age of 17, af Klint became interested in spiritualism, or the belief in the possibility of communication with the spirits of the dead and of deities. Her interest may have been sparked by the passing of her 10-year-old sister, whom af Klint took care of as she died of pneumonia. However, af Klint’s interest in spiritual communication quickly turned to contact with deities, all-knowing spirits that she would later call the High Masters. Within a few years, she had mastered the art of divine communication, and spent the rest of her life frequently communing with these spirits.
Spiritualism was a common interest for upper-class Europeans in the late 19th century, and seances (rituals used to contact unearthly spirits) were generally not taken as lightly as they are today. The contemporary scientific discoveries of subatomic particles and x-rays were proof that the world contained things beyond those that are visible and immediately apparent. People interested in spiritualism at the time were simply inspired by those discoveries to seek new ways to understand the natural world.
Almost a decade after af Klint’s initial dive into the world of spiritualism, she created a group with four other female spiritualists called De Fem, or The Five. Together, the women would seek to enter trance-like states to perform intricate seances, communing with the all-knowing High Masters.
The process of these seances, though somewhat unknown to history, went a bit like this: the five women would sit around a table, their altar close at hand. The contents of the altar were surprisingly Christian—a crucifix was boldly placed front and center and an ornately framed depiction of Jesus was hung above it. The small altar stand was covered in a luxuriously embroidered white cloth and was laden with vines, palm fronds, peonies, and roses. On either side of the cross were two white candles melted over their elaborate candle holders. The altar reflected The Five’s spiritual interests: aside from their more occult religious beliefs, all of them were practicing Lutherans, hence the Christian imagery. The group was also deeply interested in understanding nature, so they adorned their sacred space with pieces of it.
Once the altar was prepared and the women seated, they would begin their contact with the High Masters. It’s unclear how they would summon these spirits—however, we do know that their process of communication relied on automatic drawing.
Automatic drawing, a technique made famous by surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí, is the process of clearing one’s mind completely and drawing without intention or control over what’s being drawn. For The Five, this type of drawing allowed them to communicate with the High Masters. When The Five sat for their seance, it was as if the person drawing relinquished her own consciousness and allowed her body to be occupied by the spirit, who would use her body as a conduit for communication. The resulting works were chaotic, abstract pencil sketches. Over time, af Klint and The Five developed a sort of dictionary of symbolic images that they could use to interpret the drawings and understand what they were describing about the natural world.
After 10 years of regular seances, the High Masters came to The Five with a commission: they wanted them to create a series of paintings diagramming the universe to be installed in a temple. One by one the women declined, worried that they would go mad from such extended contact with the spirit world. Af Klint, however, was unafraid, so she accepted. She would spend the next 10 years creating a series of 193 paintings called The Paintings for the Temple. The series describes everything from the origin of the universe to evolution to the contrast and conflation of the masculine and feminine.
All the while, she kept her project almost entirely a secret, relegating her works to her small, isolated cottage in Sweden and showing them to very few people. Though she no longer created automatic drawings, all of the works for the temple were guided by the knowledge she gained from the spirits she worshipped.
Hilma af Klint began to create her stunning abstract works in 1905, years before revolutionary male artists like Wassily Kandinsky had their breakthroughs. This fact is undeniably exciting—it’s incredible to realize that a woman beat them to the punch. However, what’s really radical and subversive is the fact that af Klint’s motive for creating her works was so distinct from that of her male counterparts. While the long-acclaimed male artists ventured into abstraction for the sake of radicalism and personal achievement, af Klint did so out of pious selflessness. For af Klint, art was not simply an exciting experimentation to show off to the art world and garner her acclaim, like it was for most contemporary artists. Af Klint’s artwork was her life’s duty—she created it because she cared so deeply about her metaphysical commissioners. Her work was a demonstration of her love and respect.
In her article “The MoMA’s Hot Mamas,” Carol Duncan explains that the popular conception of art history’s progression is one of metaphorical patricide, or father-killing. In this patricidal narrative, artists achieve recognition because they did something better, more innovative than their forefathers. For example, cubists like Picasso became acclaimed because they thought of three-dimensional space differently than artists had before. These patricidal artists’ success is rooted in a millennia-long competition to one-up their predecessors. This narrative almost always excludes women, people of color, and anyone seen as inferior to the white men who are established as great artists. It allows us to incorrectly assume that underprivileged groups historically didn’t have the flourishing creative production that they did.
Hilma af Klint and the recent recognition of her work’s value deeply upset this narrative. Unlike most artists of the time, she didn’t create work for the sake of display or profit. In fact, she only displayed her spiritual works once during her lifetime, when she brought a small number of her pieces to a spiritualist convention. She even mandated that her works not be displayed until 20 years after her death, a decision that surely saved her from severe criticism and allowed her to continue her mission undisturbed. Because she kept her work so secretive, we can easily assume that she didn’t intend for her art to be forced into the aggressive and toxically masculine context that most well-known art is. By looking at af Klint and other artists like her, we can begin to unravel misconceptions about artistic beauty and innovation that are rooted in pointless rivalry and self-aggrandizing.
Critics attribute af Klint’s invention of radical abstraction to her spiritual guidance, and I’m sure she would agree with them. However, this attribution becomes problematic in terms of af Klint’s authority and individualism. It’s easy to write her out of her own work, to claim that because she worked with strong guidance from her deities, she doesn’t deserve full credit for her art.
But what’s the big deal about individualism and intention? We only value individuality and originality in art because of the dominating patricidal narrative and because of our misconception that an artist has to be some kind of independent, revolutionary genius for their work to be valuable. Af Klint didn’t think of herself as working independently, but that doesn’t make her work any less moving.
At the end of the long walk up the Guggenheim’s spiraling ramp (which, with its distinctive roundness, looks wonderfully similar to af Klint’s unexecuted plans for her own structure), you reach the temple’s altar. In the altar, there are three paintings, the two on either side depicting something like steps rising to and from the horizon, the one in the middle holding a massive gold orb that almost seems to vibrate with energy. The complex symbols likely translate into some sort of prayer, though most onlookers can’t understand what it says. You don’t have to. These paintings weren’t made for you to evaluate their meaning or worth. You’re allowed to just look and appreciate how beautiful the piece is. Perhaps for the first time in a large museum, the artist isn’t obligating you to understand their own importance. You can relax and enjoy the beauty of Hilma’s divine world.
Blue Issue | February 2019