The Guggenheim’s Got Religion 

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City (David Heald)
A posthumous show for a female Christian mystic invites spiritual contemplation.

The Guggenheim Museum’s provocative new show is Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future. First, a précis. Between 1906 and 1915, the Stockholm-based af Klint (1862–1944) created 193 paintings and works on paper to decorate a never-built multilevel temple. It’s religious art. They’re mostly abstract, with swirling, spiraling, and geometric forms painted in vivid colors.

These works, some ten feet tall, are a series conceived as a progression, more or less a storyline on the course of the soul, so at the Guggenheim we have a total program. So vast a conception and execution in itself is extraordinary. It has parallels in complex religious spaces decorated at the same time by the same artist or designed by a single art impresario and implemented by artists under his or her direction. Think Giotto’s Arena Chapel, where everything is fixed and each vignette is part of a unified narrative.

She never sold anything from the series. She was never part of the mainstream European art market, by her choice. Neither was any artist working in Stockholm. She didn’t exhibit these works, though she was a respected part of the art establishment there. When she died — she was hit by a bus — the art went to her nephew. She decreed that nothing could be exhibited for 20 years, as she felt the world wouldn’t be ready until then. Time flies, and it’s 2019. Starting in the 1980s, her work became a Swedish story. She was then considered an eccentric who blended French symbolism, local folk art, and art-nouveau style into something unusual but distinctly Swedish. Now, we have this remarkable, much discussed show.

Af Klint is a paradox. She isn’t a transformative artist herself, though the show seeks to rattle the standard art-history timeline by injecting her style of pure abstraction a few years before Mondrian’s or Malevich’s or Kandinsky’s. That’s inside baseball. I don’t think anyone cares who did what first. There was a lot of radical change in art happening at the time, incrementally and abruptly. This isn’t the Kentucky Derby.

It’s safe to say that it’s always been a big world with lots of people making lots of art, almost all bad or inconsequential, some quirky good, some goofy good, and some, like af Klint, who might be living under a rock somewhere, doing something truly visionary. The art-history canon — who did what when and who did it well — is no more set in concrete than any piece of history. Af Klint removed herself from not only the art market but the museum, scholarly, and critical cultures of her day as well as the public. The evolving opinions of each jostle and meld to create and adjust canon.

Will she add more than a nuance to art history? I’m not sure. Her temple was never built. We don’t know how, in her time, or if, it would have promoted spiritual feeling. Her story is as much one of Lutheran theology and the history of religion. I saw the show at the Guggenheim a few days before I saw the show at the Morgan Library on J. R. R. Tolkein, the author of The Lord of the Rings. They are similar in that both created elaborated immaterial worlds, hers spiritual, his fantastic. Now that she is part of the dialogue, her place in art history will evolve, as it should. I think the prevalent reading of her work before the Guggenheim show — in my words, “an eccentric blend of French symbolism, local folk art, and art-nouveau style into something unusual but distinctly Swedish” — is probably still a sound and fair one.

But, still, visionary she is. Af Klint believed she was condensing and expressing a new view of the world, human life, the soul, and the afterlife. Part of her allure as well as her burden is the absence of ego. She saw herself as a medium. She worked for many years with a group of women, known in Stockholm as The Five, holding seances during which they summoned spiritual forces. She never saw herself as a genius working solo, which is how art historians like to present great artists. Her art is refreshingly ego-free and communal. The existence of a mighty individual genius is less relevant since she and others communed together with the spirits.

Left: The Ten Largest, No. 7., Adulthood, Group IV, 1907, by Hilda Klint. Tempera on paper mounted on canvas. (Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk. Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet)

Right: Tree of Knowledge, No. 5 (Kunskapens träd, nr 5), 1915, from The W Series (Serie W), by Hilda Klint. Watercolor, gouache, graphite and metallic paint on paper. (The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm. Photo: Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm)

Af Klint might at times evoke the doddering spiritualist Madam Arcati in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, or, more precisely, Margaret Rutherford playing Madam Arcati. Leave all of this aside. She’s not on a silly mission. She considered herself a mystic with access to secrets including the origin of life, the character of God, and the enchanted language of nature. Automatic writing, in this case painting or drawing, was her language.

In the 1870s, her altogether Christian, mystical beliefs were organized into a movement called Theosophy. These beliefs were ascetic and anti-materialist and shared by many artists, such as Kandinsky, who saw themselves as ardent Christians. It’s part of a fascinating and intense thicket of new belief systems drawing from many sources, including Freemasonry, a Christian version of the Kabbalah, and revolutions in science. Her art is abstract, but that doesn’t mean it’s not representational. Af Klint believed she conveyed the unseen but real.

My basic problem is that I don’t think the art she made for her temple project is, overall, all that good. She was well trained and part of Stockholm’s art establishment. She’s certainly competent. To a viewer who knew nothing about the artist, they appear as aesthetic objects, often solemn, buoyant, and intriguing, sometimes all three. That’s a challenge to achieve. An aesthetic take must be a starting point, and I would argue it’s usually an end point, too, since art exists first and foremost as a freestanding object we perceive with the senses. Its base is the aesthetic realm.

I thought the oil and metal-leaf pictures from the Altarpiece series from 1915 were great. Many of the Swan pictures, also from 1915, are ugly, clumsy things. Mostly, she worked in the unforgiving medium of tempera. There, change is impossible since the paint dries instantly. Since af Klint believed she was hearing divine voices while she worked, I don’t think she found this a problem. If some of her work feels contemporary, in part it’s because it has a billboard look. The colors and forms combine a fun pop-art sensibility that glides toward the wild side as if nudged by a wee nip of acid. Some of it looks like bad sign painting. Some of the edgier art uses grids and diagrams and evokes the innards of a computer.

The Guggenheim is brave to do the show, given that she’s virtually unknown. It consumes most of the museum. The spiraling Guggenheim building is itself unique and perfectly suited to her work, in which spirals and pulsing organic forms are foundation motifs. The show delivers an impressive, timely lesson in how central religious belief has always been to artists. It will give most visitors a new understanding of how variously expressive abstract art can be. It’s a well-presented lesson in the intellectual and spiritual foment of fin-de-siècle Europe, too. It’s well worth seeing.

Left: Group I, Primordial Chaos, No. 16 (Grupp 1, Urkaos, nr 16), 1906-1907, from The WU/Rose Series (Serie WU/Rosen), by Hilma af Klint. Oil on canvas. (The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm. Photo: Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm)

Right: Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece (Grupp X, nr 1, Altarbild), 1915
from Altarpieces (Altarbilder), by Hilma af Klint. Oil and metal leaf on canvas. (The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm. Photo: Albin Dahlström, the Moderna Museet, Stockholm)

The catalogue is incisive and succinct. The best part of it is a transcript of a public conversation among five artists and scholars discussing her work. Their observations are subtle. They see af Klint’s work as open to many takes. As I read the transcript, I can see how they’re working through the pictures individually and in concert. I wish more catalogues would publish discussions like this. They tell us many things, the most important is that a sign of good art is its openness to multiple interpretations. The group was smart, undogmatic, and coherent. Now, that’s a rare combination. A big part of their discussion involved how much af Klint’s biography should or must inform her art.

I’ve written often on the sad, bewildering mismatch between art historians and religious art, or, more precisely, art historians and deeply religious artists. It’s like that nightmare date between two estimable people who can’t seem to get the pieces of the puzzle to fit together. Scholars usually run from religion and do everything they can to promote secular concerns as key motivational forces for artists when a spiritual impulse was far more divisive. In af Klint, there is no mistaking her genuine Christian feeling. The show tries to develop this basic fact without giving the impression it’s a distasteful job or, worse, an autopsy.

I’m not exactly elderly, but in the Oriental rug business, I’d be a semi-antique with some wear. Still, the abundance of young people seeing the show was heartening as well as a little sad. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to see them looking at art, and the Guggenheim is a magical, inspiring place for it. On the other, they’re looking for something spiritual, something beyond the vendettas and hubris of their day, access to a soulfulness that their culture is busily thwarting.


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