Mar 12th 2019

Painting as Metaphysics: Hilma af Klint and the Birth of Abstract Art

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.

 

The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 

Af Klint was a formally trained and respected portrait and landscape painter in Stockholm, who as a young woman became involved in spiritualism, theosophy, as well as Rosicrucianism. By 1906, af Klint was creating abstract paintings, many years before Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian – however she kept them private, maintaining that the world was not yet ready to see her work; and in fact she requested that they not be seen for twenty years following her death. We can see the Rosicrucian influence in this decision: a guiding principle of the spiritual movement was its anticipation of a “universal reformation of mankind,” when a long hidden, secret science will finally be received by humanity. 

In 1906, af Klint’s art moves away from conventional representation and toward a different kind of subject matter, with an entirely new spiritual intention. The origin of this project is also quite unlike anything else – according to af Klint, spirits who she channeled in the course of regular séances spoke and commissioned these paintings. The project was driven by a metaphysical conviction and motivation – that is, to represent the numerous stages of a transcendent reality beyond the observable world. 

Rosicrucian thinking is informed by Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and hermeticism. One of the fundamental doctrines that both of these teachings share is the notion of ‘as above, so below’ – in other words, whatever happens on one level of reality, also happens on every other. According to this way thinking, each human being is a microcosm of the universe into which all the potencies of creation have been placed, so that an activity below, stimulates a corresponding activity on high. This doctrine is essential for understanding what af Klint was up to: her work is not simply trying to express this teaching, but is itself meant to be seen as an embodiment of it.   

When she was seventeen, af Klint’s interest in spiritualism began. Her sister died around this time, and initially her curiosity grew out of her desire to be in contact with the dead. It was not long before the desire evolved: through contact with higher spiritual entities, af Klint began seeking metaphysical insight and understanding. 

During séances in 1904, spiritual guides proposed the construction of a temple that would house spiritually derived works of art. The commission for such a series of works – works created specifically for a future temple – fell to af Klint. She agreed to carry out the “Great Commission” when other members of her spiritualist group, The Five (De Fem), declined due to a concern that such a project – demanding close and sustained contact with the spirit realm – could lead to madness. 

Between November and December 1907, The Ten Largest were created. They constitute nothing less than a wholly new approach to painting – something unprecedented and unique, unlike anything else that has come before. They are breathtaking in their enormous vitality: they are alive, bursting with energy and color. While they are abstract paintings, they are also doubtlessly drawing on the world for content – whether it be the forms of Swedish folk art, the kinds of representation found in scientific diagrams, or the symbols associated with various spiritual movements. All these elements and visual modes are combined and transformed in new and remarkable ways. 

In af Klint’s symbolic vocabulary, blue represents the female and yellow the male. The notion that these two colors constitute an essential dichotomy was likely derived from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810), which she was known to have kept in her library. Goethe’s book has been widely rejected and dismissed as ‘worthless still-born dilettantism’, especially for his polemic against Isaac Newton, whose Opticks demonstrated that colorless rays of light contained the power to provoke sensations of color. Goethe did not object to Newton’s view that color could be measured in terms of wavelength; rather, his error was to adopt an approach ‘that banished the spirit of living contemplation.’ Newton did not give the complete story: his theory was a part masquerading as a whole. Why does blue have the quality of blue and yellow the quality of yellow? Newton’s reductionist theory did not make colors intelligible in themselves – but instead reduced them to measurable wavelengths of colorless light. 

Goethe can help us to appreciate af Klint: she takes much more from Goethe than the simple dichotomy between blue and yellow. Her work is no less a rebuke of that Newtonian universe of meaningless fragmentation; like Goethe, she proposes a sensuous and colorful world shaped by principles of order and patterning. 

The Paintings for the Temple are presented in a number of groups; and just as the groups were meant to be viewed in a particular order, so too in each series the paintings were likewise to be seen in a certain progression. Few symbols are as important for af Klint as that of the spiral – which represents physical and spiritual evolution, a concept which was central not only to Darwinian thought, but to theosophy, which views evolution as a process that goes beyond biology and ultimately pervades the cosmos. The Paintings for the Temple were to be housed in a spiraling structure, not unlike the Guggenheim itself – which makes the current exhibition all more extraordinary.    

In 1915, af Klint completed the Painting for the Temple, a project which by the end included 193 paintings and drawings. These works break with the language of representation, they epitomize a shift away from figuration and realism (at least in any conventional sense). Looking at af Klint’s work, it is hard to escape the feeling that this artist has secrets to tell – secrets that are worth the hearing and that she is ready to share. Part of the immense pleasure is that, at the same time, she also refuses to simply give them over. She makes us work for them – she delays, sustains and prolongs. 

The truth is that, as with any genuine art, these are works that exceed any rational reiteration. At times her great project – the otherworldly “commission” that she undertook – seems almost like a metaphysical treasure map, a kind of guide to navigating ever higher realms of reality, finally culminating in a vision of transcendent unity. But the true greatness of the work is that it eludes any such straightforward presumptions; that her paintings are finally irreducible to a diagram – though often the imagery appears to be precisely that. Even at her most metaphysical, she remains a painter through and through – and as every great painter knows, to give is to withhold, and there is no pleasure where there is nothing risked.



 

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."