(Art) The Trances of Hilma af Klint

The Guggenheim in New York is running a major retrospective on Hilma af Klint through early 2019. I discovered her only recently as I was doing research for my forthcoming occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.

In the book, one of the principal characters travels to India with Madame Helena Blavatsky, founder of the once-popular pseudo-religious Theosophical Society, to which Ms. Klint belonged for a time.

Theosophism was a kind of spiritualism, akin to Rosicrucianism, that taught one could contact spirits or similar otherworldly beings through trance and the techniques of mysticism. The Theosophical Society in particular was heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy, particularly the gurus of India, and attempted to bridge science and faith, the past and the future, which spoke to people who lived through the aftermath of the industrial revolution, when the old ways of life were still part of living memory. The Society became extremely popular in the latter decades of the 19th century and boasted thousands of “lodges” all over the world, despite several scandals and claims of fraud.

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It is the Guggenheim’s contention that Hilma af Klint, who was classically trained at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts and who worked as a landscape painter and botanical illustrator, should take the place of Kandinsky and Mondrian as the true founder of abstract art.

Her spiritual works, which she began in 1906, are clearly ahead of their time. But rather than prefiguring the great works of the abstract tradition, they strike me as something much closer to Outsider or Naive Art, with their concern for the intensely personal and psychological rather than the abstract representational — in particular, they remind me of the dream-drawings of psychologist Carl Jung and architect Paul Laffoley’s diagrams of consciousness.

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Unfortunately, Ms. Klint didn’t show her work in her lifetime. After her death in 1944, she left her paintings to her nephew on the stipulation that they not be displayed for at least another 20 years, which ensured they had no influence. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1980 that the art world even became aware of her nearly 200 abstract works.

However, regardless of where you place them in the story of art, they are definitely powerful. As artist R.H. Quaytman says in the Guggenheim piece:

“If you . . . didn’t know anything, you’d think these paintings were made ten or twenty years ago. You would not know how old they were. And what’s so thrilling about her work, I find, is how contemporary it feels.”