Hilma af Klint: Receiver/Received

A bird’s eye view of concentric circular movement creates a rhythmic abstract pattern. This energy is created through a communal dance – the red-streaked, white clothing of revellers arching around a maypole. This scene from the film Midsommar (2019) carries a double recognition factor. It restages a pagan fertility ritual through, or in parallel with, the recreation of Hilma af Klint’s painting Primordial Chaos No 16 1906–07.[1]

Af Klint’s presence is strongly felt in Midsommar, in every move from dark to light, the shared use of the Yggdrasil – the holy tree of Norse mythology – and its mapping of a diagrammatically rendered world.[2] The film seems to grasp the message that af Klint’s paintings famously deliver for a future moment. American tourist Dani’s journey to Sweden in search of answers to the big questions of life – and her subsequent transformation through this experience, somehow parallels the world’s slow turn towards, and embrace of, af Klint.

The phenomenal popularity of the exhibition Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim Museum in 2018–19 represents Dani’s journey in reverse. The most well-attended exhibition in the museum’s history, it marked the triumphant if delayed arrival of af Klint into the US, the future she imagined for her work, and her own transformation into a cultural phenomenon.[3] This once marginalised art historical figure (already acknowledged as a ‘pioneer of abstraction’, and a long-term artists’ artist) formed ‘a cult of her own’.[4] To paraphrase one of the 39000 Instagram captions generated during the exhibition, we all seem to be ‘worshipping today at the altar of Hilma af Klint’.[5]

Af Klint’s popularity stems directly from the power and conviction of the work, yet it is in its intersection with the needs and urgencies of the current moment where that transformative alchemy takes place. We have tacitly or explicitly (and a touch narcissistically) imagined ourselves to be the future audience af Klint deemed capable of receiving the fundamental knowledge transmitted through her work. Asking what makes contemporary culture so responsive to af Klint is necessary, since the discussion largely centres around the unresponsiveness of her own time. What does it mean to assume this role? How have we done so? Are we up to the task?

Af Klint’s paintings belong to the past, but feel of or made for our moment. Art history has rallied around the work. Contemporary art sees itself reflected in af Klint’s interests in process, collaboration, provisionality, in both its heavy research and its ‘unlearning’. Yet, for a body of work based on unifying and testing disparate belief systems, her joyfully colourful, inquisitive, open-ended paintings-as-propositions do not have that over-complexity that to many defines contemporary art. They connect us to something bigger and more resistant to our standard interpretative tools. The task of figuring out these paintings belongs to us, for now.

Reviews of the Guggenheim exhibition often dwelled on its youthful, diverse and predominately female audiences. The contemporaneity of the work connected with, or was connected to, an emergent youth culture with an increasingly powerful political and cultural voice. Millennial influencer and activist Tavi Gevinson’s widely shared selfie in the exhibition, wearing Dries Van Noten clothing inspired by af Klint and New Zealand artist Len Lye, represents the ways this demographic saw itself reflected back in af Klint’s work and its challenge to hostile histories and power structures.[6]

Af Klint, in turn, became ‘the artist of the Instagram generation’.[7] The platform was flooded with af Klint works, af Klint inspired–art, fashion and tattoos, and – most prominently – photos taken with the paintings. The spiral-shaped Guggenheim provided the dream architectural setting for her work, while Instagram become the ideal platform for its dissemination – determining how it was seen, experienced, and shared.[8] Af Klint’s ability to move viewers between elements within a single painting, and then across multiple works and series, is almost custom-built for the platform’s scrolling mechanism, designed to bind the personal stories of the user with those of the audience. The film Personal shopper (2016) foresaw these possibilities. Maureen discovers her mediumistic abilities through af Klint’s paintings, which she first encounters by scrolling through images on her phone. The technologies af Klint explored to push her work outside of itself translate directly into our devices and desires.

Af Klint is also the ideal artist for our age of ‘wellness’. Her paintings embody all of those terms the wellness industry has developed around art: the value of slow looking, communal exchange, mind and body connectivity, the restorative powers of nature. Her ten-month preparation for ‘the great commission’ (involving cleansing rituals, meditation, and vegetarianism) has become a model for contemporary modes of mindfulness that centre the isolated, creative individual. British musician Jane Weaver has adopted this strategy of creative retreat to work out ‘what you do best in your own universe … in a world feeling quite out of control’.[9] Artist and musician Mark Fernyhough similarly describes his enforced lockdown isolation as a ‘whirlwind of creativity’.[10] Both made albums in this state written about, dedicated to, and channelled through af Klint. The video for Fernyhough’s song-as-channeling-device ‘Automatic paintings’ (2020) features women artists and musicians from Berlin as The Five (De Fem).

The return of af Klint has opened new creative possibilities, and also exposed old problems. The urgencies of her story – a woman artist silenced by patriarchal systems in a world at the point of destruction – mainlines directly into our own. The Guggenheim exhibition took place less than a year after the inaugural Women’s March demanded legislative reform around gender and reproductive rights, immigration and healthcare in Trump-era America. Blockbuster films of the time, Wonder woman (2017) and Black panther (2018), revisited damaged tropes and histories to reflect directly on the present. Audiences were primed to embrace af Klint and her story, and not just as art history. She is ‘a convincing heroine for today’.[11]

Af Klint’s work and prominence, however, does not represent a ‘triumph of ideology over aesthetics’ – identified as one symptom of the current culture wars.[12] Her resurgence has reasserted the importance of the aesthetic experience today. She comes from the past to explode our ideas around what art might be or do, while breathing new life into painting (and, if merchandise lines say anything, also journaling). Others have pushed her work that way. US painter Mary Kainer’s #Hilma, Me Too (2019) overlays imagery from The Ten Largest with misogynist quotes taken from sources ranging from the Bible to Trump. Ontario artist Sebastian Evans frames his climate-emergency paintings with the statement ‘Like Hilma af Klint I am painting for the future. Like Greta Thunberg I am massively concerned with the pace of change and lack of response in our elected leaders.’[13] Thunberg and af Klint are twined in the public imagination as Swedish women with necessary corrective messages for our times.[14]

The question is not just what contemporary culture can do for af Klint, but what she can do for contemporary culture. The recent uncanonical rehang of MoMA’s permanent collection, and the surge of exhibitions dedicated to previously marginal artists, have been taken as signs that ‘the lessons of Hilma af Klint’ have been absorbed.[15] The search is on for the next blockbuster artist who might capture the public imagination as af Klint has. The National Gallery of London’s exhibition Artemesia (2020) taps into this model and zeitgeist reshaped by af Klint by overturning and narrativising Gentileschi’s art-historically enforced role as ‘victim’. The postponement of the ironically titled Philip Guston Now exhibition, based on the perceived unsuitability of his work for the current moment, represents the flipside of this search.[16]

Meanwhile, we are now seeing new possibilities or potentials in af Klint’s work that go beyond that ‘female pioneer of abstraction’ strapline. Writer Natalie Adler responds to the paintings as a form of ‘queer clairvoyance’, and argues that their queer implications have been inexplicably sidelined to this point.[17]Critic Geeta Doctor sees them as ‘tantric’ rather than ‘abstract’. She proposes that Buddhist or Hindu tantric traditions may provide a better context for the work than European modernism.[18] This was one of many connections made in Massimiliano Gioni’s Venice Biennale exhibition The Encyclopedic Palace (2013). Af Klint’s work was put in dialogue with historical and contemporary art, insiders and outsiders, Western and non-Western, academics and visionaries. In exposing the diversity of connections af Klint’s work establishes with other art forms and traditions, it demonstrated the value in taking her work outside of itself and art history. The contemporary embrace of af Klint’s work parallels the rise of interest in outsider, indigenous and queer art practices that break conventional functions and histories of art. As art history atones for past sins by remaking af Klint as an insider, she is also being constantly and productively pulled in multiple other directions.

This openness with which af Klint’s work now speaks to divergent individuals, communities, and art forms – through, yet beyond, art history – manifests most clearly in its relationship to the occult. From the moment in 1970 when Moderna Museet founder Pontus Hultén turned down the offer of af Klint’s work following the its self-enforced embargo ‘on the grounds that she was a spiritualist, not an artist’,[19] its occult dimensions have sometimes been used to dismiss it, or downplayed to emphasise its status as art. This severs af Klint’s connection to a set of practices and beliefs that have long valued her, and found new currency at a time seeking political, spiritual and artistic alternatives.

As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits, and Mystics (Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2017) is another exhibition that took af Klint’s work outside the art historical framework. She was positioned instead at the centre of an ahistorical esoteric tradition with figures such as Kenneth Anger, Ithell Colquhoun, Steve McQueen and Wassily Kandinsky. The approach foregrounds the questions and relationships that occult communities feel are often minimised in discussions of her work. Writing from an anthroposophical perspective, David Adams argues that the spiritualist dimension of af Klint’s project is often misrepresented through tactics such as turning Rudolf Steiner into a bogeyman who stalled her progress.[20] Art historian Emily Virginia Leon similarly calls on her discipline to develop holistic ways of acknowledging all dimensions of af Klint’s enquiry. She too questions whether the continual art-historical placement of af Klint in ‘the shadow of Kandinsky and Steiner’ eclipses the power of her paintings to ‘function as the profoundly independent works of art’ they are.[21]

Hero images speak to this divide. Where more art-historically aligned projects tend to represent af Klint’s work through the evocative abstraction of The Ten Largest, occult-focused approaches are more drawn towards the transcendental Altarpieces. Group X, No 1, Altarpiece 1915 is the cover image for the As above, so below catalogue and The art of the occult: a visual sourcebook for the modern mystic (2020). A reproduction hangs on the wall of a New York apartment in tv show Mr Robot (2015–19) to signal a character’s spiritual journey. The altarpieces were also a central motif in a recent line by Brazilian designer Lenny Niemeyer which brought af Klint’s work to light in a very different way – as part of an occult-themed summer collection of evening wear and swimwear fusing her geometric abstractions with those of Emma Kunz as ‘a tribute to feminine strength’.[22]

Our current ‘occultural’ shift is not responsible for af Klint’s return, but plays a significant role in its embrace.[23] She is the key figure around whom contemporary occulture (and especially its strand of occult feminism) has been formulated in popular culture and art discourses. Her presence has propelled the resurgence of many historical women artists – especially, but not restricted to, the esoteric or occultist. She has become a magnet for and legitimised contemporary explorations into these fields. By opening up a set of questions and possibilities around the nature and function of art, she has ultimately given permission to other artists, the art system, and to audiences to push further.

Recent exhibitions have mined these threads. Hilma af Klint: Artist, Researcher, Medium (2020) at the Moderna Museet, Malmö, foregrounds the importance of the spiritual dimensions of af Klint’s medium-oriented process that ‘in particular [makes] art historians uneasy’, even if reframed through contemporary notions of ‘artistic research’.[24] Not Without My Ghosts: The Artist as Medium (Hayward Gallery Touring Exhibition, 2020) and The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and The Cosmic Tree (Camden Art Centre, 2020) centre those modes of occult enquiry that lead back to af Klint. The closure of all three exhibitions due to the coronavirus pandemic reinforces the importance of af Klint’s message for humanity, with its call for harmony between natural, technological and spiritual elements.

The return of af Klint has provided contemporary art and culture with a new card to play, one that is being deployed in multiple ways across different games. It is that now century-long openness to the world of ideas, possibilities and experiences which makes her work so resonant and contestable in our current moment – which is asking its own questions, re-examining its own past and envisioning other futures. We are rethinking and remaking af Klint’s work, as it is remaking us.

First published  in Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings, Art Gallery of New South Wales/City Gallery Wellington, Sydney, 2021.

[1] Director Ari Aster acknowledges af Klint and other artists associated with theosophy and occultism as key influences on Midsommar. See Caroline Goldstein, ‘We decoded all the ingenious art-historical references in the horror movie ‘Midsommar’, from Hilma af Klint to Judy Chicago’, artnetnews.com, 3 September 2019, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/midsommar-art-references-1633975, accessed 22 January 2021.

[2] The Yggdrasil is a central motif in af Klint’s series Tree of Knowledge 1913–15, which expresses a sense of communion between living and spiritual worlds.

[3] Af Klint’s work had previously been exhibited in the US, but not on the scale of the Guggenheim exhibition. It represents the ‘cumulation of her international reputation’. Kurt Almqvist and Louise Belfrage, ‘Preface’, Hilma af Klint: visionary, Bokförlaget Stolpe, Stockholm, 2020, p 7.

[4] Shirine Saad, ‘What can the museum world learn from Hilma af Klint?, Slate, 1 May 2019, www. slate.com/culture/2019/05/hilma-af-klint-attendance-guggenheim-legacy-blockbuster, accessed 21 January 2021.

[5] Louise Benson, ‘How Hilma af Klint became the artist of the Instagram generation’, Elephant, 29 March 2019, https://elephant.art/how-hilma-af-klint-became-the-artist-of-the-instagram-generation, accessed 21 January 2021.

[6] Esmé Hogeveen, ‘Seeing, and seeing through, art history: the resurrection of Hilma af Klint in ‘Beyond the visible’ (Halina Dyrschka, 2019), in Another Gaze: A Feminist Art Journal, 26 October 2020, http://www.anothergaze.com/seeing-seeing-art-history-resurrection-hilma-af-klint-beyond-visible-halina-dyrschka-2019, accessed 21 January 2021.

[7] Benson, ‘How Hilma af Klint became the artist’.

[8] Benson, ‘How Hilma af Klint became the artist’.

[9] Holly Williams, ‘Jane Weaver on being inspired by spiritualist art, slut-dropping onstage, and why the music industry is still sexist’, Independent, 10 July 2017, www.independent.co.uk/artsentertainment/music/features/jane-weaver-inspired-spiritualist-art-slut-dropping-music-industry-sexist-a7833121.html, accessed 22 January 2021. Weavers’s 2017 album Modern kosmology is a contemporary response to af Klint’s work and process, explicitly acknowledged in the track ‘H>A>K’.

[10] ‘Berlin artist, Mark Fernyhough shares his political stance in “Waves (song for revolution)”#’, Buzz-Music, 29 August 2020, http://www.buzz-music.com/post/berlin-artist-mark-fernyhough-shares-his-political-stance-in-waves-song-for-revolution, accessed 22 January 2021.

[11] Ben Davis, ‘Why Hilma af Klint’s occult spirituality makes her the perfect artist for our technologically disrupted time’, ArtNet, 23 October 2018, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/hilma-af-klints-occult-spirituality-makes-perfect-artist-technologically-disrupted-time-1376587, accessed 22 January 2021.

[12] Bret Easton Ellis, White, Picador, New York, 2019, p 184.

[13] Sebastian Evans, ‘Artist statement’, http://www.sebastians3.com/pages/artist-statement, accessed 8 October 2020

[14] Thunberg’s I Am Greta documentary (2020) (along, curiously, with Häxan: witchcraft through the ages 1922) just tops Halina Dyrschka’s 2020 documentary Beyond the visible: Hilma af Klint on IMDB’s Popular Swedish Documentary list.

[15] Shirine Saad, ‘What can the museum world learn from Hilma af Klint?, Slate, 1 May 2019, https://slate.com/culture/2019/05/hilma-af-klint-attendance-guggenheim-legacy-blockbuster.html, accessed 22 January 2021.

[16] In a strange inverse of the af Klint story, it is the galleries not the artist who have decided to push the exhibition into a future when ‘we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted’, ‘Philip Guston Now: Statement from the Directors’, 21 September 2020, https://www.nga.gov/press/exh/5235.html, accessed 22 January 2021.

[17] Natalie Adler, ‘Hilma af Klint’s queer clairvoyance’, Paper, 23 April 2019, http://www.papermag.com/hilma-af-klint-guggenheim-2635306186.html?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2, accessed 22 January 2021.

[18] Geeta Doctor, ‘Hilma af Klint: the tantric artist in Sweden’, The Hindu, 11 May 2019, http://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/hilma-af-klint-the-tantric-artist-in-sweden/article27093449.ece, accessed 22 January 2021.

[19] Louise Belfrage, ‘The reception of Hilma af Klint’, in Ruth Direktor, Louise Belfrage and Yonatan Levy et al, A New Age: The Spiritual in Art, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv, 2019, p 3.

[20] David Adams, ‘Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim Museum: a significant artistic event in the art world’, Being Human: Personal and Cultural Renewal in the 21st Century, Spring–Fall 2019, pp 26–32.

[21] Emily Virginia Leon, ‘Analyzing the crisis of Hilma af Klint: the digital and analog analysis of spirituality, abstraction, and art’, MA Thesis, Duke University, Durham NC, 2018, p 10.

[22] See S Elizabeth/Mlle Ghoul, ‘Occult fashion files: the spiritual dimensions of Lenny Niemeyer’s summer 2018 collection’, These unquiet things, 6 May 2020, http://www.unquietthings.com/lenny-niemeyer-spiritual-collection, accessed 22 January 2021.

[23] See Christopher Partridge, The re-enchantment of the West: alternative spiritualities, sacralization, popular culture, and occulture, T&T Clark International, London, 2005. Writer Amy Hale makes a similar claim in relation to the occultural embrace of her recent biography Ithell Colquhoun: genius of the fern loved gully, Strange Attractor Press, London, 2020: ‘the context for occult art and esoteric art shifting dramatically. If I put this biography out ten years ago, I think it would have been a very different conversation because I think the world is a little bit more ready to go some of the places that Ithell Colquhoun went.’ ‘Tai Shani and Amy Hale: on the occult feminism of Ithell Colquhoun’, MIT Podcast, 14 December 2020.

[24] Gitte Ørskou, ‘Foreword’, in Iris Müller-Westermann and Melina Høgsberg (eds), Hilma af Klint: Artist, Researcher, Medium, Hatje Cantz , Berlin, 2020, p 5.