Occult Abstraction

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What a Human Being Is-Hilma af Klimt 1910
Hilma af Klint raises many questions concerning the history of modern art. Wassily Kandinsky’s untitled watercolour of 1910 was long considered to be the first abstract painting, a turning point in the course of Modernism. Abstraction was to influence, and at times dominate the art of the entire 20th Century. Yet this tidy version of events was upset to a certain extent by the discovery of the private abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint, some of which predate Kandinsky’s watercolour by 4 years.

Hilma af Klint was born into a naval family in the Karlberg Palace just outside of Stockholm, Sweden in 1862. After an idyllic childhood she studied at Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm where she graduated with honours and as a post graduate scholarship was awarded an atelier. She made a living as a conventional landscape and portrait artist, occasionally supplanted by botanical and technical drawings

af Klint had developed an abiding interest in Spiritualism and the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky at an early age after the death of her younger sister in 1880. She formed a group called ‘the Five’ with four other women artists with the expressed intention of contacting the ‘High Masters’. The group met weekly to conduct seances and in 1896 experimented with automatic drawing and writing, a full twenty years before the Surrealists. During one seance in 1905 she received instructions from a spirit named Amaliel that she was to execute  the’Paintings for the Temple’. af Klint said she had no idea what the Temple was but from 1906 to 1915 (with a four year hiatus between 1908-1912) she completed 193 large scale paintings , some as large as 10 foot tall, a remarkable work rate, especially considering her petite stature (she was 5ft on the dot).

af Klint was in no doubt that she was receiving assistance from the beyond. Commenting on the Temple paintings she noted, “The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”

In 1915 the guiding spirit left, but af Klint continued painting in the abstract vein, though on smaller canvases. The paintings of this period show the marked influence of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. Upon meeting Steiner, Hilma showed him the Temple paintings, however he said that the world wasn’t ready to see them for at least another fifty years, which may have influenced her decision to stipulate that the 1,200 paintings and many notebooks (which explains in depth the complex letter and colour symbolism of the paintings) wouldn’t be made public until twenty years after her death.

After her death in 1944 her nephew Erik af Klint, Vice-Admiral of the Swedish Royal Navy complied with her wishes. He offered the Swedish Moderna Museet Hilma’s complete archive in 1970 but they declined. In wasn’t until 1986 that an exhibition of her work was held. af Klint’s work is held in by a foundation so none of her work is on the market or held by museums. There are plans however for an exhibition centre dedicated to af Klint just south of Stockholm.

The question whether af Klint or Kandinsky was the first abstract painter is largely academic. af Klint abstracts were created in isolation and remained private until 80 years after they were painted. They show an urgent spiritual need to fashion a personal mythology in the manner of Blake or Goya’s Pinturas Negras. Interestingly the recognised pioneers of abstraction,  Kandinsky, Malevich and the unknown af Klint were all immersed in esoteric and  Theosophical doctrine.

In upcoming posts I will discuss the symbolic system as outlined by af Klint to shed further light on these mysterious paintings as well as a feature on her major series, The Ten Largest.

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Primordial Chaos no.17 1906
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The Swan No.17
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Altar No 1
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The Swan No 1
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Buddha’s Standpoint In The Earthly Life
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The Swan No. 18
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Primordial Chaos No 7

68 thoughts on “Occult Abstraction

  1. Very interesting…. How amazingly prolific she was. 193 were just the Temple paintings with 1200 total? That’s incredible. This was a fascinating post. Intrigued now to find out the symbolism behind the paintings. More figures moving into Cakeland!

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      1. Well I like Kandinsky but I don’t like all abstract art. This is really awesome – I like the two swan paintings and I love the titles she chose. Primordial chaos indeed!

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      2. Those were the first abstracts she painted the primordial chaos group… I like some abstracts but some abstracts leave me indifferent but these are special. Got to love someone who just goes it alone out of a deep desire

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      3. Excellent, I’ll check it out shortly. And great on the Herbert Read, we’ll talk about it soon. I’m reading Regeneration based on Sassoon’s experience. Have you read it?

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      1. Thank you Heart, nice to know that I chose right. I was a little hesitant regarding posting an abstract artist as it isn’t really my aesthetic but the colours and the exuberance are so striking.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I have never been a huge fan of abstract. However, I can appreciate deviations of the norm, and her work certainly did not fit into the norm of her time, which is what I find to be brilliant.

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  2. Fabulous pared down imagery of esoteric symbolism. I have no doubt she channelled this information from a higher source. Thank-you for these beautiful abstracts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Heron, they are indeed beautiful and there is no reason to doubt af Klint veracity. She was committed and the prolific output certainly suggests she was inspired. I have another post on af Klint which I will re-post tomorrow.

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      1. Can’t wait! Another female artist, I can’t remember her details, was written up on some blogs who I found fascinating was Emma Kunz.
        She was German or Austrian but was part of the theosophy group and I believe her works were mystically inspired.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Wonderful lead Heron. I just had a quick look and I can see the similarities with af Klint. I have posted several pieces on Art Brut (I dislike the term outsider art almost as much as folk art), it’s an area I am deeply fascinated by. I will send you the links and I think you have inspired a post, again (I haven’t forgotten your leads on illustrations for Alice), after a bit of research of course.

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      3. I’m happy if I can send you off on an interesting trail! I don’t know much about either of them, but I think like Blake’s ethereal art, you can sense otherworldly influences which they try to recreate.

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      4. I love your Blake posts! i perhaps forgot that he communicated with his brother after his death,
        He was a true Sagittarian visionary.
        Ultimately I suppose all art as a creative outpouring is channelled. I have always been fascinated by shamanism and those people who are able to improve their communication with the numinous.

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      1. Yes, it is quite amazing, that work. But I also am astounded by how tireless you are. You should have been a professor of art history. I’m unable to sit through heady texts anymore. Married to an intellectual but I’m not sure of the last time I made it through something that challenging. Rereading GULAG memoirs but I mean, I have read through Winston Churchill’s first book twice (on WWII series) and probably forgotten most of that again, or some. But since I read Percy Jackson series to my 8 year old (mythology), I have been at least thinking of reading or rereading the Greek classics. I’m kind of digressing from art history but it’s the same idea, my mind just can’t take that level of intellectual cognition. It may also have to do with having really dysfunctional children at home but bottom line, I’m not pushing myself as hard as you.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You are far too kind to me and far too hard on yourself. I have been very quiet on the writing front this year, a lot has been reposts. As for being an professor, well I never did well in school and that is as far as I got. You have enough to worry about without wading through dry academic tomes.

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