There is an anecdote about the young Yves Klein (see Dreams of Desire 48 (Blue) lying on a beach in the South of France with his friends, the artist Arman and the poet Claude Pascal, where they decided to divide up the universe between themselves. Arman wanted the riches of the earth and tangible, material things, while Pascal claimed words and language itself. Klein chose ‘le vide’, the void, ethereal space empty of all matter.
Klein spent his career, cut short by his early death at 34, giving pictorial representation to the void, most famously in his blue monochromes using his own patented colour International Klein Blue, but also in the fire paintings, painted in his last years. Klein was something of an esotericist and was familiar with Rosicrucian and alchemical doctrine. As he noted ‘…fires burn in the heart of the void as well as in the heart of man.‘
The above golden monochrome is part of a triptych (the other colours are blue and pink) that represents the colours seen in the heart of a flame. In a lecture given at the Sorbonne, Klein further elaborated on the transformative and unifying nature of fire . ‘Fire is both intimate and universal. It resides in our hearts; it resides in a candle. It rises up from the depths of matter, and it conceals itself, latent, contained, like hate or patience. Of all phenomena it is the only one that so obviously embodies two opposite values: good and evil. It shines in paradise, and burns in hell. It can contradict itself, and therefore it is one of the universal principles.’ Such comments are reminiscent of the patron philosopher of occultists, the gnomic Heraclitus who remarked that ‘everything is fire.’
Klein made his fire paintings using a flame thrower on specially treated cardboard. Supplementary techniques were also involved to evoke a synthesis of the four classic elements, for example a nude model would be moistened with water and directed to leave an imprint on the surface before Klein applied the flame.
In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism from 1930, among all the excommunications and score settling, Andre Breton calls for the ‘…THE PROFOUND, THE VERITABLE OCCULTATION OF SURREALISM,’ which is suitably followed up by quotes from Cornelius Agrippa’s Third & Fourth (spuriously attributed) Books of Magic. This interest in the occult, hermeticism and alchemy can also be evidenced by the set of playing cards the surrealists designed during WWII, which features another Renaissance occultist, Paracelsus, as the Magus of Locks.
However it wasn’t until after WWII and Breton’s return to France from exile in New York that this hermetical tendency become dominant. The realities of the Cold War political landscape meant that the Breton placed ever less hope in the achievement of a Marxist Utopia, shifting his focus towards the idiosyncratic mystical Socialist thinker Charles Fourier.
As can be seen from the above portrait (crayon, charcoal, oil and glitter on linen) Toyen embraced the change of direction enthusiastically. Painted as a birthday present and presented to Breton on the eve of his birthday, this idealised portrait places Breton in the centre of three triangles (one equilateral and two isosceles triangles) and surrounded by the four traditional elements, water and air, earth and fire.
Around this time Toyen had been working on the drawing series Neither Wings Nor Stones; Wings and Stones which has strong alchemical references. Also from this period Toyen painted At the Golden Wheel, At the Black Sun and At the Gold Tree inspired by signs that were ‘luminious on the inside, not the outside’ of the Alchemist Street in Old Prague, magical capital of Europe since the days of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. The importance of the androgyne in alchemical literature and art would also have surely been noticed by Toyen, who purposefully chose an ungendered pseudonym.
Toyen’s unwavering devotion towards Breton and Breton’s respect and veneration of Toyen was such that, after his death in 1966, Breton’s widow Elisa insisted that Toyen move into his original studio at 42 Rue Fontaine, where she lived until her death in 1980. She was buried in Paris des Batignolles cemetery; close to her friends Jindrich Heisler and Andre Breton.
I will leave the last word on this exceptional artist to her friend Benjamin Peret, also buried in Paris des Batignolles;
The entire work of Toyen aims at nothing other than the correction of the outside world in accordance with a desire that feeds and grows on its own satisfaction.
It’s a repetition of the recurrence
Don’t believe the hype
This ain’t no singularity
Nowt new beneath
The gaudy painted disk
That meanders monotonously
Against the banal backdrop
The Ingenue is always searching
In other people’s bathroom cabinets
And the Melancholy Lieutenant
Is eternally on the verge
Of nodding off, drifting away
To a place that only exists
Within the confines of his skull
While the Rebel is forever swerving
Just a fraction too late
On the rain slick Parisian street
The serpent eats it tails
So that whatever happens
Happens again just so
Exactly as it was
And there is no end in sight
Because there was never
A starting point to begin with
It’s the recurrence of a repetition
The Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint frequently divided her Paintings for the Temple into thematic groups, including The Swan, The Dove, Altarpieces and Primordial Chaos. One of the most stunning groups is The Ten Largest, so called because of their truly monumental size, each canvas is over 10 foot tall. The Ten Largest is an abstract, spiritual rendition of a persons life from Childhood to Old Age.
The Ten Largest with their bold colouring and joyful unfettered line displays an exuberance reminiscent of Matisse, yet Hilma’s mediumistic work painted in secret preceded the acknowledged modern master by a year. Thankfully her canvases survived being stored in frozen Swedish attics for decades and we can now marvel at the splendour of Hilma’s esoteric creations.
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.