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.
In his artistic statement of intent, the prose poem What I Believe by J.G Ballard, Ballard lists some of the things he believes in, which notably include a number of Surrealist artists and ‘The Facteur Cheval, the Watts Tower…and all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet.’ Ballard also writes in his annotations to The Atrocity Exhibition that the dedication for the book should have been, ‘To the Insane, I owe them everything.’
It was a feature of Modern Art to seek inspiration outside of the recognised Western Canon. The Cubists expressed admiration for African sculpture and incorporated elements within their art. Members of The Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) Group, including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Franz Marc and Auguste Macke were interested in the art produced by the mentally ill and children alike. However it was with the publication of Dr Hans Prinzhorn’s study Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) in 1921 that really captured the avant garde imagination and was to influence the nascent Surrealist movement. One of the artists featured was Adolf Wolfli, whose work with its obsessive detailing, elaborate fantasy worlds and horror vacui encapsulates Art Brut (raw art) as the French artist and collector Jean Dubuffet later termed art produced by the mentally ill.
In 1948 Dubuffet, along with Andre Breton, The Pope of Surrealism, formed the Compaigne de l’Art Brut. He collected thousand of works which forms the Collection de l’Art Brut, located in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Below are examples of Art Brut artists work. Art Brut is also referred to as Outsider Art, Folk Art, Naive Art and Visionary Art, all terms that are problematic for various reasons. Several for the artists are mediumistic artists who were never diagnosed with mental illness. Formally trained artists who were later institutionalised such as Van Gogh and Richard Dadd (A Fevered Mind’s Master Stroke) are by and large excluded.
A violent psychotic who experienced intense hallucinations, the Swiss artist Wolfli spent the majority of his life in prison or the Waldau Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Bern. He started drawing at the age of 40 and in the remaining 26 years produced a vast body of work, including a semi-autobiographical epic with fantasy elements that stretched to 25,000 pages and 1,600 illustrations, which often feature his own idiosyncratic invented musical notation.
A coal miner by profession, Augustin Lesage spent his life in Lille, France. He was 35 when he heard a voice tell him he was going to be a painter. After further communications with the spirit, whom Lesage believed to be his little sister who had died at the age of three, he received detailed instructions as what materials to buy and what to paint. He developed a uniquely detailed and symmetrical style incorporating motifs from Egyptian and Indian art.
In 1919 the English artist Madge Gill gave birth to a stillborn baby girl and almost died herself. She was left bedridden for several months and blind in one eye. Upon recovering the 38 year old Gill developed a sudden and intense interest in drawing and over the next forty years produced thousands of works in various media, mainly black and white ink drawings signed by her guiding spirit, ‘Myrninerest” (my inner rest)’. Female figures in intricate dress proliferate among the geometric designs.
Martin Ramirez left Mexico in 1925 to find work in America. In 1931 he was attested for vagrancy which led to Ramirez being diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. He would spend the rest of his life in Californian psychiatric institutions. His work frequently feature trains and repeated arches.
The self portraits and the eerie frozen landscapes, empty apart from figures engaged in disturbing occult ceremonies, of Norwegian photographer and digital artist Daria Endresen combine various elements from Nordic mythology, fetishism, Surrealism and a particularly Northern form of romanticism to skillfully evoke a mysterious Gothic, ritualistic dreamworld.
In this cold, isolated, sinister fairy-tale like realm she has managed to capture the essence of a pagan poetry long since disappeared from the world.
We have left everyplace
Always a new destination
Our origins are obscure
It was all so long ago
Home was never a place
That could be called home
Just somewhere to flee from
As far and fast as possible
But when we had arrived
Our memories led us astray
Days under a liquid sky
Besides a limpid sea
Glowing gold tinted sun
Held hands in all innocence
Why did we ever leave?
To witness devastation
Ravages of war and famine
The swollen river bursting
Its banks to flood fields
And carry away houses
With all their contents
Of loving living;
To traverse uninhabitable
To voyage across vast
Scorched earth deserts
And worst of all by far
The suspicious gazes
In every face we meet
Silently saying clearly
That here you don’t belong
You are a stranger here
And strangers aren’t welcome
You will never understand
Our ways and customs
Our rituals and rites
You may be able to
Translate signs and symbols
But the meaning is lost
It will always elude you
You have to be born
And bred in these lands
All émigrés will be exiled
Go back from whence
You came; let us be
In peace, just go back.
We remained undeterred
We travel ever onwards
Somewhere out there is
An Eden yet untouched
A garden grove pristine
The lost long ago but
Never forgotten paradise
Within our hearts
Awaiting us finally
The distant possibility
Of journeys end.
A superbly disturbing painting by De Chirico that had an immeasurable impact upon the Surrealists, The Disquieting Muses presents us with the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But is there a key? If so, do we really want to open the blue box (a version of which is at the heart of the conundrum in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, see Dreams of Desire 6 (Mulholland Dr.), for fear of what it may be contained inside?
Painted during WWI in the Italian town of Ferrara where De Chirico lived, it features a piazza bordered by the imposing medieval fortress of the Castello Estense and industrial brick chimneys. The only figures within the square are faceless mannequins; the muses of tragedy and comedy, Melpomene and Thalia with their traditional attributes scattered around, and the God Apollo on a pedestal in the shadow. The perspective and the long shadows add to the air of frozen stillness and uneasiness.
Several Surrealists were directly inspired by exposure to De Chirico’s early metaphysical work including Max Ernst (see the series of posts starting with A Week of Max Ernst: Sunday), Yves Tanguy (Time and Again), and Kay Sage (Surrealist Women: Kay Sage). Sylvia Plath also wrote a poem of the same name that was inspired (in part) by the painting and which is included below.
The Disquieting Muses
Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?
Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.
In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.
When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.
Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,
I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.
Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.
It’s been a long time
Since I last saw you
But I don’t care where you’ve been
Cause you ain’t felt anything
Until you’ve been with me
So come here
This very instance
For tonight’s the night
That I’m going to be with you.
My love is like theft
A redistribution of assets
You always possessed
So many fine things
While I such little.
You’re a sensitive girl
You know it’s not fair
You know it’s not right
Isn’t it about time
That you aided and abetted
Become my accomplice
My partner in crime
Tell me it is just so
By opening the gates
Spreading your legs wide
Lying bare your defences
So that I may plunder
All the treasures buried within
Despoil the sacred sanctuaries
Until you admit defeat
And surrender possession
Of yourself in all entirety.
Love is an assassination
An elimination of identity
Now I do not know
Where I finish and you begin
Is it your mouth or mine
That forms the words
That remain forever unsaid?
As I have noted in my previous posts (Fire & Dreams of Desire 48 (Blue) on the French artist Yves Klein his entire body of work is devoted to the concept of the void. As well as the beautiful blue monochromes (inspired by the pellucid light of his birthplace, the Cote d’Azur) painted in his own patented colour International Klein Blue which conveys the pregnant emptiness of both eternity and infinity, and the Fire paintings saturated with esoteric doctrine, Klein also organised an exhibition in 1958 called Le Vide (The Void)that consisted of a empty gallery room painted entirely in white, and the photo-montage Leap Into The Void.
Leap Into the Void was an artistic action executed in 1960 involving Klein jumping from a building onto a tarpaulin held by his friends at ground level. He commissioned the photographers Harry Shunk and Jean Kender to create the seamless photo-montage that gives the impression of flight and a wilful, ecstatic abandon. To further the illusion of flight Klein distributed a fake news-sheet to Parisian newsstands commemorating the event of the Man in Space! The Painter of Space Throws Himself into the Void!.
In contrast to Klein’s monochromatic mystical void, the Argentinian director Gaspar Noe, one of the most notable figures of the New French Extremity, fills the void with sound and fury in his crazed Freudian psycho-drama Enter The Void. A bold, brilliant and often infuriating, psychedelic exploration of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the void for Noe is a state of mind, death and the return to the source. Below is the frenetic opening credits which Noe condensed as he considered that the film was already too long. Please note that it contains flashing images throughout.
J.G Ballard once noted that the Marquis De Sade remains the spectre at the feast of European letters and thought. On the rare occasions when anyone decides to let him in from the cold, he leaves bloody footprints on the welcome mat.
A fiercely contrarian spirit, the Marquis has been variously called, by admirers and detractors alike: revolutionary, radical, reactionary, an anarchist, a socialist. Depending on who you read he is either a much maligned libertarian or he paved the theoretical way for the homicidal tyrants of the 20th century. No one can quite decide where the Marquis lies on the political spectrum. The debate is probably fiercest regarding his views on gender and pornography, understandably so as the body in De Sade is always the locus of power and freedom, but even here views diverge. Virulent misogynist whose fiction continually degrade and devalue women, or a radical feminist who, in one of his darkest fictions, Juliette, shows the possibility of complete female emancipation?
Illumination cannot be found in his life either. Strangely enough for a man who is know for transgression and excess, his behaviour as a free citizen in Republican Paris shows an unexpected moderation. De Sade didn’t avail himself of the unique opportunities present during the Terror, instead he kept a cool head while others were losing theirs.
After his release from prison in 1790 (see Citizen Sade), he lived in Paris with his mistress Marie Constant Quesnet and her six year old son. His long suffering wife Renee-Pelagie, after standing by him during the long years of imprisonment had obtained a divorce by this time. De Sade was elected to the National Convention and was appointed to the local Section Des Piques, one of the forty eight administrative divisions in the new Republic. It was in this position that he could have condemned his loathed in-laws, especially his mother-in-law, La Presidente who was responsible for the lettres de cachet that had caused him to be under lock and key for over a decade, to death. But he refrained; the Marquis De Sade had always been a principled opponent of the death penalty. This restrain and his criticism of Robespierre led to the Marquis being detained again in 1793, where he narrowly escaped execution due to a clerical error.
De Sade wrote a number of stirring pamphlets in defence of the Revolution, notably the famous Yet another effort, Frenchman, if you would become Republicans, nestled in his libertine classic La philosophie dans le boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom). In this text De Sade gives an outline of his version of Utopia, a minimal state that interferes as little as possible with the rights of the individual. I shall by reviewing this work in greater depth and further detail in the next post on the Marquis.
In 1789 the Marquis De Sade was one of eight prisoners held in the state prison of Bastille. For a number of years he had been detained under lettres de cachet, a system were the King could imprison a subject without trial and without the opportunity of appeal. Lettres de cachet were one of the most hated features of the ancien regime, as it was open to a wide variety of abuses, notably the possible life-long detainment of embarrassing family members by wealthy and noble petitioners.
On the morning of July 2, the Marquis was in a highly excitable state and nervously paced the confines of his cell. His wife had told him about the chaos on the streets of Paris. The Marquis had noticed the stepping up of military preparations within the fortress. At noon his warden came to tell the Marquis that his daily walk around the prison grounds was cancelled for today, by the order of the commandant. Outraged by the loss of this privilege, the Marquis grabbed a long metal funnel, that was usually used to empty his chamber pot into the moat below, but also worked as an impromptu megaphone, and began to harangue the crowds below that the guards were slitting the prisoners throats and called upon the assembled mob to storm the fortress. After being subdued with great difficultly by a number of guards the Marquis was transferred from the Bastille to the mental asylum of Charenton.
Just 12 days later the Bastille was indeed stormed by the revolutionaries and the weapons and ammunition’s cache were seized. As a symbol of Royal authority its fall was especially significant. The French Revolution had begun in earnest and the world would never be the same again. One of the first things the new government did was to abolish the lettres de cachet and so on April the 2nd 1790 the Marquis Donatien Aphonse Francois De Sade left Charenton a free man for the first time in over a decade: and with this release was born Citizen Sade, revolutionary and man of letters.
The above imaginary portrait by Man Ray refers to this central event in De Sade’s life. De Sade is the imprisoned man whose entire countenance is made out of prison bricks who dreams of an absolute and terrifying freedom, looking on at the conflagration of the hated citadel of oppression. The text at the bottom of the painting is a quote from the De Sade’s last will and testament.
The interplay of light was different, even the seemed different to Max. As they walked along the avenue, the horizon stretched out before them indefinitely. He could detect the curvature of the earth —meaning that if they carried on walking as did, in a perfectly straight line, they would eventually reach this point again. There was no end. They were two tiny specks scurrying across the crust of a tiny ball spinning in space. For the first time, Max understood, really comprehended, that the world was round.
A heat haze shrouded the street, as the sun slowly but perceptibly leeched away all colour from their surroundings. Margot had dug out a pair of sunglasses from her small black handbag. As Max raised his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun glinting off the windscreens of the speeding cars, he cursed himself for not showing the same foresight. Each flash of light was like a blade slicing into his pupils. Max felt as exposed as a shucked oyster beneath a half lemon, poised to be squeezed. Glancing at Margot, he noted that she was as composed as ever. Nevertheless, she must have realised —either by intuition or telepathy, perhaps— his distress, because she paused and raised an arm.
Almost immediately, a black cab pulled over and they climbed in.
‘Euston Station, please.’ Margot said to the driver.
The driver started the meter and turned around to face them.
‘Are you young folks catching the train to anywhere nice?’ he asked.
Max looked at him in bewilderment. He was young for a taxi-driver and although his English was good, he spoke with an accent, perhaps German? That wasn’t the strange thing, though. His features were sharp and angular, yet the planes of his face failed to intersect. It was quite unsettling.
‘Oh, not really, just off to Birmingham to visit some friends,’ Max answered, bemused that he had lied for no reason whatsoever.
‘OK then, what time is your train?’ the driver asked, as he started up the engine. ‘Traffic is quite heavy and it is cross-town.’
Max turned to Margot but she was nestled in the corner, staring out of the window at the passing pedestrians. Obviously, it was up to him to make conversation with the driver, who, with his accent and heavy dark jacket (in this weather!) looked like a member of the Gestapo or the Stasi.
‘No particular time. I mean, we haven’t booked it or anything. I believe they run quite frequently, though. Maybe every hour on the half-hour… or is it every half-hour on the hour and at half past? Something like that, anyway… I think. Besides, I am sure we will get to Birmingham before night-time.’
The driver nodded without turning his head. Max hoped this was a sign that he could now stop babbling nonsensically, as it was a real effort not to give himself away. Surely, the driver could tell that he was out of it. Max imagined that the driver wasn’t a taxi-driver at all. He certainly didn’t look like your archetypal, loud-mouthed, pink-shirted, London cabbie. Maybe he was a former Stasi agent freelancing. Max looked again to Margot who, this time, returned his stare after pushing her sunglasses to the top of her head.
She didn’t speak, but in his head he could hear her saying not to panic. ‘That’s the cardinal rule, never ever panic.’
Was it a memory? Telepathy again? Whatever the case, Max felt calmer. His hand sought Margot’s hand lying limply on the seat between them, and when they touched, she interlaced their fingers and gave his hand a good squeeze. There, there now, that was much better. Much, much better. He could relax a little, despite the taxi driver watching them intently in the rear view mirror. Max was tempted to tell him to concentrate on the road ahead instead of spying on them, but thought better of it. It probably wouldn’t help matters, might even further arouse his suspicions.
The driver started rooting around in the glove compartment when the taxi stopped at a blocked intersection. After muttering what Max assumed were a string of German swear-words, he exclaimed with evident joy upon finding whatever he was searching for.
The traffic still hadn’t moved when the driver lit up what Max now realised was a joint. He opened the sliding glass panel and offered the joint to Margot, who accepted with a ‘why ever not?’ and an innocently winsome smile. Her left hand remained nestled in Max’s right hand, thankfully. He desperately needed that contact. The puzzle of the driver’s face was still terribly unnerving. Perhaps in some other dimension, those angles would form a pleasing symmetry.
After a couple of drags, Margot asked the driver if she could offer the joint to Max. The traffic had managed to unsnarl itself and they were at last, moving again through streets Max didn’t recognise. The driver nonchalantly waved his hand and said, ‘of course, plenty more where that came from.’
Max took the joint in his free left hand and inhaled deeply. It was strong stuff and it immediately reinforced the effects of whatever hallucinogen Margot had slipped him earlier. After a couple more heavy drags, he passed it back to the driver.
‘Thanks, its good is it not?’ the driver asked, then added, ‘What are all these people doing here?’
‘Yeah, it was excellent, thank you,’ Max answered. He had presumed the remarks about the people were a rhetorical question until he noticed the dubious-looking mob gathering outside as they passed. What indeed, were they doing on such an unprepossessing street corner in this rather unfashionable and frankly, quite desolate part of London? After what seemed a day and age, the taxi pulled up into the rank at Euston Station.
‘Here we are now. It’s eighteen pounds ninety, but we can call it fifteen pounds flat because of that hold-up.’
‘Oh, that’s very generous of you, but really not necessary. After all, you did help the time pass smoothly,’ Margot answered as she disengaged her hand from Max’s and pulled out three ten pound notes from her purse. She handed them over through the panel.
‘Really this is too much,’ he protested.
‘Not at all, your customer service skills are second to none. I can honestly say that this was the best taxi journey of my life.’
‘Thank you very much. I knew you were nice people as soon as I saw you on the street. Enjoy your trip to Birmingham,’ he said, as they tumbled out of the taxi in rather a heap.
Max felt quite dizzy. Margot took his hand and guided him through the entrance to the station.
‘Just concentrate on me, Max. Pay no attention to anyone but me, otherwise you’ll be getting the fear. God knows anyone could get the fear in this hideous hole at the best of times, but I have you covered. Do you trust me, Max?’ she asked him, her voice gentle, her mouth sweetly smiling. Her face, he suddenly realised, was simply angelic. It was like he was seeing her for the first time over again. No. Not true. He had never really seen her before this moment. All the other times were fleeting glimpses from a distance.
He trusted her totally.
But why? Was this trust misplaced? Did he actually know her any better now than he did this morning? This feeling of complete identification and of an absolute, telepathic communication —wasn’t it just an effect of the drugs? But even if it was, as he looked around at the surging crowds with their briefcases and handbags, these forever unreadable and unknowable strangers, he realised that this tenuous connection was all he had. He didn’t hesitate for a second longer.
‘Absolutely, I trust you, Margot. You’re still a complete mystery, of course, but I…feel like this is destined to be.’
‘That’s the spirit; you are your father’s son, after all. Come let’s get something to drink. After that we can sort out tickets and the such-like.. Everything is going to be peachy creamy, isn’t it Max? My brave little soldier.’