There is a basic pleasure in the act of ordering, in mapping the chaos of our minds, and the metaphysical worlds that lie beyond thinking and knowing. In departing from representational (and especially figurative) languages, abstraction permits the artist to explore the unconscious and express the inexpressible. Not simply an invention of Modernity, abstract patterns take on a universal legibility in their linearity, sequences and fields of colour. They appeal to the eye as well as an intrinsic need for order.
The abstract works of Hilma af Klint (1862-1954), currently on show at the Serpentine Gallery, are a revelation in early 20th-century ‘cosmological abstraction’. She produced nearly two hundred abstract paintings between 1906 and 1915, many of them on a monumental scale, but insisted that they not be exhibited until 20 years after her death (and wouldn’t be shown until 1986). Her substantial oeuvre has been absent from male-dominated narratives of modern art, but as her solo retrospective would suggest, the tides have turned. It seems the world is ready for Klint’s unusual style and approach to painting, which predates and in many ways anticipates the spiritual abstraction of Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian, not to mention the automatic drawings of the Surrealists.
I was immediately struck by the confidence of af Klint’s large scale canvases, and the way she playfully manipulates pure line and colour within her arrangements. Her abstract works show extreme restraint on the one hand and exuberance on the other. Some are simply, well, weird. Stylistically, she is difficult to pin down, her works range from expressionistic to sparsely minimal, and some incorporate figurative elements. There is an unnerving honesty and directness to them, perhaps because they are not striving to achieve or perfect a particular style.
In the series ‘The Ten Largest’ af Klint develops a controlled organicism based on plants stems and snail shells (she was a skilled botanical illustrator), while the later ‘Swan’ series exhibits a geometric economy and precision that might belong to an entirely different sensibility, or indeed, art historical period. But this is because her abstract works are tied to a spiritual project, one that af Klint pursued privately alongside her commercial painting career. Birgit Pelzer tells us that ‘the goal of these sequences seems to be to experiment with different levels of intimacy with matter, with the spirit that animates the living, with that which penetrates and acts inside bodies and in their molecules, their cells, their organisms’.
According to Elizabeth Finch, who challenges a comparison of af Klint with her abstract contemporaries, her work ‘incorporated and organised each artistic action and reaction into a cumulative visual system’, rather than paring things down a la Mondrian. Af Klint’s works idealise an infinite and complex inwardness, drawing on a repertoire of forms and colours found within and outside the visible, natural world. The intersection of the micro and the macro in nature is a recurring visual theme, with the underlying geometry of plant grown patterns and cell structures, reflecting her belief that nature is an earthly echo of the divine order (based on the theosophical work of Helena P. Blavatsky).
When I encountered af Klint’s work at the Serpentine, I was reminded of the illuminations of 12th-century German abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). Whilst separated by eight centuries, both women artists were earmarked ‘ahead of their time’ and employed abstraction to represent the interaction between physical and divine realms. Moreover, they both found inspiration for their work through visions. Von Bingen received hers directly from God, in what she called ‘The Shade of the Living Light’ (and what many have since interpreted as her experience of migraines), visions that she found painful but which she eventually described in a series of volumes of visionary theology. Near the end of her life she commissioned and oversaw a richly illuminated manuscript of the first volume, Scivias or Know the Ways, in which her visions are depicted in all their abstract glory. The original, also called the Rupertsberg Codex, was lost during WWII, but its images are preserved in a hand-painted facsimile dating from the 1920s.
Similarly compelled to engage with a higher power through abstract forms, sometimes through the micro and macro languages of nature, Af Klint developed a style of painting which was entirely her own. She initiated a group of women called ‘the Five’, who held regular séances to communicate with the spiritual realm through images. The group was influenced by contemporary spiritual movements of the early 20th century, including spiritism (the nature, origin, and destiny of spirits and their relation with the corporeal world), theosophy (divine wisdom), and anthroposophy (human wisdom). In particular, The Five drew upon and interpreted anthroposophy, through the teaching of Rudolf Steiner, a mystic strain of Christianity that placed an emphasis on personal or individual agency (via Goethe).
In 1905, af Klint received a ‘commission’ from a deity they called ‘Amaliel’ and began a series of 193 predominantly abstract works called ‘The Paintings for the Temple’. Whilst she saw her images as impressions from an immaterial realm, she anticipated that her audiences were not yet ready for this kind of art. Not long after, Malevich, Kandinsky and others would associate abstract shapes with spiritual purity, paving the way for Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism later in the century. Yet af Klint and her visionary forebears remain outside this historiography; like von Bingen, her ambition was not fuelled by individualism or notoriety, but through the pursuit of divine inspiration, to access realms beyond consciousness and the material world. The mapping of these routes was the sole purpose of their abstraction, plotting the cosmos through the language of line, shape and colour.
Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen is at the Serpentine Gallery, London, from 3 March to 15 May 2016.
Citations from 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin, eds. Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher (New York; New Haven: The Drawing Center; Yale University Press, 2005).