Contributed by Barbara Campbell Thomas / I first laid eyes on the work of Hilma af Klint (Stockholm, 1862-1944) in 1999, while an MFA student at the University of California at Berkeley. Towards the end of a particularly fruitful studio visit, that day’s visiting artist gifted gave me with a copy of the catalogue for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1986 exhibition, “The Spiritual In Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985.” Buried in the pages of the this substantial book is a short biographical introduction to af Klint, accompanied by twelve images of her work, only three of which are in color. So little information, and although I learned little about Hilma af Klint for well over a decade, the handful of images in LACMA’s catalogue persistently gripped me, engendering a fixation that would not dissipate, despite my inability to find anything more about Hilma af Klint.
[Image at top: Hilma af Klint, Group IV, No. 3. The Ten Largest, Youth; 1907; tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 321 x 240 cm / Courtesy of Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk. Photo: Moderna Museet / Stockholm]
What was the attraction? Her paintings have a warm and engaging precision, an orderly structure qualified by traces of a clumsy hand, alternately luminous and muddy coloration, and her awkwardly drawn representational imagery. It is their particular brand of full-bodied meticulousness that first caught my devotion. Additionally, af Klint’s paintings forcefully pronounce their inevitability with force; painting after painting seems unable to be anything other than what it is, as though the earth opened up and spit out these the images fully formed, as a gesture of good will toward all of humanity.
Devotion to painting is an interior state of being, a welling up of commitment fed by the realization that no other medium will suffice. For better or worse, even amidst the tumult of doubt and frustration sure to accompany any project whereby one brings form into being, one makes a painting because painting’s particular interplay of material immateriality seems the most logical conduit for engagement with the big questions of life and living. There is great practicality here, a decision to make paintings fueled by the understanding that the most expedient route to enacting vital cultural conversation is via the medium with the strongest personal hold.
Invariably, part of the pull toward making paintings is fed by moments of acute connection to painting itself, moments when a painting overwhelms all of one’s senses. I have barely twenty years of painting life behind me, enough to realize how little time that actually is, but over the course of those years a few paintings have latched on to my consciousness with an addictive and satisfying presence. I wrote about some of these paintings last summer on Two Coats of Paint. Recently, I had the opportunity to make another artist pilgrimage—this time to the exhibition “Hilma af Klint: Painting The Unseen” at London’s Serpentine Gallery; the visit fulfilled a long held desire to see the paintings of this pioneer of early 20th century abstraction in person.
The exhibition opened with a pivotal series of paintings which inaugurates af Klint’s most significant life work—the 193 paintings comprising “The Paintings for the Temple.” All twenty-six works in “Primordial Chaos” were on view. Small-scale, hovering around 15 x 20 inches each, the paintings establish an ad hoc paint handling that evolves in her later paintings. All of the images in “Primordial Chaos” situate her growing lexicon of symbols, letterforms and pictograph-like shapes within fields of brushy paint strokes that alternately evoke atmospheric spaces and carefully carved out directional movement. Never just filler, these atmospheres range so substantially in approach and materiality that it seems likely af Klint was experimenting just as much with how to paint as she was working toward developing the visual vocabulary. For an artist who ultimately painted to understand the relationship between the spiritual and material world, “Primordial Chaos” was her initial inquiry, an important first foray into her life’s subject matter. The fact that these paintings suggest the painterly equivalent of notebook pages in both size and informality lends them an intimate magnetism.
The installation continued with paintings from “The Swan” series, made from 1914-1915. The paint handling af Klint developed in the “Primordial Chaos” canvases is put to clearer purpose across the substantially larger expanses of “The Swan” series. I spent the most time in front of The Swan, No. 23. Thinly applied paint gives a mottled quality to most of the painting’s background. This scraped surface quality counters the heavy black and white lines that form three vertically stacked parallelograms. To my mind, the contrast in material is key, as the dramatic shift from flat surface to thick beads of paint introduces paradox—an important theme in af Klint’s overall goal of reconciling opposites– the spiritual and material, good and evil, man and woman, religion and science, and so forth. The Swan, No. 23 is matt but viscous, and the ellipses resting inside two of the parallelograms alternate between lying flat and tilting toward the viewer, rendering a strangely disorienting spatial shift.
“The Swan” paintings establish af Klint’s mature understanding of paint. They also suggest an almost ritualistic grasp of paint handling, and I cannot help but wonder at the links between her physical painting practice and the automatic drawings af Klint made with a spiritualist group of four other women named De Fem (The Five). Might the automatic drawing practice have been an inadvertent means of cultivating af Klint’s unique sense of materiality? The Swan paintings highlight the rich and varied surfaces of af Klint’s paintings. Prior to seeing them in person, I assumed they were largely flat.
The installation of “The Swan” series was interrupted by a cavernous room containing eight examples of af Klint’s masterful meditation on the various stages of human life, “The Ten Largest” (1907). The paintings of “The Ten Largest” are euphoric, grace-filled painting. I was bowled over by their jaw-dropping lyricism and immense size—approximately 10.5 x 8 feet each. All are tempera on paper mounted to canvas, a surprise to me, and an anomaly since af Klint’s other large paintings are oil on canvas. The decision to use tempera for this pivotal group reinforces the luminosity of her palette. Fields of blue, orange, purple and pink sink into the paper, the softness of the surface infusing the paintings with a stunning depth of color. Additionally, the paper records a clear trail of Hilma af Klint’s brushwork, so while “The Ten Largest” are covered in flat shapes, the tempera’s native modulation complicates the color with subtle shifts of value. I photographed many details from “The Ten Largest” in an attempt to remember idiosyncratic compositional decisions, and as a way to create a personal catalog of af Klint’s endless variations of imperfect ellipses and circles. In “The Ten Largest” her desire to find a harmonious condition within the fraught nature of human existence seems possible. Af Klint made images that reach back in history and, at the same time, slide effortlessly forward into our era.
The show concluded with a small room devoted to late watercolor paintings, automatic drawings, and notebooks. While I found the watercolor paintings to be less engaging, her notebooks are a treasure, and I hope someone creates a complete and readily available facsimile of these rich compendiums of Hilma af Klint’s thought process. In the few pages on view, af Klint thoroughly laid out her visual lexicon, as though the notebooks exist to amplify the paintings’ content. I was particularly intrigued by her tendency to couple small black and white photographs of the paintings with carefully made, full-color watercolor versions. Perhaps she was she making her own catalog raisonné.
Hilma af Klint’s belief that her work would find favor long after her death (her will stipulated that the paintings could not be publicly shown for 20 years beyond her passing) appears eerily prescient. Access to her work has increased substantially—most notably the 2013-2014 traveling exhibition “Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction”—and may ensure that she will find a prominent position in the history of abstraction. Af Klint’s sincere striving and outsized ambition are brazen, revealing a purpose in painting, a purpose in abstraction that feels, to me at least, like long-needed sustenance for all working painters.
“Hilma af Klint: Painting The Unseen,” co-curated by the Serpentine Gallery in collaboration with Daniel Birnbaum, Director of Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Serpentine Gallery, London. March 3 through May 15, 2016.
About the author: Barbara Campbell Thomas is a painter, writer and Associate Professor of Art at UNC Greensboro. She currently has paintings included in “The Retrieval of the Beautiful” at The Painting Center and “Small Works” at Trestle Gallery.