There are some museum exhibitions that open when it almost too perfectly aligns with my own artistic practice, which was the case when I saw Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim last month with my friend Reese. The curators at the Guggenheim love to display exhibitions chronologically from the bottom up, so as you walk through you're literally on an emotional rollercoaster that keeps climbing towards a steep hill with no drop in sight. As we made our way up the iconic, circular ramp, we were surprised to see af Klint's tour de force displayed first, a cluster of paintings called “The Ten Largest”, meant for a temple that af Klint and her spiritualist gal pals had premonitions about (more on that later). The sheer size of the canvases made us feel dwarfed. On closer inspection we could see that no shortcuts were made to accomplish these huge paintings. The small, short brushstrokes and colorful palettes felt utterly feminine and modern, despite being made by a women born in the 19th century.
Looking at Hilma af Klint's work today, it feels it she could easily take her place among contemporary artists today, her work feels that modern and disruptive. Her exhibition at the Guggenheim now reflects this exciting time we're currently in where one can question the origins of art movements and the influence of artists as it pertains to known art history (mostly written by white, European men). There is a long history of artists not receiving their due, so scholars are now, according to Artnet "reconsidering the stories of minorities and the colonized, “outsiders” of all kinds, and also of women." Because af Klint felt her art and spiritual beliefs were so misunderstood and had "lacked confidence in her contemporaries" (mostly because art done by women were widely dismissed), she asked that her work was not to be shared publicly until 20 years after her death, which is why she was not as well known in the early-twentieth century. Now, scholars are considering that she may have had more influence in the abstract modern movement than previously considered, which Kandinsky and Picasso are more widely given credit for.
The overall exhibition felt like a celebration of women, of a history that we are just beginning to uncover of female accomplishment before the modern era. Af Klint's work itself mostly focuses on spiritualism, science, nature and the power of the effeminate, themes that are becoming even more prevalent in today's modern culture. As women whose livelihood requires us to spot cultural and creative trends, Reese and I could't help noticing eerie similarities to af Klint's work to today, which may just speak to the irony that new cultural discoveries are really fads that repeat themselves every couple of decades. I'm not going to go too much into af Klint's life, but Artnet does a great job to provide context before the following deep dive.
A few things that we noted that showed almost too strong of a connection between af Klint's day and today:
1. Celebration of Spiritualism
The mid to late 1800s were evidently a very exciting time to be alive. Science was becoming a lot more advanced (thanks Einstein) and the irony is that as science pushed the limits of what people could possibly perceive, such as x-rays, subatomic particles, and radioactivity, so did many people's belief in other unseen things, like spirits. Af Klint started getting into spiritualism in 1879 when she was 17 and credits spiritualism in helping her make artistic breakthroughs, such as The Paintings for the Temple, by breaking from the constraints of her past, formal art training.
2. Witchy Witchy Women
A majority of spiritual mediums at the time were women, since "channeling" was a way for women to overcome society's marginalization of female voices by claiming they had direct access to an absolute authority. In1896, af Klint began holding regular seances with four other women, who all called themselves "The Five" (De Fem). Af Klimt took over as the lead medium in 1903. With the rise of mainstream interest in tarot readings, holistic healing, and crystals, I feel it's only a matter of time that seances become the new book club for women.
3. Lady Was Into Pink
Af Klimt was not shy about using colors such as pink and lavender in her works. As much as Reese and I somewhat cynically said that the works would be just as home in an Urban Outfitters as it was in the Guggenheim, it is a rarity to see so much femininity in abstract paintings. Af Klint regularly used colors to symbolizes different types of energies, love, and gender. Pink was often symbolic of spiritual love, while red was a reference to physical love.
4. Adult Coloring/Drawing Parties
"Automatism" was a practice of creating drawings while in a spiritual trance. The Five would work on automatic drawings together, as that it was a then-common method of channeling. During automatism, mediums would consciously submit control of their bodies to what they perceived as a guiding spirit, as they would draw images or texts based on how the spirit would guide them. These exercises in automatism likely liberated af Klint from the confines of her academic art training, allowing her to envision a world of original, remarkably abstract imagery.
5. Bullet Journaling
Af Klint was incredibly meticulous in her note taking and project planning. This likely was a habit she picked up early in her life when she had a job illustrating medical textbooks for veterinarians. Because she felt she would find her audience among future generations, af Klimt felt compelled to document and categorize her paintings with as much detail as possible, as if she was scientist or ethnographer documenting her own process and intention. If the lady lived today, she most certainly would have had a bullet journal. Her notebooks were actually published as a catalogue Notes and Methods, allowing readers to dive into her personal artistic investigations.
6. Astrology / Interest in Divination
Throughout af Klint's painting were the repeated use of astrological symbols, numerology, and repeated themes of spiritualism. There was one revelation during our visit that was particularly chill-inducing. Reese and I were reading through a timeline of af Klint's life displayed in the exhibition. In1931, af Klint began to make plans for a temple to house her work on the island of Ven in Oresund, a temple with a four story tiered conical structure with a tower at it's center. That plan was "never realized", so she then made designs for a nearly circular, four-story building that would be connected by a central spiral staircase. After reading that, I turned to Reese and said "Yo, it's the f#%$ing Guggenheim."
Boom. Dream realized.
Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future is at the Guggenheim until April 23rd and I can't stress enough how much you should go. Above all else, my favorite takeaway was how af Klint looked at her work as her own spiritual practice. During one of The Five's seances in1905, af Klint was told by one of the guides that her spiritual works should be performed through painting, which is why she was so passionate about developing paintings for the planned temple. At times, artists may feel that their work is meant to be focused on delivering near perfect products every time, when in fact creating art should be seen as a practice, just as much as yoga or religion. An artistic practice is something to come to in order to express thoughts, feelings, and ideas that seem to come from a higher entity, or your own personal enlightenment. Perfection isn't the goal, developing a lifelong practice is.