The preface – signed by Daniel Birnbaum, Ann-Sofi Noring, Udo Kittelmann and José Lebrero Stals – to the catalogue of the Hilma af Klint exhibition at Moderna Museet, edited by the show’s curator Iris Müller-Westermann, radiates an unusual air of self-confidence: “Hilma af Klint is one of the truly great artists of the twentieth century and she has been kept waiting too long for recognition. […]With great pleasure, and joint efforts, we are now clearing the way for her, from her home in the north, to the middle of Europe, and onwards south. / Hilma af Klint was a pioneer of abstraction. […] Her paintings have been included in a few exhibitions in recent years, admittedly, but this joint touring presentation will be the first to give Hilma af Klint the international breakthrough her oeuvre deserves. […] The years immediately after the turn of the century, not long before the Russian and Continental pioneers of abstract art, she felt urged to paint that which lies beyond the visible. She chose to paint on the ‘astral’ plane, creating with immense energy a visual cosmos that is only now revealed to us in its impressive splendor” (p. 15).
On the one hand, this is an exhibition that exemplifies an almost performative historiography, which shows how an art museum like Moderna Museet can itself create history, “faire l’histoire”, as Michel de Certeau once formulated it in a text about the “historiographical operation”. On the other hand, this is an exhibition that actualizes the question Walter Benjamin called “historical readability”, the fact that the past becomes legible, that is, possible to know, first when singularities appear and are articulated dynamically against each other in a constellation: “For the historical index of the images not only says that they belong to a particular time; it says, above all, that they attain to legibility only at a particular time. And, indeed, this acceding to legibility constitutes a specific critical point in the movement at their interior”. This is, according to Jean-Louis Déotte, the paradox of artistic work: when it is shown for the first time, there is, strictly speaking, nothing for the audience to see. If a work is immediately recognized or acknowledged as such, it is because it is not an event but only an “aesthetic dispositive effect”. For a work to be recognized/acknowledged, there must be a gradual “sensitizing” of the public, which is thus established as its audience. The work must be revealed by a public that previously did not exist, and therefore it occasionally happens that it takes a very long time before some works are recognized/acknowledged.
So how do we recognize/acknowledge Hilma af Klint’s work today? Pascal Rousseau writes in the well-edited and worth-reading, but oh so conventionally designed catalogue of Hilma af Klint as a historically revolutionary “abstraction filter”: she is not only a “forerunner” who forces us to ask the question if she is an “intermediary” of abstract art or whether she anticipates it, “but she also incites us to rethink the origins of abstract art in a plural fashion, a version in which a multitude of converging sources intersect (arabesque, decorative vocabulary, and ornament; pure line, formalism, and musicalism; automatic writing, trance and mediumship; symbolism, idealism, and hierophany; and so on)” (p. 161).
There is, Helmut Zander establishes in a conversation with Iris Müller-Westermann about spiritulism, theosophy and anthroposophy, a keen interest for theosophy within the history of abstract art, but he adds that we must “get away from fixating on individual points in the history of abstraction, whether it is Hilma af Klint in 1906 or Wassily Kandinsky in 1911” (p. 123). And simultaneously – despite that Moderna Museet emphasizes elsewhere that the question of Hilma af Klint’s abstract pioneer spirit is not crucial when we now encounter her work on a larger scale than earlier – the title around which the exhibition coalesces is, nevertheless, Himla af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction. This is an obvious, but perhaps almost unavoidable, double entry.
In the aforementioned catalog preface, in an almost mythographic register, the authors write of “what proved to be hidden away for nearly a century. Mysterious wooden crates, old and enigmatic, arrived from the warehouse where they had been biding their time. Art history is full of riddles and unexplored treasures, but in that respect, this beats everything we have had the pleasure of working with: unpacking numerous works that had never been shown before, created by a pioneering artist in the early 1900s to show us glimpses of higher spheres. No one painted like this at that time: remarkable color combinations, monumental formats, shapes that are once both organic and otherworldly” (p. 15). To what extent does the infectious tone of the joy of discovery and labor have a real impact on the 230 works comprising the exhibition? Even if one can find many of Hilma af Klint’s individual works problematic, as I do myself, it is hard not to be impressed by the intelligent assembly of this passionate exhibition, and of the effort that extended over several years during the unpacking, registration, photographing, and conservation work that laid the groundwork for its existence, and which are also partially materialized aesthetically. When Iris Müller-Westermann points out that the museum, after a review of the entire estate and the digitalization of 26,000 pages of notes, etc., has reached an entirely new level of presentation of Hilma af Klint’s work, this utilization of her works, in other words, should not only be understood as being influenced by Hilma af Klint’s sometimes difficult to digest evolutionary theosophical ideas… While wanting to avoid fetishizing art as document, archive or research, I believe that Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction would have been able to show even more of, for example, the mediumistic notes and sketchbooks that the monumental painting’s forms grew out of without losing intensity.
The abstract images in Hilma af Klint’s large cycle The Paintings for the Temple (1906–1915), with its paintings in different series and subgroups, arises as Müller-Westermann stresses, neither overnight nor in a vacuum. As early as the end of the 1870s, Hilma af Klint took part in séances, where a medium would enter into communication with the dead and transmit their messages. In 1896 she and four other women formed the group “The Five”, a society whose members – as mediums in trance or with the help of a psychograph – came into contact with “higher levels of consciousness” while they simultaneously kept careful minutes of the séances. First starting in 1903, however, Hilma af Klint began to hold the pen herself, and in her automatic pencil drawings one can discern a number of motifs that recur in The Paintings for the Temple. To try to understand what she experienced during those years as a medium, in 1917-1918 she records her conception of the world’s spiritual contexture in the more than 1,200 pages of comprehensive writing, Studier över Själslivet (Studies of the Life of the Soul), and during the 1930s she edited, shortened, and prepared a list of contents for the large number of notes that were produced by The Five, in order to facilitate orientation of the material.
But despite all these notes through which Hilma af Klint attempts to contextualize her experiences as a medium, it is still, writes Müller-Westermann, the paintings that make up “the most essential message that she has handed down to us” (p. 50). Even if such an assessment is more than reasonable, on another level it simultaneously risks closing the door on the open experimental and intermedia investigation and research, which for Hilma af Klint have their origin in the mediumistic context, with its complex relations between writing and image, and its radical indifference to questions of authorship.
The usual division, as regarding the advent of The Paintings for the Temple, between a first phase, 1906-1908, where Hilma af Klint receives her images completely as a medium, where her hand is led, and a second phase, 1912-1915, where she just partially understands herself as a medium and takes liberties and makes her own interpretations, is by no means missing – even if there are, of course, intermediate forms and exceptions – a material support in the work that is shown in the Moderna exhibition. From a “pantheistic” imagery with lotus flowers and mandala-like ornamentation, Hilma af Klint seems, under the influence of Rudolf Steiner’s theosophy and anthroposophy, to move to Christian metaphors with cross and crucifixion scenes as recurring pictorial elements.
I regard the first period as more radical in its permeability than the later variations within the frame of the reductive Christian symbolism. Only by risking being labeled as insane would Hilma af Klint have been able to remain in the first phase’s “pure” mediumship, but it is still possible to allow oneself to speculate over how her later art would have been able to materialize within the frame of another interpretive context than that of Steiner and his followers. On the other hand, one of her most interesting works is a series of abstract paintings dealing with the theory of religions from 1920, which start with a picture that vertically splits a circle in black and white halves. But maybe she chooses precisely here – Helmut Zander opens at least for such a reading – an inverse way in comparison to Steiner: “possibly, she is not interested in the absolutism of Christianity, but in a stronger, more pluralistic perspective of religions” (p. 128). And another remarkable series among the late works is The Atom from 1917, with its avant la lettre pataphysic texts in the image: “The atom has at once limits and the capacity to develop. When the atom expands on the ether plane, the physical part of the earthly atom begins to glow” (p. 190).
In his strategically motivated critique of mediumistic perception, Steiner brands this as a form of “atavistic” clairvoyance because it causes people to become passive. But the paradox of this “passivity”, which for Hilma af Klint can also be understood as a consenting withdrawal, an accepted order, is, if one were to object, the intensive interconnection activity it can give rise to in a viewer/reader from today. “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 brushstroke”, she writes. What happens if one, for example, anachronistically connects these words to artist Elis Eriksson’s “observances” in a more material register one hundred years later: “I am a Sign / a tool for direction”; “a controlled being from a foreknowledge with matrices for a yet to be seen asked me to come as a current state insisted of becoming… “; “called to transform controlled frequencies’ intrinsic particularities to time, to the mass that surrounds a reflection of what the quantum level intended”?
For Elis Eriksson these idea frequencies are linked to Adrian Dobbs, who during the 1960s developed a thesis of “psitrons”– particles that form the material substrate of thoughts, and thereby should be able to explain parapsychological phenomena such as telepathy. For Hilma af Klint the spiritualist frequency is indistinguishable from the late 19th century’s widespread preoccupation with non-visible aspects of nature. In 1895 Wilhelm Röntgen discovered the rays that were to be named after him, and which make it possible to visualize hidden structures. Heinrich Hertz proves the existence of electromagnetic waves, which in 1886 he successfully transferred from a sender to a receiver – a discovery that will form the basis of wireless telegraphy and later for the radio. It is therefore hardly surprising that many artists and writers in the years before World War One seemed to regard occultism and the new sciences as more or less equally valid ways to search for hitherto unseen dimensions of reality. And this is also why it is not so simple as if Hilma af Klint would “abandon the depiction of visible reality” in her “abstract” painting; on the contrary, one could argue, she releases it even more radically, in the form of messages or transmissions on new frequencies, data that is visualized through different signs, words, symbols, forms, colors, diagrams. A modern day digital archivist poet and artist like Kenneth Goldsmith, who may seem to be light years away from a spiritualist-theosophical artist like Hilma af Klint, still approaches a similar wavelength when he, in the beginning of the 21st century, writes: “If somehow I were able to materialize the data flowing across my home wireless network, the aether I breathe would be rife with sounds and letters.”
If this is so, as art critique Adrian Searle noted in 2006, that even Hilma af Klint’s most abstract paintings are “diagrams and abstractions from ideas – not wholly abstract, more representations of elements of an unseen world, and of invisible forces”, then would it perhaps be more reasonable to call her a diagram artist rather than an abstract artist? David Lomas opens for such a possibility when he, in his catalogue essay, raises the notion of the logarithmic spiral as one example of a “diagrammatic idiom” in Hilma af Klint’s work. Diagram? In The Culture of Diagram (2010), John Bender and Michael Marrinan offer a critical genealogy for what they call the latest 250 years’ “diagrammatic knowledge”, a “diagrammatic archaeology” that enables a reinterpretation of the processes out of which modern vision grows, and where they view the diagram as the forgotten third-part in the triad writing-image-diagram. The diagram is “convergences between streams of data”, “visual configurations”, “amalgam of information” within which the verbal, the visual and the mathematic (as in Hilma af Klint’s The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood, Group IV, 1907) can coexist. The diagram “focuses knowledge production as a process”. Diagrams are not only abstractions of a reality, reduced versions of a world of experience, not just depictions of something else, but new experiences in themselves, objects of knowledge or “working objects”. “Working objects”, that is to say both tools for and products of research processes, which in practice correlate antagonisms between word and image, between representation and the real world, between the physical mechanics of vision and these processes in consciousness. The continually reoccurring spiral – the symbol for a development from the center and outwards, but also a way out of and into a center; the theosophical metaphor for a connection between Eastern cycle and Western evolution – is the most prominent diagrammatical example in Hilma af Klint’s work, seemingly close to a sort of signature. But prominent is also “the Tree of Knowledge” and “the pyramid”, which in different ways are attempts to visualize complex contexts.
Hilma af Klint – Diagram Artist – such an exhibition title would probably not have led to a major public success, but the question is whether it would have been more appropriate.