Modernism’s Cuckoo’s Nest

In Brussels, an exhibition about Hilma af Klint and likeminded spirits, asks what happens when Sweden finally lets her hair down. The answer – in part – is that she is hospitalised.

Hilma af Klint, The Swan, The SUW Series, Group IX, No.7, 1914. Oil on canvas. @ Hilma af Klint Foundation. Photo: The Moderna Museet, Stockholm. 

Modernism has many problems, but one of them, certainly, is its phobic relationship to spirituality. While this problem is likely as old as modernism itself, the split between Freud, the clinician, and Jung, the mystic, in 1913 seems emblematic. As does the disagreement between Walther Gropius and Johannes Itten that compelled the latter to leave the Bauhaus school and join a new-age temple in 1923. Psychoanalysis became a religion all the same; rationality, too, is now its own cult. 

Swedish Ecstasy. Hilma af Klint, August Strindberg and other visionary artists
Bozar Centre for Fine Arts, Brussel

In this history of schisms, the first major exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s work in 2013 stands out as an effort of reconciliation, haunted though that initial survey was – with its triumphant emphasis on the artist as “abstract pioneer” – by the spectre of modernism’s phobia. Ten years later, af Klint is increasingly read through her spirituality, while the childish fretting over who came to abstraction first has thankfully receded into the background. 

Daniel Birnbaum, who helmed Moderna Museet at the time of said exhibition in 2013, and who is also the curator of the current exhibition at Bozar, in Brussels, titled Swedish Ecstasy, is the first to admit that abstraction is an arbitrary name for whatever it was that af Klint did. Instead, Swedish Ecstasy traces a notion of the visionary, not linked to pioneering, but to various forms of transcendence, from the esoteric tradition of eighteenth-century theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg through Symbolism and Hilma af Klint into the present. 

Alongside a list of contemporary artists, the exhibition includes the works from the impressive series ‘The Swan’ (1914-15) and ‘Primordial Chaos’ cycle (1906-07) by af Klint; the introduction of Anna Cassel, an intimate partner and colleague of af Klint, whose work is very much along the same lines, except funny (though I am not sure her cartoonish sea creature is very helpful in dismantling the Cartesian dichotomy); paintings by towering nineteenth-century figures such as C.F. Hill, Ernst Josephson, and, in artist-drag, playwright August Strindberg – all to ask what happens when Sweden, a country known as neurotic, puritan, and mortally conscientious, finally lets her hair down. 

The answer to this, in part, is that she is hospitalised. Ecstasy (perhaps too) quickly slips into schizophrenia when Hill and Josephson, ordinarily read as Impressionist and Symbolist, respectively, are joined in their shared diagnosis. I recalled Augusta Strömberg (1866–1954), another artist labelled as schizophrenic, who painted surreal paintings out of a Swedish mental hospital after 1900, which were part of the Luleå Biennial in 2021. Could it be that she was not exactly ecstatic, but just unwell? Modernism often solved its problem with spirituality by pathologising it, but the reverse pitfall is to spiritualise mental illness. And what’s devotion without the faculty of will?

Anna Cassel, No. 7, 1913. Oil on canvas. By courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation. © Anders Fredriksén  

That said, the works from the painters’ “sick periods” are vivid and, in the best way, disturbing – just as they easily ensnare the viewer in the diabolical appeal of modernism’s teleological rat race: Take for instance Hill’s acid golden room of painfully distorted characters, in its flatness a precursor to Matisse’s Red Studio, painted in the same year as Hill passed away, 1911. Or: Josephson’s manic and childlike The Assassination of Riccio, like a sadistic Chagall, but in 1890. Because of their authors’ mental states, however, most of the paintings are undated, a telling practicality that asks a bigger question about what it means to enter essentially unauthorised works into a decidedly date-fetishistic conversation about stylistic progression. 

Flatness and sickness aside, as anyone who’s been to Musée Fin-de-Siècle down the street from Bozar can attest, the art of the late 19th century was a lot more deranged than modernism ever was. And so, it is a welcome concession that, at least in terms of spirit, af Klint’s predecessors make better company for her work than what came after. 

In comparison, August Strindberg’s Sunday paintings, though moody and enigmatic, are surprisingly ordinary. Dark, stormy seas, and the abstract geometry offered by a sharp horizon or a bright red navigation marker amidst black waves. More interesting are his “celestographs”: chemical reactions on photosensitive plates by which Strindberg believed he had captured an image of the night sky. In the end, the more crucial aspect of being a visionary is not to do with figuration or abstraction, but with whether you surrender to the process by which your images are conjured. Strindberg, it seems, went all in. 

August Strindberg, Sunset, Sign. 1892. Oil on canvas , Nationalmuseum, Stockholm © Hans Thorwid/Nationalmuseum 

This distinction becomes relevant in the interjections by contemporary artists. Cecilia Edefalk’s paintings are radiant in their confident simplicity. They are powerfully spiritual, not because we might make out an angel as the motif, but because they cannot but be the product of a rare devotion to her medium. Lars Olof Loeld’s ascetic compositions likewise stand out as proof that spirituality does not rely on faith but, quite plainly, on practice and repetition.  

Conversely, Christine Ödlund’s paintings dedicated to various “psychedelic botanists” seemed gratuitously eccentric and rather contrived in their effort to produce legible content about illegibility – an unfortunate tendency in contemporary art across the board. The spirituality exhibited in Carsten Höller’s mushrooms and flickering lightbulbs is of the type more closely associated with the latter half of the 20th century when Californian counterculturists went from staring at lava lamps to writing code. And fair enough. As Swedenborg’s design for a flying machine from 1714 (displayed in one of the vitrines curated by Peter Cornell) also shows, all invention requires a bit of tripping out. But Höller and Ödlund’s works also represent a degradation in the exhibition from esoteric practice to the esoteric as a topic. The “trance-like state” that Höller’s Light Wall (2002) promises is the same induced by every multimedia spectacle; it’s more science museum than seance, and more Google Campus than Goetheanum. 

Upstairs in the narrow galleries that loop around the atrium, Silicon Valley comes closer still. Here, Acute Art, a company that Birnbaum is the director of, offers a virtual reality rendering of the conch-like temple af Klint designed for her paintings, which becomes inadvertently emblematic of spiritual modernism’s lethal journey from Madame Blavatsky through counterculture to techno-futurism. Like the exiled Bauhauslers who ended up designing military technology at MIT in the 1960s, af Klint’s ecstatic vision ends here, in the society of the spectacle with art as part of its entertainment complex. 

The VR set-up speaks with a kind of helpless realism of the banality of our capitalist contemporary, and of our ever-enduring desire to close the gap between imagination and sensorial experience. I just don’t know who needed this reality-check. Rather, the most ecstatic gestures in Swedish Ecstasy were also the simplest ones: Edelfalk’s messy blue brushstrokes, Strindberg’s imaginary maps of the stars (and that he believed in them!), Hill’s Last Human Beings, bright yellow, arm in arm on a cliff – the trip of their lives. 

Carl Fredrik Hill, The Last Human Beings. Oil on cardboard mounted on masonite. © Åsa Lundén / Nationalmuseum 1994