The new book Anna Cassel: The Saga of the Rose (2023) describes the lifelong connection between Anna Cassel and Hilma af Klint. Cassel has mainly been noted for her landscape paintings, although it has been known that she was part of the group “The Five” and that she collaborated both spiritually and artistically with af Klint. Yet, the depth of that collaboration is now revealed as Cassel’s occult paintings are published for the first time.
The editors of the book are well-known names in the Hilma af Klint field: Kurt Almqvist, historian of ideas and member of the Hilma af Klint Foundation, and Daniel Birnbaum, former director of Modena Museet, who has been very active in recent years in promoting af Klint’s work in Sweden and internationally. Almqvist and Birnbaum were also the editors of Hilma af Klint’s Catalogue Raisonné, which was completed in 2022.
I spoke with Birnbaum about how this historically significant connection between the artists af Klint and Cassel was discovered.
“The paintings were found by Ulf Wagner, who has been on the board of the Hilma af Klint Foundation for decades. They were in the house in Järna that was once Bruno Liljefors’s studio and which today belongs to the Anthroposophical Society. They are smaller in size than Hilma af Klint’s grandest works, but they are really exciting,” said Birnbaum.
In addition to this, Kurt Almqvist found sixty of Anna Cassel’s notebooks from the years 1896-1921 in Järna. “This was an important discovery, as Cassel describes events that Hilma af Klint writes about in her notebooks, but from a different perspective. Af Klint’s accounts should sometimes be taken with a grain of salt. Late in life, she rewrote her story to fit the worldview she believed in at the time. In a way, she was staging herself for posterity and clearly setting the record straight. Cassel’s version will certainly modify the picture a bit,” said Birnbaum.
According to Birnbaum, af Klint was never alone. Throughout her life she was always surrounded by spiritual seekers, including artists: “I’d say Anna Cassel is perhaps the most important of them, and there is no doubt that she painted some of the works in af Klint’s most important suite, the so-called Temple series. Now a wider audience will get to see what her own work looked like. It’s similar to af Klint, yet different. Cassel seems to have had more humour, some of the images are quite absurd.”
As an editor, Birnbaum has not conducted any in-depth archival research himself, but stresses the importance of making the new material available. “Hilma af Klint never made a secret of the fact that the paintings for the Temple were created in collaboration with a group of other women, and the idea of the temple itself was something she wanted to realise together with Cassel,” he said.
When “The Five” disbanded in 1908, a new group of thirteen women was formed, all of whom, according to research, contributed to the great cycle of images. Cassel seems to have had a particularly prominent role, and not just as an assistant in the studio, according to Birnbaum. “In her biography of Hilma af Klint, German art citric Julia Voss highlights this collective work and also mentions all these women by name: Emilia Giertta, Sigrid Henström, Sigrid Lancén, Helène Westmark, Anna Cassel, Inga Jehander, Gusten Andersson, Emma Cassel, Siri Torgny, Emma Cassel, Lotten Rönquist, Alma Arnela and finally Thomasine Anderson, who became a member of the group after Rönquist passed away. What Hedvig Martin and Kurt Almqvist bring to the new book are some first steps towards a more specific understanding of how this group of thirteen women actually worked,” Birnbaum said.
The book about Anna Cassel will be released on 15 February in Brussels at the opening of the exhibition Swedish Ecstasy, curated by Birnbaum for the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in collaboration with coordinator Ann Flas.
“The exhibition highlights a kind of Swedenborgian heritage in Swedish culture. The focus is on works by Carl Fredrik Hill, Ernst Josephson, August Strindberg, Hilma af Klint and her circle. Then there are contemporary artists who relate to this heritage, such as Lars Olof Loeld, Carsten Höller, Christine Ödlund, Daniel Youssef, Cecilia Edefalk, and the critic Peter Cornell, who has created a kind of esoteric collage in a series of display cases. For the first time ever, Anna Cassel will reach a large audience in this exhibition.”
When asked about the significance of the discovery, Birnbaum added: “I’m pretty sure ambitious Ivy League art historians will be learning Swedish in order to decipher Cassel’s notebooks.”