“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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Installation view of “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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Among the many remarkable things about “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” is the goodwill it has generated. Has there recently been an exhibition of art quite as popular with both the culturati and the public at large? Notwithstanding a few curmudgeons grumbling at the sidelines, “Paintings for the Future” is an out-and-out winner. Forget the huzzahs in the press; consider the visitors trawling up the Guggenheim’s ramp. They’re markedly enraptured, taking in the byways of one artist’s vision. You can’t help but eavesdrop as museum-goers chat about the intricacies of af Klint’s hieratic compositions and occluded symbolism. That “Paintings for the Future” features an unheralded figure who devoted the majority of her life to abstraction makes the show’s appeal somewhat unexpected. No art stars here, thank you, and though abstraction has a long and storied history, it’s a mode of working still widely held in suspicion. What is it about af Klint (1862–1944)—a Swedish modernist who has only recently gained international attention—that is goosing our collective pleasure center?

Kudos to Tracey Bashkoff, the Director of Collections and Senior Curator, along with the Curatorial Assistant David Horowitz, for mounting a show that patiently lays out an often hermetic artistic output, capturing its momentum and elaborating on its logic. Certainly, these two know how to wow an audience. The opening gambit is impressive: nine towering canvases, each measuring around ten by eight feet, overpower the first gallery up the museum’s ramp. Each picture is a candy-colored array of diagrammatic glyphs flexible enough in their allusions to encompass nature and mathematics, the astronomical, the cellular, and the sexual. The pictures are inventories, bumptious and random, of shape, line, and stray bits of verbiage. A clouded pedantry can be discerned: af Klint’s pictographs recall the discrete cataloging of items typical of nineteenth-century botanical illustrations. Their loop-the-loop iconography also brings to mind the later, geometrically inclined imagery of the pioneering abstract painter, Vasily Kandinsky. Actually, make that one of the pioneers. “Paintings for the Future” makes a case for af Klint as the first abstract painter (she began working non-representationally a good half decade before Kandinsky) and, as such, deserving of a prominent berth within the Modernist canon.

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Hilma af Klint in her studio at Hamngatan 5, circa 1895; photo courtesy of Hilma af Klint Archive

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Af Klint was the fourth of five children born to Victor af Klint, an instructor at the Military Academy Karlberg, and Mathilda Sontag, an immigrant from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority. She went on to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, earning not only honors upon graduation, but also studio space provided by the school. The latter privilege gives an indication of the esteem in which af Klint was held by the faculty and administration. Their authority paled, however, next to that of Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg, and Gregor, otherworldly powers known as The High Masters. Though af Klint participated in seances as a teenager, she didn’t become an acolyte of spiritualism until her late twenties, joining the Swedish branch of the Theosophical Society and the similarly inclined Edelweissförbundet. Along with a cadre of like-minded friends, af Klint founded “The Five” in 1896—a group given to Biblical interpretation, meditation, phrenology, and communing with the dead. At one such communion, Georg and Ananda told of a temple to be built at a distant point in the future, a temple in need of paintings for its interior. Which of “The Five” would receive the commission? A message came from the ether; af Klint got the nod. In 1906, she began working on The Paintings of the Temple—among them, the spectacular pictures mentioned above.

Scoff all you want at the hocus-pocus informing af Klint’s life and work. Woozy theorizing needn’t lead to woozy results. It’s worth recalling that the Guggenheim began as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, an institution that had spiritualist aims at its foundation. Mondrian and Kandinsky took their cues from Madame Blavatsky, the pan-cultural guru of Theosophist doctrine, though, ultimately, they hewed to the strictures of the studio and the integrity of their artforms. Af Klint had integrity as well. Those weary of the cynicism engendered by the contemporary scene can’t help but root for a figure who stipulated that her work not be exhibited until twenty years after her death. No marketing, branding, or hype for af Klint; the work would find its time when the time was right. An art of endurance, introspection, and foresight—can you imagine such a thing? Af Klint’s work has since been filtering its way into the world, making its presence felt and gathering an enthusiastic following. The connection between af Klint and audiences here in the twenty-first century should not be lightly dismissed. Nor should it be accepted uncritically.

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Hilma af Klint, Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 9 (Grupp IX/SUW, Svanen, nr 9) (1915), oil on canvas, 149.5 × 149 cm. The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm. Photo: Albin Dahlström, The Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

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A smattering of early representational work is included at the Guggenheim, including portraits done in charcoal, crayon, and graphite; a light-filled landscape done in oils; and Ketty, an irresistible portrait of a dog rendered in lush and filmy blacks. It is after this skillful prelude that “Paintings for the Future” stumbles into the supernatural. Pictorial niceties are forsaken, if not entirely jettisoned, for a symbolism so byzantine it’s difficult to navigate without crib notes. That af Klint’s radiating mandalas, pyramidal forms, and geometric rebuses catch the eye speaks to an abiding knack for design and decoration. But these are the efforts of a visionary, not a painter. Color is subjugated to the emblematic, brushwork is pro forma, light is non-existent, and, with the stunning exception of Group IX/SUW, the Swan, No. 9, and, maybe, No. 22 and No. 23 from the same series (all 1915), elasticity of space is cursorily set into motion, if attended to at all. A painter friend described the Guggenheim show as “amateur hour”—an overly harsh assessment, I think, but not wholly inapt. Credit af Klint as the first abstract artist, and grant that “Paintings for the Future” highlights an intriguing alleyway of twentieth-century art. In the end, however, af Klint’s quizzical achievement only goes to confirm that originality has its limits, and that quality will win out.

© 2019 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the February 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

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