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Pioneering Endeavors: Understanding Hilma af Klint as an Artistic Researcher

Hilma af Klint’s recent popularity compared to her relative obscurity has been mostly due to her abstract style that predates the abstraction of Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian, the supposed founders of pure abstraction according to the currently dominant canon of art history. Her large, symbolic abstract paintings are mysteriously intriguing for their aesthetic appeal and their utter originality compared to the canonical history of Western abstract art. While the historical precedence of her abstraction is notable, her mission was not merely to paint abstract pictures; rather, abstraction was a tool she used in her broader search for a synthesis of spiritual, scientific, and artistic knowledge.[1] Her method of using artistic practice as a way of gaining and sharing understanding of a sort of “felt” knowledge fits with the more contemporary understanding of artistic or creative research.[2] This paper makes the case for af Klint as an artistic researcher, first by defining the field of artistic research and then by examining her methods of working culminating in what she viewed as her most important series, the Paintings for the Temple.[3]


Defining artistic work as research allows it to be compared to research in other fields, leaving some to wonder how exactly research in creative fields could be compared to research in the sciences. The Cambridge Dictionary definition of research is: “a detailed study of a subject, especially in order to discover (new) information or reach a (new) understanding.” While this definition could seem to apply to any artistic practice, contemporary artistic researchers make it clear that not all art is artistic research.[4] As a method, artistic research tends to be more methodical, interdisciplinary and driven by an overarching question or topic of concern than other artistic practices. This transdisciplinary nature of the term artistic research allows for a blurring of the lines between art and science and other forms of knowledge production.


Born in 1862 to a Swedish naval family, Hilma af Klint’s ancestors were known for drawing detailed nautical charts, tables, and maps, meaning even as a child she was familiar with the practice of generating knowledge through visual means. Af Klint came of age amongst the first generation of women to train alongside men at the Royal Swedish Academy.[5] For most of her life, she made her living off of selling the detailed landscapes, botanical and animal studies she was trained to paint.[6] In one of her botanical studies, Violet Blossoms with Guidelines, Series I from 1919 (fig. 1), detailed illustrations paired with written text and descriptions of the plants’ qualities both visible and invisible demonstrate how through her work af Klint sought to document and understand the world around her. Motifs from the natural world, like spiral snail shells and floral elements, are later incorporated into her Paintings for the Temple series.[7] In this way, her botanical studies served as background or preliminary research which helped her prepare for her larger project. She even described her process as a way of coming to understand things, writing, “Every time I succeed in finishing one of my sketches, my understanding of humanity, animals, plants, minerals, or the entire creation, becomes clearer. I feel freed and raised up above my limited consciousness.”[8]

Figure 1: Hilma af Klint, Violet Blossoms with Guidelines, 1919, watercolor, graphite, and metallic paint on paper.


At the turn of the twentieth century, new scientific discoveries about matter and space changed the way people viewed the world. The discovery of the x-rays and subatomic particles led to a growing interest in the unseen, and spiritual movements like theosophy championed a new form of knowledge and understanding that combined the new scientific discoveries with esoteric spiritual beliefs. The theoretical possibilities for new concepts like atoms and electricity allowed artists like af Klint to imagine and visualize different ways of organizing the universe. In her Atom Series, developed around the time Niels Bohr began presenting his models of the atom, she presented a view of atoms that is full of mystery, possibility, and hidden interactions. This series presented the atom as 4 squares in various permutations with written descriptions, such as “Every Atom has its own center by each center is linked directly to the center of the universe” (fig. 2) As physicist Ernst Peter Fischer writes, “the understanding of atoms requires more than a physical theory in a mathematical language and there is also room for mystical thought and theoretical concepts.”[9] Af Klint’s description of invisible waves of energy connecting atoms is not so far off from our contemporary understanding of quantum physics. As demonstrated by her Atom Series, the early twentieth century was a fertile time where the lines between scientific and spiritual knowledge were united in a common search for uncovering invisible truths.


Figure 2: Hilma af Klint, The Atom, No. 2, 1917, watercolor and graphite on paper


Af Klint was a member of the Theosophical Society and later Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical movement, both of which were concerned with uniting scientific and religious knowledge through exploring occult phenomena to uncover universal wisdom.[10] Both were spaces that, unlike the art world, were relatively open and inclusive of women.[11] Af Klint was a part of a group of women who called themselves the De Fem (The Five) who conducted weekly seances guided by Christian and theosophical principles, where they received messages from spirits and did automatic drawing (fig. 3). It was through one of these meetings that af Klint received a commission from a spirit named Amaliel to paint what she would consider her magnum opus, the Paintings for the Temple.[12]


Figure 3: “The Five” (De Fem), Untitled (Notebook 13, p. 12), November 28 1905, Graphite on paper


Comprised of 193 works divided and subdivided into categories, The Paintings for the Temple were done as a systematic project to understand more about the world, and as such can be understood as an endeavor of artistic research. Having received the commission from a spirit, af Klint wrote that she did not fully understand the meaning of the work when she was creating it: “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.”[13] Her process was thus a way of gaining knowledge through the act of artistic production. She also spent several years documenting and taking notes on the Paintings for the Temple in a series of ten hand-painted and annotated blue notebooks. In these notebooks, she demonstrated her process by making small painted studies and including photographs of each painting, as a way for herself to continue to study them and to share this knowledge in a more portable way (fig. 4). Through visual and written means, the paintings and the notebooks work together dynamically to forge a deeper understanding of the messages conveyed through af Klint.


Figure 4: Hilma af Klint, Spread from Blue Book no. 179, black and white photographs (right) and watercolor and graphite (left), 1915.


Af Klint approached Paintings for the Temple in a controlled, methodical manner typical of research. The first group, Primordial Chaos, explored the development of matter out of spirit and the origin of the world in twenty-six small canvases. As seen in Group I, Primordial Chaos, No. 5 (fig. 5), “U” stands for the spiritual and ”W” for matter, while yellow represents the masculine and blue the feminine, with green meaning harmony or union between the two. Each painting in this series uses these colors and similar motifs in iterative compositions, allowing her to explore different aspects or stages of development in a systematic way. In the following groups, she explored different ideas about creation, evolution, and being, often focusing on the unity of opposites like the spiritual and physical, good and evil or light and dark.


The spiral is a commonly recurring motif in Paintings for the Temple. In theosophy, the spiral was closely associated with the concept of evolution, which was seen as the method of transformation of the human soul into a union with the divine.[14] The spiral was also associated with the atom, notably showing the way that ideas about scientific discovery and spiritual concepts were closely connected and formed the landscape of symbols from which af Klint drew.


The final three paintings in the Temple series, the Altarpiece paintings, were described by af Klint as “a summary of the whole work.” These three depict the development of the world from unity into multiplicity, worldly experience, and consequently a return to unity (fig. 5). [15] This structure of exploring one idea through methodical subgroups of paintings culminating in summary pieces closely mirrors a more traditional research project comprised of a thesis, supporting evidence, and conclusion.


Figure 5: Hilma af Klint, Installation View of Altarpieces (Left to right: No. 2, No. 3, No. 1) from 1919, From Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, Guggenheim, 2018-9.


Some scholars have described af Klint more as a diagrammer, noting the relationship between diagrams and the generation of both scientific and spiritual knowledge at the turn of the twentieth century.[16] Relating af Klint to the esoteric tradition of cosmic and sacred geometric diagrams allows for an understanding of her use of abstraction as not an aesthetic choice, but one meant to communicate. In other words, not as art for art’s sake but art meant to help understand and share something larger: art as research. It is also abundantly clear that she was deeply concerned how her paintings would be understood. As mentioned above, she did not show her large spiritual paintings publicly and instead stipulated to her family that they should not be shown until twenty years after her death, convinced that the world was not yet ready for the spiritual knowledge that they held.[17] In addition to her paintings, she left behind 126 annotated notebooks, a dictionary of symbols to help understand the signs in her work, and more than twenty thousand pages of text describing her spiritual methods and discoveries.[18] As she wrote, “The experiments I have conducted… that were to awaken humanity when they were cast upon the world were pioneering endeavors. Though they travel through much dirt they will yet retain their purity.”[19] Her concern over how the paintings would be understood show her conviction that they were able to communicate knowledge, a fundamental goal of any research project.


Hilma af Klint presents a challenge for art historians: while her work was groundbreaking in its abstraction and scale, her relative obscurity until now makes it difficult to place her in the appropriate place in the history of art. Further, her deep spiritual belief and role as a medium who received directions trouble the traditional notions of authorship and originality central to the typical understanding of the modernist artist. Her goal to represent knowledge through a diagrammic style also raises questions about the nature of abstraction and representation. when it comes to visually representing inherently abstract things like universal connection, evolution, and God.


What differentiates af Klint from other spiritually-interested abstract artists like Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian, is that her understanding of herself as a medium was central to her artistic project.[20] As a medium, she often received messages or pieces of knowledge not in their whole form, and her method of understanding was through studying, working, and documenting. Rather than making abstract art for the sake of aesthetic innovation, af Klint was convinced that her work was a special synthesis of spiritual, scientific, and artistic knowledge that was only activated by a receptive viewer. As an artistic researcher, she disrupts the traditional art historical narrative of modernism, questions our traditional notions of artists and artistic production, and blurs the lines between science and art. Ultimately, thinking about how art can be research and how research can be art leads us to a more nuanced understanding of how knowledge is valued and produced, both at the turn of the twentieth century and today.


References [1] Iris Müller-Westermann, Introduction to Hilma af Klint: Notes and Methods, ed. Christine Burgin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 12. [2] Julien Klein, “What is Artistic Research?” Gegenworte 23, Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 2010. [3]Janice McNab, “Hilma af Klint and the Need for Historical Revision,” Religious Studies Rev., 47: 35-40. The genesis for this project came from McNab’s claim that Hilma af Klint was an artistic researcher, which I wanted to expand upon. [4] Klein, “What is Artistic Research?” [5] Müller-Westermann, “Introduction,” Notes and Methods, 7. [6] Julia Voss, “Hilma af Klint” in World Receivers, ed. John Whitney et al. (Munich: Lenbachhaus, 2018), 81. [7] Christine Burgin “The Five” in Hilma af Klint: Notes and Methods, ed. Christine Burgin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 16. [8] Halina Dyrschka, Hilma af Klint: Beyond the Visible, directed by Halina Dyrschka (2019; New York: Zeitgeist Films). [9] Ernst Peter Fischer, “The Energy of Atoms - A Physicist’s Meditations on Hilma as Klint’s Atom Series” in Hilma af Klint: Artist Researcher Medium, ed. Iris Müller-Westermann and Milena Høgsberg (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2020), 173. It is interesting to note that af Klint’s description of the mysterious connection between different atoms is not so far off from our current understanding of quantum physics. [10] Milena Høgsberg and Tim Rudbøg, “Hilma af Klint, Theosophy, Higher Consciousness, and the Unseen Universe” in Hilma af Klint: Artist Researcher Medium, 81. [11] Müller-Westermann, “Introduction,” Notes and Methods, 8. [12] Tracey Bashkoff, “Temples for Paintings,” in Paintings for the Future, 19-20. [13] Voss, “Hilma af Klint” in World Receivers, 87. [14] Bauduin, “Science and Occultism” in Paintings for the Future, 189. [15] Burgin, “Blue Books” in Hilma af Klint: Notes and Methods, 34. [16] Briony Fer, “Hilma af Klint, Diagrammer” in Paintings for the Future, 164-5. [17] Høgsberg and Rudbøg, “Hilma af Klint, Theosophy, Higher Consciousness, and the Unseen Universe” in Hilma af Klint: Artist Researcher Medium, 83. It is important to note that af Klint made the decision not to show her work from after 1906 when she was seventy, in 1932. She had shown works from the Temple series before, at the World Conference of Spiritual Science in 1928. [18] Müller-Westermann, “Introduction,” Notes and Methods, 8. [19] Bashkoff, “Temples for Paintings,” in Paintings for the Future, 18. [20] Andrea Kollnitz, “Questioning the Spiritual in Art: Hilma af Klint, Vasily Kandinsky, and the Swedish Art World,” in Paintings for the Future, 75.



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