04 October 2018

Hilma af Klint: Immaterial Girl

Nothing unprecedented about an artist painting on commission unless the artist is Hilma af Klint.  Af Klint and four like-minded friends, also female artists,  attempted to contact the spirit world  for guidance through a series of seances.  They found their directionvin the writings of Helena, Madame Blavatsky, a Russian aristocrat who believed in the occult.  Blavatsky had founded the Theosophical Society in 1877, hoping to harmonize since, nature and the spiritual realms, no easy task then as now. Typical of its time when each year seemed to bring new scientific discoveries that undermined old verities, Blavatsky's project seems at this distance in time a self-contradictory and often incoherent jumble.  There was an element of nostalgia in all this, a desire and even  a conviction that the universe had achieved this harmony in the past and then lost it through the onrush of modernity.  

Yet Hilma af Klimt was not the only artist who was influenced by Blavatsky's theories in making art; there were others, notably Wassily Kandinsky.  Af Klint received formal art training in her native Sweden where she made respectable living from her portraits and her landscape paintings.  However her experiments in abstraction, fot that is what they are, were never exhibited during her lifetime.  As you can see here in Primordial Chaos, painted circa 1906-1907,  she got to abstraction about five years before Kandinsky did, but her work has existed outside art history until now.  You might think that paintings of such monumental size would be hard to ignore  but af Klint embargoed exhibitions of her works for twenty years after her death (she died in 1944).   Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future arrives at the Guggenheim Museum in New York on October 18, 2018 and remains on exhibition until February 3, 2019.

She was an artist of no small ambitions; several of the paintings in this new exhibition are eight meters high.  She often blows up microscopic organisms to comparative sizes that come from her imagination rather than the natural world.  Her symbolic language included not only flower petals and single plant cells but it overlapped with that of a very different artist whose surname was similar,  the Austrian Gustav Klimt.  In her paintings we often see ova and spermatozoa in an entirely different context that the sexual angst of fin de siecle Vienna.  

Most delightfully, her methods produced  a premature version of psychedelia.  Whether they knew it or not, psychedelic artists of the 1960s were her descendants.  Also various new age phenomena.  With this new exhibition you can almost hear the Guggenheim curators saying "History, get me rewrite!"

Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) - Primordial Chaos No. 16, c. 1906-07, on loan to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NYC.

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