In 1971, the art critic Linda Nochlin wrote an essay called Why have there been no great women artists? The question may be based on a false premise: there have been, we just didn’t get to see their work.
The visionary Swedish artist Hilma af Klint exemplifies this clearly, argues Halina Dyrschka, the German film-maker, whose beautiful film Beyond the Visible, about the painter’s astonishing work, is released on Friday. When I ask her why af Klint has been largely ignored since her death in 1944, Dyrschka tells me over video link from Berlin: “It’s easier to make a woman into a crazy witch than change art history to accommodate her. We still see a woman who is spiritual as a witch, while we celebrate spiritual male artists as geniuses.”
When Dyrschka first saw Hilma af Klint’s paintings seven years ago, “they spoke to me more profoundly than any art I have ever seen”. She was beguiled by the grids and intersecting circles, schematic flower forms, painted numbers, looping lines, pyramids and sunbursts.“It felt like a personal insult that those paintings had been hidden from me for so long.”
Af Klint had three strikes against her. She was a woman, she had no contacts in the art world, and, worst of all, she was a medium who believed her art flowed through her unmediated by ego. She worked for many years in quiet obscurity on a Swedish island where she cared for her mother as the latter went blind. Today, her work is being appreciated, but not bought up, by collectors because it is held by her descendants. As Ulla af Klint, widow of the nephew who inherited the artist’s work, says in the film: “You can’t make money out of Hilma.”
Af Klint’s mysticism hobbled her reputation long after her death. In the 1970s, her grand nephew Johan af Klint offered paintings to Sweden’s leading modern art museum, the Moderna Museet. The then-director turned them down. “When he heard that she was a medium, there was no discussion. He didn’t even look at the pictures.” Only in 2013 did the museum redeem itself with a retrospective.
“For some it’s very provocative when someone says, ‘I did this physically but it’s not by me. I was in contract with energies greater than me,’” says Iris Müller-Westermann, who curated that show. But, she adds, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich were all influenced by contemporary spiritual movements such as theosophy and anthroposophy too, as they sought to transcend the physical world and the constraints of representational art.
It’s striking that many female artists have been mediums but, unlike, say, the late British pianist and dinner lady Rosemary Brown, who claimed to have transcribed new works from the beyond by Rachmaninov, Beethoven and Liszt, Hilma af Klint was directed not to transcribe new works by dead artists but by forces from a higher realm. In one notebook, she described how she was inspired. “I registered their magnitude within me. Above the easel I saw the Jupiter symbol which [shone] brightly and persisted for several seconds, brightly. I started the work immediately proceeding in such a way that the pictures were painted directly through me with great power.”
When she died, Af Klint left more than 1,300 works, which had only been seen by a handful of people. She also left 125 notebooks, in one of which she stipulated that her work should not be publicly displayed until 20 years after her death. The “Higher Ones” she was in contact with through seances told Af Klint that the world was not ready yet for her work. Maybe they had a point.
In 1944, three great pioneers of abstract art died: Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and af Klint. Kandinsky claimed to have created the first abstract painting in 1911. And when in 2012 New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged their show Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925, Af Klint was not even included as a footnote. And yet, as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zweitung art critic Julia Voss argues in the film, the Swedish artist had the jump on Kandinsky by five years in producing the first abstract painting in 1906.
For her film, Dyrschka contracted MoMA to find out why Af Klint had been erased from art history and was told “they weren’t so sure Hilma af Klint’s art worked as abstract art. After all, she hadn’t exhibited in her lifetime so how could one tell?”
In the film, Dyrschka tries to answer that question by juxtaposing paintings by Af Klint with those of famous 20th-century male artists. Her golden square from 1916 is placed alongside a similar image by Josef Albers from 1971; her automatic writing doodles from 1896 are pitted against Cy Twombly’s 1967 squiggles. They make the rhetorical point strongly: whatever the men were doing, af Klint had probably done it first.
Hilma af Klint was born in Stockholm in 1862. Thanks to the family fortune she was able to study at the Royal Academy in Stockholm from which she graduated in 1887. She went on to support herself by painting landscapes and portraits as well as very beautiful botanical works. She joined the Theosophical Society in 1889 and in 1896 established a group of female artists called the Five, who each Friday met to pray, make automatic writing and attempt to communicate with other worlds through seances. Theosophists believe that all forms of life are part of the same cosmic whole. “It was a women’s liberation philosophy,” argues Voss. “It said: ‘Sure you can be priestesses.’”
But Af Klint was not just a conduit for occult spirits. She was also attuned to the scientific developments of the day. As Dyrschka argues in her film, the years in which the artist was creatively active was a time in which science was discovering worlds beyond the visible – including subatomic particles and electromagnetic radiation. Af Klint’s art involved making the invisible visible, be it that which science disclosed or that which the Higher Powers commissioned her to depict.
But on those Friday meetings, she encountered supernatural beings beyond science’s remit. The Five claimed to receive messages from other worlds. Af Klint recorded one message in her notebook: “‘Accept,’ says the angel ‘that a wonderful energy follows from the heavenly to the earthly.’” The Five called these spirit guides High Masters and gave them names: Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg and Gregor. In 1904, these High Masters called for a temple to be built, filled with paintings that the Five would make. Only Af Klint accepted this strange commission and in November 1906 set to work on what grew over the next 11 years to become a series of of 193 paintings.
The philosopher and occultist Rudolf Steiner, whose anthroposophical society she would join, saw the early paintings in this series in 1908 but was uncomprehending. Strikingly, in the next four years Af Klint did little painting, but retreated to the obscure island of Munsö in Lake Mälaren, near her family’s estate on neighbouring Adelsö – in part because she was caring for her ailing mother, but also because Steiner’s patriarchal dismissal stung.
“She was treated locally as a crazy witch,” says Dyrschka. “The locals used to wonder what she did with all the eggs that were delivered to her studio.” They were used for her favoured material, tempera, which critics have noted gives her work on paper a luminous quality.
In a sense this retreat from the world was creatively sensible. Surrounded by water and spirits, Af Klint worked at the service of her occult beliefs. She had great hopes that Steiner would help her build a temple to house her art on a Swedish island that would glorify his philosophy. In 1932 she wrote to him: “Should the paintings which I created between 1902 and 1920, some of which you saw for yourself, be destroyed. Or can one do something with them?”
It sounds like a threat; happily, she didn’t destroy the work even though nothing came of her dream temple. Af Klint did sketch out what the temple should look like – it should be made of alabaster and have an astronomical tower with an internal spiral staircase. Poignantly, in her film Dyrschka juxtaposes this description with images of the Guggenheim in New York where Af Klint’s oeuvre was belatedly given pride of place last year. The skylight and the ramps look like the temple that Hilma af Klint died without seeing realised.
True, the 1986 touring exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Paintings 1890–1985 exhibition at LACMA in Los Angeles marked the beginning of Af Klint’s international recognition. But it was the Guggenheim exhibition that, more than a century after Af Klint arguably invented abstract and painted some of the most beguiling if neglected canvases in art history, really got what she deserved.
For science historian Ernst Peter Ficsher quoted in the film, it is us rather than Af Klint who require reviving. We need her vision in our disenchanted age. “We know that the universe is made up of 95% dark matter but the strange thing is nobody gets excited about this. I think our world has become blurred stupid dulled unless somewhere out there there’s a Hilma af Klint painting it all so in a hundred years we will see what we’ve missed. In 1900 we still knew how to marvel. Today we sit in front of our iPhones and media and are bored.” Hilma af Klint’s paintings, just maybe, gives us the opportunity to escape the everyday and marvel anew.