It may seem wilfully obtuse to walk straight through a blaring, floor-to-ceiling installation by Tal R to concentrate on a handful of paintings by a spiritualist working at the turn of the 20th century, but the work of Hilma af Klint seems curiously current. She was born in 1862, the daughter of a Swedish naval commander, and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm. She was involved in spiritualist circles from an early age, took part in séances, was a member of many spiritual associations and, after an involvement with Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy movement, became a member of Rudolph Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society. What seems so relevant about her paintings, though, is not their intent but their execution. They have a breeziness and pictorial invention that are somewhere between William Blake and, well, Tal R.
Af Klint also had a parallel practice in which she painted landscapes and portraits, with a certain amount of commercial success. This seems to have been kept totally separate, however, as if to fund the ‘life’s work’. The occult pictures were first made as part of a group of women, De Fem (The Five), who strove towards self-knowledge through messages from future higher beings. These spiritual leaders from other dimensions had names such as Gregor and Agnes, and in 1906, after ten years of this group practice, af Klint was singled out to embark on a solo project to pursue occult knowledge. Gregor described this as ‘all the knowledge that is not of the senses, not of the intellect, not of the heart, but is the property that exclusively belongs to the deepest aspect of your being […] the knowledge of your spirit’. Af Klint’s delicate and tentative paintings from the astral plane are neither spontaneous like a Cy Twombly nor finely wrought like an Islamic mosaic. A circle might be segmented, a helix-like design bisecting it or its lower quarter filled with a scrubbily painted spectrum. Distorted figurative elements appear as part of an overall design – a scallop shell, a lotus flower, a lily pad – while the whole is generally held together by crude geometry, such as concentric circles around a triangle, or biomorphic forms. References to Classical mythology and astrology occasionally creep in: the symbol for Leo, two goats’ heads and the top half of a pink bearded man – a centaur perhaps.
Viewed from this end of the 20th century, the work transcends its symbolist values; rhythms and spectrums, design and drawing resonate with so much current painting that their original spiritual context seems secondary. In fact, there is a streak of Theosophy that runs throughout Modernist abstraction. Piet Mondrian, for instance, was a follower of Madame Blavatsky and pursued the elision of form and spiritual truth. There is an infamous triptych, Evolution (1911), in the collection of the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague that was, until recently, absent from any retrospective of Mondrian’s work. Three women bathed in blue, two of them throwing their head back as if in a trance and the third wide-eyed with cosmic consciousness, have been the thorn in the side of those who wished to portray Mondrian as an arch-formalist. The religious connotations of balance and harmony were suppressed in a practice that is still interpreted as hard-nosed Plasticism.
The five paintings here all bear titles such as Grupp 6 Evolutionen Nr. 14 (Lnr 82) (Group 6 Evolution No. 14, Lnr 82, 1908), which seem oddly scientific – so at odds with the lyrical subject and execution of the paintings. But then this seems to have been the climate of the late 19th century, when the definition of ‘truth’ seemed more ambivalent in the clash between science and religion. The hundreds of paintings and texts by af Klint now belong to a foundation established by her nephew after her death (her will requested that the work should not be exhibited for 20 years after she passed away). Its aims, beyond the physical preservation of the work, are ‘to put the collection at the disposal of those who seek spiritual knowledge or those who can contribute to fulfilling the mission ordained by Hilma’s leaders’ and ‘to guard the collection in order to ensure that it falls only into the hands of those with an incorruptible attitude and to ensure that profanation is prevented’. It seems odd, then, that these paintings should be in a public gallery, where visitors are likely to consider them aesthetically rather than spiritually. Cultural production is less concerned, if at all, with the pursuit of truth these days. However, although hung next to the work of Tal R, who appropriates the tropes of Outsider and Naive art, there is not an immediate declaration of authenticity versus self-conscious posturing. Perhaps incentive can never quite eclipse the immediacy of paint.