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Hilma af Klint: Painting with Spirits

FULGUR’S Ellen Hausner speaks with Hedvig Martin who is currently completing a PhD in Western Esotericism at the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents (HHP) at the University of Amsterdam. Martin has worked extensively on the subject of Hilma af Klint including writing the essay Hilma af Klint and The Five – The Time of Preparation for the exhibition catalogue Hilma af Klint – Artist, Researcher, Medium (Moderna Museet).

In this interview Hedvig Martin shares her in depth knowledge and expertise to give great insights into the paintings, life and spiritualism of Hilma af Klint.

HaK is known to have been very interested in spirituality. One aspect of this is a kind of Spiritualism that she practised with ‘The Five’. Did she call herself a Spiritualist and were her practices with ‘The Five’ typical of Spiritualism, or did they deviate in some way?

Hilma af Klint certainly saw herself as a Spiritualist and believed in the existence of a higher spirit-plane that one could communicate with. Spiritualism came in vogue in the mid-nineteenth century and resulted in an exploding interest in séances and practices such as channelling and automatic writing. This was still very much the case in 1890s Sweden, where the spiritualistic milieu developed through the influence of different groups, magazines, and influential figures. It was common to combine Spiritualism with Christianity and to foster an esoteric Christian worldview where spirits and the spirit world would play a major role. When The Five met in 1896, all the people involved had been part of such a Christian-spiritualistic environment and in many ways continued to engage in its practises; the group opened their séances with a prayer and a reading from the New Testament, and the spirits they channelled frequently delivered messages about Christian themes. However, if one takes a closer look at The Five, it becomes clear that this practice hid a much broader spectrum of ideas.

The Five mixed Spiritualism with Theosophy and Rosicrucianism to create a unique narrative for the group. More specifically, they believed they were in contact with De Höga (The High Ones), a secret brotherhood of highly evolved beings who supervised humanity’s evolution and possessed a higher wisdom which they communicated to The Five. For those familiar with Theosophy, it is clear that the idea of The High Ones builds on the founder H.P. Blavatsky’s claim of deriving wisdom from ascended ‘Masters’, a group of highly evolved beings who were guarding humanity’s progress. The Five combined this with Rosicrucian ideas, claiming The High Ones were a cosmic brotherhood that had existed since the dawn of time. Such an idea had its roots in the myth of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood that had spread in the eighteen century and made secret orders attractive, eventually passing the idea down to occult movements contemporary with The Five. This was a strong influence to the group, who did not only use symbols alluded to Rosicrucianism, such as the Rosy Cross or white robes and jewellery, but also incorporated the purpose of a secret brotherhood into the aim of the group. More specifically, The Five believed they were chosen by The High Ones to be initiated into their secret teaching, an initiation that would happen in a loop of three steps through which they would gradually refine their consciousness and attain higher knowledge about the hidden aspects of the world. This was a narrative that went far beyond just contacting spirits and indeed separated them from ordinary Spiritualism. It also made an everlasting impression on Hilma af Klint, for whom the idea of being chosen for a higher purpose and attaining a hidden wisdom became the core basis for Paintings for the Temple (1906-1915).

Hilma af Klint, The 10 Largest, No. 6 Adulthood, Group IV, 1907.

Along the same lines, she is said to have been heavily influenced by Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy. How much of her own spirituality was dictated by Anthroposophical philosophy?

It is well known Hilma af Klint was an Anthroposophist and an admirer of Rudolf Steiner, a fascination that had begun already when Steiner still belonged to the Theosophical Society. When he started the Anthroposophical Society in 1912, it was as a countermovement to the Eastern-inspired Theosophy. We can suspect that its Christian emphasis appealed to af Klint – not least Steiner’s use of the Rosicrucian myth. However, it is not yet possible to give a satisfying answer to the Anthroposophical influences on af Klint’s spirituality, since her notebooks are still in the early phase of being researched within my PhD project. At this point, we can only look to her paintings for an indication of such impacts. There, it is clear that her most famous works, the Paintings for the Temple, do not show strong references to Anthroposophy, neither in the use of colours nor in the technique of painting. Therefore, it can be assumed that Anthroposophical ideas were not yet a dominant theme for af Klint at that moment. Instead, one has to look a bit later to find such traces. In the 1920s, af Klint started to frequently travel to Dornach and began producing watercolour paintings based on Anthroposophical art theory, such as the wet-in-wet series from 1922-1924 (e.g. Regarding Flowers and Trees, 1922, the Series of Aquarelles from Dornach, 1924, and the Colour Studies from Munsö, 1924). Hilma af Klint later said she had been showing works from Paintings for the Temple to Steiner in 1922-1923. This happened in Dornach and would not have been the original large-scale paintings, but probably the book of miniature reproductions, also known as her ‘suitcase-exhibition’. At this point, it is clear she valued Steiner’s ideas about art and made sure he would see her work. How Anthroposophy may have been expressed in her spirituality remains to be understood, but it seems that such inspiration came later than what is usually ascribed to the artist.

Hilma af Klint, Untitled.

You have said (in your video interview with Rejected Religions) that she felt as if it was not she herself who painted, but rather that she acted as a kind of medium through which higher spiritual truths were communicated. Do we know her methodology for this? Did she go into trance when she painted, and if so did she practise specific techniques to achieve trance?

Hilma af Klint based Paintings for the Temple on trance in which she experienced channelling spirits who took over her body and produced the paintings. Later, she painted from visions, without channelling a spirit. The mediumistic trance was quite a common phenomenon in af Klint’s time, as part of the widespread trend of Spiritualism practised across Europe and America. But the mediumistic trance had its roots much earlier, in the eighteen-century healing technique of Mesmerism, which built on the idea of bodily fluids that could be manipulated to cure mental and physical diseases. Such a treatment included, among other things, the patient being ‘hypnotized’ by a magnetiser. ‘Artificial somnambulism’, as it was then called, was observed to produce several curious side-effects, such as clairvoyance, possession, and speaking in unknown languages. For example, Friederike Hauffe (1801-1829), the famous patient of the German doctor Justinus Kerner, is known for creating visionary maps and a new spiritual language, similar to what af Klint did, in states of artificial somnambulism. The nineteenth century mediumistic trance was thus the successor of such earlier phenomena of hypnosis. The difference was that the medium usually reached a state of sleeping trance by herself, without external help. Unfortunately, Hilma af Klint’s notebooks do not offer descriptions of methods or techniques she may have used, but there are some indications from the practise of The Five. It seems that their practise began with a meditative state they reached by closing their eyes, relaxing, and clearing the mind from thoughts. We also know af Klint exercised her concentration by staring into a glass filled with water for several minutes. This could be continued with the imposition of hands, where one or several people laid their hands on the head of the subject for spiritual power and clarity. Then, a trance-state seems to have come over the medium and with it a spirit that would take possession of the body. Since Hilma af Klint spent over a decade with The Five before the group split, their techniques likely reflect the personal practices af Klint also employed later by herself.

Hilma af Klint, Primordial ChaosNo. 10Group I, 1906-1907.

Her notebooks seem to reveal a complex spiritual belief system. Could you explain the basic tenets of how she viewed the universe, and humankind’s place within it?

At this point, the knowledge about Hilma af Klint’s worldview is still quite superficial. However, it seems to have been mostly dominated by a combination of Christian, Spiritualistic and Theosophical ideas. This means that her beliefs were governed by the conviction that the Christian God was the ultimate source for everything and that the Holy Scripture contained deeper and hidden meanings. To this, Theosophical concepts of evolution and reincarnation were added that made spiritual development through birth and rebirth the general law of the universe. Humanity is only a small part of this grand scheme, and other invisible levels of reality existed between humans and God: first the spirit world and later the Theosophical astral plane. These levels were inhabited by a range of spirits and other beings that could act as mediators between God and humans, thus communicating a higher wisdom and directly influencing earthly life.

From this blend, two major ideas are worth mentioning in-depth, that of evolution and that of gnosis, which has partly been touched upon in connection to The Five. Evolution is often mentioned in connection to af Klint and is represented in her paintings by a spiral. Her understanding of evolution was based on the Theosophical idea of spiritual evolution as the grand scheme upon which the cosmos relies and where divine perfection, rather than biological as with Darwin, is the ultimate goal of humanity. It is closely connected to the idea of gnosis, the belief that there existed a higher, hidden wisdom about the true nature of the world that can be realized through certain means – for af Klint through trance and spirit channelling. Such a conviction was not unique to af Klint but is at the basis for many esoteric practises and currents throughout history. Taken together, it means that af Klint believed she channelled spiritually evolved beings who had climbed the evolutionary ladder and therefore possessed higher wisdom. This was a wisdom they shared with her and helped her to visually translate into the Paintings for the Temple. Thus, she saw her oeuvre as the embodiment of gnosis, a higher knowledge she wanted to reveal to the viewer within a spiral-shaped temple.

Lastly, a theme that must be mentioned in connection to af Klint is what she called ‘the dual’, or more specifically, the idea that the universe is made up of polar opposites that need to be reconciled. Such ideas of unification permeate the history of Western esotericism and can be found in traditions from modern Theosophy to early modern Alchemy. For Hilma af Klint, it was especially the male and female principles that fascinated her, and how a state of balance between the two sexes could bring about spiritual development. This had different representations in her work. In The Large Figure Paintings, one finds a graphic image of a man and woman copulating, while The Swan series gives a more symbolic interpretation in the merging of a black and a white swan. These swans have their beak and feet painted in yellow and blue, representing the male and female in af Klint’s colour language. Hilma af Klint also searched for her own “dual soul”, and believed every human had a soulmate, either on earth or on the spirit plane. Thus, her idea of duality was both linked to overarching notions within Western esotericism and reflected a personal curiosity for love, sex and gender.

Hilma af Klint, Altarpiece No. 1, Group X, 1907.

When it comes to ‘channelling spiritual works’, would you put HaK in the same category as other women who were doing similar kinds of creative work?–for example, Dion Fortune and her Cosmic Doctrine? Could you give more examples? In what ways is she similar and in what ways unique?

There are many similarities between af Klint and other medium painters, such as Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884), Ethel le Rossignol (1873-1970) and Emma Kunz (1892-1863). They all claimed to be in contact with something higher – af Klint, Houghton and le Rossignol with spirits, Kunz with a cosmic force – that helped them break conventions and produce radical art. Houghton is an interesting artist who, as early as the mid nineteenth century, used channelling to produce “abstract” watercolours portraying a spirit world. So was the case for le Rossignol, who used similar methods of channelling to depict a spirit world in striking “psychedelic” paintings. Kunz, on the other hand, would not channel spirits but ask the force of the universe to answer a question, and then use a pendulum to decide how she would draw, producing an “abstract” drawing that made up the answer. These artists all understood their art to reveal aspects of the world that were otherwise hidden, and in doing so, invented a radical language of form, colour and style which force us the rethink the canon of art history.

Although there are many similarities between these women, the case of af Klint has some special features. For one thing, she painted in large sizes, The Ten Largest measuring 240×320 cm, which was unconventional for that time. Furthermore, she produced an enormous amount of work, leaving behind an oeuvre of over a thousand paintings and an even greater collection of notebooks, comprising over 26,000 pages in total. This combination of material sets aside af Klint as a highly productive and creative artist, and her effort to keep it intact offers exceptional possibilities for research today. The notebooks she left behind contain her spiritual doctrine, and in this sense, one finds similarities to Dion Fortune’s ‘Cosmic Doctrine’ – as well as to Emanuel Swedenborg’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ or Carl Gustav Jung’s ‘Liber Novus’. These were all works created through forms of channelling, and further express the same type of ideas of spiritual planes and hidden knowledge. However, af Klint’s notebooks differ greatly due to their form of handwritten sources and lack of chapters and clear outline. Once research and analysis have been done, its content will likely be comparable to that of Fortune, Swedenborg and Jung.

Georgiana Houghton, The Love of God (detail), c. 1861 – 1869.

Do you think she regarded being a woman as key to her ability to transmit a spiritual message in her work?

No, it does not seem she regarded gender of importance when it came to visionary and spiritual abilities. But it is interesting to note that all af Klint’s helping spirits were male, which could be interpreted as a subconscious strategy to validate her work and help her break conventions.

However, masculinity seems to have been important to af Klint in general. She sometimes took on a male role in opposition to her female friends and referred to herself as ‘he’ or ‘the hook of the eye’. In her relationship with the friend Anna Cassel, af Klint played the role of a male figure and called herself the ‘Ascetic’, referring to religious ascetics throughout history, while Cassel was the ‘Vestal’, that is, the name for Vestal Priestesses in ancient Rome. Just as ascetics need to abstain from earthly pleasures, including sex, so were the Vestals obliged to practise strict chastity. It is interesting to note that the relationship of af Klint and Cassel often had sexual undertones, and their male and female roles were possibly a way to deal with such feelings. Since we know that af Klint later had a romantic relationship with a woman named Sigrid Lancén, one can assume she also had intimate connections with other female friends. As a lesbian or bisexual in the nineteenth century, gender and sexuality must have been an issue for af Klint, and perhaps an ambivalent one that created the need for a male alter ego. But there are no indications she regarded one gender as superior to another, either in everyday life or in terms of spiritual abilities.

Hilma af Klint, Swan No. 1, Group IX, 1917.