Your high summer art explorations just got a smidge supernatural. We’re bringing Hilma af Klint back with our third limited-edition print release by the painter and seance practitioner, another piece from her rapturous The Ten Largest series: The Ten Largest, No. 2, Childhood, Group IV. We’ve written about this astonishingly-ahead-of-her-time artist's avant garde work a few times before, so for a fresh take we reached out to one of our favorite art-obsessed writers, Allison Meier (you might recognize her name from earlier missives). Excerpted below, Meier's intro digs into the historical context of af Klint's endlessly interesting spiritualism, and whether or not we ought to unpack af Klint's spiritual practices to pursue a deeper understanding of her art. More of Meier's brilliance on the blog. — Team 20x200
The recent exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s abstract paintings at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York was a staggering success, becoming the museum’s most-visited exhibition. Central to the Swedish artist’s work is a visual expression of spiritual concepts, from her selection of symbolic colors to her use of automatic writing. Still, some critics have questioned whether exploring her belief systems was important in reevaluating her art in the history of European modernism.
Occupying most of the Guggenheim exhibition, af Klint’s Paintings for the Temple includes her 1907 The Ten Largest series—ten-foot-high pieces covered with buoyant organic shapes and vibrant colors channeling the lifecycle of a person. Three of these are now available on 20x200: The Ten Largest, No. 2, Childhood, Group IV (today’s new addition) is effervescent with young energy in its circular shapes; The Ten Largest, No. 3, Youth, Group IV is more complex but just as lively, with spiraling lines reminiscent of the intuitive flow of automatic drawing looping through colorful forms; and in The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood, Group IV, a colossal curved yellow form is surrounded by an elaborate gathering of shapes, words, and numbers, all painted against a lavender background.
To fully comprehend these works, it’s crucial to take af Klint’s spiritual appetite into consideration. Recognizing the sacred aspect of af Klint’s art also acknowledges the prominence of Spiritualism in the 19th and early 20th centuries in mainstream society. The movement, which is often cited as starting in 1848 in Hydesville, New York, with the rapped spirit communications of the sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, rapidly spread throughout the United States and Europe. As the New England Spiritualists’ Association stated in 1854: “Our creed is simple, Spirits do communicate with man—that is the creed.” And in private parlors and places as prominent as the White House where Mary Todd Lincoln strived to reach her lost son, table rapping, automatic writing, and the channeling of the voices of the deceased summoned the spiritual world into a dialogue that defied death.
Spiritualism was particularly popular with middle- and upper-class women who were able to find a voice and agency as mediums, something that was difficult to attain in any field, including art. Af Klint and four other woman artists formed a group called “The Five” in 1896. Each Friday, they joined in prayers and New Testament readings as well as seances in which they engaged in automatic drawing and writing. Their extensive notes record interactions with beings they anointed “The High Ones.” Af Klint’s communication with these spirits as a medium led to her major works, Paintings for the Temple (completed between 1906 and 1915), and consequently The Ten Largest. Biomorphic forms and geometric angles, all vividly hued, were radically different from the representational art that af Klint exhibited publicly. The start of this stage of her practice predated the abstraction that would be soon be embraced by artists like Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian.
Af Klint stated that while she was guided by spiritual transmissions, it was a collaboration in which her vision came first: “It was not the case that I was to blindly obey the High Lords of the Mysteries but that I was to imagine that they were always standing by my side.” Aesthetically, The Ten Largest is a powerful experience, the towering works drawing the viewer in with their jubilant shapes and colors, a dynamic reflection on the changes and growth across a life. Yet af Klint was working from a perspective of the spiritual and sacred, and the paintings are a visual language for attempting to make contact with something divine.
She wasn’t sure that early 20th-century viewers were ready for these works. When af Klint died in 1944, her will directed that these non-figurative paintings be hidden for 20 years and that they be kept as an intact collection. As af Klint recorded in her notebook in 1907: “Don’t expect that the signals and symbols that you developed with much effort will be understood by the brothers that you meet, but work hard for the future.” It took until 1986 for this work to be exhibited, first featured in The Spiritual in Art—Abstract Painting 1890—1985 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Art history is still adapting to this shift in the long-dominant understanding of abstraction. The spiritualist beliefs in af Klint’s art are key to this narrative.
—Allison C. Meier
About Our Guest Author
Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer on art, history, and culture. Previously she was senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.