Parallel visionaries – Hilla Rebay and Hilma af Klint

Rebay and af Klint, both strong-willed artists, were dedicated to their beliefs in the potential of art to hold spiritual value.
My Post(25) (1)
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Artist Hilma af Klint created 193 paintings between 1906 and 1915 known as ­Paintings for the Temple, the ambitious cycle that would come to define her. These works are far removed from the conventional landscapes and portraits that she perfected­ while attending the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm years ear­lier. Rather, they are primarily abstract, with imagery born of botanicals and other natural forms that grew more simplified and geometric with time. Their production over the course of these years represents a radical effort by af Klint to find visual expression for a transcendent, spiritual reality beyond the observable world.

The titular temple was not one that existed anywhere in the world. She envisioned her Paintings for the Temple filling a round building, where visitors would progress upward along a spiralling path, on a spiritual journey defined by her paintings. ­The nature of that journey, like the spiritual visions that af Klint pursued in her ­paintings, involved a complex and idiosyncratic mix of religious and occultist beliefs, scientific concepts, and other intellectual trends of her day, which she drew from Christianity, Rosicrucianism, Buddhism, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, theosophy, anthroposophy, and perhaps most fundamentally, spiritualism.

However, this visionary sanctuary remained unrealised and, despite af Klint’s grand plans for sharing her work, she showed only a few examples of her abstract paintings publicly during her lifetime. The artist came to believe that the Paintings for the Temple and the other abstract series that followed were beyond the understan­ding of her contemporaries and therefore best held for future audiences.

Af Klint’s story and her forays into abstraction in the early years of the twentieth century were unknown to the artists who today are widely recognised as pioneers of western abstraction for work dating nearly a decade later – Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and František Kupka. These artists and much of their cohort, including Hilla Rebay, an artist who advised Solomon R. Guggenheim in his art collecting, were working amid, if not directly engaged with, similar intellectual and spiritual ideas as af Klint. Rebay, like af Klint, was guided by her belief in the spiritual dimension of abstract art as she formed Guggenheim’s collection, begin­ ning in the late 1920s. And while Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, built to house the work of this vanguard, was unimagined until the 1940s, the spiral of its central rotunda held similar import as form and symbol to both Wright and af Klint.

Af Klint records in her notebooks that she was informed in 1904, through the spirit guide Ananda, that she would be called on to convey the spiritual world in paintings. That same year, another spirit guide, Georg, purportedly told af Klint she would be summoned to design a temple. The other members of The Five – a group af Klint formed with four like-minded female artists – were also asked if they would be willing to create the paintings described by Ananda, but none accepted. Her ‘great commission’, the Paintings for the Temple, was, she records, received from Amaliel­ on January 1st, 1906, when af Klint, at age forty-three, promised to dedicate a year of her life preparing to carry out the spirit’s wishes: ‘Amaliel offered me a commission­ and I immediately replied: yes. This became the great commission, which I carried out in my life.’

Little is known about the temple building itself and how much it occupied af Klint when she commenced her work. Within the artist’s extant writings, sketches and notes describing her plans for the temple do not appear until a notebook from 1930–31, long past the completion of Paintings for the Temple.

From the beginning, af Klint’s Paintings for the Temple registered a decisive depar­ture from conventional representation in favour of groundbreaking imagery. She explained these works as products of mystical receptivity, yet af Klint’s active synthesis­ of the spiritual and scientific ideas of her time – intellectual pursuits she followed through social circles and publications – is evident throughout. Among these threads, theosophy is predominant. Af Klint was a member of the Swedish Lodge of the Theosophical Society, which originated in New York City in 1875. The artist’s familiarity with the ideas of theosophy’s founder, Madame Helena P. Bla­vatsky, underlays her belief in the search for a divine singularity, a basic unity lost at the moment of the world’s creation.

Blavatsky saw theosophy as a science in the service of spiritual wisdom, claiming that ‘modern Science is every day drawn more into the maelstrom of Occultism’. Among the most significant scientific developments of the day, and of particular interest to artists, were new opportunities to perceive the invisible world. Experi­ments into the nature of matter by scientists such as William Crookes (spectro­scopy), Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (X-rays), J. J. Thomson (subatomic particles), and Marie and Pierre Curie (radioactivity) were embraced by theosophists as validating their claims for the unseen spiritual aspects of the universe. Blavatsky’s disciples, Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater, used clairvoyant visualisations – observa­tions gathered through human discernment rather than instrumentation, as scientific­ evidence in their books Thought-Forms (1901) and Occult Chemistry: A Series of Clairvoyant­ Observations on the Chemical Elements (1908). For example, Besant claimed­ to have recorded clairvoyantly the singular unit of a chemical element, which she termed the ‘ultimate physical atom’. This, she said, took the form of a heart-shaped vortex, comprised­ of spirals that were themselves comprised of ‘spiril­lae’, and these again of minuter spirillae.’ Occupying the border between the astral and material planes, Besant’s ultimate physical atom exists as intertwined male and female forces, each spiralling in the opposite direction from the other. For Besant and Leadbeater, the atom, however pseudoscientific their study of it may have been, offered proof that something existed beyond the physical plane and was approached as a means to cosmic knowledge rather than an end in and of itself.

Hilma af Klint’s notebook, July 2–11, 1919

Of the many abstract forms that af Klint employed in her work, the spiral seems to have held an enduring interest for her. It is a nuanced subject, taking varied shapes and, presumably, diverse symbolic meanings, drawn again from a mixture of faith and science. Spirals initially appear in the automatic drawings of The Five and con­tinue through the Paintings for the Temple and beyond. In Primordial Chaos, the ­winding spiral is an apt symbol for continual growth and change, for progress and evolution. The Darwinian concept of evolution was still a contested subject at the turn of the century, but its model of development and progress had been assimilated across disciplines, including theosophy.

Hilma af Klint, Primordial Chaos, No. 16, The WU/ROSEN Series. Grupp 1, 1906-07

As af Klint continued the Paintings for the Temple, her imagery proliferated like a language. With each series she layered her recurring motifs with new forms and subjects, while exploring formal and conceptual conventions of art making, such as colour, scale, balance, and edge.

The last group of Paintings for the Temple, completed in 1915, are three large canva­ses that af Klint called Altarpieces – the ‘summary of the series so far’. Each of the first two features a gold circle and an equilateral triangle, one with its apex pointing upward, the other downward. The works appear to relate to theosophy’s version of evolutionary theory, in which all the cosmos is undergoing an evolutionary process.

Hilma af Klint – Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece, 1915

Evolution can occur in two directions, elevating from the physical to the spiritual and descending from a higher level of being to the limitations of the material world. In the final canvas a golden orb alone dominates the surface. Inscribed at its centre is a six-pointed star, also a theosophical symbol, formed from the union of two equi­lateral triangles oriented in opposing directions, symbolising the universe and its limitations. At four points the orb is pierced by tornado-like spirals, giving form to the energy of evolution.

Hilma af Klint – Group X, No. 2, Altarpiece, 1915

As the culminating expressions of Paintings for the Temple, the Altarpieces were meant to occupy the inner sanctum of af Klint’s temple. As she described in a late notebook, from 1930–31, the building was to be round, like two sites of contempla­tion and spirit that af Klint knew well: the twelfth-century church on the island of Munsö, where af Klint had a home from 1912 until the end of her life, and Steiner’s Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, the seat of anthroposophy, which af Klint regularly visited between 1920 and 1930.

Af Klint’s designs show a three-level structure of stacked rings, tapering upward and connected by a four-storey central tower with a spiral staircase. An altar room sits at the top of af Klint’s building. Within each level, devotees would progress inward, winding from the periphery to the centre, on a path in the shape of a spiral, the form so integral to her paintings. They would encounter ‘physical pictures’ on the ground floor and move upward towards the topmost level to stand before the Altarpieces. Af Klint imagined that the construction would be imbued with ‘a certainpower and calm’. The spiral, symbol of evolution, progress, and growth, and linked to forces of nature, embodies and houses af Klint’s visions.

It was only a year before af Klint recorded her plans for her temple when, in 1930, across the Atlantic in New York City, Hilla Rebay began to conceptualise a building to house the abstract paintings that Solomon R. Guggenheim had been collecting under her advisement. ‘I feel that a museum has to be built . . . in a fabulous style, with a room to rest in, a large space where the pictures are properly stored so that only a few are hung in sequence and only a few great artists shown . . . The temple of non-objectivity and devotion. ‘Temple’ is nicer than church.’ Rebay would not have encountered af Klint, her work, nor of course her plans for a temple in Sweden. Beyond the reality that most of af Klint’s abstract paintings went unseen during her lifetime, af Klint’s artistic circles were relatively limited in scope compared to Rebay’s artist and gallerist relationships, which spanned the art centres of Berlin, Paris, and New York. However, the two artists’ stories have compelling points of intersection in their positions at the forefront of abstraction in the early twentieth century. Both women were drawn to a number of the same spiritual and intellectual movements, including Rosicrucianism and, foremost, Blavatsky’s theosophy and Steiner’s teachings. And each arrived at a philosophy of art making that embraced the spiritual and the intellectual movements of their time – a conception of abstract art fit for a temple.

Rebay was born a baroness in Strassburg, Alsace, in 1890. Around 1904–05, at age fourteen and without her parents’ knowledge, Rebay attended classes given by Steiner,­ whose significance to af Klint was burgeoning at roughly the same time. While in Paris as an art student at the Académie Julian from October 1909 until May 1910, Rebay frequented the evening sketching hours at the studio of the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where she enjoyed a milieu that included a num­ber of theosophist­ artists and writers, and arrived at her commitment to ‘living exclusively for art’. During this time Rebay’s personal relationship to theosophy evolved, as she explained in a letter to her mother: ‘You have undoubtedly noticed that I am again very much occupied with theosophy. The deeper I delve into it, the happier it makes me; everything becomes clear, especially that spiritual sensitivity necessary for an artist to experience nature and to feel one with it.’

In subsequent years Rebay maintained her theosophical faith as she commingled her religious life and her aesthetics. Upon seeing a large exhibition of works by Ferdinand­ Hodler in Munich in 1911, she was so moved by the artist’s symbolist motifs and Rosicrucian and theosophical messages that she adopted his views on universal brotherhood. Rebay was committed to the theosophical concept of the reconciliation of all religions and nations, but it was the idea of spiritually guided intuition and inspiration that would most impact her world view.

In 1916 artist and fellow theosophist Jean Arp gave Rebay a copy of Kandinsky’s aesthetic treatise On the Spiritual in Art (1911), which was itself infused with ideas drawn from Besant, Blavatsky, and Steiner. The book would forever influence Rebay’s ideas about art as an expression of cosmic relevance, not individual ego. Rebay came to revere Kandinsky’s work and writing, referring to the artist as ‘a prophet of almost religious significance’. It was in Kandinsky’s writing that Rebay encountered the concept of non objective art, referring to artworks that have no visual connection to the observable world – art that expressed the ‘inner reality’ of the maker and, like the work of af Klint, privileged spiritual matters over physical descriptions.

Kandinsky, like Steiner, is another point of intersection for Rebay and af Klint, although for the notoriety of his art and ideas rather than as a mutual acquaintance. There is no evidence to suggest af Klint ever met Kandinsky (as Rebay did eventu­ally); however, she probably encountered his work by 1914 – while still creating the Paintings for the Temple – when some of her figurative paintings were exhibited along­side the Russian artist’s abstract canvases in the Baltic Exhibition in Malmö. During these years of Kandinsky’s first forays into abstraction, his pursuit of art freed from the task of describing the observable world relied on looking inward. For af Klint, who was similarly pursuing a spiritual means to express and understand the uni­verse, her abstract imagery arose from her drive to connect to a spiritual dimension that was otherwise invisible and unseen. Despite this difference, it is easy to imagine how af Klint could have recognised something of her own, largely private, artistic project in Kandinsky’s work.

Like af Klint’s use of abstract forms to convey an unmediated spiritual vision, and following Kandinsky’s example, Rebay considered non objective painting to be the purest form of expression. Rebay’s aesthetic world view, informed in part by the tenets of theosophy, the teachings of Steiner, and the writing and art of Kandinsky, was coupled with a deeply felt belief in the power of non objective painting to edu­cate and ameliorate humanity. So closely aligned were non objective art and spiritu­ality for Rebay that she integrated her beliefs into the formation and promotion of Guggenheim’s collection. When, in 1929, the formidable Rebay met Guggenheim in New York, she found a receptive audience for her enthusiasms. Guggenheim quickly hired Rebay to advise on his acquisitions, which she focused on the work of Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy, Robert Delaunay, Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, and others.

By the early 1930s Rebay was seeking ways to exhibit the collection she had helped shape, with the ultimate goal of finding a permanent setting for its display. By 1937 the possibility of a temporary one had appeared in the form of a presentation at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Rebay’s sketch for the proposed exhibition shows Guggenheim’s­ holdings arranged within a circular structure, presaging the ­Guggenheim Museum’s eventual form and unknowingly echoing af Klint’s plans to present her own work.

In 1943 Rebay wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright, then America’s premier architect, inviting him to contemplate a museum to house a collection of non objective ­paintings in New York and charging him to create ‘a temple of spirit – a monu­ment’. After generating a series of six design phases over sixteen years, Wright created a structure oriented around an unbroken spiral that rises more than six ­storeys. The architect felt that, unlike a traditional museum space of box-like galle­ries, the Guggenheim’s­ curved­ interior would suit the non objective artworks, allowing them to float free in the space and enhancing their appearance. Wright considered the Guggenheim’s abstract exterior an announcement of the type of art to be encountered within.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Fifth Avenue, New York

Purely by coincidence Rebay’s temple would share its form with af Klint’s. Af Klint and Wright shared an affinity for forms of nature. For both, the spiral embodied continuous progress and movement. Af Klint’s spiral could signal spiritual ascent or descent. Wright too valued the form for its bidirectionality, which in the Guggen­heim ramp would facilitate both visitor circulation and the exhibition of art. ‘Every carpenter that drives a screw proves me standardised and unoriginal. Every spiral spring shows me up. I have found it hard to look a snail in the face since I stole the idea of his house – from his back. The spiral is so natural and organic a form for whatever would ascend that I did not see why it should not be played upon and made equally available for descent at one and the same time.’

Wright modelled his initial designs for the Guggenheim on the ancient stepped pyramid at Saqqara, Egypt, and the ziggurats of Assyria and Babylonia. However, once he came to the idea of inverting the ziggurat form, the interior spiral opened and widened as it ascended and, in Wright’s opinion, became a form of ‘pure opti­mism’. The rounded, organic form of the logarithmic spiral was a break from tra­dition and offered a moment of relief in the grid of the city. Wright’s spiral embodied both continuity and duality in its marriage of the material and the experiential. Made possible through the use of the newest building material, steel-reinforced concrete, the spiral was concurrently as modern as it was ancient. It was constructed by humans yet of a form drawn from nature and encompassing growth. Indepen­dent of Wright’s stance on religion and spirituality, the Guggenheim’s monumenta­lity is drawn from these oppositions. After Wright’s Guggenheim Museum opened in 1959, following the death of Guggenheim in 1949 and Wright just months before the building was completed, the architect’s wife, Olgivanna, recounted her first impressions of the completed museum as she approached by car: ‘The miracle of Fifth Avenue stood as a spirit from another world, glowing with golden bands of light moving upward in an ever-widening spiral’.

Spiral staircase and ceiling inside The Guggenheim, New York

Rebay and af Klint, both strong-willed artists, were dedicated to their beliefs in the potential of art to hold spiritual value. A generation apart, each woman engaged in the teachings of Blavatsky, Besant, Leadbeater, and Steiner to her own degree, and was informed by a similar set of particularly modern intellectual movements. Rebay’s desire to build a ‘temple of the spirit’ was realised as the Solomon R. Guggenheim­ Museum, made possible by a visionary patron and a renowned ­architect, while af Klint’s ‘temple of the spirit’, the one she envisioned to house her life’s work, remained unbuilt. Knowing the extent to which Rebay’s and af Klint’s aesthetic­ and spiritual ideals were aligned, growing as they did from the same social currents, one is tempted to imagine what could have been if their paths had meaningfully crossed. With their shared commitments, would they have recogni­sed the context that Rebay’s temple could have provided for af Klint’s paintings? This is a question we will never be able to answer, but following the examples of the two artists, we can perhaps push beyond the material facts, to a realm beyond, and envision other possibilities.

This text is adapted from Tracey Bashkoff’s essay ‘Temples for Paintings,’ originally published in Bashkoff, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2018).

Parallel Visionaries – Hilla Rebay and Hilma af Klint was first published in the book Visionary. This anthology is based on a seminar held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York at the opening of its highly acclaimed exhibition Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future in October 2018.

We are pleased to announced that Visionary has been announced as the winner in the Swedish Publishing Awards 2020 in the category of non-fiction. It was described as ‘a graceful, accessible and beautiful experience in both words and imagery.’

Tracey Bashkoff

Tracey Bashkoff is Senior Director of Collections and Senior Curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. She joined the Guggenheim in 1993 and has contributed to over 20 special exhibitions covering a range of 20th-century subjects. She curated Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future (2018-19).

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.