The Passion of Hilma af Klint

  • Themes: Art

The passion of Hilma af Klint in every sense – sexual, aesthetic, and religious – is the key to her art.

Hilma af Klint's Svanen, 1914.
Hilma af Klint's Svanen, 1914. Credit: Volgi archive / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1906 Hilma af Klint produced her first fully non-representational paintings, making her the first modernist to go fully abstract. This momentous event occurred five years before Wassily Kandinsky went abstract in 1911 with Composition V and published Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a manifesto that defined and solidified his reputation as the founder of abstraction. In notebooks kept on her work, af Klint claimed that a major inspiration for these abstract images were messages she received from ‘High Masters’ during séances that she conducted as a medium. These messages may have come from her own mind by means of autosuggestion or self-hypnosis, or perhaps even delusions or hallucinations. We will never know. What we can know, however, is the larger cultural framework in which she came to her breakthrough to abstract techniques.

In the late nineteenth century discoveries in a variety of areas introduced new bases for abstraction in the arts. Natural and social scientists discovered patterns of abstraction in nature and human experience. New communications technologies made it possible to send messages great distances over wires or through empty space, and scientific discoveries established the existence of new forces that communicated messages in revolutionary ways. Modernist writers experimented with ways of using abstraction in novels and poems, however with limited success. At the same time af Klint’s world faced a major assault on the Judaeo-Christian foundations for knowledge, morality, and history with the emergence of nihilism. She sought to restore these foundations at a time when many others did so through alternative religions or systems of thought such as Buddhism, Hinduism, spiritualism, theosophy and anthroposophy, which also influenced her work. The inspiration for her pioneering abstract art was a combination of these scientific and cultural developments distinctive to her age as well as private emotions and projects.

Abstraction was the most revolutionary stylistic development of the modernist period. It was an explicit rejection of realism’s goal of depicting identifiable objects in the real world. From the time of ancient cave drawings to the early twentieth century, the major goal of pictorial art was to capture recognisable objects. Then from 1906 to 1914, artists in Sweden (we now know), Germany, Italy, Holland, Russia, Austria-Hungary and England went abstract, influenced by a variety of challenges to conventional ways of experiencing the world. Biologists looking through microscopes found abstract forms in micro-organisms, leaves, and crystals. Psychologists studied the impact of colours on the mind, which suggested the possibility of compositions with colour alone independent of identifiable objects. Modern dance freed the body from the melodramatic narratives of classical ballet and instead produced abstract movement dictated by sensuous impulses. Fauvists liberated painting from actual colours, and Cubists liberated painting from slavish devotion to visual perspective, anatomically correct forms and narrative content. While the motives for the move to abstraction were varied, abstract artists shared the goals of rejecting the subject matter of the material world and the formal technique of mimesis and sought instead to express pure spirit with abstract forms. Abstractionists also accorded with the anarchist objective of liberating the long-suppressed human spirit from oppression by familial, national, capitalist and religious institutions.

In the course of the nineteenth century a series of inventions transformed communication and with it the experience of time and space. Electronic communication, beginning with the telegraph from the 1830s, then the introduction of Morse code in 1846, the telephone after its invention in 1876 and the wireless after 1894, all worked to detach communication from transportation. Whereas previously one had to travel to communicate with someone in a distant place, these technologies made it possible to send a telegraph wire, speak over a telephone or send a Morse code message through airwaves to someone in a distant place without going to see him.

Together with the new cinema invented in the late 1880s, and its montage and quick-cut editing techniques, these technologies created a new sense of simultaneity, as multiple events from afar could be experienced at one time, in a single place. Dozens of commentators at the time wrote that these new technologies had ‘annihilated time and space’. In 1970 the Swedish historian Pär Bergman argued that on the eve of the First World War, ‘succession gave way to simultaneity’, and he characterised this entire period as an age of simultaneity.

These technologies increased the speed and pathways of communication, thereby complicating and enriching its possibilities. The telephone suggested to Marcel Proust that he was communicating with his dead grandmother, even before she had died. In Remembrance of Things Past (1913–1927) he wrote about telephone conversations through his first person narrator Marcel in language that evokes the circumstances of a séance. Telephonic conversation, Marcel wrote, is an ‘admirable sorcery’, which brings before us, ‘invisible but present, the person to whom we have been wishing to speak, and who, while still sitting at his table… finds himself suddenly transported hundreds of miles’. The telephone operators are ‘priestesses of the Invisible’ who bring us the sound of ‘distance overcome’. But the voice of his grandmother also gave Marcel a premonition of an ‘eternal separation’. Her voice was not only distant, but also cut off from the rest of her being – the movements of her body, her facial expressions, the sounds and smells and touches that had completed the mise-en-scène of prior conversations. For Marcel, this truncated, abstract individual became a symbol of his own isolation and of the eternal separation that awaits everyone in death.

The wireless transformed everything from the courting of lovers and doing business to conducting diplomacy and rescuing people on sinking ships. From 1894 Guglielmo Marconi developed an apparatus to transmit and receive electromagnetic waves. As wireless instruments proliferated, an International Congress on Wireless Telegraphy was held in Berlin in 1903 to regulate their use. The first distress signal from a ship at sea was sent in 1899, and in 1909, following a collision between two ships, a wireless call saved 1,700 lives. By 1912 the wireless was an essential part of international communication linking land stations and ships at sea in an instantaneous worldwide network. On 21 April 1912 the New York Times wrote about the role of the wireless in rescuing survivors from the Titanic: ‘Millions upon the earth and thousands upon the sea now reach out and grasp the thin air and use it as a thing more potent for human aid than any strand of wire or cable that was ever spun… all through the roar of the big city there are constantly speeding messages between people separated by vast distances; and over housetops and through the walls of buildings and in the air one breathes are words written by electricity.’

The scientific discoveries that underlay these and other inventions identified invisible waves that propagated over distance or penetrated formerly invisible realms. In 1887 Heinrich Hertz demonstrated that electromagnetic waves propagated through space, and these were eventually used to carry messages. In 1895 William Röntgen discovered X-rays, and in 1897 Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity. These discoveries disclosed invisible forces that made things happen. X-rays penetrated what were thought to be opaque objects like the human body, while radioactivity accounted for the disintegration of uranium atoms and demonstrated more generally that atoms were neither solid nor stable.

af Klint may have been influenced by this new science and technology in two ways. Newly identified forces such as electromagnetism may have suggested the mechanism by which she received messages from ‘High Masters’, and depictions of these forces may have appeared in her art with images suggesting electric current, magnetism and perhaps radioactive emission. Primordial Chaos No. 16 (1906–07), may be a picture of Hertzian electromagnetic waves in yellow and orange, transmitting out of some higher power from an esoteric source at the centre of the spiral, shown interfering with blue-green electromagnetic waves from other transmitters at the upper left and lower right. These waves propagate through a dark blue sky which itself radiates from some primordial force at the centre of the canvas suggested by lighter blue streaks, as if from a cosmic Big Bang. The title may be partly ironic, or at least it ought to be, because this ‘Primordial Chaos’ is rigorously structured by natural forces that radiate from specific points according to inexorable natural laws, which, as Clerk Maxwell had shown, could be described with an elegant set of mathematical equations.

But such speculation raises questions about influence, because this science and technology is historically and culturally specific, whereas messages of ‘High Masters’ must have been transhistorical, eternal truths and sacred wisdom from ancient and non-Western religions. Put differently, why would higher powers need, or even be able to use, electromagnetism to communicate their eternal and universal verities? Nevertheless, the discovery of invisible forces transmitting information was part of the cultural framework within which af Klint believed she was receiving messages from specific individuals by metaphysical channels and found a way to depict those messages with abstract images. Analysis by way of cultural frameworks can go just so far. The fuller story of how messages or images came to her from ‘guides’ or ‘High Masters’ is locked in the black box of her mind – a mind that used unique artistic talents to craft those messages into drawings and paintings.

While af Klint continued to produce abstract art during and after the First World War, on the literary side, the war put a stop to pre-war experimentation with literary abstraction. On the eve of the war, the leading British painter Wyndham Lewis attempted to apply his abstract vorticist style to a literary work. In the first issue of the vorticist journal Blast in July 1914, he published ‘Enemy of the Stars’, an account of the production of a play with two main characters. A sketch by Lewis that accompanied the text shows one of the characters as an abstracted, mechanised form with a featureless head that looks like the arc of a circle from a piece of machinery. In the text Lewis violates rules of semantics and syntax, as verbs are omitted in strings of phrases linked ungrammatically in clusters of images that he conceived as literary vortices: ‘Throats iron eternities, drinking heavy radiance, limbs towers of blatant light, the stars poised, immensely distant, with their metal sides, pantheistic machines.’

During the war Lewis was an artillery officer and saw quasi-abstracted material forms such as shell-craters, skeletons and blasted tree-stumps that recalled pre-war formal abstraction. But those images were so full of reality that a return to pre-war abstraction was impossible, as he explained.

My literary contemporaries I looked upon as…not keeping pace with the visual revolution. A kind of play, ‘The Enemy of the Stars’…was my attempt to show them the way. It became evident, however, when I started to write a novel, that words and syntax were not susceptible of transformation into abstract terms, to which process the visual arts lent themselves quite readily. The coming of war and the writing – at top-speed – of a full-length novel (‘Tarr’) was the turning point. Writing – literature – dragged me out of the abstract cul-de-sac…The war was a sleep…Upon waking I found an altered world: and I had changed too, very much. The geometrics which had interested me so exclusively before, I now felt were bleak and empty.

The overpowering experience of the war killed Lewis’s inclination to produce abstract literature as well as art. Other writers also tried to write abstracted, if not fully abstract, literary texts. In 1914 Gertrude Stein published Tender Buttons, which used identifiable words grouped in intelligible phrases that jarred conventional syntax but were not abstract. For example, the first ‘poem’ begins as follows: ‘A kind of glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing.’ In later years she explained her rejection of abstraction while working on Tender Buttons: ‘I took individual words and thought about them until I got their weight and volume complete and put them next to another word, and at this same time I found out very soon that there is no such thing as putting them together without sense…I made innumerable efforts to make words write without sense and found it impossible.’

If Gertrude Stein found abstract writing impossible, it is. The overpowering narrative of the war made literary abstraction seem out of touch as well as irreverent. But one group of writers attempted to use abstraction to be as irreverent as possible. Their poetry was part of a movement whose name itself is a pair of meaningless syllables – dada. In a Zurich cabaret on July 14, 1916, the Dadaist poet Hugo Ball read his first poem of abstract nonsense, which began: gadgi beri bimba glandridi laula lono cadori‘ and so forth. Ball violated rational semantics and syntax to rescue language from its subservience to the insanity that led to a senseless war. As he explained in his diary: ‘The human figure is progressively disappearing from pictorial art, and no object is present except in fragmentary form. This is one more proof that the human countenance has become ugly and outworn, and that things which surround us have become objects of revulsion. The next step is for poetry to discard language as painting has discarded objects and for similar reasons.’ Ball eventually gave up nonsense poetry, and Dadaists went on to produce unorthodox but not abstract texts. Poetry could not entirely discard words that always evoke some meaning, and abstract sounds alone could not sustain interest, even for dada enthusiasts. These experiments with literary abstraction appear to have had little impact on af Klint’s art and its commitment to abstraction, but they form an important part of the cultural milieu in which abstraction developed.

An important scientific discovery that did shape the cultural context for af Klint’s art was the most revolutionary scientific development of the nineteenth century – Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Darwin’s theory linked humans to the animal world, introduced a merciless life-and-death struggle as the mechanism of evolution, and made simple adaptation the ultimate basis for selection and survival. His theory was used to justify war, imperialism and racism. It undermined the account of creation in Genesis and demonstrated that humans were not created in God’s image but evolved from primal ooze through a mindless process triggered by chance variations, which he never understood.

af Klint smoothed over complex and troubling features of Darwinian theory. In 1908 she created a series on evolution with the word ‘Evolutionen‘ in a number of them, as in Evolution, No. 4. In this image a snail with increasingly large segments renders evolution as an orderly emergence of superior forms in which bigger is clearly better, issuing finally in a female human figure on the right, shown in bright light, in opposition to the male figure on the left, in the dark. This gradually spiralling snail embodies Darwin’s early notion that evolution came from slight, successive, favourable variations – which it did not. Darwin never understood the mechanism of mutation, or what he called ‘variation’.

In contrast to the gradualness of evolution, however, the image also unites contrasting opposites – light and dark, as well as male and female. Elsewhere af Klint sought to unify other dualities – matter and spirit, self and other, microcosm and macrocosm, visible and invisible. She unified such contrasting dualities with other images of gradualism as spirals and snails. af Klint’s most persistent and clearly most important concern was to suggest how the fundamental opposition in life – male and female – could be unified, which she did through images of sexual opposition and sexual fusion, the source of renewed life through sexual reproduction. That unification is echoed in miniature with the pair of copulating yellow and blue snails above the man’s head. Snails are hermaphrodites and reproduce by fertilising one another. Her copulating snails suggest an artificial division of male and female, in contrast to hermaphroditic reproduction. Both snails ought to be sexless and therefore the same colour; however, af Klint unites them in the act of copulation, mixing the disjunct of yellow (for male) and blue (for female) with the gradualism of spiraling growth.

An intriguing aspect of af Klint’s art is her persistent effort to bring together men and women. The historical record contains no evidence that she had a serious love relationship with a man, and it is possible that she was secretly gay. Her journals record intense relationships with her primarily male ‘guides’ or ‘High Masters’ (Gregor, Georg, Clemens and Gidro), but these were imaginary beings accessed only through mysterious, perhaps delusional, moments of mediumistic relationships. Another of these male guides, Amaliel, enjoined af Klint in 1905 to devote a year to painting a message to mankind, which resulted in her move to abstraction, including The Ten Largest of 1906.

That message to mankind was to capture her ‘knowledge of the duality’ that pervades the universe and her attempt to unify clashing contrasts, most importantly between man and woman. So she repeatedly devised new ways to bring men and women together with increasing intimacy as the images became increasingly abstract, and sometimes androgynous. Abstraction gave cover for feelings that could not be expressed openly or perhaps even acknowledged consciously. The Ten Largest, an early statement of abstraction, depicts stages of life from childhood to old age in a highly abstracted way. The series includes the word ‘vestal-ascetic’ (vestalasket), written among the abstract forms, as a nod to asexuality. In the first image depicting infancy the male and female elements are separate, with a pair of yellow and blue circles on the bottom that barely touch their circumference. In the next image the yellow and blue circles overlap to create an almond-shaped greenish area indicating interaction of male and female characteristics. In subsequent images yellow and blue abstract forms generate new forms (babies?) along with increasingly complex interactions between themselves.

A later series of 24 increasingly abstract images from 1914–15, all titled The Swan, begins with two realistic male and female swans in black and white, touching beaks and one wing-tip (The Swan, No. 1, Group IX). The series continues to integrate, with increasing abstraction, various yellow and blue lines and forms that cannot be identified as swans beyond the title. In The Swan, No. 9 two wings are metamorphosed into abstracted yellow and blue curved forms. These abstracted wings contain a string of ever diminishing boxes, suggesting reproductive stances concentrating in tiny sex cells. af Klint believed that the sexes of men and women are reversed in the astral world. She suggests such a reversal with her treatment of colour in these wings. The yellow wing (male) narrows as it becomes white (female) before culminating in a black point (male), while the blue wing (female) narrows as it becomes black (male) before culminating in a white point (female). These points in turn generate curved wings of their own (sexual reversal in the astral world?): the white one becomes black as it increases in size, while the black one becomes white, a colour switch again hinting at the androgyny that appears frequently in af Klint’s art. At the intersection of these wings a dark red dot is surrounded by concentric circles of blue and yellow dots, interspersed with strings of red dots, like blood pulsing through an emerging bisexual embryo. The red dot is crossed by two intersecting yellow and blue lines as well as two pairs of black and white flower petals or possibly airplane propellers. (These brightly coloured, concentric circles might suggest the influence of ‘simultaneous disks’ and propellers in the Orphic art of Robert and Sonia Delaunay from 1912–14.)

In af Klint’s art, dark red indicates sensuous love, while pale red indicates spiritual love. One can only wonder what emotions af Klint had as she composed this image of sexual union and perhaps sexual reproduction against a dark red background. Abstraction allowed her to sublimate into more socially acceptable forms sexual feelings that were so unfulfilled and – if she was indeed gay – so forbidden in her time. In the final picture from the series (SUW/Swan, 1915), she returns to more representational imagery with a black and white swan kissing, surrounded by male-female imagery – hook and eye, cube in a circle, yellow and blue forms. As Åke Fant concludes, ‘The swans and the symmetrical cube represent harmonious oneness after the long struggles between dualities that were shown in all the preceding pictures.’

Between 1906 and 1915 af Klint produced 193 works for a series titled The Paintings for the Temple, which she intended eventually to be displayed in a temple to be constructed in the shape of a spiral, with visitors circulating to the centre, a terminal location of unity and peace. The final three works in the series were altarpieces, titled Altarpiece, Nos. 1, 2, and 3. All three contain images that unify existence with a triangle, which suggests that life is sharply focused, or with a circle, which suggests that life has a universal, all-embracing scope. As objects of worship, these altarpieces also celebrate male-female love with yellow and blue coloured triangles and circles.

In Altarpiece No. 1, a phallic triangle, which comes to a point androgynously with yellow and blue sides, penetrates a circle that radiates androgynous yellow and blue spikes like an orgasmic sunburst. At the centre of Altarpiece No. 3 a yellow circle circumscribes a blue triangle that contains a smaller yellow circle, which in turn circumscribes an even smaller yellow triangle at the centre of which is a brown dot, signifying unity as well as a seed bearing future life. These small triangles and circles are at the centre of a large, earthy brown circle, which is penetrated at the periphery from four directions by spirals suggesting electromagnetic energy, as well as the penetration of an egg by a sperm cell. af Klint’s temple would be a place to worship the life that centres on the love of a man and a woman and is fulfilled ultimately by the miracle of sexual reproduction. Her passion and sacrifice are expressed with these devotional images. Her unfulfilled love achieves aesthetic fulfilment sublimated into art with these three abstract images.

Several of af Klint’s images suggest that Christianity flowed from evolution. In Evolution, No. 6 a cross emerges from a pair of male and female snails at the bottom along with two leaf-shaped male and female forms to the left and right. The cross is supported by another pair of unsexed dark snails at the intersection of the cross and is framed by yellow and blue waves of the sea all around it. Af Klint’s evolution is a progressive scenario of divine grace flowing naturally through the world, here uniting male and female, sin and salvation, and therefore death and life. It is grounded on a structure of dark undulating forms at the bottom and evolves upward in the direction of life and growth into a burst of white petals at the top which reach up to heaven and seem to trail off to infinity as they progressively diminish in size. It has none of the probabilistic chaos of Darwinian reality – no chance variations, no useless offshoots, no vicious struggle for existence or survival of the fittest, and no purposeless cosmology. It is worlds away from Alfred Tennyson’s mindless ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’. Her evolution is mindful: designed, purposive, and progressive.

However much af Klint wanted to see Christianity flowing gracefully out of evolution, Darwin’s theory spearheaded a serious challenge to it. The extent to which the challenge was felt by the Catholic church is indicated by the actions of Pope Pius IX, who in 1864 issued a Syllabus of Errors, which condemned as unacceptable for all Catholics Darwinism, rationalism, liberalism, positivism, pantheism, socialism, religious toleration and science when it contradicted Catholic dogma. In 1870 he oversaw the declaration of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, that henceforth any ex cathedra pronouncement by the pope was infallible – this, to secure his earlier proclamation of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. With the Syllabus of Errors and the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, the Catholic church drove away artists and intellectuals who required freedom of thought to elaborate their philosophical inquiries and fulfil their artistic ambitions.

The crisis in the Protestant church was highlighted by Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1882 announced that God is dead and, worse, that his contemporaries had killed him with their spiritless Sunday worshipping and their inability to believe in him. As a result, they faced the supreme challenge of nihilism – loss of confidence in truth and knowledge, loss of a foundation for moral values, and loss of an overall meaning to life or to history.

It is tempting to relate the emergence of abstraction in art as in part a reaction to – if not a depiction of – nihilism, as some critics, artists, and novelists were tempted to do. Nihilism and abstraction emerged around the same time and some abstract artists made these connections directly. But the subject is complicated. Nihilism has a negative and a positive aspect. Negatively, it wiped out the basis for knowledge, morals, and meaning, and thereby seemed to leave humans epistemologically, ethically and spiritually adrift; but positively, it offered an opportunity, indeed a challenge, to recreate the basis of knowledge, morals, and meaning. This dual aspect was noted by Nietzsche, who saw nihilism as an opportunity for liberation from a dehumanising Christianity which emphasised man’s sinful nature and reliance on Jesus’s crucifixion for salvation. If humans killed God, they must be godlike, and so they must take on the creative challenge of forging their own basis for knowledge, their own moral system and their own meaningful life.

Nihilism was related to anarchism, which had a similar dual aspect. Anarchists did not want merely to destroy sources of power and oppression: they hoped that a radical clearing away of the institutions of religion, private property and the state would allow long-suppressed human powers to surface and create a freer and more just world. An analogous hope was shared by some abstract artists. A major impulse for their radical effacement of recognisable objects in art – in addition to the over-worked narratives of the Bible, mythology, and history – was a similar hope that a more purely artistic art would emerge.

The connection between abstraction and the positive impulse behind anarchism, along with that of nihilism, was suggested by Kazimir Malevich in a suprematist manifesto of 1915, where he explained that suprematists reject art that depicts recognisable things and figures. Non-objective suprematism begins with the inner processes of the mind. It clears from art the accidental objects and narratives of a chaotic world of moribund nations, mass-manufactured products and commercialised religions. Such purified art celebrated a restoration of life. In 1927 Malevich explained the historical context of his suprematist goals in a way that had anarchistic as well as nihilist implications: ‘Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion’, he wrote, ‘it wants to have nothing further to do with the object, as such, and believes that it can exist in and for itself, without “things”.’ By wiping clean traditional objects in art, abstractionists wiped away the objects, institutions, and narratives that held together the Western world. But paired with that effacement came the positive challenge to restore some content to art, and for abstractionists that content included the sort of images that af Klint crafted into her pioneering work, beginning in 1906.

All the abstractionists – Kandinsky and af Klint, along with Mondrian, Malevich, Kupka and others – dared to undertake similar negative effacements and were obliged to face similar positive challenges of renewal and restoration. Anarchists envisioned human society regenerating as a forest regenerates after a fire. Nihilists had their own positive programmes. If they followed Nietzsche, they endorsed his prescription of ways of becoming like an Overman – a way of making human existence great, authentic and meaningful by cultivating the will to power so that one could love one’s fate enough to will that it return eternally, even with the disappointments of weakness and mediocrity all around. Abstraction, like anarchism and nihilism, created and filled voids disclosed at the heart of Western culture by the death of God.

Iris Müller-Westermann concludes her essay in the catalogue of the 2013 Hilma af Klint exhibition at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet with a subsection entitled ‘Hilma af Klint’s Doubts’. Elsewhere she suggests that those doubts were about the source of the messages that inspired af Klint’s art and what use she made of them. Did they come from ‘higher levels of consciousness’ or from her own mind? If they did come from higher levels of consciousness, did she understand them correctly and render them accurately? Those doubts are central to her genius and accomplishment. If she had not been driven by them, her work would not have been as profound, as exciting, as original or as abundant as it was.

This argument holds for the other modernist figures whose work is a response to the death of God and the resulting threat of nihilism that faced the Western world in the modernist period. My current research is on that subject, so I will conclude by outlining my argument and situating af Klint in it.

James Joyce’s doubt is key. His A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces Joyce’s own rejection of Catholicism on his way to becoming an artist. His Ulysses begins with a mock mass and includes in the ‘Circe’ episode a black mass performed on the belly of a naked woman. But Joyce remained enmeshed in Christianity even as he mocked it and tried to separate himself from it. He may have wanted, as he put it, to fly by the nets of family, country and religion, but he also flew by means of those nets, which energised his art in a combative role. Similarly, D.H. Lawrence excoriated the Church’s emphasis on sin and asceticism but remained mired in the Congregational religion in which he was steeped as a child. Throughout his writings he referred especially to Genesis, Exodus and the Book of Revelation. Other modernist novelists, such as André Gide and William Faulkner, harboured similar ambivalences.

In philosophy, Nietzsche made a ferocious assault on Christianity, but he also had mixed views. He was critical of Christianity’s herd morality, its denigration of sex, and the helplessness symbolised by the crucifixion and the belief that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah who died in agony to save all humans from the eternal punishment in hell that they deserve. But while Nietzsche rejected the Christ, he celebrated Jesus’s spiritual strength, originality and strong will to power and crafted his positive philosophy of the Overman in Thus Spoke Zarathustra with speeches patterned after those of biblical prophets.

Other thinkers had ambivalence and doubts about religion. Sigmund Freud viewed it as a collective obsessive-compulsive neurosis, a survival of infantile fantasies of an all-powerful and all-wise father, but he never fully repudiated his Jewish heritage and was aptly described as a ‘godless Jew’. Max Weber strove to be objective in analysing the Protestant ethic, but he characterised Calvinism subjectively as a cruel religion. It carried a message of the ultimate helplessness of individuals to alter their eternal fate decreed by a God who had chosen before the beginning of time those few individuals who would be saved from the fate in hell that all human beings deserved.

Hilma af Klint belongs with this group of intellectuals and artists, whose work was energised by suspicion of organised religion and who sought alternative answers to the big questions of life in science, philosophy or the arts. All responded to the death of God but refused to remain defeated by the negative implications of nihilism. Her response was to look for a higher consciousness, presumably higher even than the Christian god. Her early interest in theosophy is key, because it subordinated the Christian god to a higher god, a broader god that embraced all religions, and a more ancient god, at least more ancient than the incarnated Christian god Jesus Christ.

Her doubt was intensified by the uncertainty of theosophy as well as the effectiveness of her own spiritual efforts to make contact with its god or gods. Add to that her personal doubt that she was actually receiving messages from those higher powers, or her suspicion that she was perhaps misunderstanding their messages, or that she was not doing justice to them in her art, and the fuller extent of her doubting comes into focus. That deep and long-lasting doubt, I would speculate, is what drove her to find ever newer abstract forms that could express her secret and forbidden loves and capture the sacred truth she aspired to render in ever more beautiful ways. She captures her forbidden sexual passion with the painting of a heterosexual couple, First Large Series No. 6: Silence (1907) over five feet tall. It depicts a kneeling naked man embracing from behind a kneeling naked woman who cradles in her hands the bottom of a cross that pierces her between her breasts and emerges from behind as it towers over the sinful couple, who nevertheless have garlands of flowers in their hair.

However doubtful and conflicted her inspiration, there is no doubt that she devoted herself with extraordinary discipline over a long period of time to cultivating artistic skills that enabled her to pioneer abstraction, largely cut off from the European artistic community, with an impressive corpus that she produced essentially in secret and willed to be withheld from public exhibition until 20 years after her death.

The passion of Hilma af Klint in every sense – sexual, aesthetic, and religious – is the key to her art.

This piece was originally published as Abstraction, Technology, Androgyny, Nihilism in Hilma af Klint: the Art of Seeing the Invisible, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in association with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit, 2021.


Stephen Kern