Who created The Paintings for the Temple?

  • Themes: Art

The idea that the seminal series, The Paintings for the Temple, was the creation of Hilma af Klint alone should be abandoned. It was a project of collaboration between several women, among them the artist Anna Cassel who played a starring, though hitherto unrecognised, role.

Anna Cassel
Portrait of Anna Cassel

The Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) has received enormous publicity in recent years for her large, non-figurative paintings with strikingly innovative shapes and colours. They were created when modern art was still in its formative stages, yet they remained largely unknown for almost 80 years after the artist’s death. Af Klint, who was trained as a painter in the classical style, abandoned her conventional career in 1906 when she received a call from the spirit world to communicate a higher message through painting. This mission resulted in her most renowned work, The Paintings for the Temple (1906–1915), comprising 193 paintings in fourteen series that she imagined would be presented in a spiral-shaped temple. Influenced by the occult ideas of her time, af Klint continued to create spiritual works for the rest of her life and left behind more than 1,000 paintings and 26,000 pages of notes that reflect both her ideas and artistic ambitions.

Although af Klint is considered one of the most important artistic discoveries in the last century, knowledge about the production of her paintings is still limited. Such is the case with the sequence The Paintings for the Temple, which new research suggests did not derive from the efforts of a single artist, but was rather the product of a collaboration between af Klint and her friends. After leaving the spiritualist group The Five – comprising af Klint and four women who met for seances between 1897 and 1907 – she surrounded herself with a new group of friends. They contacted spirits, formed romantic relationships with each other, travelled, lived and worked together – and often collaborated in the creation of paintings.

This had been the case from the beginning of the mission, since af Klint was not alone in accepting the request from the spirit world to execute The Paintings for the Temple. Nor was she with The Five at the time, as it is sometimes claimed, but instead with her long-time friend from the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Anna Cassel (1860–1937). They developed the idea of a mission which resulted in over 120 sketches produced between October 1906 and September 1907, a collaboration that became the first series of The Paintings for the Temple: Primordial Chaos.

The friends’ understanding of this project was different from its presentation today; the idea of executing a large, cyclical work in multiple series of paintings was never mentioned. The focus was instead on creating images from the ‘Akashic Records’, a notion derived from the esoteric movement of Theosophy that became popular in the nineteenth century. The records were described as an information bank, and conceptualised as an astral book that clairvoyants could access to learn about humanity’s distant spiritual history. The idea had been introduced by the founder of the Theosophical Society, Madame Blavatsky, who described supernatural documents ‘of all that was, that is, and that will be’, which she summarised, in her dramatic style, comprising ‘the MEMORY of GOD!’.

In line with this idea, af Klint and Cassel imagined they had access to the entire course of human existence, which had interested them for a long time before taking the shape of paintings. As early as 1900, Cassel was notified by the spirits to try to read supernatural documents, while af Klint, in hindsight, describes how she and her friends at this time tried to ‘research’ the ‘Akashic Records’ and create ‘things’, possibly automatic drawings. Six years later, this would be transformed into a mission of painting, and although the group had the entire span of existence to choose from, they decided to focus on the beginning of time, ‘the story of your ancient creation’ as the spirits described it.

These primordial paintings would develop into Primordial Chaos. However, its title was created much later – af Klint and Cassel called the paintings Series I or The First 26 Small Ones, even in the index that af Klint compiled at the end of her life. Although it is unfortunate that a fabricated title was introduced into af Klint’s legacy, the name was chosen with care since the term ‘primordial chaos’ comes from Theosophy and describes the turbulent beginning of time.

In 26 small oil-paintings created between 1906 and 1907, af Klint and Cassel depict how the world was born during a prehistoric storm and developed its original forms of shells, plants, geometric shapes, ethereal waves and mystical signs. The series was executed in sketches that the friends then selected to become paintings, thereby drawing and painting alternately. However, it is difficult to describe their method in any more detail since af Klint’s notes are very limited, largely omitting descriptions of their workdays, techniques and experiences. Instead the focus is on the spiritual messages that were conveyed.

While this means that information regarding who created which painting is limited, it still provides enough insight to understand how the work was distributed. By examining two paintings that were created by af Klint and Cassel respectively, paintings number 2 and number 10, we can retrieve information that is otherwise lacking.

Painting number 2, showing the development of the seed of life during storm and lightning, was created by af Klint from a drawing by Cassel. Although the motif is interesting from a religious perspective, it is the execution of the painting that is relevant here. The motif has been created in a dry style with expressive brushstrokes giving little attention to detail, and paint applied so thinly that the canvas shines through in several places.

Primordial Chaos, No.2 1906-1907. Oil on canvas 53x36.5cm (left). Primordial Chaos, No.10 1906-1907 Oil on canvas. 51.5x37cm (right). Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation
Primordial Chaos, No.2 1906-1907. Oil on canvas 53x36.5cm (left). Primordial Chaos, No.10 1906-1907 Oil on canvas. 51.5x37cm (right). Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation.

The difference between the artists is clear when comparing painting number 2 to painting number 10, which was executed by Cassel from one of her sketches with the instruction ‘to paint in such a way that she tried to imagine the colour’. The motif of a storm has been abandoned for a non-figurative image of the world’s original shapes and letters presented in a blue and yellow diagram. The painting is detailed, with the paint carefully applied, and the end result is a smooth surface saturated with colour. It is evident that the friends’ styles were opposites, and since this difference in technique is often visible throughout the series, it is possible to suggest who created the other paintings as well.

This division proposes that af Klint created twelve of the paintings in Primordial Chaos, including the first seven, and Cassel fourteen paintings towards the middle and end of the series. Although af Klint began to apply paint more generously in her later paintings, her style remained expressive, at times bordering on sloppy. Cassel, on the other hand, kept to a smooth, thick, and careful application of paint, suggesting that she executed the more well-known paintings in the series, such as number 15 of sperms fertilising an egg, and number 16 of ether waves.

Although this division cannot be proven with complete certainty and some paintings are certainly more difficult to classify than others, it serves as an indication of how the work was divided between the two friends. As such, the first series of The Paintings for the Temple was clearly a collaboration between af Klint and Cassel working side-by-side on their mission to create images from the dawn of time. This collaboration continued briefly when Cassel, on January 19, just two days after the friends had completed Primordial Chaos, created the first painting in the following Eros series, receiving, as she experienced, instructions regarding both the choice of colour and the size of the canvas.

This first painting again testifies to Cassel’s style of soft brushstrokes in a blue-green palette, and it was only later in the autumn, when af Klint continued with Eros, that the series became dominated by pink tones and she broke away from her previous expressive style. The difference in colour reflects a change between the friends, who would soon end their collaboration. From af Klint’s notes, it seems that Cassel found it difficult to surrender to the spirits they believed were guiding them. She was repeatedly told to silence her mind to receive their instructions, and warned ‘if you are not strong enough, you will not get the rich harvest of work that H [Hilma] would get’.

Eros, No. 1. 1907. Oil on canvas. 58x78cm (left). Eros, No. 2. Oil on canvas. 58.5x81.5cm (right). Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation.
Eros, No. 1. 1907. Oil on canvas. 58x78cm (left). Eros, No. 2. Oil on canvas. 58.5x81.5cm (right). Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation.

When Cassel failed to hear any messages, the whole project seemed to have collapsed for her. Although there is certainly more to the story than af Klint’s notes reveal, the result was that the friends ceased working together for a time, and once Cassel rejoined af Klint, her role was smaller than it was when creating Primordial Chaos.

Despite Cassel’s absence, af Klint did not continue alone but was accompanied by other women. One was Gusten Andersson (1862–1936), a friend from the island of Adelsö where af Klint had her family home. She was involved in the creation of The Ten Largest and, according to af Klint, they stood side-by-side to begin the first painting of the series: ‘We held each other’s hands and promised to begin with the greatest humility.’ This collaboration is evident in the motif of two wreaths of flowers, one of roses and the other of lilies; flowers that they often used as symbols for each other. Furthermore, af Klint worked on the Evolution series with her friend Inga Jehander and with Gusten Andersson, Anna Cassel and a woman named Heléne Westmark in the preliminary phase of the large US paintings.

US, No.1. 1908. Watercolour and graphite on paper. 26x36cm (left). US, No. 8. 1908. Watercolour and graphite on paper. 26x36cm (right). Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation.
US, No.1. 1908. Watercolour and graphite on paper. 26x36cm (left). US, No. 8. 1908. Watercolour and graphite on paper. 26x36cm (right). Courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation.

Another important collaborator was Cornelia Cederberg from The Five, who had created most of the drawings during the group’s seances. Although she had studied at the Handicraft School (now Konstfack University of Arts, Crafts and Design) like af Klint and Cassel, she was not a trained artist but had enrolled in the general programme to become a seamstress.

This did not prevent her from painting, and she contributed to the creation of the Eros series; the eighth painting of The Large Figure Paintings; The Ten Largest and watercolours that were preparatory works for the US series.The description of her involvement is often very general, with af Klint’s notes revealing that Cederberg ‘was chosen to help me with the writing and with painting according to my instructions’, as regarding The Ten Largest. This limited information about the work is a common situation with af Klint’s notes, which only contribute very superficial knowledge of external events. The fact that af Klint mixes both original notes and later comments from when she edited the material further complicates matters, and attempts to reconstruct events must therefore be cautious.

This problem is evident in the case of the seventeen preparatory paintings for the US series that were partly created by Cederberg. From the notebooks it seems that the initial plan was that Cederberg would create the entire series, but that af Klint, for some reason, took over the work. That Cederberg began the work is confirmed by af Klint’s comment about the first painting, which she ‘created the template’ for and ‘C.[ornelia] executed,’ suggesting that af Klint either made a preliminary drawing which Cederberg copied, or that af Klint sketched directly on paper that Cederberg then coloured.

These preparatory works show some interesting differences in style and subject matter that could be related to Cederberg’s participation. The first seven paintings repeat the same geometric flower painted with an abundant amount of water mixed in the paint, possibly the result of Cederberg’s hand. The last ten paintings show variation in the motif and are generally painted with more visible brushstrokes and uneven colour saturation, perhaps created by af Klint alone.

However, the reasons for these variations are less obvious than with Primordial Chaos, and the lack of clear information means attribution of the works must be taken with a pinch of salt. The only thing evident is that Cederberg created the first painting in the series, while details of when she ended her participation with af Klint remain shrouded in mystery.

In her notebooks, Hilma af Klint was open about the fact that several women participated in creating The Paintings for the Temple, and although she presented Cassel as an equal partner and Cederberg, Andersson and the other women more as assistants, their participation stands independent from any internal hierarchy. It is unfortunate that af Klint left behind only limited information about her work, largely because she edited and destroyed significant portions of her notes – but one day, material from the other women may surface to provide further insight into how the paintings were conceived. Until then, we must abandon the idea of The Paintings for the Temple as the creation of one single artist and acknowledge that other women contributed to af Klint’s work and vision as well.

This essay will also be published in Anna Cassel – The Saga of the Rose in 2023 by Stolpe Publishing.


Hedvig Martin