Spotlight Art

Hilma af Klint: The Tantric artist in Sweden

A self portrait by Hilma af Klint.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

A recent exhibition of the works of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim Museum in New York is re-calibrating the ladders of abstract expressionism in the art world.

Like the heroine in Disney’s Frozen (2013), af Klint was entombed in the vaults of the museum of modern art, Moderna Museet, at Stockholm for more than half a century. Seen but not heard. For some inexplicable reason, at the time of her death in 1944, af Klint had made a condition that her paintings and notebooks would not be shown to the world for 20 years. Her only heir, her nephew Erik af Klint who inherited her artistic estate, kept his word. In any case, Europe was in turmoil in the final years of World War II. By the time the family decided to show her paintings to the world, no one seemed the least interested.

Suddenly, af Klint has emerged like a wraith from the icy environs of Sweden. She has risen full-blown, trailing an aura of circles and spiralling floral forms, geometric triangles and colour diagrams, knocking off the previous giants of abstract art from their ladders. Now, almost a hundred years after she painted them, reproductions of The Swan, two black and white swans almost touching each other with their beaks and one wing-tip, each painted in vigorous brush strokes against contrasting black and white backgrounds, are flying off the New York museum gift shop’s shelves along with the triangles and the snails. First to be given the af Klint brush-off are the Russians, Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, with abstract minimalist Dutchman Piet Mondrian next in line.

Summoning the spirits

Critics are singing arias in praise of af Klint. She stares out of her black-and-white photograph with the crystalline gaze of her Nordic ancestors, fine etched nose and mouth, and a firm but faintly dimpled chin. In another age, she would have probably been a nun. Instead, she became an artist, studying, between 1882 and 1887, at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm from where she graduated with honours.

af Klint’s ‘The Swan’.

af Klint’s ‘The Swan’.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

At the same time, af Klint became interested in the occult. She and a group of four young women met regularly to summon the spirits from other worlds. She may have been inspired by the sudden death of one of her sisters, Hermina. Or equally plausible is the theory that she was attracted by Helena Blavatsky’s ideas of Theosophy.

Soon, ‘The Five’ were channelling ‘The High Masters’, one of them predictably named Ananda. There’s a portrait of af Klint in her atelier. It’s crowded with fronds, flowers and plant forms with a Japanese style parasol floating from its perch on the ceiling. Her paintings of the time are also regular scenes from nature, red poppies and portraits.

Soon, one of the ‘Masters’ was painting through her. Or as she says, “The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”

In af Klint’s notebooks, one can identify a strong pyscho-sexual element in her work. The necks of the swans, for instance, stretch out in sinuous attraction, their tensile beaks just connecting. The artist was also most certainly aware of the controversial work Theory of Colours (1810), expounded by Europe’s celebrated artist-writer-philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In it, he had described ‘blue’ as feminine, ‘yellow’ as male, and the two together representing nature as ‘green’.

Her white swan has a blue patch behind its beak and blue webbed feet. The black swan has yellow ochre feet and beak. More to the point, Goethe had challenged Newton’s theory of white light refracting into a rainbow of colours when projected on a white background through a crystal. Or, as Goethe put it: “Newton’s error was in trusting math over the sensations of the eye.”

Colour coding

Circles and spiralling floral forms, geometric triangles and colour contrasts — Hilma af Klint’s works are now seen as bold and beautiful.

Circles and spiralling floral forms, geometric triangles and colour contrasts — Hilma af Klint’s works are now seen as bold and beautiful.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

There was also Goethe’s strangely seductive fairy tale, ‘The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily’, that attracted the attention of one of af Klint’s future mentors, the Austrian thinker and sometime Theosophist Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). The Green Snake in the story is an exceptionally versatile creation. At times, the Green Snake gobbles gold coins and becomes luminescent. Today, we would describe it as radioactive. At other times, it becomes a bridge between the two banks of a raging river. Needless to add, the imagery of the snake or serpent has taken on different meanings in various cultures.

There’s an oblique connection between Steiner and Jiddu Krishnamurti that might link the story to Madras and Switzerland where Steiner had shifted. The two rather good-looking young men had been chosen by Annie Besant to be her emissaries. It must have been a shock to the rationally-inclined Steiner when she announced that Krishnamurti would be her spiritual heir. It led to the first great schism within the movement. Steiner left it. af Klint had already taken part in the Congress of Theosophical Society in Sweden in June 1913. She looked up to Steiner as her mentor. By the time she went to Switzerland, Steiner had begun to espouse the tenets of the Rosicrucians. She too became more interested in Christian imagery. Sadly, it would seem to us today, the initial vibrant nature of her brush strokes, whether sexual or spiritual, became more decorative.

For most Indian critics, the symbolic images of pure circles rimmed with colour, or multiple inverted triangles, spirals, ovoid shapes, and flat colour planes, shout ‘Tantric’ rather than ‘Abstract’. This is what is interesting about the current intent to label her as an early woman abstractionist who trumped the men. I would beg to differ and position her among the Tantric school, whether Buddhist or Hindu.

There is a mystical link between the Russian abstractionists of the early 20th century and our own neo-Tantric artists. One has only to mention the names of G.R. Santosh, Prafulla Mohanty, Biren De and S.H. Raza. If we look at the work of K.C.S. Paniker and his series of paintings ‘Words and Symbols’, we will find an echo in the notebooks and subsequent paintings of af Klint.

In Goethe’s fable, the Green Snake of creativity settles back into the riverbed and loses its glow. The Beautiful Lily finds her Prince, who has an irritating habit of dropping dead most of the time.

This could be an allegory for af Klint. Awakening after long years of sleep, she wanders into the hall of contemporary fame and finds that she has been consigned to marry the Prince called Abstract Art. Is this what she would have wanted?

The critic and cultural commentator spent some of her early years studying at Franska Skolan in Stockholm.

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 2:08:38 PM |

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