Published On: December 21st, 2023Categories: Art Review

Art Review by Alan Steinfeld from the New Sun online Newspaper

Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim: Paintings for the Future

Although channeling is never mentioned in the literature for the current Hilma af Klint exhibition at this fine art institution, it is obvious for anyone who has a metaphysical inkling that this is exactly what the artist claims to have done.

The museum’s present exhibition is not the same old art for art’s sake. This is art for the sake of imprinting, and even initiating viewers into higher realms of consciousness. In creating a new language of metaphysical symbols, Hilma af Klint, a Swedish artist and medium from the last century, was guided by other worldly beings to expand our spiritual awareness. Her abstract images first came to the attention of the American public in 1986 with an exhibition called The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985, held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Guggenheim exhibition is the most extensive solo display of the artist’s work ever organized in this country. With only seventy-six of the 193 paintings representing “the spirit of the world,” this limited showing fulfills a prophecy for the epic series: Painting for the Future.

The retrospective features Hilma’s “Temple series”, which was downloaded to the painter as a way of illustrating “the stages of life and humanity’s connection to the cosmos.” However, what the museum is so hyped up about in their promotion, is the idea of housing these earliest of non-representational images, created a decade before Kandinsky and Mondrian, the so-called fathers of modern abstract art. While those painters remained vaguer about their visual references, it is a mistake to call af Klint’s creations non-representational. This is a point made by Andrea Klonitz, in her essay for the Guggenheim catalogue for the exhibition: “Her quest as a painter was to understand the fundamental levels of existence through the means of art, rather than an attempt to reimagine art and its possibilities by infusing it with new brands of spirituality, as in the cases of Kandinsky and Mondrian, whom she is compared to. While these figures were spiritually inspired and turned to abstraction, none saw themselves as a direct conduit for a spiritual Other.i The majority of recent writers on af Klint miss this point altogether. One even labeled her work as having been “tainted by the stain of the occult.” The problem is most critics lack the capacity to understand the subtle spiritual context of the work, but there are one or two that do. Peter Schjeldahl’s art review in The New Yorker noticed: “Af Klint wasn’t exercising a style… She was channeling visions received from a spirit world.” Still, while the mainstream viewing public might enjoy these earliest examples of abstract art, beneath their surface looms a vision of a multidimensional existence, as the Masters of the Higher Realms intended. These are the paintings for the future, as Hilma called them and it is our good fortune is that this future is now!

The Channeling

Born in Sweden in 1862, Hilma af Klint, like many painters and writers at the turn of the 20th century, was profoundly influenced by a spiritual renaissance, which had begun with the Foxx Sister’s and their table tapping séances in the mid 1800s. Occult historian Mitch Horowitz makes the point that the leading role of women in spiritual organizations of the late 19th century, gave them a greater voice in society and added power to the women’s suffrage movement.

Hilma’s awakening began in1879, at the age of 17, when she began to participate in Spiritist séances. This was followed by studies of Rosicrucian philosophy and Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophy. She then joined the Edelweiss Society, but soon left feeling it did not meet her spiritual development. It was at this point Hilma along with four other spiritual seekers formed their own organization called ‘The Five’ (De Fem). Between 1896 and 1907 ‘The Five,’ who were all women, met regularly, beginning each meeting with a prayer and a meditation, followed by a sermon or spiritual reading in front of a Rosicrucian altar, which was marked by a triangle and a cross with a rose in the middle… From here they would enter into trance states and receive messages via automatic writing, mediumship and what today would be called channeling. Early in this process they were contacted by a group of entities referred to as the “High Masters.” However, “High Masters,” seems to me to be a mundane English translation, which in terms of the vernacular of today’s spiritual culture might be translated as Ascended Masters. The group of higher dimensional beings was composed of six entities identified as Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg and Gregor. Their mission through ‘The Five’ was to put humanity in touch with the higher levels of spiritual knowledge. One such message from the entity Gregor declared: “All the knowledge that is not of the senses, not of the intellect, not of the heart, is the property that exclusively belongs to the deepest aspect of your being…the knowledge of your spirit.” As early as1904, Georg and Ananda told “The Five” of a need for a temple to be filled with paintings from “The Masters.” They called upon the women to convey the essence of spirituality into images. While the others declined, fearing that too long association with the other realms might drive them mad, only Hilma was up for the task.ii When the message came through on January 1, 1906 from Amaliel, it was officially announced that Hilma would be given the divine commission for creating works for the temple’s interior.iii She wrote enthusiastically: “Amaliel offered me a work and I answered immediately ‘Yes’. This was to be the great work I was to perform in my life.” iv The term, commission, was how Hilma referred to the paintings proposed by the Masters.

It was to be a monumental assignment primarily under the command of the Master Amaliel. She was ready for whatever it would take to paint “the astral plane and the immortal aspects of man.” Before beginning the process however, she was asked to have a ten-month period of mental and physical purification. Hilma went on a retreat, where she adopted a vegetarian diet and honed her focus. Then in November 1906 she began in earnest to channel the Temple paintings. Each piece was received in a vision, that she was not allowed to change when transposing it to canvas. She noted that the paintings were not made under “a strict obedience of the High Lords of the Mysteries.” Rather, when she saw them standing at her side, she received a transmission where she would feel her hand being guided. In her notebook she wrote: “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.”v In this way a painting was created every fifth day, and she did not stop, until April 1908, when she had completed 111 This means she was on call to the Masters for over a year and a half.

Excited about her downloads, she showed them to her spiritual mentor, Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Anthroposophical Society, on his visit to Stockholm. Steiner initiated her in his own theories regarding the arts, but he did not agree with the message of her symbology and rejected her visual expressions as out of alignment with his own. In a talk about her work, Johan af Klint, nephew of Hilma, said Steiner’s comments most likely stopped Hilma from continuing the series for several years. i But being an independently minded woman, she resumed the work of the Temple in1915, in order to complete what had been required.ii This time the communication took a different form. Her hand was not directed in the same way, the paintings came more internally in the form of images, sounds and words she sensed. She wrote about this in the third person: “Amaliel draws a sketch, which H then paints.”

The painting guidance came to an end when the compendium of work was completed in 1915. The final compositions were three large (10 feet by nearly 9 feet), Altarpieces. As seen in the

picture of the exhibition from the New York Times above. Each has a central golden disc representative of the golden age and the source of divine consciousness. The central canvas is surrounded by a pyramid pointing downwards on the left, and one pointing upwards on the right. These paintings respectively symbolize the involution and evolution of our spiritual journey into the density of creation. The downward spiral is the decent into matter, while the upward motion can be seen as the myriad of experiences ascending the soul back to the oneness of creation. In total, 193 canvases were painted for the series collectively called The Paintings for the Temple.i It is not certain what the Masters had in mine with the specific number. Numerologically speaking 193 can be reduced in to 13, with a variety of metaphysical associations. This includes symbols of the twelve disciples around the One, or the 13 moons of the female cycles in a year, and as an illustration of the 13 levels of creation in the kabalistic tree of life.

The series was the most intense time of Af Klint’s spiritual work. Yet because her images came from a higher level of consciousness, she admitted that she never quite understood what the temple paintings were supposed to mean. Reflecting on the collection however, she felt that they were in preparation of a message for humanity and that they contained esoteric descriptions about how the universe was put together. The spiral was a central recurring motif, mirroring the spiritual ascent of humanity. Some pictures show a spiraling motion becoming a plant tendril, which in turn unfolds into a calligraphy of unknown letters. My interpretation for this piece is as a demonstration for the way vegetative matter is transmuted to become food for the mind, represented in the asemic lettersi. One recent critic has called her images “energizing, even healing…”ii The shows curator, Helen Molesworth, says af Klint is “in essence, offering a Gaia-like theory of radical holistic interconnectivity.”iii She summed up their totality as “stages of life and humanity’s connections to the cosmos.” Her notes speak of a hierarchy of spiritual realms, going from the Etheric, to the Astral and to the Mental planes.

A Prime Example: The Swan Series

It is one thing to say that her art was directed by forces greater than limited human awareness, but it is another thing to interpret their meanings in terms of today’s emerging spiritual culture. Within the Temple series there are a few minor series, such as the Primordial Creation, The Dove and The Swan. Studying a particular developmental progression is a meditation on the hidden unity of creation itself. For example, The Swan series, (referred in the exhibition catalogue as Group IX/UW, The Swan No. 1-24, painted in 1915), perhaps reveal what the Masters intended to say about the multidimensional levels of existence within nature. We see in the 24 paintings of The Swan, detailed illustrations concerning the transformation from dense matter into pure energy. Hilma said the sequence represented Transcendence. Since the time of the ancient Greeks the swan has been associated with the elements of the sun (fire) and water, making it a symbol in alchemy for the union of opposites. Alchemists felt that when these oppositional forces were combined together, they would create the philosopher’s stone; a magical elixir of transformation and immortality.

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