Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim After Dark: Mystical Endeavors in Art / by Sam Abelow

“Group IV, no 4, The Ten Largest,” by Hilma af Klint. Photographed as installed at the Guggenheim Museum.

From October 2018 through April 2019 the Guggenheim Museum in New York City is exhibiting the monumental works of artist and mystic Hilma af Klint. The solo exhibition, “Paintings from the Future,” has on display astoundingly mystical, large format paintings, as well as exquisite works on paper. One notable gallery room —  which has become a must-Instagram for those in the art world — includes a dozen epic works that scale ten feet high.

Hilma After Dark

On a mild December night, the Guggenheim offered a chance to see af Klint’s paintings “After Dark.” This event featured a DJ in the central lobby of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed building. The evening’s ambiance, particularly the experience of exploring af Klint’s works with accompanying electronic music, added to the effect of the already psychedelic art. The way in which music can enhance the experience of painting is not often explored, and so this event offered a rare opportunity.

However, the crowd of New Yorkers, sprinkled with a few fashionable artistic types, lingered on the dance floor, sipping drinks, barely tapping their toes. Walking the winding galleries well-dressed professional types gazed, slightly dumbfounded by af Klint’s works which express esoteric thought. 

So, the “After Dark” party, which had been reported in previous years to be a vibrant scene, had the feeling of restraint. This seemed to represent a poignant cultural failure, as such an incredible setting did not correspond with lively dancing, much less the type of exaltation that af Klint was so clearly reaching for.

It was also apparent that many of the nightlife crowd seemed especially baffled as they encountered af Klint’s mystical paintings, which are so much out of the purview, the frame of reference of conventional people. This discrepancy between artist and their art from the general viewer’s experience of presentation is a general issue with many events in the art world, but was made all the more appreciable in the presence of af Klint’s astonishing, rich spiritual and artistic devotion.

Above are a selected series of Hilma af Klint’s paintings, as photographed in the Guggenheim.

A Reclusive Mystic, An Artist Ahead of Her Time

At the turn of the 19th century, a movement of spiritualism swept through Europe. This inundation from the East is the origination of what we today call “New Age” spirituality. Hilma af Klint, already a trained artist, became deeply involved in various aspects of this movement throughout her life.

The inspiration for her “abstract” paintings began as she, and a group of four other women, who called themselves “The Five,” communicated with what they felt were disembodied spirits, “The High Ones.” In this way she was “commissioned” to do the paintings.

This transcendent impetus is made clear in the dense timeline of af Klint’s artistic and spiritual activity. Between 1907 and 1908 she completed 111 pieces, which were intended for a temple, or architectural space which never came to fruition. The urgency of her inspiration is evident in the brushwork, which is often loose and energetic. This expressionistic approach wouldn’t be seen in art for several more decades. It was the artist’s specific rejection of the “art” context, along with skill and talent, which allowed her to break so many barriers.

af Klint’s works, as became starkly evident at the “After Dark” event, still challenge modern presuppositions of what “art” is and how it functions in society. 

Mysticism in Art

Above are a series of entries in the poet, W.B. Yeat’s journal, as he was studying Rosicrucianism — a form of mystical study that Hilma af Klint was also involved with.

A page from Carl Jung’s “Red Book”

af Klint’s paintings have the essential components of art, as they are visual objects which affect viewers, and are undoubtedly inventive and ahead of their time. But, her works are explicitly intended for a distinct purpose. Rather than the now-cliché comparison to Kandinsky or Klee, these works are much more reminiscent of certain mystics and spiritual seekers who produced visual works.

A painting by Lady Frieda Harris, commissioned by Aleistor Crowley for the “Thoth Tarot Deck.”

For example, af Klint’s paintings are incredibly similar to the paintings found in Carl Jung’s, “Red Book,” which were based off the mystical experiences the psychologist had between 1913 and 1917. Similar to af Klint, Jung worked in isolation from the art world, executing his own “abstract” compositions. Jung felt that his visual works existed outside of such a context.

A diverse set of styles were exhibited at early French Symbolist salon’s, some of which are reminiscent of New Age art seen today.

Another example of such synergy between art and mysticism is the collaboration between occultist Aleister Crowley and artist Lady Frieda Harris to produce the Thoth Tarot paintings. For Crowley and Harris, as with af Klint, the use of artistic media and skill was a vehicle for spiritual communion and divination. What many would likely consider spurious beliefs were the fuel behind many artistic productions at the turn of the 19th century. This includes W.B. Yeats, who was highly influenced by Rosicrucianism — as was af Klint. This strand of occultism also inspired certain sects of the French Symbolists, which the Guggenheim has previously exhibited.

All of these movements were a part of a reaction to increased rationalism in the West. The artistic need to compensate against materialism was often found by looking towards the East, or into their own intuition. The products of such spiritual and artistic efforts are still foreign to the the common modern mind, which is so influenced by science.

Questions on the Function of Art

Additionally, a contemporary examination of af Klint’s work, as well as the above examples, challenges today’s notions of “art.” Today’s typical art fair or gallery show tends towards an aestheticization of psychological material. In other words, what was originally a sort of gestalt from the artist is looked at as object of sense pleasure. Or, oftentimes, the artist’s works are analyzed biographically, or intellectually described for their contextual meaning.

This is the reverse of af Klint’s goal, which was the utilization of the visual object as a prompt for direct communion with the spiritual realm. That is, she saw painting as a vehicle for experience, rather than an end in and of themselves.

Hilma af Klint’s work represent a woman’s search for spiritual meaning — like reading the Upanishads through painting. Therefore, they may not function as “art” in today’s context of the word — which is a form of “visual candy” that hangs on the wall, or sits in the middle of the gallery’s white cube.

This consideration of the purpose of art today may be a vital conversation, as an addition to questions regarding the historical role of gender in art history – the latter of which has surrounded this current af Klint exhibition.

The history of artists, such as af Klint, who sought transcendental truth through visual representation may prompt viewers and curators to think of novel ways of dealing more experientially with art. Additionally, the ways in which the party aspect of the “After Dark” event fell short, may bring about a deeper inquiry into how to improve artistically orientated night life.