Past Masters: The Case of Hilma af Klint
The following is from The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890-1985, copublished by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Abbeville Press (1986) as an in-depth companion volume to the exhibition shown in Los Angeles, Chicago and The Hague in 1986 and 1987:
Hilma af Klint was born in Sweden on 26 October 1862, into a family that included several generations of naval officers skilled in navigation, mathematics, and astronomy. She herself was interested in mathematics and even more so in botany. In addition, she began at an early age to study portrait painting. She neglected the study of languages and is said to have understood only the Scandinavian ones, a factor that may have intensified her subsequent isolation from the artistic movements of Europe. As a child and during her student years she was susceptible to extrasensory experiences and at seventeen became seriously involved in spiritualism. At the same time af Klint continued to develop her abilities as an artist and in 1882 entered the Royal Academy in Stockholm, where she was esteemed by the faculty. After five years of study she was awarded a studio of her own in which she worked professionally as a portrait and landscape painter.
Together with four other women she formed a spiritualist group during the 1890s. The Friday Group, or the Five, as they called themselves, began as an ordinary spiritualist group that received messages through a psychograph (an instrument for recording spirit writings) or a trance medium. The members of the group -- af Klint, Anna Cassel, Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman, and Mathilde N. (family name unknown) -- met in each other's homes and studios. Over the years af Klint became mediumistically adept and eventually functioned as the sole medium of the group. During the Friday Group's séances spirit leaders presented themselves by name and promised to help the group's members in their spiritual training; such leaders are common in spiritualist literature and life.
Through its spirit leaders the group was inspired to draw automatically in pencil, a technique that was not unusual at that time. When the hand moved automatically, the conscious will did not direct the pattern that developed on the paper; the women thus became artistic tools for their spirit leaders. In a series of sketchbooks, religious scenes and religious symbols were depicted in drawings made by the group collectively. The group's drawing technique developed in such a way that abstract patterns, dependent on the free movement of the hand, became visible....
Af Klint considered the knowledge of duality to be the main theme, or message, of her work. She believed that the sexes of men and women in the real world are reversed in the astral world; and that this reversal provides a resolution of the duality within human existence. The struggle between male and female is an expression of creation, and af Klint believed that this struggle was the fundamental idea behind all creative power. Formal elements and colors in her paintings can be related to this duality. Her work leads the observer to the conclusion that when the balance between male and female is attained one can leave the physical plane and join the angels.
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