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The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition of Swedish modern artist Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, was a long-overdue American showcase of af Klint’s innovations. Organized by Director of Collections and Senior Curator Tracey R. Bashkoff, Paintings for the Future notably highlighted the spiritualist beliefs that informed af Klint’s practice, as well as those of peers like Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. Yet, while the show and catalog successfully celebrated af Klint’s monumental compositions, both fell short of their goal: the integration of af Klint within canonical European aesthetic modernism. This weakness was as much a fault as it was a virtue, as Paintings for the Future raised important questions about formalist modernism’s continued chokehold on artistic display, the prominence accorded (or not accorded) to artistic intention, and the interpretative complications presented by twentieth-century art’s spiritual motivations.
In 1879, af Klint began her engagement with spiritualism, a rapidly all-consuming interest only reinforced by the 1880 death of her sister Hermina. Shortly after completing her training at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, af Klint established a study group for mediumship with four other women in 1896, a group self-christened “The Five.” The Five produced automatic drawings derived from messages received by “High Masters,” the spiritual guides they channeled. Around this time, af Klint became involved in institutionalized occult movements, such as Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society. By 1906, the artist embarked on what she termed the “great commission,” paintings that exemplified messages received during séances. Af Klint prepared herself to create these works as if preparing to take religious vows—including ten months of vegetarianism and strict personal discipline (21). Her 1906–7 series Primordial Chaos was her first foray into the completion of the spirits’ directives.
From the outset, then, it is essential to recognize that the compositions celebrated in Paintings for the Future were forged as direct expressions of af Klint’s occult beliefs. Af Klint’s 1906–15 monumental cycle The Paintings for the Temple was not designed as a groundbreaking abstract study, but rather as a didactic spiritual journey. She intended these paintings not for gallery walls, but instead for display in a sanctuary of her own design—a “temple of the spirit”—accessed via a spiral path. Yet, while Paintings for the Future did not neglect either discussion of or emphasis on the prominent role af Klint’s occult beliefs played in her works’ generation, both the show and the catalog primarily defined af Klint’s achievements in relation to a traditional, formalist narrative of abstract painting’s origin.
Paintings for the Future was an exhibition organized chronologically that documented from af Klint’s early, academically trained naturalism to her creative apex, her Altarpieces from The Paintings for the Temple, with a conclusion showcasing her later experiments. The show began in the annex gallery, which displayed af Klint’s 1907 series The Ten Largest. The monumental paintings enveloped the visitor in af Klint’s vibrantly colored world of flowers, geometric shapes, vaguely mathematical diagrams, and forms disconnected from apparent signification. In the annex’s immersive display, the viewer’s first encounter with af Klint’s world was as an overwhelming, enigmatic puzzle. The appeal of this perspective—the large and provocatively indecipherable work of art—could not help but overpower the subsequent wall texts that provided explanatory context, as well as the progression of studies that placed these compositional choices within af Klint’s developing spiritualist foundation and evolving systematic logic.
The Guggenheim’s organizing thesis was expressed in the show’s opening wall text, which stated that in 1906, “years before Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and others,” “Hilma af Klint began creating radically abstract paintings.” According to the Guggenheim, this implied prescience of a female artist then forced a reevaluation of abstraction’s “timeline” and “the factors that shaped its trajectory,” such as “geography, gender, and broader currents in intellectual visual culture.” These points were, however, undermined by the absence of exhibited comparative imagery by Mondrian or Kandinsky, both of whom are represented in the Guggenheim’s permanent collection. Such a juxtaposition would have visually underscored af Klint’s rightful place in the chronology of aesthetic modernism. Perhaps equally important, seeing af Klint adjacent to these more celebrated male peers would have emphasized the typically overlooked commonality of occult belief as a determinant not only of Mondrian’s and Kandinsky’s work, but also of much early twentieth-century avant-garde practice.
In the catalog, articles by scholars and curators whose works have challenged tenets of Western modernism, such as Briony Fer and Vivien Greene, each examine one facet of af Klint’s work that aligns her with better-known counterparts. For instance, Greene’s essay, “Hilma af Klint and the Swedish Folk Art Revival,” details the roots of af Klint’s imagery in Swedish folk art, thereby paralleling the artist’s practice with the importance of folk art in the aesthetic developments of artists like Gabriele Münter, Wassily Kandinsky, and Kazimir Malevich (98). Julia Voss’s essay, “The Traveling Hilma af Klint,” details af Klint’s family and travel history, but, crucially, this article and others neglect to directly address the role class and wealth played in af Klint’s ability to dedicate her life to a pursuit of mediumship and noncommercial artistic creation as an early twentieth-century unmarried woman (49). The catalog also uses the Guggenheim Museum’s institutional history to argue that the Guggenheim was an apt showcase for af Klint. In addition to addressing the visual correspondence between af Klint’s desired spiral ascent to her “temple of the spirit” and the curling walkway of the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright building, Tracey Bashkoff’s “Temples for Paintings” and Daniel Birnbaum’s “Another Canon” explore the shared influence of spiritualist ideas on both af Klint and the first director of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (now the Guggenheim), Hilla Rebay (17–31; 210–15).
The fundamental question Paintings for the Future begged, however, was not how af Klint, with her spectacular paintings created in the service of occult belief, fits within the narrative of Western modernism, but rather how Western modernism, still circumscribed by a formal progression from “representation” to “abstraction,” fits her—if at all. While af Klint was certainly an artist, she was not necessarily one easily defined by the art historical avant-garde, hyperconscious of overturning art historical precedent; nor was she a modern artist who aspired to exhibited acclaim and market validation. Indeed, af Klint deliberately removed her practice from either of these systems, as she placed a posthumous, twenty-year exhibition “gag order” on her abstracted work and declared the world of her lifetime unprepared to receive the truths her paintings contained. Af Klint’s radical interventions in the artistic tradition were then documents of occult practice that happened to be well-composed and beautifully rendered, rather than works conceived as art that happened to be inspired by occult ideas—a crucial distinction to understand, though one tough to exhibit.
Paintings for the Future’s difficulty engaging with the interpretive implications of af Klint’s spiritualism was exemplified by the show’s key takeaway. Consistently articulated was the talking point that a woman, Hilma af Klint, reached abstraction before her male peers. In addition to this concept’s incorrect presumption—that modern artists were all deliberately and collectively competing to “win” abstraction—the premise behind it betrayed the stubborn persistence of formalist ideas of artistic achievement. To reach abstraction “first” implies a teleology of the kind espoused by critic Clement Greenberg midcentury, in which the inevitable evolution of progressive artistic creation was throwing off figuration’s yoke in favor of abstraction. For af Klint, such a characterization of her spiritually focused practice is false and misattributes to her motivations a desire to participate in the critical fiction of a formalist race for avant-garde prominence.
Similarly, af Klint’s compositions elucidate the limitations of the term “abstract” itself. Af Klint’s work was never fully “abstract,” in a formalist sense. Each compositional decision served an ideological purpose, representing the ideal universe through a spiritualist lens. Af Klint’s work necessitates qualification as an ideological abstraction, a category of art making that intended geometric form not as a stylistic choice, but rather to convey specific meaning. Likewise, if one accepts that designating a work formally “abstract” implies the absence of figurative representation, then it should be noted that many of af Klint’s works do not meet this criterion, as most of the canvases purposefully juxtapose geometric forms with identifiable objects. Thus, af Klint’s production not only undermines the Guggenheim’s formalist claim for her value—her achievement of “abstraction” before her male peers—but also highlights the inadequacy of the terms “abstract” and “abstraction” to characterize her work. The catalog’s rich conversation transcript among Helen Molesworth, Christine Burgin, Leah Dickerman, Lisa Florman, Josiah McElheny, R. H. Quaytman, and Amy Sillman, “Art for Another Future,” gives space to these issues, as participants express this uncertainty and confusion about af Klint’s classification (33). I only wish such queries could have been more prominently integrated into the exhibition itself.
This mismatch between af Klint’s work and the paradigms of Western modernism does not negate her aesthetic achievements. On the contrary, it qualifies them. The difficulties that necessarily arise when trying to fit an artist like af Klint into canonical modern art history are flaws that breed opportunities to rethink seemingly intractable art historical categorizations of value. For Hilma af Klint, who wanted her art to illuminate the mysteries of the universe, an exhibition that made room to question our dearly held art historical assumptions might have been the greatest realization of her creations.
Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow, Rockefeller Archive Center, and Independent Art Historian