Occasionally biographies can be so persuasive as to seem to be on the edge of delusion – a conundrum, more than a life story, with a plot that thickens while characters unfold. When history becomes inadequate, it can lead to colossal mix-ups: the allegory of women artists overshadowed by the men around them perfectly fits with the picture – women that capsized the world around them and that have been, for a long time, forgotten visionaries.
The beginning of the 19th century inherited reams of scientific and innovative discoveries, leading to the consecration of modern times; the telegraph, the typewriter and the aspirin amongst many rewarded the prioritizing of scientific disciplines, leading to a consequential period of spiritual doubt and loss of faith. The increased enthusiasm for the supernatural and the occult became a trend – a reaction with which we are certainly familiar in the present day.
Parapsychology (as we would call it today) always served as the arena for the unexplored, belonging to the land of the unknown: locating itself in solid antithesis to the reign of maths and empirical education, through its inconsistency, the realm of paranormal activity was yet treated by its followers with an exemplary dose of structured effort and a specific agenda. Indeed, in Stockholm, a group of five women, led by artist and mystic Hilma Af Klint (1862-1944) were ahead of the curve, conducting their spiritistic sèances with methodological rigor. Each of their sessions consisted of a prayer, followed by a meditation, and a reviewed analysis of a Christian sermon from the New Testament to wrap up. Attempting to communicate with the intercessors, enchanted and possessed, artist Hilma Af Klint was already making history, unexposed.
Hilma identified painting as a medium to attain the abstract. The essence of her artistic artwork was in fact, a portal to a new language: absorbing the details of her trivial routine, her spiritist influences merged with her awareness of science and the natural world. The artist used to note down in a book her cabalistic studies and revelations; messages from higher Spirits, the so-called “High Masters”, who she was attempting to interact with to get access to the arcane world.
Her passion for mysticism started in 1879, when the abstract painter became attracted to the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky and the philosophy of Christian Rosencreutz. During that time that she met Anna Cassel at the Academy Of Fine Arts, the first of the four women with whom she later worked in the artist’s group “The Five”. Cassel, Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman, and Mathilda Nilsson were all affiliated to the Edelweiss Society, adopting the Theosophical teachings of Helena Blavatsky.
After ten years, Hilma’s artwork moved to a more sophisticated experimental automatic drawing, transitioning to a new type of nonfigurative painting. Her canvas explored the mysterious and esoteric, translating into new original geometric shapes, symmetric outlines and symbols that conveyed the idea of divine love. Her compositions depicted allegorical sunsets, celestial bodies, emblematic constellations. Isolated from the contemporary artistic movements, she was oblivious to the fact that other artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevitch had been inspired by the Theosophical Movement just as she had been.
Hilma Af Klint’s first abstract painting was conceived in 1906, four years before Wassily Kandinsky got credited in history books as the pioneer of abstract art. An anachronistic oversight resulting in her artwork being obfuscated for more than twenty years after her death: a denial of the recognition that she, along with many other female artists, deserved.
It is fascinating to realise that history, along with Hilma Af Klint’s life, has been misrepresented for more than twenty years – carrying along with it a bitter unquantifiable reminder of all the female artists who were ‘disclosed’ by a competitive male-dominated world only after their deaths.
Hilma’s artistic journey can be followed through a new documentary by Zeitgeist Films, accessible online via theaters across the country from today. Her rediscovery through a recent smash retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, and the course-correcting documentary describes not only the life and craft of Af Klint, but also the process of her mischaracterisation and erasure by both a patriarchal narrative of artistic progress and capitalistic determination of artistic value.
And as a reminder that all chickens come home to roost, mostly if they are underestimating the most artistic development of the 20th century.