Meet the Swedish mystic who was the first Abstract artist

The artist and mystic Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) never described the 193 paintings she produced between 1906-15 as “Abstract art.” Instead, af Klint thought of these paintings as diagrammatic illustrations inspired by conversations she (and her friends) conducted with the spirit world from the late 1890s on.

That af Klint did not call her work “Abstract art” is enough for some art historians to (foolishly) discount her art as the work of the first Abstract artist. In fact af Klint was painting her Abstract pictures long before Wassily Kandinsky made his progression from landscapes to abstraction sometime around 1910, or Robert Delaunay dropped Neo-Impressionism for Orphism and then moseyed along into Abstract art just a year or two later. But these men were members of voluble artistic groups and Kandinsky was a lawyer who knew the importance of self-promotion. Unlike af Klint who worked alone, in seclusion, and stipulated that her artwork was not to be exhibited until twenty years after her death. Af Klint died in 1944. In fact, it took forty-two years for her work to be seen by the public as part of an exhibition called The Spiritual in Art in Los Angeles, 1986.

And there’s the issue. The word “spiritual.” In a secular world where anything with a whiff of bells and candles is considered irrelevant, contemptible, and generally unimportant, it has been difficult for af Klint to be seen as anything other than an outsider artist or a footnote to the boys who have taken all the credit. Of course, a large part of the blame for this must rest with af Klint herself and her own prohibition on exhibiting her work. It’s very unfortunate, for this self-imposed ban meant that although af Klint may have been (I’ll say it again) the very first Abstract artist, her failure to share her work or exhibit it widely meant she had no or very limited influence through her artistic endeavors.

But now that af Klint has been rediscovered, it’s probably the right time to rip up the old art history narrative about Kandinsky and Delaunay and all the other boys and start all over again with af Klint at the top of that Abstract tree.

Hilma af Klint was born in Sweden in 1862 into a naval family. Her father was an admiral with a great interest in mathematics, who could play a damn fine tune on the violin. Her family were Protestant Christians but took considerable interest in the rapid advances made by science into the world—from medicine and x-rays to the theory of evolution. Unlike today, religious belief and scientific investigation were not mutually exclusive. In the same way, there was (at the time) a scientific interest in the spiritual.

Af Klint was passionate about mathematics, botany, and art. Some of her earliest paintings were detailed examinations of plants. Her father had little understanding of his daughter’s passion for art and would ruefully shake his head when she enthused about painting. Af Klint studied portraiture and landscape at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm 1882-87, graduating with honors. Her paintings are exceedingly good and technically very fine but not extraordinary or even offering much of a hint of what was to come.

The turning point for this great change roughly stemmed from the death of her younger sister. After her sister’s death in 1880, af Klint joined a group of women known who shared an interest in the spiritual, in particular, the occult theories and Theosophical ideas of Madame Blavatsky who promoted a unity of the scientific and the spiritual. These women became known as “The Five.” They held séances together with af Klint often acting as the medium. The group made contact with spirit entities which they called the “High Masters.” Under their guidance, these women started producing works created by automatic writing and automatic painting—this was almost four decades before the Surrealists laid claim to inventing such techniques.

It was through her contact with these High Masters that af Klint began her series of Abstract paintings in 1906. These pictures, she claimed, were intended to represent “the path towards the reconciliation of spirituality with the material world, along with other dualities: faith and science, men and women, good and evil.”

Af Klint detailed her conversations with these spirits including one with a spirit called Gregor who told her:

All the knowledge that is not of the senses, not of the intellect, not of the heart but is the property that exclusively belongs to the deepest aspect of your being […] the knowledge of your spirit.

In 1906, af Klint began painting the images these spirits instructed her to set down. Her first was the painting Ur-Chaos which was created under the direction of the High Master Amaliel, as af Klint wrote in her notebooks:

Amaliel sign a draft, then let H paint. The idea is to produce a nucleus from which the evolution is based in rain and storm, lightning and storms. Then come leaden clouds above.

Between 1906 and 1915, af Klint produced a total of 193 paintings and an outpouring of thousands of words describing her conversations with the High Masters and the meaning of her paintings. Her work depicted the symmetrical duality of existence like male/female, material/spiritual, and good/evil. Blue represented the feminine. Yellow the masculine. Pink signified physical love. Red denoted spiritual love. Green represented harmony. Spirals signified evolution. Marks that looked like a “U” stood for the spiritual world. While waves or a “W” the material world. Circles or discs meant unity. Af Klint believed she was creating a new visual language, a new way of painting, that brought the spiritual and scientific together.

These paintings were often over ten feet in height. Af Klint stood around five feet. She painted her pictures on the floor—the occasional footprint can be seen smudged on the canvas. Af Klint worked like someone possessed. She believed her work was intended to establish a “Temple.” What this temple was or what it signified she was never exactly quite sure. All af Klint knew was that she was being guided by spirits:

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.

All through this, af Klint continued her own rigorous investigation into new scientific and esoteric ideas. This brought her to the work of Rudolf Steiner who was similarly following a path towards creating a synthesis between the scientific and the spiritual. When af Klint showed her paintings to the great esoteric, Steiner was shocked and told her these paintings must not be seen for fifty years as no one would understand them.

Steiner’s response devastated af Klint and she stopped painting for four years. Af Klint spent her time tending to her blind, dying mother. She then returned to painting but kept herself and more importantly her work removed from the world. After her death in 1944, the rented barn in which she kept her studio was to be burnt by the landlord farmer. A relative quickly decanted all of af Klint’s paintings and notebooks into wooden crates and stored them in a tin-roofed attic for the next thirty years.

In 1970, af Klint’s paintings were offered to the Moderna Museet (Museum of Modern Art) in Stockholm which was surprisingly (some might say foolishly) knocked back. Thankfully, through the perseverance of her family and the art historian Åke Fant, af Klint’s work was eventually exhibited in the 1980s. In total, Hilma af Klint painted over 1,200 abstract paintings and wrote some 23,000 words, all of which are now owned and managed by the Hilma af Klint Foundation.
‘The Ten Largest #3’ (1907).
‘The Ten Largest #4’ (1907).
‘The Ten Largest #7.’ (1907).
More Abstract art from Hilma af Klint, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
10:27 am
Figures in a Landscape: Classic documentary on sculptor Henry Moore

When the poet Stephen Spender visited Henry Moore at his home in 1960, he asked the sculptor ‘what were the differences of his aims when he did an abstract drawing, or a representational one, or a portrait.’ Moore replied that there were at least 5 or 6 different kinds of drawing used in the process of creating work.

(1) The kind of drawing he made when he was trying to study the organic form of nature of an object. This was the kind of drawing which consisted of trying to find something out. He said in this connection that it was impossible for anyone to do drawings without making discovery about the structure of objects.

(2) Trying to describe the objects, for example, when he did a drawing of his daughter or some other life figure, or perhaps even of a bone.

(3) The kind of drawing he did when he was trying to clear his mind of an idea for a piece of sculpture: to plan it out, to see it from different angles and so on, to get an idea of what it would look like.

(4) Drawings which he would call exploratory. He would start simply perhaps by scribbling a few lines and then discovering from them a shape which led on to something else. These are the kind of drawings which arise from doodling.

(5) Drawings in which he attempted to explore the metamorphosis of objects. He would draw something realistically and then try to discover how it could take some other shape. He would turn realistic subjects into an abstraction through drawing it first realistically and then abstracting from it.

(6) What he called ‘imaginative’ drawings in order to create an atmosphere of dream. In this category, he would draw figures standing against a background.

Moore was influenced by Picasso (the solidity of flesh, the abstraction of figures) and primitive art, in particular Mexican which he described as ‘a channel for expressing strong hopes, beliefs and fears.’  Moore’s work continued in the tradition of celebrating the human condition. He aimed to bring an affinity between the human figure and the landscape. At times his abstract forms were not as easily assimilated by the viewer as more classical presentations - their scale and lack of identifiable facial features left the viewer to ponder their own humanity and role in the world. Sadly these days this seems to mean stealing Moore’s sculptures for scrap metal.

There was also great repetition with Moore - the lessons he had learnt in sketching the shadowy figures of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz in the Underground tunnels, was re-created time and again, while his attraction to mother and child most likely came from the personal heartache of his wife, Irina’s miscarriages, and the eventual joy at the birth of his daughter Mary.

In 1951, film-maker John Read (son of art critic Herbert Read) made the first documentary on Henry Moore, in which the sculptor explained the tradition of his work, his influences, and the process by which he created his own sculptures - form sketches, drawing, to models and casts.


Posted by Paul Gallagher
07:40 pm
The Artist Edward C. Zacharewicz has died
07:35 pm

The artist Edward C. Zacharewicz died yesterday at a hospital in New Jersey, he was 51. A message on his website Decay Art reads:

Sadly, on Friday May 4th 2012, Edward passed away. He leaves behind him a legacy of creativity and a large community of friends and supporters who will carry on his memory. He has enabled and encouraged many other people to follow their creative dreams and become the artists that they were meant to be, and he will be sorely missed. We love you Ed. This world lost a great artist and a great man.

I never met Edward, our friendship came by chance 2 years ago, I saw some of his paintings (breath-taking) and this led to our introduction. The conversation started and grew through messages and emails, wee small hours discussions about painting, deppression, happiness and life. He was a kind, thoughtful and wonderful man, and I greatly admired him and his artwork.

In 2010, I interviewed Edward about his art and life, and only last month we planned to do a follow-up piece. Here is an extract from that original article in tribute to Edward C. Zacharewicz.

The artist, Edward C. Zacharewicz has a large collection of antique paintings and religious prints.  The collection is a reminder of the images from his childhood that inspired him to start painting.
‘I was kid and going to Catholic Church with my parents and sitting there and just looking at the paintings and murals and how beautiful they were.’

It was the colours of the paintings – the bright flame of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the royal blue dress of the Virgin Mary, the scourged body, the pierced side, the hues and textures of the crucified Christ.

Colors were important even then. His parents bought him painting-by-number sets and Edward filled them diligently.

‘I always enjoyed coloring, still do. I actually didn’t start to draw until I was 8 or 9 years old.  I think it was working with color that led me to paint in the style I do.

‘Color can show much emotion without being in a physical form.’

For me, Zacharewicz’s paintings are amongst the most powerful abstract paintings of recent years.

When you look at a Zacharewicz, you can understand why his favourite painter is William Turner, the man he describes as ‘the master of making colour show power and emotion.’

Turner was the ‘painter of light’.  His work anticipated Impressionism, and his use of brush on canvas suggested elements of Abstract art.

Like Turner, Zacharewicz creates layered puzzles.

‘All my paintings have to do with something from my life, a situation, a feeling, a thought, a person or place. I never decide, it just happens. I have a title for the work before I start.

‘I really don’t have a routine….sometimes I go weeks without painting, then all of a sudden I get this burst of wanting to paint…it might be a situation, it might be a spoken word.’

One of his most recent paintings was inspired this way.

It’s Not That Kind Of Party came from a conversation I was having with my friend Jessica Paris, who is the singer for Honey Spot Blvd.

‘I don’t even remember what we were talking about, but somehow that was said in the conversation and I told her I was going to use it as a title for a painting. The colors I used were based on her – bright, happy colors that work well with others.’

‘Sometimes, it takes me days to finish a painting, when there has been times were I have finished one in a few hours. It depends on the colours, if I want to blend them, layer them, or drag them.

‘I basically paint with acrylics, sometimes I do add oils to a painting because I love the texture it can give. Also on some I have used oil pastel crayons for a different look.

‘There are times when I look at a painting for a few hours figuring out if it is done or not. But, I always know when it is finished.’

R.I.P. Edward C. Zacharewicz 1960-2012
Love and Sorrow (2010)
More paintings by Edward C. Zacharewicz, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
07:35 pm