Anticipating the Avant-Garde: Hilma af Klint’s Prescient Aesthetics

By Lauren Fournier

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Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, London (3 March – 15 May 2016); Image © Jerry Hardman-Jones

It was the spring of 2016 when I first saw Hilma af Klint’s work, sumptuously hung throughout the space of the Serpentine Galleries in London, nestled in the corner of the bustling Hyde Park. I was particularly lonely that day, walking through the streets of London alone, near the beginning of my 3-month research trip. Hyde Park was filled with smiling groups of families and friends, lovers, congregating in circles and sharing picnics and stories, drinking wine. When I reached the Serpentine Galleries, the aim of my pilgrimage that day, I walked through the glass doors to the exhibition Hilma af Klint: Painting Unseen. Melancholic and sweaty, I suddenly found myself enveloped by the works on the walls, forgetting about my body for a few sweet seconds.

As I walked quietly through the exhibition, I bared witness to the body of Klint’s work: her work was spiritually otherworldly and startling contemporary in its feel. There was a sensuousness to it—mesmerizing, aesthetic—and a palpable intellectual presence that was at the same time extra-rational and metaphysical. How could an artist so gorgeously integrate these concerns and make tensive forms that are so visually compelling? I took in Klint’s mid-sized canvases—richly coloured and saturated with symbolism—and then the giant canvases, on which Klint’s mystical abstraction and shapes were on full display. The hanging of Klint’s work in the space of the Serpentine galleries felt like a temple, meditative and warm. That these paintings had been created by Klint in a prophetic act—made for the temple she had been receiving visions of in her mind—made the experience all the richer, especially for an intellectually curious, spiritually hungry feminist art researcher wrestling with how to reconcile their own Evangelical upbringing with their ecumenical-dreaming present.

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Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, London (3 March – 15 May 2016); Image © Jerry Hardman-Jones

Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) was a Swedish-born artist working in painting in the latter part of the nineteenth century through to the turn of the twentieth century. I’m still baffled by how, throughout my studies in art history and feminist art history, I had never learned about Klint’s work. In Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic Art History (MIT, 2004), Amelia Jones writes through the figure of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, making the case that not only ought the Baroness be recognized as a Dada artist in her own right—one who has been, and continues to be, violently suppressed in histories of modern art and the avant-garde—but that the Baroness could be said to be more Dada than the male Dada artists who are recognized (such as Duchamp, Man Ray, and Tristan Tzara). Paradoxically, it was the Baroness embodying the purported tenets of Dada—blurring art and life, playing with the limits of legibility and intelligibility—that concretized her status as abject, shunned from the elevated spheres of artist or thinker. This was in contrast, Jones notes, to the male Dada artists who maintained their “otherwise bourgeois lives” when they weren’t making art. While different contexts and practices, Klint’s work, both as an individual and in her collaborations with De Fem—a 5-person collective of Klint’s female artist/mystic contemporaries— prompted me to reflect on the ways in which experimental artists whose gender identities lie outside of the cis-male standard make innovative work that might not be recognized as such until decades, maybe even centuries, after the fact: and that the work of BIPOC, feminist, and queer art historians is essential to unearthing the suppressed practices of artists like Klint or the Baroness.

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Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, London (3 March – 15 May 2016); Image © Jerry Hardman-Jones

Currently, Klint’s work is receiving a new surge of critical attention, perhaps as the result of her current exhibition Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim in New York City (2018-19). Browsing through articles on Klint’s work—many of which describe her as “pioneering” in her contributions to the development of abstraction and modernist avant-garde practices (“pioneering:” a word I’m starting to bristle at a bit, with its colonial connotations)— prompted me to revisit the text I wrote in response to seeing Klint’s work in Painting Unseen at the Serpentine Galleries. During that trip to London, generously funded by SSHRC, I had set myself the task of writing a short, stream of consciousness response to each exhibition I went to. I didn’t want to write exhibition reviews, exactly–I didn’t think I’d have the intellectual energy, since the focus of this trip was developing my doctoral research on the histories and practices of feminist autotheory—but I wanted to record, in a more open-ended, ephemeral way, all of the work that I saw. The day prior, I had written a response to Electronic Superhighway at Whitechapel Gallery, a group exhibition I found more troubling than anything and the response to which I had provisionally titled “men’s use of women’s screams needs context” [my shorthand critique of American artist Ryan Trecartin’s installation: for someone with complex PTSD—who is particularly sensitive to sound—the work felt unnecessarily triggering.] I was so hungry for context through which to understand works like his, why they were being displayed in 2016 and what the work was intended to do.

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Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, London (3 March – 15 May 2016); Image © Jerry Hardman-Jones

Coincidentally or not, I’d later learn that one of the many practices that Klint engaged in, both on her own and when meeting with the De Fem collective, was automatic writing and drawing. Automatic writing and drawing are embodied acts of a stream of consciousness responsiveness attuned both to the present context and to one’s phenomenological response as an artist, thinker, feeler in a given space and time. As an avant-garde practice, it would later become associated with the male Surrealist artists, though with Klint’s 2016 and 2018 exhibitions we’re pushed to acknowledge the feminist histories of such a practice. Now, I share with you my response to Klint’s Paintings Unseen, which I wrote as I sat in front of her works. I spent a few hours in the gallery, sharing space with the paintings and letting them wash over me, trying my best to tune out the sounds of children jumping up on the bench and shouting. I decided to try and incorporate such “distractions”— part of the context of viewing, no?—into my response, instead of resisting what was going on around me and inside me that day.

When I left the gallery, I felt spiritually nourished. I was still lonely, walking through the streets of London, visiting places that my parents have never had the resources to visit, ruminating on ideas that can feel so privileged, so at odds with my uneducated working-class roots or my born-again upbringing. I wondered whether other people felt as lonely as me, clustered and laughing together in pubs, and then I started to feel Klint’s presence—like a strange spiritual ally. I could hold the impressions of her work as I walked along, reflecting on her images and on my own complicated relationships to femininity and spiritual life. I was energized by the possibilities of a feminist ecumenical practice of abstraction, and my burgeoning revelation that abstraction could be accessible.

That evening, I’d go to sleep dreaming of peach spirals, blue backgrounds, and so many weird eggs in the night.

something like prophecy

new cosmologies of 1908
theosophy and darwin
slit and cross
spiral and triangle
it’s all in there this
dark ecumenicism

two figures raise arms
to a chalice in the sky
from which they drink:
potion flows down from a goblet,
a blue spiral, a yellow spiral
forming a spirographic knot
and the two are no longer
divisible
is this evolution?

a prophecy from the beginning
of the twentieth century
“EVOLUTIONEN”
repeated ad infinum
male and female and
something outside this—
their bodies strong
canvases of pink and
a spectrum of greys

funny fertilities these
massive canvases of colour-joy
are those eggs
yes eggs! but not just eggs

eggy eggy
iggy iggy
aggy aggy
prophecies
prophet sees

lavender, red
mustard, white
easter colours, but not
exactly Ēastre, not
exactly austron, not
exactly spring

women+ artists, mystics, seers
were doing what the Surrealists
became famous for
but decades earlier
these prescient practices

women practicing
automatic writing
when male contemporaries
were taken by impressionism

but here we are given more than impression:
these are the paintings for the temple she saw

women are avant-garde, more?
women are avant-garde, more?
women are avant-garde, more?
women are avant-garde, more?

the baroness wasn’t seen
as avant-garde at all
just a freaky chick
a deranged non-artist
stinky and fishy

seance        science
seance        science
seance        science
seance        science

says

klint’s largest paintings are said to represent
“the four cycles of life”
visually indistinguishable, all just as colourful
and i think about aging and death

eggs in dots
dotted eggs
women in seance
seance says

fuck the magic

uu uu uu uu
uu uu uu uu
uu uu uu uu

endings and rebirth
and sex and death
and death and birth and
sex and death
and pleasure

black wings of eggs
symmetry that sways
women in seance
seance says

the material and the spiritual is a chicken and egg situation
there are children getting in the way of the art
I like that one I like that one I like that one!
i’m at that age, with that body, wrestling with the idea of
children as futurity, children as a future

I want to be alone with the art, and I realize
that maybe this is selfish
I want to have some quiet space, and I realize
that maybe this is impossible

is the contemporary art gallery a temple
for intellectuals or is it something else altogether?

wx ox oo ax ex
swx sox sax sex
uu uu uu uu
uu uu uu uu

wu rose blue green
eros in yellow

primordial symmetry in
chaos sym-metry in

chaos

their abstract order
feels so balanced,
like wholeness
something aspiring to
closeness

reigns

circular spiral snail
mustard moon hand
emanating to grab
muddy earth elevated

medeltiden over nutiden
yellow under blue
neu neu neu neu
eus eus eus eus

tiny pyramid in circle
black outline thick
moons of gold
old shade spectra
descending ascending
both valid it seems

ave maria
ave maria
ave maria
ave maria
ave ave ave

a wreath of dripping lilies
arms splayed, so sad

birthing bulbs
origins unknown
opening up and up
to infinity

red and black cookie
moon tree and venn
when sox sax sex
when sox sax sex

birthing bulb two
petals only

fling drop
drip drap
flung floof

dreaming of a place where
gender can be something other
no longer a competition
a place where no one is more
and Avant-Garde is a bore

then an old man shaky
leaning over to sit
his belt pulled down
and i want to help

leaving the gallery I walk
into the rare sunshine of
London in the springtime
and I’m vibrating
from Hilma’s work

Written by Lauren Fournier in response to:
Hilma Af Klint, “Painting the Unseen,” Serpentine Gallery, London UK
On May 8, 2016

 

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