If the name Hilma af Klint suggests a medieval abbess known for her ecstatic visions, you’ve got it half-right. The recently rediscovered Swedish artist lived from 1862 to 1944, but her life’s work was indeed driven by her efforts to contact ethereal presences. Growing up in an era when spiritualism was all the rage, she claimed from girlhood on to be clairvoyant and by 17 was conducting séances. She studied Theosophy and Rosicrucianism, and later Anthroposophy. With a group of young women friends who called themselves the Five, in the 1890s she began “communicating” with a roster of spirits they termed the High Masters, and af Klint claimed that they directed her hand when she was painting.
Hardly anyone saw her artworks in her lifetime – one prominent exception being Rudolf Steiner, who was reportedly unimpressed, despite the fact that af Klint had studied his writings fervently and adopted his esoteric color theory. The artist became convinced that the world was not yet ready for her work, and the mystical messages encoded in it; at her death she instructed that it be kept in storage for another 20 years. So, it’s not much of a surprise that the art world has been slow in catching up with her talents.
That is beginning to change; a major show at the Guggenheim in late 2018/early 2019, titled “Paintings for the Future,” was a surprise hit, and pundits began raving about the way her style, though aligned with no contemporary art movement, anticipated Abstract Expressionism by decades. Af Klint’s work, at least in her own head, was not unrepresentational at all; it was her attempt to convey complex, abstruse theories about the spiritual realm, using visual codes that she recorded in hundreds of notebooks as having been assigned by the High Masters. Some of the imagery evokes her youthful training in botanical illustration, and there’s an occasional picture of a dove or a swan, but for the most part she relied on abstracted curvilinear forms meant to connect the viewer to some higher reality.
Now a group of af Klint’s paintings, on loan from the Albert Steffen Foundation in Dornach, Switzerland, along with one of her plant sketchbooks, is coming to the Hudson Valley for the first time. Known as the “Tree of Knowledge series” and painted in 1913 and ’14, it was a part of a much larger progression of works – 193 in all – that the artist undertook in 1906 at the behest of her spirit guide Amaliel, which were eventually supposed to be hung in a spiral-shaped temple (making the Guggenheim a particularly apt venue for her breakthrough exhibition). The Tree of Knowledge series merges the Garden of Eden mythos with influences from Eastern religion and af Klint’s occult studies, as well as her early grounding in naturalist illustrations.
This new show, “Tree of Knowledge Series: 1913-1914 Hilma af Klint,” opens on Friday, March 6 at the Lightforms Art Center in Hudson, with a reception from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Art historian David Adams, PhD, will present a lecture and slideshow on “The Esoteric Botany of Hilma af Klint” at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 8. The exhibition will be on view through June 29. The Lightforms Art Center, located at 743 Columbia Street, is open Friday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Hilma af Klint opening reception
Friday, Mar. 6, 6:30-9 p.m.
The Esoteric Botany of Hilma af Klint
Sunday, Mar. 8, 7-9 p.m.,
Lightforms Art Center, 743 Columbia St., Hudson, (518) 822-1003