Its been two years since I tripped upon the work of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944, Stockholm) but, when I did, I remember feeling startled because her before-its-time abstraction leapt out and spoke to me to me in a way no abstract paintings ever had before; I was transfixed and found myself wanting to find out as much as I could about this previously unheard-of artist. I was also intrigued by how she insisted this huge body of work not be shown until twenty years after her death because the world wasn’t quite ready for it yet; that’s the kind of dedication to your artistic purpose over and above any more transient urges for fame or monetary gain that I can take encouragement from.
To quote the 2014 exhibition’s website “Hilma af Klint’s oeuvre builds on the awareness of a spiritual dimension of consciousness, an aspect that was being marginalised in an increasingly materialistic world. When she painted, she believed that a higher consciousness was speaking through her. In her astonishing works she combines geometric shapes and symbols with ornamentation. Her multifaceted imagery strives to give insights into the different dimensions of existence, where microcosm and macrocosm reflect one another.” To quote a curator of modern art in Los Angeles in the NYT (see full article), “‘Spiritual’ is still a very dirty word in the art world. When the prejudice against the idea of the spiritual life in af Klint’s work is overcome, which will require scholarship, then perhaps she will really take hold in the broader conversation.”
She first came to my attention during the major touring exhibition of her work (thousands of pieces of which only came out into the public arena in 1986, decades after her death in 1944). A current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London ends on May 15th.
The reason I sat up and took notice (given abstraction, outside of relatable physical subjects, does not usually attract me) is that her’s is a multi-dimensional approach to art similar to that which underlies all of my own work – if realised in a rather different way – and I also work tirelessly (there is no other purpose for my art practice) to convey other layers of experience, beyond the physical, that are quite tangible to me.
What would Hilma think about the current times; would she think we are now ready to receive what she had to convey through her art? While I know many others now create artwork to explore these multi-dimensional layers of experience, I still notice that when I talk about this it hits a wall of bafflement, amusement or miscomprehension most of the time. This begs the question, is the world still not all that ready for such a body of work…or is the sudden flurry of interest in this artist, who has been the subject of a dozen exhibitions since 2005, a sure sign that we are all starting to wake up? The proof in the pudding is if we can feel the exceptional power of such artwork beyond what we can ordinarily describe as a visual response, as though something deeply familiar if somewhat intangible (except the paint is helping to make it so…) is speaking out to us from the artwork and there is something about Hilma af Klint’s work that quite arrested me, like a visceral thing, when I first laid eyes on it.
Its been a busy few months and something made me overlook the current London exhibition of her work until the eleventh hour of its opening: a timely wake-up came via a reaction from someone to my Facebook post of two years ago (talk about receiving a prod from the universe…). I am wondering if I can get to see her work before it closes on Sunday as opportunities are still relatively rare, even though I am going to her home city of Stockholm this summer (where I can find no sign of any fixed exhibits). If I do manage to get to the Serpentine to see Painting the Unseen this week, I will let you know in this space!
UPDATE – Well, I did get to the exhibition before it closed and am so glad that I listened to my own intuition at such short notice, it was quite startling to be in the gallery with these artworks and to allow them to speak to me without trying to be led by gallery labelling or what other people were saying within earshot. I was certainly one of the more snail-like visitors in the exhibition space that afternoon, pausing lengthily before each piece to allow it to deliver its information via far more than just the eyes or the intellect (surely, how we get the most out of art…though I couldn’t help noticing, as ever, how so many people breeze though the galleries like they are urgently scanning for meaning through the snap-images in their newsfeed). At the “end”, I went around a second time, especially beelining certain pieces, a couple of which I was quite reluctant to leave behind.
Although impossible to know exactly what was in the artist’s mind, I felt I had a pretty clear idea most of the time…nothing left me cold…and much of the “information” met my own mental imagery to do with multi-dimensions, the earth plane and beyond and then all those DNA-like spirals (as a synaesthete, I have been visualising time and energy as spirals since I was younger than school-age). There were familiar themes for which these are just my chosen phrases…the lower dimensions, duality, the fall into blood & sacrifice, the ever watchful serpents thriving on the continued duality; but then the possibility of the reunion of the divine feminine and masculine, entering into the heartspace, rising into true Christ consciousness to enter into the highest dimensions and ultimately spiralling our way into purest gold. Her depictions of childhood, adulthood and old age spoke very clearly to me with its imagery of chaotically creative coils and abundantly flowering seeds thinning down into the well-organised scarcity of a prettily, if blandly, “boxed-up” reality. A personal motif of some significance included by af Klint – one that had been presenting itself abundantly across the whole of my walk in the park to get to the gallery – was the swan. Across the whole collection of themes, there was more than an echo of one of my favourite books, “The Alchemy of Nine Dimensions” (Barbara Hand Clow) which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in exploring, or shoring up, their own experience of those “other” dimensions we still tend to hear far less about. For me, finding that book was a seminal moment, like happening upon all that delirious affirmation that you are not the only one who experiences reality like this…and seeing Hilma’s work was another such moment.
I am currently reading a book that talks briefly about the role of the shaman artist in our ancient cultures; how their gift of being able to depict the unseeable motifs of their shamanic journeys in other dimensional realms was how they were able to lead the other members of their community into levels of understanding that contributed to their evolution. By depicting what they did it was believed they could influence or help manifest a whole new reality, leading the way for all; a process which stands the artist on the very threshold between realities, focusing attention on that very point of creation where we better grasp all the fully expanded layers of what we truly are and start to make things happen from the fullness of that much broader reality. The artist – especially if they happen to be a synaesthete – is like the holder of the door at a very portal of evolution, ushering others who can “see” what they are really depicting in their artworks though this experiential crack in dimensions, a role that has long informed my own compulsion to create; it most certainly informed that of Hilma af Klint.
Perhaps, evolutionarily speaking, the synaesthetes tended to be those who were picked out as shaman, priest or priestess in their community for their very ability to create a bridge across realities in a way that helped other people to cross over with them. This skill set is a very-necessary one at the time of our greatest leaps of evolution as it takes breaking out of the hard-sided boxes of our present day reality to step onto that elevator spiral up to the next level of our human potential. I have to assume that af Klint was someone with the gift of synaesthesia, which only bolsters the long list of positives (that I have personally experienced) of being able to visualise “the unseeable” as colour and form…thus making it relatable to other beings in a way that can be experienced via the third dimensional senses…truly an attribute to be welcomed as we step into an age when the world is, finally, ready to start seeing the unseen!