“She was on fire”

– The exhibition at the Guggenheim is about to open!


This Thursday, at 4 pm EST, the exhibition Hilma af Klint – Paintings for the Future will open to the public at the Guggenheim in New York. In the run-up to the exhibition, CFHILL met with Johan af Klint, who hasn’t just been involved in organizing this in all regards monumental exhibition through his work for the Hilma af Klint Foundation, but who has also been involved in the entire journey Hilma af Klint has made, in which she has gone from forgotten mystic to an innovator of the avant garde and an essential linchpin for our understanding of how early modernism was rooted in the new spiritual movements of the fin de siècle era. 

CFHILL: Is this the most significant event to take place since the re-evaluation of Hilma af Klint’s work began in the early 2000s?
Johan af Klint (JaK): The big retrospective show at Moderna Museet in 2013 was the first step. At the time, my requirement as chairman of the Foundation was that the exhibition would go on tour in the US and Europe for two years. Although the show ended up only travelling around the European circuit, it was a great success. During those two years, the exhibition was seen by more than a million visitors. The next phase was the Serpentine Gallery in 2016. By that point, the importance of her work was beyond debate. And now that she’s recently been shown at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, another continent has been conquered.  This time, Hilma af Klint will be introduced to the American audience more fully than ever before. The fact that the Guggenheim has opened its doors to her is overwhelming. The exhibition has been worked through on a fundamental level. It will lead on to other aspects of her work. I’ve fact-checked the catalogue personally. This is a catalogue that people will read. 

Have you met with the curator of the exhibition, Tracey Bashkoff?
Yes, several times. Tracey actually came to our house for dinner along with Daniel Birnbaum and Julia Voss. Tracey Bashkoff is the head curator of the Guggenheim Museum, and she has produced important exhibitions featuring Kandinsky, Ellsworth Kelly, John Baldessari, and Roy Lichtenstein in the past. In this exhibition, she has placed Paintings for the Temple centre-stage. The symbol of the seashell, which appears both in Hilma af Klint’s art and in several religious traditions, is a theme that is beautifully matched with the actual architecture of the Guggenheim Museum. Hilma af Klint’s vision was for the Paintings for the Temple to be hung in a round, temple-like building . So, you can genuinely say that this exhibition of the paintings at the Guggenheim is a kind of homecoming.

CFHILL: Will the catalogue that’s being published add anything new to the story?
Until now, the contents of the various exhibition catalogues have mainly addressed the art historical aspects, but this time, more of the religious aspects are included. 

In her abstract art, Hilma af Klint “made the invisible visible”. She presented philosophical ideas and spiritual concepts physically, on canvases – that can still be viewed and contemplated today, by later generations. Her philosophical ideas and her abstract art were like two communicating vessels. If you want to interpret the abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint, you need to begin by familiarising yourself with her religious background. In several places in the catalogue, there is mention of the fact that Hilma af Klint’s abstract art was based on Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and Christianity.

Are there any other events planned for the opening week?
– During the symposium that will be held on the day of the opening, the lectures will be addressing some of these religious aspects.

By 1908, she’d completed over 100 paintings in her celestial commission. (That’s about as many paintings as Mondrian or Barnett Newman made in his lifetime.) She was on fire; history was changing in her hands.
– Jerry Saltz, The New York Magazine  

Apart from art historians (including the director of Moderna Museet, Daniel Birnbaum), the Dutch professor and historian of religion Marco Pasi will also be giving a talk. Marco Pasi is an expert on occultism in Europe during the post-enlightenment era, who specialises in Theosophy. At present, I’m seeing a continuing maturation of the research, and a transition from a purely art historical approach to balance between the religious aspects and the art historical ones. It’s easier to talk about these things than it used to be. Time has caught up with us, and discussions of spirituality and religious philosophy are afforded more legitimacy and relevance today. 

She was a great spiritual thinker. How important were these paintings for her ideas? 
– Art springs forth from inspiration, and Hilma af Klint was immensely inspired. In this context, the following question arises: does the artist, in the throes of inspiration, create her art, or is she merely a medium, channelling other forces? This question is of vital significance in relation to Hilma af Klint as she experienced such extremely intense inspiration at times. Her abstract paintings also communicate a hidden message. The next step, as far as I’m concerned, is for a historian of ideas or religion to delve deep into the symbolic world and written thoughts of Hilma af Klint, and convey the message expressed in her abstract paintings to us. 

What’s next, after the Guggenheim?
– Dr Julia Voss used to be an arts editor and critic for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. She abandoned her career in journalism to write a book about Hilma af Klint, which will be published in April 2019. Julia Voss’s book is based on academic source materials – including the personal notebooks of Hilma af Klint. On 4 November, a collection exhibition titled World Receivers – Georgiana Houghton, Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz opens at Lenbachhaus in Munich.

The following excerpt is taken from the Guggenheim’s presentation of 'Hilma af Klint – Paintings for the Future: 
“This survey of Hilma af Klint’s work will be the first major solo exhibition in the United States devoted to the artist, offering an unprecedented opportunity to experience af Klint’s long-underrecognized artistic achievements. Organized by Tracey Bashkoff, Director of Collections and Senior Curator, with David Horowitz, Curatorial Assistant, the exhibition will focus on the artist’s breakthrough years, 1906–20, when she first began to produce nonobjective and stunningly imaginative paintings, creating a singular body of work that invites a reevaluation of modernism and its development.”

Hilma of Klints painting arrives at the Guggenheim in New York. Picture from  @castrocastles .

Hilma of Klints painting arrives at the Guggenheim in New York. Picture from @castrocastles.