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Paintings for the Future: Hilma af Klint at The Guggenheim

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The following article was originally published on New Sun.



The present exhibition at this fine arts institution is not the same old art for art’s sake. This is art for the sake of imprinting, and even initiating viewers into higher realms of consciousness.

For anyone with an interest in metaphysics this exhibition will help to give a new understanding about the energetic structures of the world. The Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint, was a medium and an experimental painter from the last century. Her work was guided, I would even say channeled, from other worldly beings, for the purpose of creating a new language of esoteric symbols for spiritual awakening. Her abstract images first came to the attention of the American public in 1986 with an exhibition called The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985, held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Unfortunately, the Museum of Modern Art exhibit in 2012, Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925, excluded af Klint. According to The Guardian’s review this was because MOMA was alarmed at her occult association. The current exhibition is the most extensive solo display of the artist’s work ever organized in this country. With only seventy-six of the 193 paintings representing “the spirit of the world,” this limited showing fulfills a prophecy for her epic series: Painting for the Future. The retrospective features Hilma’s “Temple series,” which was downloaded to the painter as a way of illustrating “the stages of life and humanity’s connection to the cosmos.” However, what the museum is so hyped up about in their promotion, is the idea of housing these earliest of non-representational images, created a decade before Kandinsky and Mondrian, the so-called fathers of modern abstract art. While those painters remained vaguer about their visual references, it is a mistake to call af Klint’s creations non-representational, because they very much have an intention of representing higher unseen reality. But this was the argument that the MOMA exhibition’s curator, Leah Dickerman, felt for not including her paintings in her show, saying that they were not art.

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Iris Müller-Westermann, curator of an af Klint exhibition in Stockholm disagreed. She said: “Hilma was a trained and talented artist who knew about color and composition.” She added that Hilma’s mission was to go beyond the formalities of art history and understand who we are in relationship to a large universe.

This is a point made by Andrea Klonitz in her essay in the catalogue of the show: “Her quest as a painter was to understand the fundamental levels of existence through the means of art, rather than an attempt to reimagine art and its possibilities by infusing it with new brands of spirituality, as in the cases of Kandinsky and Mondrian, whom she is compared to. While these figures were spiritually inspired and turned to abstraction, none saw themselves as a direct conduit for a spiritual Other.” The majority of recent writers on af Klint miss this point altogether. One even labeled her work as being “tainted by the stain of the occult.”

Also counter to the MOMA’s curator’s thinking is what Marcel Duchamp spoke about in his talk on The Creative Act. He said: “To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing. If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the esthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it.”

The problem is most critics lack the capacity to understand the spiritual context of the work, but there are one or two that do. Peter Schjeldahl’s review in The New Yorker noticed: “Af Klint wasn’t exercising a style… She was channeling visions received from a spirit world.” Still, while the mainstream viewing public might enjoy these earliest examples of abstract art, beneath their surface looms a vision of a multidimensional universe, as the Masters of the Higher Realms intended to display. But whether her works could be considered art, they must be viewed from the stand point about the purpose of art as a way to access the unseen worlds. Hilma herself felt that “life is a farce if a person does not serve truth.”

The Channeling
Born in Sweden in 1862 to a Protestant, upper middle-class naval family, Hilma af Klint grew up in the Karlberg castle, a naval academy. Her father, Captain Victor af Klint, was an admiral, mathematician and occasional violinist. Like many painters and writers at the turn of the 20th century, he was profoundly influenced by a mystical renaissance, which had begun with the Foxx Sister’s and their table tapping séances in the mid 1800s.

Occult historian Mitch Horowitz makes the point that the leading role of women in spiritual organizations of the late 19th century gave them a greater voice in society and added power to the women’s suffrage movement. Hilma’s awakening began in1 879, at the age of 17, when she began to participate in Spiritist séances. This was followed by studies of Rosicrucian philosophy and Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophy. She then joined the Edelweiss Society, but soon left feeling it did not meet her spiritual development. It was at this point Hilma, along with four other spiritual seekers, formed their own organization called “The Five” (De Fem).


Between 1896 and 1907 The Five, who were all women, met regularly, beginning each meeting with a prayer and a meditation, followed by a sermon or spiritual reading in front of a Rosicrucian altar, which was marked by a triangle and a cross with a rose in the middle… From here they would enter into trance states and receive messages via automatic writing, mediumship and what today would be called channeling. Early in this process they were contacted by a group of entities referred to as the “High Masters.” However, “high masters,” seems to me to be a mundane English translation, which in terms of today’s vernacular might be translated as Ascended Masters. The group of higher dimensional beings was composed of six entities identified as Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg and Gregor. Their mission through The Five was to put humanity in touch with greater realms of spiritual knowledge. One such message from the entity Gregor declared: “All the knowledge that is not of the senses, not of the intellect, not of the heart, is the property that exclusively belongs to the deepest aspect of your being…the knowledge of your spirit.”

As early as 1904, Georg and Ananda told The Five about the need for a temple filled with paintings to illustrate “The Masters” messages. They called upon the women to convey their teachings in visual form. While the others declined, fearing that too long association with the other realms might drive them mad, only Hilma was up for the task. When a communication came through from Amaliel on January 1, 1906, it was officially announced that “Hilma would be given the divine commission for creating works for the temple’s interior.” She wrote enthusiastically: “Amaliel offered me a work and I answered immediately ‘Yes.’ This was to be the great work I was to perform in my life.”

It was to be a monumental assignment. Primarily under the command of the Master Amaliel, she was to paint “the astral plane and the immortal aspects of man.” Before beginning she was asked to mentally and physically purify herself. On retreat Hilma became a vegetarian and honed her focus, then after ten months of isolation, in November of 1906 she formally began to channel the Temple paintings. The paintings were received in a vision, that she was not allowed to change when transposing it to canvas. She noted that each painting would be done once she saw the Master standing at her side. At that point she received a transmission and her hand was guided to paint. She explained the divine dictation in her private notebooks: “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.” In this way, one picture was created every fifth day, and she did not stop the process until April 1908 when she had completed 111 works, after which it is said she collapsed. This meant that she was directly on-call with the Masters for over a year and a half. Therefore, it maybe not just have been the feat of paintings that was so exhausting, but also holding the energy of a greater frequency for that long.

Perhaps she might have continued at this pace had it not been for the visit to her studio by her spiritual mentor, Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Anthroposophical Society, on his visit to Stockholm in 1908. Even though she must have been excited about her spiritual breakthrough, according to her memoirs, Steiner told she should not paint as a medium, and advised her to develop her own talents. While the current show sees the comments as “the worst studio visit ever,” Johan af Klint, Hilma’s great-nephew, felt it likely stopped her from continuing the series for several years.

Nonetheless, being an independently-minded woman, she resumed the work of the Temple in 1915, in order to complete what had been required. This time the communication took a different form. The paintings came internally in the form of images, sounds and words she sensed. She wrote about this in the third person: “Amaliel draws a sketch, which H then paints.” The guidance came to an end when the compendium of work was completed in 1915. The final paintings were 10 feet by nearly 9 feet, compositions called Altarpieces.


As seen in the picture of the exhibition from the New York Times above, each has a central golden disc representative of the golden age and the source of divine consciousness. The central canvas is surrounded by a pyramid pointing downwards on the left, and one pointing upwards on the right. These paintings respectively symbolize the involution and evolution of our spiritual journey into the density of creation. The downward spiral is the decent into matter, while the upward motion can be seen as the myriad of experiences ascending the soul back to the oneness of creation. In total, 193 canvases were painted for the series collectively called The Paintings for the Temple. It is not certain what the Masters had in mine with the specific number. Numerologically speaking 193 can be reduced in to 13, with a variety of metaphysical associations. This includes symbols of the twelve disciples around the 1, or the 13 moons of the female cycles in a year, or an illustration of the 13 pathways in the kabbalist’s tree of life.

The overall series was the most intense time of Af Klint’s artistic career. Yet, she admitted that she never quite understood what the temple paintings were supposed to mean. Reflecting on the collection however, she felt they contained esoteric codes and were messages to humanity about how the universe was created. One critic called her images “energizing, even healing…” The shows curator Helen Molesworth says af Klint is “in essence, offering a Gaia-like theory of radical holistic interconnectivity.”But Hilma summed up the totality of the work as demonstrating a hierarchy of nonphysical realms, “going from the Etheric, to the Astral and to the Mental planes.

The Swan Series

Hilma’s passion for the natural world connects her traditional and abstract styles. We see in the 24 paintings of The Swan, an illustration of transformation which goes from dense matter into pure energy. Hilma said the sequence represented Transcendence. We see in The Swan, No. 1 on the left above, the duality of the everyday world; black and white figures oppose each other, but likewise meet as a complimentary reflection. This is similar to the Chinese Taoist philosophy of yin and yang, and talked about in the Hermetic Law of Polarity about how polarity makes up the world we see; there is no male without female, no day without night.

In The Swan, No. 8, the middle image, the duality is portrayed in the basic building blocks of matter. An opposition still exists, but there is a balanced reflection. In totality of the Swan series there is a symmetrical stability pointing towards the understanding of another Hermetic doctrine, the Law of Correspondence: “As above so below, as the inner the outer.”

In The Swan, No. 10, the blocks have turned into pure energy, what seems like vibrations of the field. An energy pinwheel stands in the center integrating the two dynamically opposed halves. Theories of field dynamics behind the material world would only be conceived of 10 years after these paintings were created, in 1925, with the work of fellow Scandinavian Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

de tio stc3b6rsta no 10 alderdomen 1907 webThe last painting in the series, The Swan, No. 24, above, displays “unity,” a theme for the series. It represents the return to the physical world, which has been there all along, as an integration of matter and energy.

Since the time of the ancient Greeks the swan has been associated with the elements of the sun (fire) and water, making it a symbol in alchemy for the union of opposites. Alchemists felt that when these oppositional forces were combined together, they would create the philosopher’s stone; a magical elixir of transformation and immortality. In The Secret Doctrine, Madame Blavatsky, the grand dame’ of modern spirituality, says the swan represents “the grandeur of spirit.” Moreover, one of her final essays from 1890 is dedicated to the beautiful water bird. The Last Song of the Swan, may have been her own swan song and opens with the lines:

“The swan, a symbol of the Supreme Brahma [the Creation god of the Hindus]… was also symbolic of cycles; [it comes] at the tail-end of every important cycle in human history. The swan loves to swim in circles, bending its long and graceful neck into a ring… endowed the swan’s throat with musical modulations and made of him a sweet songster, and a seer to boot.”

Maybe the Masters used the swan to portray the idea of cycles; the closing of one age and the opening to another which is why only now these paintings are being presented to the public.

Completion: The Guggenheim Fulfillment
In 1920, Hilma rejoined Rudolf Steiner at Goetheanum, his spiritual retreat center in Dornach, Switzerland. Even with the completion of the Temple series Steiner still cautioned her that, “No one must see [this work] for 50 years.” Nevertheless, Hilma continued to paint and receive messages from spirits the rest of her life. Upon her death in 1944, she left 1,200 paintings and 26,000 pages of notes pertaining to the arts and her divine communications. She somewhat agreed with Steiner, stipulating that The Paintings for the Temple should not be seen until twenty years after her death, as if waiting for a new generation to understand their deeper significance. Now for the first time in the US, the Temple series is being exhibited. Perhaps today’s emerging spiritual culture is what she was waiting for, so that the subtleties of their higher dimensionality could be embraced.


According to Tracy Bashoff, senior curator at the Guggenheim, af Klint notebooks showed as early as the 1930s, that the placement for the Temple paintings should be in a circular building, where viewers would ascend a spiral path towards the sky. When this vision was cited by Bashoff at “The Hilma af Klint symposium” held for the opening of the exhibition, an audible gasp was heard throughout the Guggenheim auditorium.

As if functioning in two parallel conjoined universes, after Hilma created the Temple paintings, across the Atlantic, painter Hilla von Rebay co-founder and first director of the Guggenheim, had her own vision for the design of a museum.

Unaware of Hilma’s work, in June 1943, Rebay wrote to architect Frank Lloyd Wright to commission a “museum-temple.” She told Wright that she needed a “temple for the spirit” in which to house Solomon R. Guggenheim’s growing collection of abstract art.

In the current exhibition, Hilma’s & Hilla’s vision for a temple of the spirit is manifested as the museum fulfills the wishes the Masters brought forth 100 years ago.

It seems now Future and its Paintings have arrived. Ascending the Guggenheim’s spiral path towards its domed skylight, the work of the High (ascended) Masters leads the viewer on both a literal and figurative path of ascension towards higher knowledge.

* * *

HILMA AT KLINT: PAINTING FOR THE FUTURE will be on view through April, 23, 2019 at The Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth avenue, New York.

More information about Alan Steinfeld can be found at NewRealitiesEvents and

Email him directly at: [email protected]

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