After a transcontinental red eye from the West coast, I dropped my bags in the West Village and took the subway uptown. On twenty-eight hours of no sleep, I arrived at the Guggenheim to see the “Hilma af Klimt: Paintings for the Future” show. This was a pilgrimage, as a woman artist who knows 100 percent that we have not been given our due in the art world, that our natural creativity and depth of thinking have not been explored properly in academia or the canon, or the museums, and knowing our non-linear thinking that gets us in trouble with the patriarchy is precisely our super power, I was thrilled to be here. The swirling architecture of the Guggenheim fit the nature of Hilma’s work on no uncertain terms: I felt untethered, woozy and out of this world. The lack of sleep was actually the perfect condition to view this type of work, where all of your nerve endings sit on the surface of your skin and your mind races to find balance. Hilma’s work holds all of that psychic teeter totter and feeds it.
Keen on conspiracy theory – I’m not a cynic, it’s just fun to see all the wild ways of viewing a particular thing – I was ready to question fully the sheer existence of Hilma (1862-1944). How could no one know about this artist except for one small overview of her work in the 80s and another curator’s selection of her work in the 90s? Why didn’t they explore the massive thesis of her being the first abstract painter then? Is she like the “Nazi looted artwork” that sometimes pops up at auction and then is found to be forgeries cleverly crafted by a German duo for great profit? How on earth did she think to stretch the giant canvases, and have the courage that her role as a spiritual medium was valid, true and urgent? The paintings are so pretty and the colors so polite – aren’t spirits not always happy or visually pleasant? Isn’t chaos more frightening? The museum states that she made this massive oeuvre of “radically abstract” paintings in a span of nine years. 193 paintings. That’s about 21 paintings per year, starting in 1906. What on earth happened in or just before 1906 that may have spiritually propelled such a prolific project, and why should we care today?
Turns out 1906-1909 were banner years. While we have our hellacious problems of gun violence, our fragile and insecure relationships with race, mother nature and all of our borders, 1906 saw the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a mine blew up in Courrières France killing 1,099 workers, the San Francisco earthquake happened killing 3,000, a typhoon and tsunami killed 15,000 in Hong Kong, Ottoman Turks killed 15,000–30,000 Armenian Christians in the Adana massacre, the American Indian government was considered null and void so that the United States could establish “Oklahoma”, and the first inmates to an American leper colony were welcomed on an island in the Philippines. Could this world trauma have subconsciously pushed sensitive artists to a place of desperation for a new, timeless and universal way of viewing the world? The sheer physical and material devastation was enough to drive people inwards on a massive scale. Throughout human history, in times of earthly strife we look to the divine, the other worldly, and now Mars as a salve to the nagging reality of our mortality.
Swedish women’s suffrage was in its prime during the time Hilma was painting her work. The Swedish men gained full suffrage in 1909, and the women in 1919. Clearly there must have been an air of bold experimentation, and perception testing. And there was the vogue movement of theosophy. This movement which started in 1875 seems an apex of philosophical leanings since the Enlightenment, which focused on individualism and reason versus tradition and religion, and a philosophy we in the West continue to flirt with today. Reader’s digest is that theosophy was a system of beliefs that honored ideas such as ancient brotherhoods, a divine Absolute and an emanationsist cosmology. Theosophy was not a religion, though a proponent of the idea of universal human divinity. It introduced South Asian religious thought to Western culture, and this mind bending, non-linear movement was led, of course, by a woman. Helena Blavatsky was a Russian emigre to the United States, a bold woman making bold assertions about how we perceive the world and the universe. A woman much like Hilma.
A resurgence in this type of painting and a keen interest in Hilma’s work today makes sense. Nowadays we consume dizzying amounts of “reality”, where information that we know is neither true nor false is unpacked in the form of memes, YouTube, tweets and pictures. We are left without a clear way of processing the information, which makes something like abstraction and fiction feel like a safe place to unwind. Reality can be harsh to us vulnerable humans.
Let’s be serious too, while I love the idea of a woman purportedly inventing abstract art, we live in a global society now and should be taking into consideration all abstract art, not just the white West. For thousands of years in places such as Islam, Australia, Africa, and Mexico there has been abstract art, where things in nature are replaced by symbols in order to respect the divine. The abstract has always been a way for us humans to bow to the divine, to admit our humility and to attempt to arrange the mystery that is far bigger than us.
Hilma demanded her work to be shown posthumously, partly for fear of their reception, definitely because as a medium she saw herself second to the work, and lastly because time always allows for things to grow in nuance versus being seen as an impulse. Time has left the work ensconced in the white, round womb of the Guggenheim in 2018 like a beautifully choreographed view of chaos, which was most definitely her intention.
Tagged: Abstract Painting, abstraction, exhibition, Guggenheim, Hilma af Klimt, New York City, spirituality in art, theosophy, Women Artists