Hilma af Klint, Violet Blossoms with Guidelines, 1919, Watercolor on paper
The first time I experienced the work of Hilma af Klint was in the 1986 exhibition, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 – 1985 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her paintings spoke to me in a personal yet enigmatic way. I had yet to experience anything like them. Immediately, her work helped me to make sense of things I was dealing with in my own paintings. I am writing this piece as way to better understand my artistic response and ongoing attraction to Hilma af Klint’s work.
Af Klint’s 1919 watercolor Violets With Blossoms Guidelines immediately resonated with me. During this period, I was working with naturalistic imagery such as flowers and plants. In her delicate watercolor, I saw af Klint working with the same naturalistic imagery while going a step further to render the actual auras of each flower. People kept trying to place my work in the Pattern and Decoration Movement and then later in Neo Expressionism. In my mind, those associations didn’t make sense. I felt the P & D Movement highlighted flowers as an ornamental end in itself and I was after something else.
At the end of the 1880’s, Af Klint joined with four other women artists to form the group “The Five” in which, through séances, they channeled automatic writing and drawing which, in turn, led to paintings that were free flowing in form and color. I didn’t have the same spiritual background in aura reading that she did but I felt a relationship to the unseen elements of my subjects. Seeing her work for the first time, I was encouraged to trust my own intuitive sense of innovation and creation.
As a young artist, I met a spiritualist named Mary Denaro who created a school for aura reading (The Center for Intuitive and Creative Development) in Utrecht, Netherlands. During a visit, I participated in an exercise where I sat in front of another person, closed my eyes and imagined them as a plant. She instructed us to visualize what the plant (or person) looked like in front of us and ask these questions in an attempt to visualize the spiritual state of the person – Were the petals colorful and open and fresh? Were the leaves abundant and the roots deep? Was the plant in good shape or were the stalks wilting?
I observed af Klint depict close and delicate renderings of nature along with geometric abstract patterns that represented astral impressions of these same plants. This observation spurred me to embrace a more conscious way of working between the realms of nature and abstraction in paintings. I found myself thinking beyond nature and even beyond the human condition. I began to envision the plant form as a complete system that circulates life through the air and the earth and ask how I could translate this into a visually abstract language.
The second painting to make a strong impression on me by af Klint was The Swan, No. 8, Group IX/SUW, oil on canvas from the 1915 SUW/UW Series. The painting depicts a transformation of two swans from what one might call their naturalistic state into purely abstract, geometric polarities. The imagery is divided into black and white rectangles with three concentric circles within. The circles are divided into what look like sugar cubes circling a larger centralized sugar cube with radiating blue and yellow lines extending outward from the center.
Based on my reading of Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction published by the Moderna Museet in Sweden, I learned that af Klint interpreted the struggle between male and female as an expression of creation and, to her, this struggle was the fundamental idea behind all creative power. The Swan, No. 8 is her way of showing this creative power and the struggle between polarities such as dark and light, feminine and masculine, soft and hard. These concepts are simply and beautifully presented in her painting, and left me to imagine there was more to discover in my own painting process. I realized I could depend on my own intuition and sensibilities to express truths that are beyond the physical, beyond what we see or hear or touch.
I could see af Klint yearning to concretize the spiritual and to articulate the transformation of spirit to matter, as well as how matter becomes spirit through layers of symbolism. Color, form, motion, and direction came to her as the direct result of the channeling of the spirits and entities she had been communicating with since she was 17 years old. Beginning with her abstraction of the sugar cube forms, I sensed she had a refined understanding of the microcosm and the macrocosm and how they can exist together in a single painting.
To understand the idea of how we fit into the Universe is to understand the relationship between the tiny, little individual parts and their relationship to the whole. I began to think of the sugar cube forms as cells; when these tiny, invisible parts are added together, they form a whole entire body, or a human. For me, there is profound spirituality to this concept.
The invisible can become visible and, simply because something is beyond our five senses, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not there. Perhaps these are the first steps in thinking about painting from a spiritual perspective. There are actually certain elements of a painting that are unseen and certain elements pictured that don’t have form in the physical world.
Af Klint does this by describing with a painter’s vocabulary the cosmic principle of vibration. She speaks to us about the power of painting to transcend mere forms and colors in the making of a beautiful image. Her work ignites questions about the universe at large and the cosmic vibrations that unite it all together.
Roberto Juarez is a NYC based painter / printmaker / public artist who works with large scale abstraction and natural imagery. Roberto Juarez Studio