Altarpiece No. 1, Group X by Hilma Af Klint

Hilma Af Klint

Altarpiece No. 1, Group X, 1915, Oil and metal leaf on canvas, 237.5 x 179.5 cm, Klint Foundation, Stockholm, HAK187, Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

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Behold, I Tell You a Secret

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

‘For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation…’ (1 Thessalonians 5:9 NASB)

Hilma af Klint’s (1862–1944) painting is an imposing and overwhelming canvas, to say the least. It stands over nine feet tall and seven feet wide, consisting of circular and triangular forms made of grids and spheres of bright colour on a black ground, a colossal painted mosaic that represents nothing, and yet seems to possess the secret meaning of Everything. The cosmic, universal connotations of a transcendent origin—and a future destiny—are not directly represented or expressed in the content of the painting, but they are at work in this and hundreds of other similar canvases that Klint called ‘Temple’ and ‘Altarpiece’ paintings.

How does an artist like Klint, who enjoyed a modestly successful career as a portrait and naturalistic landscape painter after formal training at the art academy in Stockholm, come to paint such immodest paintings? And why? Their appearance in the world undermines everything we’re taught to believe about the history of art, which is a map of stylistic influences, of causes and effects that develop organically, gradually.

Klint renders this model useless as a means to interpret these mysterious paintings, which were painted nearly a decade before the art historical ‘birth’ of abstraction. How can that be?

Rather than a product of ‘art history’ per se, they are the result of Klint’s study of spiritualism, including her regular attendance at séances where she communicated with spirit guides, through which she recorded her philosophical insights into the universe. The result was thousands of pages of writings and over a thousand paintings.

Klint also refused to exhibit them in her lifetime, stipulating in her will that they could only be shown twenty years after her death (she died in 1944). Klint believed that she had learned secrets of the universe. Why the secrecy? Why wait to share them? Is it possible that these remarkable—even miraculously conceived—paintings were destined for an audience that would only be ready to receive them at a later moment? Perhaps Klint’s viewers of the future can be compared with the first departed Christians in Thessalonica, who would only come to a full appreciation of their ultimate destiny after waking from ‘sleep’ (1 Thessalonians 4:13–17).

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