Dr. Marty Bax, art historian, international expert on the work of Piet Mondrian, and on Modern Art & Western Esotericism

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04 October 2013

Hilma and the enigmatic Mathilde N.

This year I have been in Sweden twice, for the retrospective exhibition on Hilma af Klint. The invitation came through the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, founded in 1947 by the late Consul General Axel Ax:son Johnson together with his wife Margaret, owner of the Nordstjernan group. The foundation, led by the highly amiable Kurt Almqvist, facilitates scientific research in general, but in particular the liberal arts and the social sciences. I was deeply impressed by their hospitality and professionalism. The foundation has clearly thought very deeply and constructively about their strategy how to inform a wider public about pressing issues in society. Conferences with scholars from all over the world, a website, a magazine, even their own TV channel with the top-Swedish interviewer Thomas Gür, who courteously and tongue-in-cheek said it was his fun ‘to ask stupid questions and get intelligent answers’. All in all: amazing. I wish we had such an institution in my country!

The adventure started in February, when an expert meeting was organized at the opening of the exhibition. The meeting was held in Engelsberg, a top-list Unesco heritage site own by the Ax:son group. Mid-winter, snow-covered landscape in the middle of the woods, paths at night lighted with candles along the sides, in the typically Swedish manner. A truly romantic setting. And a relaxed place to meet many international colleagues from other disciplines. For me personally, my acquaintance with Hilma’s work came full circle, when I met Maurice Tuchman again, who in 1986 organized The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985. Its venue at The Hague constituted my first job as a curator. That exhibition showed Hilma’s work in public for the first time after WWII.

In May some of the scholars travelled to Stockholm again, at the closing of the exhibition, to lecture at a public conference in the Moderna Museet. The main objective of the conference was to publicly discuss how Hilma af Klint and her art should be positioned in her time, between the other pioneers of abstract art, and how her art can be understood. The debate intended also to point towards the future. Where does Hilma advance from here? Where should her position be within art history? All of the proceedings and the interviews circling around these basic questions are now on the Axess website. In this blog I want to add a little more to the discussion.

The exhibition was the most successful of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm ever. It attracted circa 250.000 people. The museum director Daniel Birnbaum and curator Iris Müller-Westermann –  Edvard Munch specialist – have worked on this impressive exhibition over many years. After closing in Stockholm in May the show travelled to the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, where it will close on October 6, and from October 21 it will be shown in the Picasso Museum in Malaga. In the meantime, a selection of Hilma’s work was exhibited at the Biennale in Venice.

Hilma af Klint left a truly extensive oeuvre, so spreading her work over simultaneous exhibitions is no problem at all. She made more than thousand paintings and drawings, the larger part still unknown to the public, and more than 125 diaries, in which she painstakingly describes her ideas behind the works. The circa 26.000 pages (!) of her diaries have been professionally scanned and will be published on internet in the near future to accommodate research.
Research in itself however is hampered by the fact that most of the documents pertaining to Hilma are in Swedish. It restricts detailed art historical research to those, who have mastered this language. One might run documents through Google Translate, but that gives only the gist of a text. To gain precise understanding of her work, facts need to become accessible in other languages. Because this is how science works: research results need to become part of general scientific discourse. Discourse shapes insights. New insights can change views on art. Our modern ‘canon’ of art is the result of such discourse. Canons are also very stubborn, because they come in handy to pigeonhole artists, even though it might not represent the actual stance of the artist him/herself. Pigeonnholes need to be revised once in a while.

Hilma in art history

As Raphael Rosenberg, professor at the University of Vienna, pointed out at the Stockholm conference, art becomes art because it is declared to be as such by the artist him/herself. Hilma saw her work as art. Hence it forms part of art history. Period. Basically, though, Hilma is still seen as an ‘outsider artist’. Though her work was shown at the Biennale of this year, it was shown in the ‘outsider art cabinet’. The offer of inclusion of her work in the recent blockbuster show in the MOMA in New York, Inventing abstraction, 1910-1925, was refused by the museum, because Hilma did not form part of the established network. Well, the network this exhibition shows – even explicitly in some sort of network cloud – is the network the founder of the museum, Alfred Barr, determined in 1936, in his book Cubism and Abstract Art. Mind you: 1936. This was exactly the time that America was flooded by those European artists who figure in Barr’s book, who fled the fascists because of their ‘modernist’ views. At the recent very successful, three-day conference Enchanted Modernities in Amsterdam the long-standing art historian Rose-Carol Washton-Long pointed out that theosophy was mentioned in the MOMA catalogue only once, in a footnote. Once! In a footnote! The truth is: modernism would not have acquired its shape without the widespread influence of western esotericism.

The question here is: how exactly does Hilma fit into art history? The fact that Hilma’s work is overtly occult, does not mean that by consequence she was artistically and socially obscure. Hilma was part of the settled bourgeoisie of Stockholm. She went to Paris, Belgium and the Netherlands at the end of the 19th century to study. She lived smack in the middle of Stockholm above the major gallery of the city, where work was shown by Edvard Munch, among others. Although she was tied to Stockholm because of her increasingly blind mother, of whom she took care, this did not hamper her in acquiring knowledge about art developments. Interesting fact, by the way, that her mother turned blind. Because the blind are seen as ‘inward looking’, especially in esoteric circles. Also, Hilma’s primary active involvement in spiritualism was the result of the death of her sister. Personal losses were/are often the trigger to get involved in occultism. In 1920, after the death of her mother, Hilma went to live at the Anthroposophical Society in Dornach. There she had a studio, open to fellow-anthroposophists. But it looks as if she was not really happy there.

The person

As an art historian I am also interested in the life behind the work. I want to see the artist in her studio, look over her shoulder, see if she struggled making those huge paintings – which are hardly made ‘automatically’ in spiritualist terms, given the time it takes to compose and paint such a picture –  and I need to know what drove her, how she thought and experienced things. Was she happy alone in her studio? Was she alone at all? What kind of person was she? Did she feel liberated after her mother’s death? Was she traumatized by her sister's death? Why was she so focussed on getting approval of Rudolf Steiner, but became disappointed with him? Why did her work in Dornach never reach the impact (and size) she acquired during earlier periods in her life?

All these elements form part of art. Art is not only about the picture, it is also about the body, mind and soul behind it, in it, of which a picture is the result. The Dutch journalists Mark Mastenbroek and Jelle van der Meulen tried to find out more about her person in 1986, when The Spiritual in Art took place. Their recount of their trip to the anthroposophical colony in Järna, where Hilma’s work was kept, to the Af Klint estate and Hilma’s summerhouse on the island of Munsö is very enlightening about certain aspects of her personal life. (Unfortunately, this recount is not online anymore.)

Fact is: all those artists mentioned in Barr’s book were not only known by their work, but their public acclaim also was a result of the fact that they were artists belonging to a network, interacting with each other. Their exchange of opinions, their quarrels or their solidarity helped them also to embed them in art history. Thus in Hilma’s case good network research, tracing the lives of other persons in her surroundings, sifting through newspapers minutely, going through the archives in Dornach, etcetera, are vital in creating a more complete biographical picture. They make her into a living artist for us. And her art into living art.

Technical analysis

Another aspect is the analysis of her work and themes, including a technical research of the work. Painting styles and methods are highly personal. They define the artist. It is also a very disputable area, and wars are fought over attributions of works. Because being able to determine a work of art as genuine – as recently was the case with a Van Gogh, which was discarded as a genuine one about twenty years ago! – has more implications to it than purely artistic or historical. It also defines commercial value. This is a tricky area for any objective research or stance. 
But such technical research is especially necessary in Hilma’s case, because over many years from 1896 - when she still painted natural landscapes - she produced pictures together with four other women, and it is nowhere clear when their cooperation really ended. It is known, though, that the preparations for the impressive series Paintings for the Temple (1905-1915) were collaborative. Then why not also the paintings?

The enigmatic Mathilde N.

All these women are said to have been artists, but to me their lives are also still sketchy. Only one acquired some reputation as a landscape painter: Anna Cassel. She might even have been the driving force behind Hilma’s transition from landscape painting to occult painting. She was also Hilma’s life-long friend. Of all five women Anna was the first to become a member of the Theosophical Society, as the Membership Registration shows. She joined initially in 1900, but she rejoined in 1904, shortly after Sigrid Hedman. Sigrid was the first medium in the group. Hilma, in fact, was only fourth in row, in May 1904. The membership list also reveals the Christian name of the woman who is only known als Mathilde N.: Mathilde Nilsson. Who was she? She lived in the same street as Sigrid Hedman, in Kammakargatan.
The fifth woman, Cornelia Cederberg, who initially produced most of the drawings, only became a member in May 1913. She interestingly enough joined right after Rudolf Steiner had founded the Anthroposophical Society. At that time such a step was a clear statement.

The will and the consequences

Hilma’s obscurity is partly her own doing. During the thirties she stopped working altogether and started to catalogue her work minutely and obsessively. Why? In my opinion, as I suggested during the conference, Hilma must have realized the impact that rising fascism was going to have on her art. Artists in all European countries were amazingly well-informed about political developments. And they were right about their concerns. All esoteric organizations had to go underground, and artists who did not conform to Nazi artistic ideals fled Europe or were persecuted and ended up in concentration camps. Although Sweden was quite neutral during the war, Hilma simply did not want to take the risk.

In 1940 Hilma was 78 years old. In the light of the fact that she might not have been able to see the end of the war – which was indeed the case; she died in 1944 – or to live long enough to see if there would be any change in mentality and attitude towards her art – ditto, as a consequence – Hilma dictated that her work should remain hidden for at least twenty years after her death. This was a rationally sane decision. After the war her work was safely stored away by Arne Klingborg, president of the Swedish Anthroposophical Society, at the colony in Järna. Western esotericism in art became only a topic within art history in the 1970’s, and then only reluctantly. It took 42 years after Hilma’s death, before her work was shown.

So Hilma is not solely to blame. Her obscurity is also the result of the way in which western esotericism was shunned after the war, including the art which was a result of preoccupation with esotericism. This is part of cultural history, but the way esotericism was viewed and treated, differs per country. It therefore needs to be defined, how western esotericism was regarded upon in pre- and post-war Sweden, in a cultural dimension and a personal dimension, and if this also had its influence on Hilma’s reception history.

Much work on Hilma has been done, but the journey into her life and art only begins.