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

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10 May 2017

Hilma af Klint revisited. Part III: Anna Cassel, Hilma's 'other half'

So this time I want to draw Anna Cassel into the limelight. Anna has frequently been mentioned only as as Hilma’s life-long friend and artist-colleague, but again, only fleetingly. From 1882-1887 they attended the Stockholm academy Anna from 1880, Hilma from 1882 onwards. One of their teachers was Count Georg von Rosen (1843-1923). Members of his larger family became members of the Edelweissförbundet.

Anna, as said, grew up in extreme wealth. Anna, fragile-looking with light reddish hair and always youthful in appearance, had a strong and generous personality. She had both a strong sense of ethics and a passion for art. But she also had a weak health. She suffered from severe asthma and had to retreat to sanatoriums or to the West-coast to recover from bouts.
Before 1908, while recovering from an asthma attack, she met Karl-Erik Öhman, son of a wealthy trader, who also suffered from severe lung problems and had already visited many sanatoriums in Europe. Öhman later became member of the board of the mine Surahammars Bruk.

In his diary Karl-Erik Öhman describes how he met Anna in Åre - he describes the area as 'little Switzerland' - and how her personality and mental strength exerted a very powerful influence over him; it gave him direction in life for the first time. Through her, and through her former fellow academy students Carl Johansson Anton Genberg and Gustaf Lundberg, who came there often (the picture left was taken in 1890), he was introduced to art and became a fervent amateur painter. Through Anna he met Anna's sister Ida Cassel (1888-1967) and they got married. Anna's sister Lotten also came to Åre. She was suffering from severe heart problems. Karl-Erik Öhman describes her as musically very talented (she played the piano) and as spiritually strong, intellectually gifted and erudite.

So Anna was not always fit to attend the meetings of The Five. Asthma may have well exacerbated under stress, which is normal. She probably experienced a major setback between 1908 and 1912. The reason? Death in the family: her sister Lotten died in 1908.

I want to recall here that Lotten already was a member of the TS from 1895 onwards. Now this paints another picture of the so-called crisis, which The Five seem to have experienced between 1908 and 1912. The fact is that all of the Cassel women, the mother and 5 daughters, lived together at least from 1894 until 1914. So the death of Lotten must have had an enormous impact on the close relationship between the women.

Around 1907 Hilma painted a portrait of a faintly smiling girl in what seems like clothes of a nun. It is mistakenly interpreted as a portrait of another artist, Lotten Rönnqvist, who died in 1912; she was a friend of Hilma's and Anna's. Moreover, the girl has the facial characteristics, notably the big round blue eyes and the long fingers, of the Cassel family. The painting was made because the women knew she was dying.

Lotten's death sent Anna off into illness and she withdrew for a longer period of time in order to manage her asthma. The Five were thus reduced to four, of whom only one was a professional painter: Hilma. It is of course possible that this death event coincided with Hilma’s acquaintance with Rudolf Steiner, who seems to have been critical about the spiritualist tendencies and seance visualizations of The Five. It could have added to the emotional disarray. But Steiner’s rebuff of Hilma’s art was certainly not the only reason that The Five paused their activities until 1912. Which, by the way, is not the truth either. There are sketches in the notebooks dating from that period. And Anna did make sketches of a tree based on visions in 1911, which theme seems to have been taken up by the group in 1912.

Another reason for the pause has been suggested: Hilma’s mother supposedly turned blind and Hilda had to take care of her as her father had died early, in 1898, and her brothers were off to establish their own career and to raise families. However: Hilma and her mother lived in separate apartments, be it at the same address, Brahetan 52, from 1899 until 1918. The mother lived alone, sometimes with a servant. Hilma’s own household held several women; one was a gym teacher who later became the director of a gym school.

As is commonly held, around 1915 a new person was introduced into Hilma’s life: Thomasine Andersson, her mother’s nurse. Was she really? This is also strange: Thomasine Andersson is only listed in Stockholm between 1905 and 1908 and at a completely different address and nowhere later. What is interesting though: she worked with a doctor specialized in sight problems. After her mother’s death Hilma is said to have moved to Helsingborg with Thomasine and changed several addresses with her, until Thomasine died in 1940. (One could speculate on a knot here: the mother's blindness; a nurse with knowledge of vision; spiritual vision; an ophtalmic nurse-spiritualist painter partnership.) In the meantime Hilma is said to have stayed in Dornach over extended periods of time. In her biography no specifications are given – several other issues that should be cleared.

Thomasine Andersson (seated), 1915, with the ophtalmologist Dr. C.G. Boström
During the same period Anna had her own problems. Her mother died in 1922. She was the only one of the sisters left to care for her mother. Her brother had, like many other industrials at the time, heavily invested in Russian stocks. After the revolution and the hyperinflation which sent Europe into depression these had suddenly become worthless. Shame was laden on her brother’s children, who were friends with the current King’s father and went to the same school together, and who now were treated derisively at school. Anna was a person who helped people out, and she responded. It is said she even helped members of the Edelweissförbundet through a crisis around 1896, in particular the family Von Fock.

Anna showed the same generosity towards her friend Hilma - which effectively kills the commonly held view that the women went separate ways because Anna was jealous of Hilma was now teaming up with Thomasine. Until today there is no proof of this supposition.

Anna, as said, belonged to a family of extremely wealthy industrialists. Hilma, by comparison, came from a family of naval officers elevated into nobility in 1805, and the family was certainly well-off, but not as rich as Anna’s family. The separate households of Hilma and her mother must have cost quite a bit for a widow and her daughter, without any evidence that Hilma's brothers spent time and money on the women. It is also highly likely that Anna paid for all of the expensive calf’s leather-bound notebooks and possibly also for the paintings. The very large paintings, of course, also needed quite some storage space. Space which Anna, living together with all of her sisters and her mother, wouldn’t have had.

In 1916 Anna rented a piece of land from the noble Giertta family on Munsö, in order to build a house, named Villa Furuheim, and a separate studio, for her and Hilma. In 1918 Hilma and her mother moved to Munsö together with the mother’s servant. They became Anna's tenant. Hilma’s mother died in 1920.

Anna and Hilma went to Munsö every summer, to paint and enjoy nature. Also after the moment that Hilma teamed up with Thomasine Andersson. They painted there together. At other times Anna lived there alone, when for what reason Hilma was absent. Other sisters of Anna’s stayed at Munsö too, according to letters in the Af Klint archive. Generally the ties between Hilma, her mother and the Cassel family were almost family-like in nature. Hilma’s mother for instance was called ‘Dear Tant’ by Anna’s sister. Hilma seems to have depended on Anna for her inspiration and guidance. Around 1918 she writes in a slightly panicky tone: ‘If I get a mission from the spirits what shall I do? Who will help me to fulfill the task?’

It should be emphasized here: Anna was the official owner of the house on Munsö. It is listed among her belongings in her will and she paid taxes for it. So when Anna died – unmarried – in 1937, Hilma effectively was the sole inhabitant and user of the house, the studio and ALL of its contents.

Then, on 21 October 1944, Hilma fairly suddenly died from complications of a car accident a few days before. At that time she, as an old woman, was officially registered living with her younger cousin Hedwig af Klint in Djursheim. Which does not exclude Hilma’s prolonged stays on Munsö, or make her no less the sole user of Villa Furuheim and its contents.

So Hilma’s death came fairly unexpected. And suddenly a huge problem arose: what to do with those enormous paintings, all of the sketches and those 125 notebooks? Because everything points in the direction of Munsö being the place where the whole collection has been.

Now there are two issues here which explain a lot about the route the collection has taken after Hilma’s death.

First: Anna’s family did not want to possess any of the esoteric paintings, nor the notebooks. One should realize Hilma’s death occurred well into the Second World War. Sweden was a neutral country, but that does not imply that either Western Esotericism could flourish in the open or that Fascism had not taken roots. The Swedish society, and notably the upper class, being closely linked to both politics and economy, was very aware of both the dangers of Fascism and of members enthusiastically embracing it at the same time. Fascists had declared an open war on western esotericists. Europe-wide esoteric societies went underground, members hushed up and archives were looted, dispersed or destroyed.

Sweden had entered an era of ideological conflicts and polarizations, mingled with Western Esotericism. Macro developments are reflected in micro situations. I have already shown how the Ljungström family was split into various theosophical fractions around 1900. This intensified over the years and spread into politics. The inventor Fredrik Ljungstrom was sympathetic towards Germany. His son Olle was vehemently anti-fascist and averse to anything esoteric. Olle’s sister Ulla Signe, who married into the Cassel family, was also very apprehensive of anything spiritual and avoided it with all her might. She took a remarkable step: she went to England during the war and became a spy. Her husband Thorsten Magnus Cassel was equally explicit that ‘one should not knock on tables’.

So it is no wonder that when Hilma died in 1944 the Cassel family vehemently rejected the idea of having anything abstract-spiritual in their houses, be it from Anna or from Hilma. They retained Anna’s figurative works and some of Hilma’s landscapes. (The fact that they are figurative, by the way, does not mean they do not have esoteric connotations. This can be proven in work by Anna, but this is beside the subject.) The consequence was that in 1944 Villa Furuheim and the studio on Munsö, which after Anna’s death were officially inherited by the Cassel family, were brimming with esoteric work.

The second issue now is that Baron Giertta ordered the Af Klint family to clear the house within three months after Hilma’s death. It is said that there was also a personal dimension to this swift action. He was especially adamant to have the house and studio closed down because he thought Hilma was ‘too close’ with his wife. In short: Baron Giertta wanted to get rid of the stuff, and better yesterday than today. Erik af Klint (picture), Hilma’s nephew (born 1901, son of Gustaf born 1858), was ordered to clear the house. The contents amounted to no less than three bulky containers. Then Baron Giertta razed the house and the studio to the ground.

Now Erik was stuck with those containers with controversial objects. Hilma had suddenly died and had left no will – at least not an official one, as Anna had done, that has been researched. As I have said before: given the controversies around both the legacy of Western Esotericism and Fascism – which, by the way, was universal in the whole of Europe and has shaped much of the postwar reception of Western Esotericism – and the flat rejection by the Cassel family to own the collection, it is more plausible that it was simply wiser to lock the legacy up and wait for time to pass. We have no proof, only saying, that Hilma, dying, would have been able to utter the provision that the work should be retained for 20 years, and even if this would have been the case, she must have been well aware of the situation both within the Cassel family and on Munsö. The previous cataloguing of all the works surely meant she was adamant that the legacy of The Five would live on, in some way or another.

In the end the Anthroposophical Society in Järna declared itself willing to store the containers for the time being. But that is where the identification problems start, as storing the collection and later presenting it to the outside world does not consequently imply that the collection has been objectively inventoried and studied – professionally, by art historians and restorers. That, in fact, is hardly the case.

It is plausible that Hilma started cataloguing the oeuvre around Anna’s impending death – she was nearing 80 and remember, her health was fragile – in order to preserve the legacy. It is not even known if Anna herself was involved in the cataloguing. What is clear from the collection as a whole: the handwriting of the content listing of the 125 notebooks does not match the handwritings of the contents of the books. Many of the sketches bear different handwritings and signatures. No systematic study has been made to separate one from the other. There are many items belonging to Anna. None of the paintings were originally signed; all of the signatures were added later. In that way they were posthumously attributed to Hilma, but that may be questioned altogether. Gustaf, Erik’s son, knew which items were Anna’s, and sometimes her name was written on objects later, and questions about her work were redirected to the Cassel family. But that knowledge is nowhere made clear, and now it has evaporated. Gustaf, or for the same matter his father, had only a faint idea of what Hilma was doing during her life. He knew nothing about the five women nor about the Edelweissförbundet. Hence the reiterated statement that Mathilda N. was an unknown person. And because he knew nothing about those women or of Hilma’s social life in general, the descendants of those persons – notably the descendants of Sigrid Hedman and Mathilda Nilsson – have been traced.

The archive also contains correspondence. Why haven’t those letters been published, not even partly? They could throw new light on Hilma’s biographical context. Why has no art historian researched ‘the other side’ of Hilma’s life? To draw the parallel with Mondrian again: Mondrian was known to have destroyed the incoming letters after having read them, but the people to whom he wrote preserved them in most of the cases. These letters have been essential in painting the image of Mondrian, not only of the development of his work, but also of him as a person. Now Hilma’s image is a floating and isolated one. The history of The Five largely has an empty frame. Notably Anna Cassel is missing, Hilma’s ‘other half’.

Did you come here and missed out on the other parts? Go here for Part I and here for Part II.