Dr. Marty Bax, art historian, international expert on the work of Piet Mondrian, and on Modern Art & Western Esotericism; Expert provenance researcher on the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in the Netherlands for the Claims Conference-World Jewish Restitution Organization Looted Art and Cultural Property Initiative

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08 February 2021

Anna Cassel & Hilma af Klint. Childhood 1907. Vision of a new Swedish Christian identity

 In December 1907 Hilma af Klint and the group De Fem finished the of a series of ten paintings, called De tio största (The Ten Largest). This series is said to depict the evolution of human life from birth to old age. The series makes an indelible impression, if only because of the size of the works: they are twice the height of the average human being. The paintings are also extremely rich in iconographical details: an abundance of floral motives, arabesque-like script and geometric shapes.

The iconographical richness of the series defies any simple explanation. Descriptions in literature are, possibly because of it, mainly highly descriptive in character, and when inspirational sources are mentioned, they are interpreted in the way Hilma af Klint’s fame rose from the late 1980’s: late 19th and early 20th century Occultism: Theosophy and Anthroposophy.

But if that is true remains much to be seen. Why do all the analyses fall short of a thorough interpretation based on the iconography itself, on the ideas of the painter(s) and on the setting in which the works originated?

Hilma was part of the women’s group De Fem, consisting of five members: Sigrid Hedman, the medium; Mathilda Nilsson, publisher and main psychographer; and three painters: Anna Cassel, Hilma af Klint and Cornelia Cederberg, who all knew each other from their training at the School of Decorative Arts and the Royal Academy. This group, a subdivision of the Edelweissförbundet, had a specific mission: to produce paintings for a “temple.”

Of the proceedings seven notebooks exist: five made during sessions of De Fem, and two separate ones by Anna Cassel and Hilma af Klint. These last notebooks in fact are extracts of the now destroyed 28 (sic) original notebooks. Hilma made these extracts shortly after 1927, and annotated them another time in 1934. Thus the two existing notebooks contain only a sliver of the original ones. Not only that. By piecing together the information of all of the seven notebooks it becomes clear that Hilma deliberately twisted history to her advantage when all of her colleagues had died. She describes her role in the group as the superior one, as the genius behind the work. Also she superimposes her later Occult worldview on work that was made around 1906-1908. None of this is historically correct.   

The first of The Ten Largest, Childhood, is a perfect study object to delve deeper into the real events and contemporary context. A minute analysis of the mission of the group and the iconographical breakdown of all of the elements of the painting have resulted in a stunning picture of the circumstances and of the reasons why the specific pictorial elements were chosen. The genius behind the work – in fact of the whole concept of all of the series – is Anna Cassel, who solely received the assignment from the spirits through Sigrid Hedman to create a vision based on “the saga’s:” “… not written by human hand but carved into the finest matter of human life. For this you must know: for he who [has] eyes to see with, there is a living writing in space, a diary of the changing destinies of the world, of the many lives of the individual.

The analysis of Childhood provides an array of the predictable impulses that Anna has worked into the painting. Among them are Christian Spiritualism and Pietism (the religious orientation of De Fem and the Edelweissförbundet), Norse folklore, archeology and rune culture, all in the context of Swedish National Romanticism. The theme of the series has nothing to do with the natural progression of a human life. It symbolizes the birth and development of the modern Christian identity of the young, newly formed Swedish State in 1905.

The book is available HERE.