It is rare in the history of art that an exhibition undermines entrenched conventions to such an extent. The retrospective exhibition dedicated to the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim in New York is remarkable not just for bringing to light the visually arresting work of a reclusive artist from a generally overlooked location on the artistic map, but for highlighting the accelerating transformation in the ways in which the history of art, particularly Modern art, is being told. The rules of engagement are evolving, more attention than ever is paid to female achievement and to developments on the periphery of the art world, far removed from the cities of Paris, Berlin, New York or London. The success of the Guggenheim exhibition confirms that the history of art is shedding its linear character, increasingly manifesting itself as a configuration of parallel worlds and of possible trajectories that may overlap only partly, if at all.
At first glance, there is little that brings together Hilma af Klint with the celebrated pioneers of abstraction – Kandinsky, Mondrian or Malevitch, dominating academic discourse on the origins of non- figuration. Of the three, she is closest to Kandinsky in that her compositions emanate from the deeply- held understanding of art as an instrument of spiritual renewal that converts the quasi-religious energy of her mystical pursuits into aesthetic elements. These elements are connected by bright, sometimes abrupt colors that impart to the viewer a sentiment of concealed kinetic energy, threatening to burst the delicately balanced images or trigger an explosion of colors. Mystery reigns in her paintings, reflecting the striving to connect multiple cosmic worlds in a series of material images.
Considering that her creative stream did not flow from purely aesthetic sources, some critics are probably justified in likening her artworks to illustrations. But should the idiosyncratic trajectory detract from the achievement? There is little doubt that af Klint’s non-figurative compositions predate by several years those of her male counterparts, and that the form through which the cosmic energy was channeled is comparable to what we tend to associate with the outset of abstraction. She appears to have anticipated the growing relevance of her work over time, as embodied in her insistence that the work not be exhibited for at least 20 years after her death. Her oeuvre seems to draw closer to us with the passing of time, as the language comes across as postmodernly hybrid, encompassing mystery and science, figuration and abstraction, art and decoration, mastery of artistic canons and their willful abnegation.
The sudden appearance of af Klint on the doorstep of the Pantheon of Abstraction has an effect similar to the placement of a classically nude female figure in male company in Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” - the weakening of conventions on gender parity and on the nature of artistic creation. Female achievement is less visible not only because of institutionalized differences in the evaluation of artistic production, but also because talented, creative women have preferred on many occasions in the past to retreat into private lives or change professional destination rather than confront the daunting odds of prevailing in contests to win recognition for their ideas in a male-dominated field. But the Guggenheim exhibition suggests there may be a silver lining to that disadvantage: the anonymity and lack of public attention on the periphery may help release creative energy and reinforce the audacity needed for bold steps forward, surpassing the achievements of peers preoccupied with sales or with the public response to their work. Is it possible that what is crafted in the shadow may become more resplendent once broughtinto daylight? We tend to think of marginality as a handicap, but it can also be a catalyst for originality.
Hilma af Klimt is an embodiment of what in sociological language can be defined as “triple marginality” – a reclusive, self-detached woman artist in a country on the periphery of the art universe. When Modernist currents from France and Germany made inroads into relatively conservative cultural contexts, such as Sweden and Norway in the early 20 th century, they weakened traditional models of behavior for women, redirecting their energy into alternative activities and sources of meaning, such as the fashionable, largely female-populated mystical and occult movements that af Klint partook in too. The simultaneous emboldening of disadvantaged social groups and marginal currents of thought and the violent reaction to it from the conservative establishment created preconditions for conflict and for the escalation of tensions between classes or ideologies that is rendered with such dramatic elegance in the plays of Ibsen or Strindberg. Russia in the early 20 th century is another example of how exposure to political and cultural paradigms that originated from the core of Europe may lead to their radicalization.
From this angle, the story of Hilma af Klint does not appear to be episodic or exceptional but is sociologically meaningful for revealing the pertinence to creativity of that particular combination of constraint and emancipation, blockage and release. It is also a testament to the increasing acceptance of innovation as a process that is intrinsically decentralized, featuring an active exchange between the core and periphery rather than the mere transfer of ideas from the core to the periphery. The periphery is not simply a part of the theatrical scenery – it is a full-fledged member of the cast with its own part to play. Sometimes, that part may even turn out to be as important (if not more) as the one of the leading actors.
A more decentralized account of a landmark development – the emergence of abstraction, does justice to an observable pattern in the history of art whereby ideas originating from the core – in Rome, Paris or Berlin, travel to the periphery through the mobility of artists or stylistic borrowings. In the course of their movement they undergo a transformation that goes beyond mere diffusion, resulting in escalation or radicalization, so that the periphery becomes a source of originality. A classic example is another artist from the North - Edvard Munch, who dramatized the symbolic aesthetic language originating from Paris and Berlin, giving rise to his innovative and highly memorable images of anxiety and psychological pain. It is not surprising that abstraction followed a similar route; there was no French or German artist at its helm. Russian, Czech, Dutch and Swedish, the pioneers hailed from countries on the periphery of the Modernist whirlwind, escalating ideas that originated elsewhere. From this angle, the question “who got there first” is secondary in importance to recognizing the diffuse, cyclical and highly complex trajectories of human creativity that somehow bring together multiple worlds – spiritual, intellectual and geographic.
When typing “Klint” on the computer, one is likely to get an error message, suggesting “Klimt” as correction. But there is no mistake; what is needed is not a correction, but an addition to the dictionary. The Guggenheim exhibition confirms that the addition is well worth it, as our visual vocabulary promises as a result to become more colorful and spirited, literally and metaphorically.