Article by Rebecca Partridge in Berlin; Sunday, Jul. 14, 2013
If any one was doubting the velocity of the current wave of ‘outsider art’ (visible at documenta, at the Biennale in Venice and currently occupying London’s Hayward Gallery) this extensive retrospective of a prolific life’s work, Hilma af Klint, a Pioneer of Abstraction, is confirmation that the outside is now well and truly ‘in’.
There are many things that make af Klint a particularly interesting artist, however one cannot introduce her without recalling the exalted mythology of how she came to public attention. af Klint herself, apparently working in seclusion, was protective of her work to the extent that she forbade any of it from being seen for at least 20 years after her death–her belief being that it would not yet be understood by a spiritually un-evolved audience. In fact it was 50 years later that the work was first brought to light as part of Maurice Tuchmans’ key exhibition, ‘On The spiritual in Art’. Since then she continues to gain attention, though there is no doubt that the contemporary art world’s growing interest in her peculiar occult visions stems from a curiosity that is far from a collective resonance with the ‘spiritual realities’ af Klint aimed to convey.
The show is laid out over two floors, the first room showing a series of 23 small, urgent paintings, cut from raw linen and subsequently framed for exhibition. It is a well-selected introduction, familiarizing us with her lexicon of organic forms, platonic geometry and playful cursive text. The repetition, which appears throughout her work, demonstrates her unfaltering rigour. We are then led on a loosely chronological journey, beginning with examples of botanical drawings and sketchbooks laid out in vitrines and leading on to works on canvas. Many pieces depict the binary symbolism typical of occult imagery. In the lower rooms there are several paintings from the series ‘Evolution’, curiously evocative of Mondrian’s ‘Evolution’ in the representation of three figures; the central an integration of the other two, in af Klint’s case male and female energies. What is most striking about this is that the series is dated at 1908, two years before Mondrian began his seminal painting.
Entering the upstairs galleries is nothing less than exhilarating, and really where the wonder of this artist becomes clear. Not unlike entering a cathedral, the vast corridor space is flanked with enormous, vibrant paintings. The sheer scale of the works mark af Klint as an artist, a female artist with tenacity, one with a sheer disregard for any artistic or gender conventions of the time. Here the heroic gestures of the abstract expressionists (with all of their ‘final’ paintings) is turned completely on its head. Instead we have a humble, solitary female, beginning a story about abstraction with an ease and vitality rarely seen amongst the superstars who wrote the later chapters. Evidently it is doubtful that af Klint was questioning what a painting could be in terms of an artistic language, it is documented that in her mind the work was ‘channeled’ from higher beings, implying she made no claim on authorship at all.
All of this leads to the obvious question, what happens when you bring the ‘outside’ in? There are two publications coinciding with the exhibition, one of which considers ‘Nine Contemporary Responses’ to Hilma af Klint’s legacy. It is here that we really get to the heart of the paradox. Of course the reductive symbolism of occult language is politically problematic to ‘knowing’ cultural producers, perhaps why the responses are so bland; either coyly flirting with spiritual interest or re hashing the over used motifs of mandalas, and ‘yin and yang’. To me this entirely misses the point, as these contemporary artists claiming to be so inspired by af Klint display none of the glorious abandon or sincerity that is what makes her work so great.
I have had several discussions with artists about why they think this wave of ‘outsidism’ is so pronounced currently. A popular opinion is that we are looking for art which is ‘beyond critique.’ I would argue that it is the acute self consciousness of the contemporary art world that hinders the re-occurrence of artists such as af Klint. If ever there were to be a contemporary response that really does her justice it should be this–to throw caution to the wind, kick off our hypercritical shoes and ‘dance like no one is watching’.
Rebecca Partridge is an artist and curator based in Berlin.