Concerning the Spiritual in Art

On Paintings for the Future by Hilma af Klint

As an artist I like commissions. Executing a work for an excited client brings me joy. Knowing I’ll be paid gives me a sense of security. Installing the painting in their home saves me the storage problem. But what about commissions from another world? Spirits don’t pay, not in earthly currency anyway.

In 1906 Hilma af Klint accepts a commission from a spiritual guide to do a series of paintings. Against the advice of her friends who warn her that such an act could lead to madness she paints more than 100 abstract works over the course of 18 months. She receives no money and gets stuck with the storage.

I guess it’s the joy.

You can see these paintings right now through April at the Guggenheim. I haven’t been yet, but I bought the catalogue and I can attest to great joy. Included in the exhibition are 10 large paintings called, not surprisingly, The Ten Largest. Measuring more than 9 feet tall by 8 feet wide these paintings convey a spirit world of colorful spirals and loops, flowerlike geometric forms and cursive lettering spelling aptly “Wu Wu.”

Seriously though. I accept as true Hilma af Klint’s spiritual connection and have great reverence for her vision and her skill. She received instructions from the High Masters but she still had to mix the colors and spread it on. Probably had to clean up too.

Hilma af Klint died in 1944 at 86 years of age. She willed the paintings to her rather bewildered nephew with the stipulation that they not be shown for 20 years. (Talk about being stuck with the storage) In spite of the fact that Erik af Klint was a naval officer with neither the financial means or knowledge to care for the works he rose to occasion. We are fortunate that he did because Hilma af Klint’s Paintings for the Future are truly paintings for us, now.

Hilma af Klint: Altarpiece, No 1, Group X, 1915 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk, foto Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet
Hilma af Klint: The Ten Largest, No 1, 1907 © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk, foto Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet