In the fall of 2018, the Guggenheim Museum debuted an unexpected blockbuster by a little-known Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint. Paintings for the Future broke all Guggenheim records, seeing more than 600,000 visitors in its six-month run and inspiring global interest in an artist who died unheralded in 1944. Her now celebrated abstract paintings had gone mostly unseen, and her will stipulated that they not be shown publicly until 20 years after her death. An exhibition took decades beyond that, but today interest in her art and life has fueled a mini-industry of af Klint shows, a feature film (Beyond the Visible, highly recommended), and this year, the first books in a seven-volume catalogue raisonné from Swedish publisher Bokförlaget Stolpe, in English translation.
The first three volumes, published in February 2021, offer a short biography of the artist and reproduce her earliest abstract works, including her monumental series The Paintings for the Temple. The newest book, out in August, Volume IV, Parsifal and the Atom 1916-1917, reveals af Klint no longer acting as an artistic medium to the spiritual world, but consciously exploring it with quasi-scientific deliberation. It’s a turn that reflects both her artistic and spiritual development.
Born in Stockholm in 1862, where she studied traditional academic painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, neither her nationality, her gender, nor her training made af Klint a likely modernist pioneer. But in 1906 she created some of the first abstract paintings in Western art, beating out the usual suspects, men like Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian. She may have seized on abstraction first — a big part of current interest in her “story” — but like those better-known names, af Klint was inspired by the esoteric spiritual beliefs of Theosophy, though she would later join Rudolf Steiner’s breakaway movement, called Anthroposophy.
The works in Parsifal and the Atom 1916-1917 illustrate her involvement with Steiner’s Anthroposophical ideas, where the Arthurian tale of Parsifal — “A brave man slowly wise,” according to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century epic — depicting the hero’s long pursuit of the Holy Grail is seen “as an allegory of the search for the soul’s inner truth,” according to the foreword. While the 144 watercolors in the Parsifal series are not wholly abstract and sometimes include human figures, mostly nudes, the 22 watercolors of The Atom are mostly as geometrical as blueprints, which in a way they are: drafts of divinity. All of the paintings are gorgeously reproduced in full color, with a full page for each work. The book has been created with exquisite care, an aesthetic object in its own right.
One quibble is that while the Atom paintings often contain notations by af Klint in pencil, and these are helpfully translated in the works’ captions, in the Parsifal section, “Textual elements that are part of the artworks themselves have not been translated.” But why not? Without understanding the words that make up many paintings in the Parsifal series, much potential understanding is lost.
For example, af Klint’s notations in the Atom section can seem oddly religious alongside seemingly scientific diagrams: “The atom is on its way to be willingly transformed in the wake of the Lord Jesus, who paved the way for all mankind.” Lest readers are turned off by such religious conceptions behind otherwise abstract art, a reminder that Malevich’s “Black Square” was hung in a corner as an object of spiritual devotion, like any religious icon of the Russian Orthodox Church might be. This was no inside joke, but the earnestness of early modernism. Parsifal is likewise a religious theme — the search for the grail is also the quest for eternal life, i.e. Christ in the Medieval imagination.
But you don’t need religion or even spirituality to be moved by beauty, a personal quest, or artistic courage, or to strive for understanding in a confusing universe. Parsifal’s journey begins when he fails to ask a question of the injured Grail King: What ails thee? What ails us? Well, what doesn’t? It’s a lot right now. In a time when it is still difficult to travel and, for many of us, to see art in person, Parsifal and the Atom 1916-1917 is a chance to encounter art made day after day for years, work by work, beautifully reproduced, wherever we might be. Whatever ails you, art sometimes helps, at least it does for me.