Hilna Af Klint at The Guggenheim: Metaphysics as it Patrols Mortality’s Borders

AEQAI 2019 (7/8):1-11 (2019)
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The Guggenheim’s spring retrospective of the seminal Swedish painter, Hilma Af Klint, has, naturally, evoked a multitude of art critics and visual culture scholars who laud her radical abstraction which, at the beginning of the 20th century, preceded Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian. Yet, where much attention has been given to the symbology and motifs riddling Klint’s work – bold, private, untethered and nonrepresentational as they are – there has been a modicum of nuanced thought on how, exactly, esotericism and theology fomented Klint’s pedagogical projects. Jillian Steinhauer, for instance, has underscored Klint’s naturalistic watercolors; featuring flowers and lifelike drawings of women; Summer Landscape (1888) suggests Klint’s technical aptitude for rendering light. Jadranka Ryle, in a clever article titled “Reinventing the Yggdrasil,” invokes Klint’s motif of the Yggdrasil, or the holy tree of Norse mythology, as a political axle for Nordic romanticism. Ryle makes the claim that by redirecting the Yggdrasil towards androgynous abstraction, Klint’s engagement with Norse mythology subverts the nationalist and patriarchal romanticism that previously characterized the nineteenth century’s use of the Yggdrasil. Others have adroitly uncovered biographical fragments from Klint’s life, detailing how she and four friends formed De Fem (“the Five”), an exclusively female coven that met weekly, praying, meditating, and holding seances to commune with spiritual guides. Rather than poise the Swedish maverick within the cannon of abstraction qua a political praxis, feminist subject-being, or historiography – projects that have been exhaustively overwrought, to the point of rendering Klint’s work both mute and reductively technical– I would like to take this time to closely examine simply one of Klint’s paintings and foreground it as an axiomatic modernist injunction between metaphysics and epistemology.

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