Host: Back in 95 when NPR made me its first media reporter, my NPR friend and colleague Peter Breslow wrote, "Media reporter? I hope you do a story on papier-mâché, it's my favorite medium." Of course, since the days of cave painting art in countless forms has been a prime medium of human expression, but how does the creative spark catch fire? This is a story of one unlikely blaze.
In 1887, Hilma af Klint was one of the first women to graduate Stockholm's Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and she went on to paint exquisite landscapes and portraits in the style of the day. She was small with blue eyes, mostly Black, unmarried, also unconnected to the modern movements brewing elsewhere. Back then, no one would guessed her art would cover the walls of one of the world's most famous repositories of modern and especially abstract art. For one thing, the spiral temple in Manhattan known as the Guggenheim Museum hadn't yet been built. I visited in 2019 when af Klint's paintings were there.
Tracey Bashkoff: What we see mostly here in the exhibition are the works that she did under her spiritualist practice.
Host: Tracey Bashkoff curated the Guggenheim show, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.
Tracey Bashkoff: Working as a medium, she took on a commission that was given to her by the higher spirits that she was communing with to paint works that would eventually fill a temple, and that's where she really pushed the boundaries.
Host: Funny word, medium. It can mean anything from papier-mâché to serving as the earthly tool of a disembodied spirit. During a seance in 1904, Hilma af Klint heard a voice directing her to render and paint a new philosophy of life. She painted shapes, coiled, and swirling, stable, and sublime, derived from both nature and pure geometry. It was a staggering departure from the work that had defined her career, and far ahead of her time.
As Roberta Smith observed in a piece on the show for The New York Times in the year 1907 when these massive immersive paintings were made, Picasso had just cracked open the door to cubism while the extensible pioneers of modernist abstraction Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky were years away from their breakthroughs.
Tracey Bashkoff: What she's doing here that's so different from what was going on at this time, is that she's combining naturalist forms and abstract forms in these compositions that are wholly abstract. She's really freed herself up from the description of the world outside our windows in a big way. It's amazing. You'll see tons of things in the exhibition that reminds you of artists who were working way later than she was.
Host: At the time of their creation, af Klint was quietly devising modes of abstraction guided by spiritualism, a faith she'd long ago embraced. Based on the belief that every individual was capable of touching the sublime without intervention by priestly intermediaries, spiritualism was ideally suited to women who preferred to rule themselves.
Tracey Bashkoff: While working as a medium is a way of putting aside your personality and allowing another voice to speak through you, it was also a way that women had some direct access to these ideas of the divine and to ideas of authority, and it gave them a voice whether one believes in the practice or not, to speak in it in some form.
Host: As a working artist, af Klint practiced spiritualism with four other women artists, they called themselves "The Five."
Tracey Bashkoff: They met weekly and had these seances that were structured like a religious service. They read from the Old Testament. There was a sermon, and then there was a moment where they attempted to contact other higher spirits.
Host: Spirits named Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg, and Gregor, who led "The Five" into other worlds and ways of seeing. Af Klint was with them when she heard what she called "the Spirit's divine dictation," she was 42 years old.
Tracey Bashkoff: Starting in 1904, a spirit first approached her about the idea that there would one day be a temple that needed to be filled with paintings, but later in her life, she turns her thoughts of what this temple might look like.
Host: What was it?
Tracey Bashkoff: It was around building that people would progress through in a spiral path as they encounter all of the works of the paintings for the temple, and it would lead upward to a altarpiece at the center where the 10 largest paintings would exist.
Host: Spiral to a final altarpiece. She thought about this drew sketches of this in the 30s, let it be submitted that the Guggenheim was opened in 1959.
Tracey Bashkoff: That's right. Right.
Host: I recently walked through the exhibition of nearly 200 works with Bashkoff, starting in a gallery featuring the 10 large luminous canvases she mentioned, over three meters tall, marking the stages of life from childhood, through youth, adulthood and old age, each frankly gorgeous, each with its own motion and messages, almost like a set of maps to different precincts of the spiritual cosmos. As many have said, this is trippy stuff.
Tracey Bashkoff: Fluoroforms and biomorphic forms, we see kind of shell and a seed shape. The second to last painting here, it looks like a two-lobed, almost a heart shape, but it's also perhaps a seed, the beginning of life or what grows after life is over and then feeds into a new life thereafter.
Host: The last one stands apart from all the others because it uses straight lines. It squares within squares, a central pattern.
Tracey Bashkoff: Right. We see a tendency in her work to almost diagram things and to try to come to terms with these spiritual ideas and this voyage and this message that she was passing on with these paintings and trying to put them in a scientific language.
Host: As we spiraled our way to the top of the museum, we passed canvases suffused with rich and strange colors denoting masculine and feminine, the gush of life and the serenity of cosmic order, spirals and snails, pedals and mysterious letters, series with names like primordial chaos, and seven pointed star, culminating in three large works. The altarpieces, bright, bold canvases with triangles and rainbows and spirals and shades of the dark side of the moon.
Visitor: They give the opportunity of expanding the mind, of looking into it and seeing more than what I usually just think and feel about.
Host: A visitor from Santa Barbara in town to sing with his choir at Carnegie Hall seemed to imbibe the enigmatic work like a tonic.
Visitor: This particular picture with the rainbows and then the center shows a huge expanse of infinite space and creative possibility and a brightness and a livingness and great positive view of life, and we can draw upon all the other elements around it, it looks like to me, from the most gross concrete to the brightest colorful, but there's a brightness about it. That's encouraging.
Tracey Bashkoff: We seem to be the audience that perhaps she was looking for.
Host: Apparently, this is af Klint's first major show, and it's been a smashing success, but she was convinced no such audience existed when she made these works.
Tracey Bashkoff: Slightly before she dies, she records that she wants the work to not be seen for 20 years after her death, that she feels the world isn't ready for the messages that her paintings contain and that they should be held for future audiences.
Host: We don't know why she thought that, it may have been the spirits. It may have been the renowned erstwhile theosophist Rudolf Steiner, long story. It may have just been her. She died in 1944, struck down by that emblem of modernity, the street car, at the age of 82. An artist to the end with less than $100 in the bank. Despite a few determined attempts, her work went virtually unseen for far more than 20 years, but it finally happened when Maurice Tuchman included her work as part of a group exhibit on spirituality and abstract art at LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in 1986. The Guggenheim's Tracey Bashkoff, a Kandinsky specialist, was intrigued by the exhibit catalog and saw a direct line between af Klint's work and the Guggenheim's history of exploring these spiritual and utopian aspects of abstraction, but it was only in 2013, years after Bashkoff had started planning the exhibition, that she even learned of af Klint temple plans.
Tracey Bashkoff: I went to Stockholm for this two-day conference and it was there that I first heard that she had these plans for spiral shaped-temple. It was as if the story wrote itself from that point, we know that the founder of this temple, no, the founder of this museum, the woman that worked with Solomon Guggenheim, a woman named Hilla von Rebay, who was an artist herself, was also a theosophist and attended Steiner lectures. When she wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright to ask him if he would consider building a museum to house [unintelligible 00:10:38] our Guggenheim's collection, she said that she wanted a temple of spirit. This is where we ended up.
Host: This convergence across time suggests, as it often does, that ideas may emerge again and again spontaneously and are not always and merely passed from one person to the next.
Tracey Bashkoff: The whole idea of who was the first abstract artist is one that we need to question, not only because we've ascribed it to this handful of men for many years and that ignored the presence of Hilma AF Klint, but that it is a faulty game, to begin with, that it goes back much further to symbols and stones and cave paintings. It doesn't make what Hilma AF Klint was doing any less earth-shattering.
Host: She was part of a continuum. The fact that she was earlier than a lot of people that we may have regarded as pioneers, in the long run doesn't even matter because there's so many antecedents to her.
Tracey Bashkoff: No, I think what matters is that her presence puts all these pressures on the right points. It lets us think more expansively about who should be included in that story, whether it's about gender, whether it's about geography or philosophical thought, but that we just have a wider playing field than we've ever imagined.
Host: Tracy Bashkoff is senior director of collections and senior curator at the Guggenheim. The exhibition Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future closed in 2019, but her paintings can be seen today at the art gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Frank Lloyd Wright once said that "every building is a missionary. I don't build a house without predicting the end of the present social order," and so it was ultimately with Hilma af Klint.
Her art was as subversive as her faith, a revolutionary religion for a revolutionary time, and it's sprouted in the US according to historian Ann Braude in the year 1848. The year of the February revolution in France and the March Revolution in the German states and upheaval in about 50 other countries where people demanded a free press, self-rule and workers' rights, and here an end to slavery and rights for women in the nation's first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.
Ann Braude: Right in the same neighborhood and involving some of the same individuals, the emergence of spirit communication through the Fox sisters, three adolescent sisters, they heard these raps on the floor and furniture of their cottage, and they attributed them to the spirits of a dead peddler, who they believed might be buried in the cottage. Now, this could be any adolescent prank, but the adults who surrounded them took this seriously. Among those adults were Isaac and Amy Post distinguished Quaker abolitionists.
Host: The Quaker notion was that every individual is a perfect transcript of the mind of God, and it is the inner light within each of us that gives us access to the truth.
Ann Braude: Amen. Sounds like you're quoting from my book.
Host: I am. These two well-respected Quaker abolitionist reformers bring the Fox sisters to their home near Rochester, New York and they form a kind of Proto-Ouija Board in order to communicate more directly with the spirit world.
Ann Braude: That's exactly right. Isaac Post writes out the alphabet on a piece of paper and he moves his hand over the piece of paper. He stops when the spirit raps manifest themselves. They soon are able to receive communications from dead relatives that they can identify. The Fox sisters were understood as passive vehicles that were being used by spirits, external intelligences, who spoke through these girls.
Host: What did they say? These weren't Socrates and Shakespeare.
Ann Braude: They were Socrates and Shakespeare. Eventually, as mediumship became more developed, more and more famous people communicated, but the initial communications were with dead relatives. That is the hunger that made people sit around the seance table, the hunger to reestablish communication with the voices of those we have lost. Remember, they didn't have tape recordings, they didn't have photography, they might have a lock of hair and they had a desperate desire to be in contact.
Host: I'm glad that you talked about the technology they didn't have, because there was a significant amount of technological development in this period. You did start to have the telegraph.
Ann Braude: The Telegraph itself seemed like magic. The raps that the Fox sisters heard seemed very similar to the taps of Morse code, and it was a similar process using the alphabet to tap out a message.
Host: The telegraph may have contributed to the idea that there was no distance too far. How did spiritualists take up the idea of other technologies, particularly electricity?
Ann Braude: Spiritualists very much thought of themselves as experimental scientists seeking empirical evidence of the immortality of the soul. They viewed men as representing the positive node of electricity and women the negative. These were connected in the seance circle. They believed they were creating an electrical circuit. Seances were practiced all over the country in people's homes. There might be particular individuals in a community who became known as mediums and invited for seances, or it might just be a family member.
Host: Some men were mediums, but mostly they were women. Why?
Ann Braude: The perfect medium was a 14-year-old girl. She provided the fewest impediments to communication. She was old enough to have a good command of language and a presence, but she was assumed to be less educated and less able to dissemble than a male medium.
Host: The spirits had fewer barriers to break through because these women offered so little resistance.
Ann Braude: That's exactly right. They were presumed to be incapable of constructing the political and scientific disquisitions that they often gave while under the influence of spirits.
Host: Those society at the time would have penalized women, young or otherwise, who did show those aptitudes. Women were safe if they were hiding behind a spirit voice, you have an opportunity to say something, to make a contribution if you don't own it, who wouldn't choose to go that route?
Ann Braude: Women were taught to believe that they themselves were incapable of public speech, that the first women's rights convention there were people who attempted to speak in public, who couldn't do it. Susan B. Anthony was rather distressed about this. She didn't think women should be allowed to get up and speak if they couldn't make themselves heard. It was the empowerment of the spirits that allowed many women to find a voice to be able to make themselves heard.
Now, does that mean that they were committing fraud because they believed that the power to do that came from spirits? I don't think so.
Host: I'm just saying that these were remarkably receptive people, the kind of people who, maybe in a different circumstance, wouldn't need the cover of the spirit, and even if they believed it. Do you?
Ann Braude: I absolutely believe that the women whose own understanding of themselves was that they could not speak in public without the health of spirits. I believe that they were genuine in that understanding.
Host: I think we can agree that, by bringing women into the public square, it changed whose voices could be heard.
Ann Braude: Whether that woman was a temperance advocate, a revivalist, or a spirit medium, she was likely to be the first woman that small community had ever heard speak in public. That experience itself was a revelation.
Host: Many women who are active in the suffrage movement actually got their start as mediums.
Ann Braude: The radical reformers were very attracted to spiritualism because it coincided with their understanding of individual sovereignty. If individuals could communicate with angels, could hear from the dead who might be sitting at the right hand of God, then you don't need a priest, you don't need ordination, you don't need theology. No individual should have absolute authority over another, whether they assert that authority as a slave master or as a husband who owns his wife, that notion of individual sovereignty raised questions about all kinds of hierarchy.
Host: Now, listeners may wonder why we've spent so much time on spiritualism after having just had a walk through the Guggenheim exhibit of Hilma af Klint.
Ann Braude: Hilma is really a remarkable example of someone whose life was profoundly changed by spirit communication. I think she's also a wonderful demonstration of the ridiculousness of thinking that spirit mediumship is fraud. One of the most interesting quotes that I read from her is when she says, "It was not the case that I was to blindly obey the high lords of the mysteries, but that I was to imagine that they were always standing by my side."
Now, to me, that sounds like many artists trying to convey a deeper truth. She understood that artistic expression as being directly connected to specific external intelligences, that's a little bit more concrete than I think what Hans Hoffman meant when he talked about the spiritual in art. I think it's the same experience.
Host: Have you ever wondered why she specified that her work be kept secret for at least 20 years after her death?
Ann Braude: Oh, I wonder so many things. I want to know everything about her. I want to know how her group of five women artists, "The Five" was convened. Spiritualists thought you need and men and women to have the appropriate electrical circuit for a seance. How did they convene this group of "The Five" artists? I've never heard of anything like that. The idea of her purifying herself for a year, does that come from her exposure to Eastern religions through theosophy? Does it come from the Lutheran church, or how she did it? Who was doing the cooking? I just can't conceive of this. I have 1,000 questions.
Host: Ann, thank you so much.
Ann Braude: Any time.
Host: Ann Braude is the director of the Women's Studies and Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School. She's the author of Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Thanks for listening to our podcast Extra. Turn into the big show this Friday. In the meantime, consider subscribing to our wonderful newsletter, which you can find it on the media.org.
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