BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Back in '95 when NPR made me its first media reporter, a colleague emailed, 'Media reporter, I hope you do a story on paper maché. It's my favorite medium.' Of course, since the primordial 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 woman 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 and mostly black clothes, unmarried and unconnected to the modern movements brewing elsewhere. Back then, no one would have guessed she'd 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.
TRACEY BASHKOFF: What we see mostly here in the exhibition are the works that she did under her spiritual practice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Funny word medium, it can mean anything from paper maché to serving as the earthly tool of a disembodied spirit. During a seance in 1984, 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 works 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 1997, when these massive immersive paintings were made, Picasso had just cracked open the door to Cubism. While the ostensible 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 sort of naturalist forms and abstract forms in these compositions that are wholly abstract. And so she's really freed herself up from the description of the world outside our windows in a big way. It's amazing. I mean, you'll see tons of things in the exhibition that reminds you of artists who were working way later than she was.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At the time of their creation, af Klint was quietly devising modes of abstraction guided by spiritualism–a faith she had 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: And so while working as a medium is a way of kind of putting aside your personality and allowing another voice to speak through you, it was also a way that women sort of had 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: 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 kind of 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: 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 spirits divine dictation. She was 42 years old.
TRACEY BASHKOFF: Starting in 1904, a spirit first approached her about the idea that they would one day be a temple that needed to be filled with, with paintings. But later in her life, she turns her thoughts of what this temple might look like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what was it?
TRACEY BASHKOFF: So 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I recently walked through the exhibition of nearly 200 works with Bashkoff. Starting in a gallery featuring the ten 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: Floral forms and and dimorphic forms, we see kind of shell and seed shape. The second to last painting here has this, it looks like 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That last one stands apart from all the others because it uses straight lines. It's 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As we spiral 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, petals and mysterious letters, series with names like Primordial Chaos and Seven Pointed Star culminating in three large works. The altar pieces, bright, bold canvases with triangles and rainbows and spirals and shades of the dark side of the moon.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: They give the opportunity of expanding the mind. Of looking into it and seeing more than what I usually just think and feel about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A visitor from Santa Barbara in town to sing with his choir at Carnegie Hall seemed to imbibe the enigmatic work like a tonic.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: This particular picture with the rainbows and in the center, shows a huge expanse of infinite space and creative possibility and brightness and livingness, a 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Apparently. This is af Clints 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: 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 streetcar. At the age of 82, an artist to the end with less than a hundred bucks in the bank. Despite a few determined attempts, her work when 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 history of exploring the 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's temple plans.
TRACEY BASHKOFF: So I went to Stockholm for this two-day conference. And it was there that I first heard that she had these plans for a spiral shaped temple. And so it was, you know, as if the story wrote itself from that point. You know, 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 is an artist herself, was also a Theosophist and attended Steiner lectures. And when she wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright to ask him if he would consider building a museum to house Solomon R. Guggenheim's collection. She said that she wanted a temple of spirit. And so this is where we ended up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: 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: So the whole idea of who is the first abstract artist is one that we need to question not only because we've ascribed it to, you know, this handful of men for many years and that, you know, ignored sort of the presence of Hilma af Klint. But that it is a faulty game to begin with and it goes back much further to the symbols and stones and cave paintings. And so it doesn't make what Hilma af Klint was doing any less earth shattering and--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She was part of a continuum. And so 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 or whether it's about geography or philosophical thought but that we just have a wider playing field than we've ever imagined.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tracey Bashkoff is director of collections and senior curator at the Guggenheim. Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future is on display through April 23rd, 2019.