History of Trauma in Environmental Art: Connections between Beuys and af Klint

Perhaps, the most widely known Anthroposophist artist in our time is Hilma af Klint (1862-1944). In the fall of 2018, the Guggenheim Museum presented the first solo exhibition in the United States of af Klint’s work. Af Klint was born in Sweden and formally trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. The art that af Klint made for the public was typically landscapes and botanical illustrations. Her private art, however, was abstract in style and considered offensive by many in her life, including Steiner, as she used mediumship as a method for her painting. At her death, af Klint arranged for her art to be preserved and not shown until fifty years after her death. Her work was first shown at an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1985––only forty-one years after her death. Influenced by Anthroposophy, of course, af Klint lived through and was inspired by scientific breakthroughs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such as the discovery of the atom and the invention of the x-ray. Moreover, she survived the Spanish flu pandemic as well as two world wars, which might also be reflected in her work.

Hilma af Klint, No.1, Childhood, 1907, oil on canvas.

Af Klint is best known for her automatic painting, which is a process of painting where she put herself in a deep spiritual state that was guided by the High Ones––primarily Amalel, a spirit personality. She explained these paintings as, “pictures [that] were painted directly though me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict. Nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke. Af Klint’s largest paintings were completed in 1907 and represent the “four stages of life and humanity’s connections to the universe.” The four paintings, Childhood, Youth, Adulthood, and Old Age are large tempura paintings mounted on canvas. The paintings include mandalas, flowers, and various shapes with deep symbolism describing the Axiom of Maria, a concept for a sequence that follows “the dynamic unfolding from unconsciousness, to the emergence of one-sided consciousness, to the cognition of the opposites of consciousness and unconsciousness, and finally to the integration of duality into a new conscious attitude through the process of individualization.”

Using Steiner’s definitions of the body, af Klint’s paintings focused on the astral body and its connections to other realms of existence as seen through her communication with the High Ones. Even though af Klint’s existence in the art world during her life was a radical act (af Klint was an unwed woman making a living as an artist at the turn of the twentieth century), her art was not focused on politics and social reform. This vastly differs from Beuys approach. Beuys valued spirituality as well, but instead of using mediumship to connect with other unworldly aspects, like mediumship, he believed that spirituality was innate in the world around us and could be grasped by connecting with nature. Moreover, Beuys’s art practice was focused on politics and social reform, unlike af Klint who used her art to connect with the High Ones.

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