Spiritualisme: Hilma af Klint, Paul Klee, Kai Althoff

Before global warming and the publication of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, Paul Klee noted in his diary (The Diaries of Paul Klee 1898–1918) that in Switzerland the summer of 1911 was one of extreme heat. He wrote, “One went daily to bathe in Wurm, to bathe daily in Wurm, day after day to bathe in Wurm. Roses were blooming there, which one swam by, the blooming roses swam by. Sadly we bathed our last and took our leave from the blooming roses, … ming roses,” setting for the reader a sense of displacement followed by mild euphoria. And more weather: “Autumn is here. The current of my soul is followed by stealthy fog.”

While the firmly entrenched skeptic in me read Vassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art with the critical distance from which a skeptic would read, when I first read it, like Kandinsky I, too, am concerned with spirituality, thinking that in some form it may be the recourse and guide we can follow now. I am seeing it in art, or it may be that it’s the art I’m selecting to see, but in one recent week there was Paul Klee at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim in New York and Kai Althoff at Tramps, also in New York. All are spiritual and all are abstract in that what we are seeing is not representational. Kandinsky was the first to write about this in 1911 when Concerning the Spiritual in Art was published and Klee was keeping his assiduous diaries and Gertrude Stein was writing but not yet publishing her radical texts. And all were struggling with reception. Hilma af Klint knew her work was well in advance of any audience it might reach and drafted an injunction stating it was to be kept from view for 20 years after her death. In 1918 Paul Klee wrote, in an autobiographical text for the art historian Wilhelm Hausenstein, “I cannot be grasped in the here and now,” or, alternately translated, “I cannot be understood on this earth.” And Kai Althoff obscures and obfuscates the presentation of his work, blocking and wooing its receivers with equal rigour.

Calling out in a voice enfeebled by the distance of time, his triangular trumpet of audio amplification attenuated to a barely visible thread-of-a-tin-megaphone, Kandinsky cautions, “The artists must be blind to distinctions between ‘recognized’ or ‘unrecognized’ conventions of form, deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age. He must watch only the trend of the inner need, and hearken to its words alone. Then he will with safety employ means both sanctioned and forbidden by his contemporaries. All means are sacred which are called for by the inner need.” The work drawn from the soul, or core, or spirit; the highly conscious centred ego; or a whispery chalky voice in the ear; or a thin and miserable individual childhood; or the osmotic and transparent clear grey light that is the palimpsest of prairie winters. Hilma af Klint, Kai Althoff, Paul Klee all called on an ineffable source. Whether it is received is up to us.

If we are made uneasy in our material but rapidly degraded exhausted world by notions of the soul or spirit, how about magic? Magic is good—like a circus, for distraction or alternately for enchantment. Because I saw the work of the three artists in a compressed period, I came away with this picture: all three like the endless silk scarves pulled from a magician’s sleeve; myself startled by a sense of vivid colour, surprised to find me there at the end of the artist’s hand, limp, maybe limpid, too, and oddly compliant, readied and turned to receptivity. Ascending the spiral rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum, I was gently, nicely, happily overwrought. I’d started on a coil of awe-someness and now I was an eager spring on a Swiss watch. Ten large paintings titled “Group IV The Ten Largest” and all astonishingly dated 1907, each measuring almost 10 feet by 9 feet and installed together in the first gallery space you see, winding upward—tempera on paper, mounted on canvas. Tempera, with its special flat, gentle egginess, slow to apply, no oil for glissando, has always seemed to me to be the medium of miniatures, like the medieval Books of Hours, small, precise, focused and particular, so intimate as to have been applied using only a single eyelash. And the quality of opacity: perfect. But here of a size to fill a temple, which was their initial design. Directed by Amaliel, one of the High Masters with whom Hilma and her spiritual colleagues communed, af Klint produced a revolutionary body of work in a scale that could be described as heroic were she one of the men who painted largely, but decades later. She painted 10 paintings never seen before. The modernist directive to make it new would have neither driven nor occurred to af Klint. But these were new then, unseen because not exhibited, and remain new now. “Unseen” is apt; you don’t know what you see. But radiant, beguiling, welcoming, inclusive and absorbing colour, a language, a system, a point of entry. And meaning-full, obscure but familiar. A vocabulary of natural shapes and symbols: spheres, ovoids, petals, snail shells, whirls, hearts, leaves grouped into the four life stages of Childhood, Youth, Adulthood and Old Age. How wondrous, how dedicated, focused and clear-sighted. She’d studied formally, was lauded for her early and accomplished portraits and landscapes, she was a dedicated naturalist whose botanical and insect drawings are exquisite, precise and respectful. She had travelled and seen the work of contemporary artists and indeed had shown her work a little. She was not an outsider, except to see better and more thoroughly and to keep her work safe from the maw of the market. Through foresight and great good fortune, the work is held in a foundation established by her family, and the book accompanying the Guggenheim exhibition “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” opens with a statement by her grand-nephew Johan af Klint. They will never be traded on the market. The body of her work will remain intact while, it is suspected, her spirit soars elsewhere.

I turn consistently to Walter Benjamin as source and inspiration and have looked as closely as possible in reproduction at a small painting by Paul Klee that he once owned. This was the Angelus Novus from 1920 and Benjamin’s descriptive reading of it is correct, I’m certain. Referring to the nightmare period in which he was living in Europe as being a “storm,” he sees a look of astonishment and alarm in the angel’s face and gestures, drawing the angel as Klee did, against an atmospheric wash of light. Wanting to stay and repair the damage done, the angel instead finds himself moving away from it and toward the future waiting at his back. He wants to stop, “but a storm is blowing from Paradise,” Benjamin wrote, “and had got caught in his wings.”

“Paul Klee: The Berggruen Collection from the Metropolitan Museum of Art” was installed well at the National Gallery of Canada, as the NGC always does, ordered in the solid stone building in an appropriately straightforward, unembellished presentation allowing the 75 small drawings, watercolours and paintings to offer their own specific auratic intensity. Actually, they buzzed and here is why: because they are small, discreet products of genius. Klee himself recognized the undefinable, but also indispensable quality or state that is intuition, which he tied to genius. He noted that all the work, the endless hard work, the planning and organizing, does not constitute genius. “Genius is Genius, is blessing, is without beginning and without end, is begetting,” he wrote in 1928. The small work Mountain Landscape is watercolour and gouache on linen, which he cut and recombined, with glazed paper strips added to the right and left and mounted on cardboard, and, looking at it, we are everywhere at once. We are viewer as mountain—inside the range, flying over it looking down, standing at the foot and looking up in awe. The peaks point our attention upward and are castles and towers in the sky, were there a sky, and a yellow sun shimmers from the added strip and casts warm light and shadows from its hovering place. The mountains are pyramids and geometric cones, both volumetric and flat and, in spite of the two vertical black bands on the left and right sides of the painting, and even though the painting had a first border beyond which the section was recombined and given its full size of 5 x 9 inches, this mountain landscape (which is not included in the NGC exhibition) is endless, without boundaries. Its possibilities are limitless.

Birds Swooping Down and Arrows is an aerial bombardment, which could well be destined to not end well, except for its beauty. The ground, which is the air, or the sky or the place from which the arrows and the birds descend in an unwavering vertical trajectory, is eternal, misted, layered, scumbled, indeterminate—all the things a sky is without being identified as such; it is flat and upright, not overhead and lifted. It carries at its centre a rosy smudge, a trail left by the red tail of the large arrow, which may be afire. The arrows drop, the birds drop like stones, either missiles themselves or shot down and plummeting. The birds are diagrammatic, their bodies and wings assembled from black-outlined, thinly coloured squares. Their very thin bird legs and feet are held straight as arrows, stiff and rigid lines of propulsion. Their direction won’t vary; the course is set. What it is may be known by these messengers from somewhere. Perhaps they’ll fall forever.

“The strife of colours, the sense of balance we have lost, tottering principles, unexpected assaults, great questions, apparently useless striving, storm and tempest, broken chains, antitheses and contradictions, these make up our harmony.” This is not the checklist for a Kai Althoff installation; it is from the essay “About Painting” by Vassily Kandinsky written in 1911, and included in Concerning the Spiritual in Art. I am immersed, sinking, and stumbling on the geographic, papery tectonic plates that are the floor of “Kai Althoff, Häuptling Klapperndes Geschirr” at Tramps on East Broadway in New York, a gallery that self-describes as being a series of glass vitrines—on the second floor of the New York Mart Mall, which had been a number of individual small shops, glass-walled spaces opening onto corridors for easy visibility and access and now almost all exhibition spaces of Tramps, hence the vitrine analogy. Even though it is on the second level, there is an aqueous subterranean quality to the space, giving me to think more of aquariums than vitrines. That and the location directions: “75 East Broadway, beneath the Manhattan Bridge.” I like the scent of green vegetables piled high, fish and seafood in large white plastic buckets or stacked on wooden shelves at a 30-degree angle. Perfumes chemically sourced have a sharp alert quality that natural florals don’t. Very contemporary. This drifted up. I’m remembering the exhibition spaces being fluorescent and day-lit. Very bright. Atmosphere and tone were delivered by the paintings. Some were hung in spaces where the walls were covered in what looked like industrial cotton batting, maybe insulation material, maybe rolls of toxic asbestos. Like the tilting, sinking floors in some of the rooms where the walls were papered in similar material, and the same colour—a kind of nosebleed pink—the risk was more than balanced by the work. You’d hang upside down by your heels from a rain gutter to see them and if you loosed your grip you’d fall into a place you couldn’t look away from, would give in to and maybe recover from, in time. Thin-limbed, malnourished doughy bodies recumbent through lethargy and weakness, clustered, reaching, clinging, their attention interior, distracted. Where figures connect the alignment is unclear. “Miasmic” would be a term with which I would describe the palette. When flood waters recede and you collect the things you once owned that remain and have dried. Sometimes that tone. I haven’t stopped thinking about the exhibition. A spirit abides in the work; it is soul-full and its intent is honest.

Hilma af Klint held her work back from the public; Paul Klee initially believed his work wouldn’t be understood in the world. Kai Althoff obscures access to his work, puts impediments to understanding in the audience’s path, and debris and hazards, too. The artwork is to be achieved. Don’t come in if you’re slack, don’t bother if you aren’t in earnest. Kandinsky was right: “Hungry souls go hungry away.” And so they should. Go away.

A state of euphoria is reached, however transitory, in the space that hovers between apprehension and obscurity. It slips from clear grasp but its traces remain. The artist is right to hold the artwork safe, to cosset it and keep it near the dragon and the moat. Theodor Adorno believed that a piece of music—an idea he extended to some particular language as well—retained its autonomy by falling silent. In this state it would retain its essence, its integral core; af Klint, Klee and Althoff as well. ❚

Volume 37, Number 4: Women + Sculpture

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #148, published December 2018.

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