It is often the case that unless you've taken an art history class, abstract art is hard to follow. For this reason, it is inherently snobby, which is the only part about it that I dislike. Common (justifiable) reactions include, "my kid could do that", "I could do that", "I just don't get it", or "..." This month, I am hoping to dispel some of these and the snobbiness of abstract painting by introducing you to the artist Hilma af Klint.
Facts to begin:
Life: Born 1862 in Solna, Sweden Died 1944 in Danderyd, Sweden
Known for: Series of abstract paintings such as The Swan and The Ten Largest, especially in relation to her involvement in the spiritualism movement.
Medium: Acrylic paint on large-scale canvas
More to Know:
Artistically, Hilma af Klint lived a dual life. She studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and made her living through conventional paintings of landscapes and other naturalistic themes. But behind the scenes, she was creating a large body of her “life’s work” that she chose not to have exhibited until 20 years after her death. Before her work came to light, Wassily Kandinsky was believed to be the first to create purely abstract paintings--but af Klint's predates both his and other famous contemporaries Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich by several years.
Her abstract work retains that bond with the natural world she showed in her public pieces, vastly simplified. Like other paintings of the time, her abstraction lay in the use of balance in visual space, often with naturally pleasing geometric shapes and ratios, and the way colors work together—whether they clash or complement. Complementing colors are calming and visually pleasing, like the colors of a sunset or the contrast of black and white together. Less often, the artist may want to convey a clashing mood, which can best be compared to when you’re three and want to dress yourself and can’t understand why your parents go “ahhhh!” when you come out in your super cool fuchsia striped pants and purple flowered shirt ensemble.
In any case, the object is to get the viewer to envelop themselves in the emotional mood of the painting; to pause, contemplate, and metaphorically fall into the work and be absorbed in its atmosphere. Like listening to a song with many different instrumental and/or voice layers (try Santana's "Smooth"), you focus on one aspect, then another, then another...until it all blends together and it's no longer about what you are looking at (listening to) but how it makes you feel. The fact that many abstract paintings like Klint’s are so large is no accident: it’s easier to achieve this effect when the work fills your visual field. Sadly, this can’t be properly conveyed here, but keep it in mind when you are next in the modern wing of your local art museum.
This is the core of abstract art, and it comes in all different forms. It is the place you go when you meditate, run, do yoga, swim…the place you go when the conscious leaves and you’re simply breathing and being and feeling. The place that is at once relaxing, yet highly cognitively fruitful. Abstract artists like af Klint have found a way to actualize this feeling and share it with the world in their own ways.
An essential and unique layer to af Klint’s work is her practice of and fascination with spiritualism, triggered by the death of her younger sister in 1880. She was part of a group of women called “The Five”, who sought to bridge the gap with the spirit world through seances and automatic drawings--the practice of drawing without thought, and the belief that spirits could control the artist's hand to send messages through the art. The group compiled their work into the making of a book, and by af Klint's death she had created over 1200 paintings and 100 texts.
Perhaps the reason abstract art such as that of af Klint and her contemporaries is hard to wrap our heads around is that our heads aren’t the ones that are supposed to be doing the wrapping. Af Klint’s life and art shows us that it is the heart—even the very soul—that needs to be engaged to understand.
The closest thing to a modern-world equivalent of automatic drawing would probably be...doodling! Abstract artists (and doodlers) have many different ways to access that out-of-body mindset that's so important to both creating and viewing their work. Hilma af Klint had spiritualism, and another popular vehicle was music--used by Kandinsky, Georgia O'Keefe, Jackson Pollock, and others.
Try your hand at getting into the abstract "zone" by dividing a paper into four to sixteen sections, then putting on four to sixteen songs and make a quick drawing/painting/sketch/whatever in for each song--one per section. Use colors, lines, and textures that you feel represent the music, and let the tunes take you where they will!
If you want to go a step further, start a doodle journal and make visual meditation a routine (I found an old high school planner makes a great setting for this).
Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen by Daniel Birnbaum (book, 2016)
"Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen" at Serpentine Galleries, London (exhibit, 2016) http://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/hilma-af-klint-painting-unseen
Hilma af Klint: The Greatness of Things by Anna Maria Svennson and John Hutchinson (book, 2005)
Supernatural by Santana (musical album, 1999)
"The First Abstract Artist? (And it's not Kandinsky)" by Julia Voss (article, Tate Modern, 2013) http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/first-abstract-artist-and-its-not-kandinsky
"Wassily Kandinsky: Russian Painter" by Eve Griffin (article, The Art Story, 2016) http://www.theartstory.org/artist-kandinsky-wassily.htm