Hilma af Klint: Synesthete

The first abstractionist painter had the gift.

Posted Mar 08, 2019

 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Hilma af Klint, Group X, Nos. 1–3, Altarpiece (Altarbild), 1915.
Source: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Inspired by her forays into both science and spiritualism, the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint pioneered a visual grammar unlike anything seen before. Her early 20th century canvases are so futuristic they feel like they could have been painted today. In fact, the title of the glorious exhibition of her work now showing at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan is "Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future."

Her visionary renderings also read like a journey through her inner life as a synesthete, if one has eyes to see. Richly hued photisms—those colored shapes which are a hallmark of this neurological gift and seen by synesthetes in response to sound or other stimuli—alight among her geometries and seem kinesthetic, motile, like the real thing. After viewing the exhibition in January and being inspired by its beauty and import, I reached out to her survivors through her foundation in Stockholm to see if this is the case. 

 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
The Largest of Hilma af Klint's canvases at the Guggenheim.
Source: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

The charming Hedvig Ersman, former adjunct member of the board and press liaison for the foundation, wrote back with this reply:

"We are several persons in and around the Hilma af Klint Foundation who are also convinced that Hilma af Klint did indeed have the gift of synesthesia. It does run in the family (in fact, I do have it myself, and I am actually family).

"It is very pleasant to hear that you also have come to this conclusion!"

Ms. Ersman, who is an architect in Paris, is going through af Klint's journals in search of a reference she once saw about the artist experiencing colorful imagery with music and any other synesthesia references for me and I will report back here.

Af Klint was associated with the Theosophy and Anthroposophy mystery schools. Anthroposophy founder Rudolph Steiner urged her not to release her paintings for fifty years upon seeing them.

Journalist Daniel Liszt, known as the "Dark Journalist" for exploring topics the mainstream media does not, is a scholar on the mystery schools whose live shows on YouTube each Friday night are archived here.

"Given that this artist had instructions to release the artwork two decades after her death we can certainly see her using a mystery school technique," Liszt explained. His reports are rich with examples of how such schools time the release of wisdom carefully to push humanity forward.

Liszt sent me evidence that af Klint had specifically marked some of her paintings with a "+ X" symbolism -- these were the ones to be held until after her death, according to her explicit instructions in Thoughts, Book VII (Tankar, Bok VII), written in 1931. In addition, the simultaneous Guggenheim exhibition of Boston artist RH Quaytman's work (at the top of the museum spiral) is titled "+ X Chapter 34."

Liszt, the discoverer of the X symbol running through both esoteric literature and secret United States government documents (think "X-Files") said, "X Steganography is a hidden symbolic language that Mystery Schools and their initiates have used for thousands of years. It secretly communicates facts of esoteric spiritual knowledge that refer to a breakaway physics effect that goes far beyond this realm. Ancient groups knew that this effect could manifest as a kind of reality distortion field on one hand, or as an instigator of miraculous activity on the other. They took definite steps to keep this knowledge concealed and in the right hands."

Af Klint is said to have envisioned a future home for her work as a spiral-shaped building, similar to the Guggenheim in which it now resides. "In the superb catalog to the exhibition, Tracey Bashkoff, the museum’s director of collections and the show’s organizing curator, points out that af Klint conceived of this structure around 1930, just as Hilla Rebay, the female abstract painter who was a founder of the Guggenheim, began imagining its spiral," wrote  Roberta Smith for the New York Times.

Liszt pointed out the connection may be stronger, still. "Frank Lloyd Wright's wife was a leading student of [George] Gurdjieff who was entrusted with setting up satellite groups [for mystery schools]." Wright was the architect for the museum.

I was inspired to see the exhibition by the antique dealer, collector, writer and fine arts professional Lynn Goode of Houston.