In 500 Words - Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 1 (1915) by Hilma af Klint
Before Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian, there was Hilma af Klint. Considered the first abstract artist in Western art history, af Klint was painting spirals, whorls and shapes years before Kandinsky had tested the edges of abstraction. And when af Klint did rely on figurative subjects, she trusted symbolism grounded in spiritism to carry her discourse.
During her lifetime, af Klint rarely exhibited her artworks. Convinced the world was not ready for her art, she left her paintings to her nephew, with the caveat that her work (some 1,200 paintings, 100 texts and 26,000 pages of notes) be hidden for twenty years following her death. It was not until 1986 that af Klint’s work was seen in public.
Af Klint studied landscape painting and portraiture at Tekniska skolan in Stockholm (Konstfack today) and then the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, graduating with honours in 1887. Remaining in Stockholm, af Klint soon gained public recognition for her proficiency in landscape painting and portraiture.
While earning a living through art commissions, af Klint developed a private yet keen interest in abstraction, symbolism and spiritism. Drawn to Theosophy, a religion developed by Helena Blavatsky in late 19th century America, af Klint formed The Five - a group of five women (also including Anna Cassel, Sigrid Hedman and sisters Mathilda Nilsson and Cornelia Cederberg) who devoted themselves to subjects of the subconscious and paranormal. The women produced volumes of automatic drawings and texts - techniques that the Surrealists would adopt three decades later to coax out the unconscious.
In the evolving industrial world of the late 19th century, Western Modernism echoed a yearning for the establishment of new artforms, philosophy, and social organization. Within the Modernist uprising, The Five covertly recorded a new structure of mystical thought, delivered in the form of messages from higher spirits they called The High Masters. As af Klint’s automatic methodology developed, she felt compelled by the High Masters to create paintings for a Temple, though the nature of the temple was never clearly defined. Af Klint’s Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 1 (1915) was part of this undertaking.
In contrast to many of af Klint’s abstract artworks, Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 1 (1915) exhibits a far more figurative approach, yet her fascination with the spiritual world fortifies the painting with a vitally spiritous quality. The artwork portrays two swans meeting in a reaching brush of beaks and primary remiges. Predominantly separated by negative space, the pair’s opposed colouring points to a visually evocative incompatibility. Nevertheless, the two converse forms engage in a struggle for unification, similar to yin and yang.
Outside their distinguished strength and protective temperaments, swans are universally deemed an almost unearthly symbol of transcendence and a signal of completion in alchemic tradition. Af Klint’s warring characterization of equilibrium is a hopeful one. The nature of diversity, as typified by the vivid contrast of the swans, may divide us - but it will also inevitably unite us too.
Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or on Instagram.