November • 29 • 2020

Christina Nicole Conti
Gateway into The Abyss: An Exploration of Occult Iconography in Hilma af Klint’s
The Swan, No. 24 (1915)
The Swan No. 24

Hilma af Klint, The Swan, No. 24, Group IX-SUW (1915). Oil on canvas. ~ 150 x 150 cm.

Image Source: Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk (Hilma af Klint Foundation).

In an elaborate parlor in Stockholm, Sweden in the 1890s, something profound and mystical took place. Five women gathered; and not just any women, but a unique and eclectic mix of artists, spiritual mediums, and occultists. This group of extraordinary women was called the Five, and this gathering permanently altered the course of one artist’s life and work. (1)

 

Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) was a painter — classically trained at the Stockholm Royal Academy — who, after the shocking death of her sister, became obsessed with spiritualism and occult methodologies. (2) Klint was a stark believer in the occult and mystic spiritualism. (3) Her obsession with transcending boundaries of the physical and spiritual planes is evident in her painting The Swan, No. 24 (1915), which uses visual metaphor and allegory to create a gateway for the viewer to decipher the hidden knowledge of the spiritual realm and unlock enlightened or fundamental truths. (4)

Klint is often regarded as a feminist artist and a pioneer of early 20th-century abstract paintings, as noted in Andrew Bick’s “Hilma Af Klint: Painting the Unseen” (2016) and Meilan Solly’s “From Obscurity, Hilma Af Klint Is Finally Being Recognized as a Pioneer of Abstract Art” (2018). (5) While Bick and Solly’s articles do touch on Klint’s occult inclinations, they are typically overlooked in favor of the abstract nature of her work. I theorize that in The Swan, No. 24, the viewer witnesses Klint’s fascination with the transcendence and convergence of power, here defined as the ever encompassing fluidity of life force or energy that surrounds and transcends all living things giving and receiving energy. In The Swan, No. 24, Klint attempts to give physical form to the spiritual concept of fundamental truth. While these paintings by Klint were initially intended for a serious student of spiritual mysticism who would recognize and analyze the spiritual clues of the “seven basic truths,” the casual viewer can also make spiritual discoveries and find transcendence in her work, a fact that became evident during her wildly successful Guggenheim exhibition in 2018. (6)

 

In 1880, Klint experienced the tragic death of her sister, which changed her profoundly. (7) This event triggered her descent into the labyrinth of occultism and prompted her association with a group of interesting women who would come to be known as the Five, which also included Anna Cassel, Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman, and Mathilda Nilsson. (8) The Five began their exploration of the occult and spiritualism with the teachings of Helen Blavatsky. (9) During a séance with the Five — a fantastical experience that changed Klint’s life forever –– a spirit guide came to her and told her she would be commissioned to create the greatest works of her life: a series of paintings that would offer a transcendent experience for the viewer. (10)

In 1889, Klint also became fascinated with the teachings of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, a relationship that resulted in her joining the Theosophical Society and remaining a member throughout her commission of The Paintings for the Temple (1906–1915). (11) Klint’s paintings create a physical manifestation of the intertwinement of the invisible metaphysical ideas of spiritualism. Klint states in her writing that these paintings were commissioned by the High Master Amaliel, a leader who served on the spiritual plane and understood the astral world. (12) Klint created these works by putting herself in a trance-like state and allowing the spiritual realm to flow through her. (13) She saw this as a method of investigation and exploration of spiritual ideas. Upon the series’ completion in 1917, Klint described the transcendent journey as the greatest work of her life. (14)

 

Based on her experiences and writings, Klint was fascinated by the idea of hope and loss and believed that all moments and movements left traces on the human soul and mind. This interpretation and the hold it had on Klint is evident in her letters written to an unknown correspondent in 1903, in which she writes, “We are shaped and protected by invisible powers and when the time comes your eyes will open and you too will see.” (15) Through her art, Klint sought to provide the map and key for unlocking what she called “the secret growing,” or a spiritual pathway of enlightenment, knowledge, and hope. (16) Klint was fascinated by the phenomenon of mysticism and her abstract swirling paintings may seem puzzling at first, but in actuality, they offer a complex map for the viewer in their attempt to decipher the secrets of mysticism. Klint offered this explanation of her work’s mystical nature in a letter to an unknown correspondent in 1903, writing, “You are bewildered by what we have told you, but the phenomenon we are trying to explain is truly bewildering.” (17)

 

Klint’s paintings, especially The Swan, No. 24, attempt to give a physical rendition to this bewildering phenomenon. The background consists of quick yet rough-textured brushwork which emphasizes her Impressionist roots. The painting’s overall design forms a quadrant pattern and each section therein features a differing color riddled with allegory: pink (justice), orange (holiness), grey (the unknown/injustice), and white (enlightenment). (18) These four hues create a powerful symbolic backdrop for the representation of dual swans: one black and one white, shown intertwining and intersecting as one being. Each wing of the two birds is in a symmetrical position, stretching toward the four corners, touching each quadrant plane to create another quadrant form within. At points above and below the midpoint of the painting, the wings converge and blend together, highlighting the contrast between dark and light. The long serpentine necks of the two swans curve away from and then towards one another, creating an infinity or Ouroboros symbol as the two beaks overlap and converge. Here, the black swan’s beak devours the white swan’s, emphasizing power and dominance. The outward ruby red eye is an invitation to the viewer to descend into the abyss. The use of black and white references the duality of positive and negative forces or the Pulmonaria Officinalis. (19) The black swan’s preeminent position signals its role as a pivotal spiritual figure. This is a reference to the metaphysical realm devouring the spiritual realm and the material world.

 

The symmetry of the two swans is upset slightly by the black swan overtaking the white and exhibiting dominance by placing the red beak over the white swan’s yellow beak. This visual allegory alludes to justice and injustice, which creates the homogeneous balance needed between the two realms. This is achievable only through two parallel yet opposing elements converging to create universal harmony. (20) Tone and hue carry powerful symbolism, and Klint’s combination of natural and artificial colors (blue feet/red beak) act as signals to the viewer. Klint uses these two figurative representations to symbolize the dominance of the metaphysical; signaling to the viewer how the spiritual realm and the natural world intertwine and become one, leading to transcendence. The duality of yellow and blue in the swans’ feet, for example, creates a visual allegory for fundamental truth. (21) Furthermore, the white swan’s blue eye symbolizes “true nature” and mediumistic qualities. (22) The choice of blue for the feet and eye of the white swan could act as a visual metaphor for Klint and her role as a medium in bringing the physical and spiritual realm together. It also emphasizes the dominance and control the spirit realm holds over her in the physical plane. The white swan’s gaze focuses solely on the black swan, whose darker and more passionate colors emphasize a deeper connection with the viewer and spirit realm. The black swan overtakes the white to become an intersected figure creating an infinite cycle of balance and need. In this instance, the black swan acts as a profound messenger — his deep blood-colored eye looks directly out at the viewer, drawing them in, and attempting to communicate his secrets.

 

Klint also advances occultist symbolism through composition. She uses directional lines in the organization and placement of the figures and patterns to emphasize the balance of the universe. Lines and spatial patterns converge and extend to form the “Gagea lutea,” the six directional lines used to show and hide power. (23) From these multiple aspects, The Swan, No. 24 becomes an effective tool for conjuring divine spiritual power in the physical plane. (24) This circle inside a square creates radical energy waves that flow out and ripple into the viewer and beyond, mimicking traces of power. Not only do the background lines create a quadrant, the feathered wings of the swan brush out, forming a four-pointed star within the quadrant. These convergences of lines create a dual nature — a sacred and pure concept that relates to harmonies within — such as life and matter or struggle and serenity.

 

Hilma af Klint is a deeply intriguing artist whose paintings push the boundaries of abstract representations of naturalist elements. Her works manifest occult symbolism and iconography, using visual allegory to express the transcending planes of the spiritual realm and the natural world. The Swan, No. 24 combines multiple visual layers to convey the power and dominance of the spiritual realm over the material, which Klint believed led to transcendence. For Klint, the key to unlocking the power of the universe lies within the sacred eye and science. To quote Shakespeare “The eyes are the window to the soul…” and here, they represent the viewer’s source of communication with the spiritual realm. It is the eye contact between the black swan and the viewer that, for Klint, brings the viewer into the spiritual realm. With The Swan, No. 24, Klint made visible the invisible experience of transcendence, inviting the viewer to experience enlightenment for themselves.

• • •

Christina Nicole Conti holds a bachelor’s degree in the History of Art and Visual Culture from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Endnotes

  1. Christine Burgin, Hilma Af Klint: Notes and Methods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 14.

  2. Kate Kellaway, “Hilma Af Klint: A Painter Possessed,” The Guardian, February 21, 2016, Online.

  3. Burgin, Notes and Methods, 8.

  4. Ibid., 258.

  5. Andrew, Bick. “Hilma Af Klint: Painting the Unseen,” Art and Christianity, no. 86 (Summer 2016):10–11, Online; Meilan Solly, “From Obscurity, Hilma Af Klint Is Finally Being Recognized as a Pioneer of Abstract Art,” Smithsonian, October 15, 2018, Online.

  6. Solly, “From Obscurity”; Jennifer Higgie, “Hilma Af Klint,” Frieze, May 18, 2013, Online.

  7. Hilma Af Kint, David Lomas, Pascal Rousseau, and Helmut Zander, Hilma Af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction, ed. Iris Müller Westermann (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2013), 38.

  8. Burgin, Notes and Methods, 14.

  9. Klint, et al., A Pioneer of Abstraction, 97.

  10. Solly, “From Obscurity.”

  11. Burgin, Notes and Methods, 14.

  12. Ibid., 255.

  13. Susan Tallman, “Painting the Beyond,” The New York Review of Books, April 4, 2019, Online.

  14. Tallman, “Painting,” 16.

  15. Burgin, Notes and Methods, 29.

  16. Ibid., 29.

  17. Ibid., 29.

  18. Ibid., 258–261.

  19. Ibid., 166.

  20. Marc Edmund Jones, Occult Philosophy: An Introduction, the Major Concepts and a Glossary (Philadelphia: David McKay Company, 1948),153.

  21. Burgin, Notes and Methods, 263.

  22. Ibid., 257.

  23. Ibid., 257.

  24. Ibid., 166.