I don’t have a beginning to this story. I tried to invent one but I can’t so I will start in the middle. There are two people in the story. A writer, slightly paranoid and prone to bouts of depression – that would be me. The other an artist. Hilma af Klint, a pioneer of modernism. Her genius a testament to fortitude. The magnitude of her achievement in direct proportion to the degree with which she toiled in obscurity. You’ve never heard of her because she created her work in secret. Ignored and unseen. Maybe that’s the beginning. I don’t know. I’ll put it in and see if the story will allow it to remain.
Our paths converge along a spiral. There are no straight lines in this story. It is spring in London. The artist is dead. I am not. Though the truth of that statement, at least from a quantum perspective, is arguable. I will tell you what else you need to know.
I am in London because I have been asked to speak at a seminar about women and film. Specifically I have been asked to address the role of women in the heroic adventure. My answers in no particular order; second fiddle. love interest. damsel in distress. cliche. I’m not sure how much more can be discussed on the subject but the men in charge are certain there is. They say things like: We hear all this talk about female agency but how can a woman be truly heroic? And Isn’t motherhood the apotheosis of female heroism? It is an exercise in frustration. A reminder of what Woolf called the subconscious Hitlerism in the hearts of men.
Now I am standing in Kensington Garden. It is raining. I have no umbrella. I go inside a gallery located in the middle of the park. This is where our stories intersect. Mine and Hilma’s.
The scene is the Serpentine Gallery at an exhibit called Painting the Unseen. I am drawn to the work immediately. Shades of Malevich and Kandinsky, Klee and Nagly but this is the female gaze so everything is grander, smarter, and imbued with emotion. There is something unknowable about the work. As if its truth is larger than the sum of all its pieces. It is a secret that begs to be known. Here are the assembled facts as they were told to me.
Born in Sweden in 1862, Klint studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and becomes an accomplished landscape and portrait artist. This is her public art and how she earns her living; but her life’s work is a separate practice. In 1905 she is commissioned by a spirit on the astral plane to make art for the future. She accepts the commission, travels back and forth to the plane for a period of time and then creates the body of work which graces the walls of this gallery, where I stand today. Titled The Paintings For the Temple the commission is comprised of seven different series totallying 198 paintings. Her work predates all the modernists. The catch – and it is a large one – so large it knocks your breath away and leaves you gasping for air. The catch is no one knew about her work because she created it all in secret. Then, as if she couldn’t be too careful, she requested that the work not be publicly revealed until at least 20 years after her passing. She died in 1944.
This story is also about female desire; to create; to live a life of your own choosing. It’s also about female agency which means it must also be about the loneliness of isolation and the pain of being unseen and unheard. It’s about a life lived as if it were a thought experiment. And it’s about the will to create in spite of all that. It is a story about many of us, told through the prism of one of us. Now we have to unpack the deeper story. Find the dents and omissions. Explode the logic of it in favor of the truth. 1905. Stockholm. This is as good a time as any to begin.
1905 is not a good year for a working woman in Stockholm. In particular it’s not a good year for a woman artists in Stockholm. At the Academy, men who had supported their female colleagues to achieve some independence, start to feel an increasing competition from them, resulting in a backlash. And it’s not just there. It’s everywhere. A woman unwilling to marry is viewed with suspicion. Lesbianism is now seen as a threat to the social order. The femme fatale comes into being. The push for women’s suffrage has brought out a cast of ugly reactionaries. The religious right. Conservatives. Fear of social decline in the air.
On a Wednesday night, Hilma writes in her journal a message from her spirit guide, Amaliel. You have mystery service ahead, and will soon enough realize what is expected of you. Hours earlier at a seance with her group Da Fem, the spirit – Amaliel – commanded her to be the Medium. She took the pencil and began to draw. Not the usual scribblings. For years it has been nothing but scribblings. But on this night it is different. The drawing has shape and form without being representative of anything. It is remarkable because it is original. She is keyed up, unable to sleep. She feels this is the start of something special.
This scene is in her studio. Amaliel is with her. He’s on the Astral Plane but is visible in the faint overlay. He wants her to paint a series of works for a temple. She accepts the commission freely. He whispers in her ear as she paints. He possesses a kind of brutish physical charisma. It’s easy to see why she said yes.
Time jumps. She shows this painting to her friend Anna and the other women at the Academy. I think some of them are in Da Fem. Hilma is energized by the work but the women think it’s inappropriate. Is it even a painting? Anna is more pointed. You’re putting everyone at risk with this work. The men at the Academy want the women painters kicked out. The work is too original. It will be considered subversive. They tell her to stop making it. She doesn’t listen.
Hilma finds solace at the Theosophical Society. The occult is a popular pastime with the Swedish aristocracy. There is great fascination for invisible phenomena. Scientific discoveries, such as x-rays and electromagnetic waves reveal a hidden world beyond our grasp.
Hilma is heavily influenced by the work of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant. Her understanding of occult physics, chemistry and mathematics is unusual and very much ahead of her time. Theosophy has taught her that the spiritual masters are not cold far-off stars. They are physical beings concerned with the direct teaching, training and helping of humankind. Amaliel is one of these teachers. And Hilma is drawn to him. The pull of her desire is almost erotic in nature. She wants to talk to Amaliel. She tells herself it’s about the commission, and it is, but there’s more to it than that.
Last night, Hilma travelled to the Astral Plane. Her ether body separated from her physical body. You think this act would be quiet as a whisper but it’s not. It’s loud. Like a steam hammer. Her ether body literally rolled out of her physical body. Then she walked out her window – on the fifth floor of her apartment building. She had arrived at The Astral Plane.
It looks like a city in Western Europe. Electric street lights, apartment buildings, horse traffic, the odd car and delivery van. The inhabitants are dressed in a kind of punk Victorian Style.
She was filled with wonder and astonishment until she saw her physical body floating nearby. It’s the most unnatural thing a person can see. A sense of fear rose inside her. Could she get back in?
There were two men, hovering in the shadows. They clocked her fear and approached. In these parts they’re called Shades. Their divine spirit has left their ether body but their baser id instincts remain behind. Hilma saw them and was afraid. Her anxiety bubbled up causing a tooth to fall out. She reached down to get it but another one fell. And the Shades moved in. Hilma became upset and clawed at them. They shoved her back and wrestled over the teeth – until a man came.
It was Amaliel. He told Hilma to control her thoughts. Thoughts have power on the plane.
I approach Hilma and Amaliel in his apartment. She is peppering him with questions that he claims she already has the answers to. He doesn’t like her being here. It’s not safe. Hilma ignores his concern. She asks: How am I supposed to make paintings that represent the immortal aspects of man?
He replies, Explore the truths that lie beneath existence. Go beyond the limitations of the senses.
There’s a book on a shelf. And on the the spine a small golden Glyph. The symbol of Jupiter. She removes it and asks him to teach her. I linger in the background as they work side by side.
He points to the illuminated glyphs and sacred geometry on each page and explains what they mean: Spiritual elements; body, fire, sexual energy. Hilma listens but she is also drawn to the the tattoos on Amaliel’s arms. They extend from the tip of his fingers all the way to his neck. She runs her finger over them. Noting the intricate knotwork patterns and complicated symbols. The attraction between them is deep and pure, a reflection of the unseen unity.
On another night Hilma sits beside Amaliel working but her attention is drawn to a flicker of color that appears through the bedroom window. She crosses to the doorway and nudges the door open. There is a bed, a chair and a wall of windows. A film plays out against the building across the way. How do I even begin to explain it?
The images are lyrical, almost experimental in feel. They run from the broadly drawn to the utterly specific. They include war and violence and even brute nature but there are also grand cosmic displays, births and small moments of joy experienced by random people. It’s an expression of faith and hope in an imperfect world. Amaliel says it is the memory of the universe. Proof of our boundlessness. A declaration that we matter.
The Stockholm Art Academy is at war with Hilma and Hilma is in the middle of a reasonable happiness. I pick up the story on a night in her studio. Amaliel visible through the transparent overlay. Watching now, no longer whispering in her ear. Hilma is free to create as she pleases. Her strokes of color give way to form. Spirals coil like whirlpools. Others pull apart into loops or shine like the inside of a light bulb. She is deep inside her process. There is no thought, there is only the doing. But by tomorrow her work will be discovered and she will be kicked out of the Academy. Her devastation will give way to the news that her mother is going blind.
How can she be the chosen one? Realistically? It makes no sense. She has no allies and no institutional support. This is the conversation I overhear between Hilma and Amaliel. It’s a Tuesday night, the scene is a local tavern on the lower Astral Plane on the seamier side of town near the waystation where Amaliel works. The tavern is a smell first; stale and dank. The smell makes the customers want to drink in order to forget their depressive non-lives.
Hilma: Why choose me?
Amaliel: Because you see what’s hidden.
Hilma: I have no institutional support. No allies.
He doesn’t see why that should matter but Hilma knows why that matters. Even I know why that matters.
Amaliel: You will be a pioneer.
Hilma is pleased with the answer.
In the years that follow, what Hilma will remember most about this conversation is the way he looked at her just before the blast. The ease between them felt so rich and spacious. She can close her eyes and will herself back to that moment and it’s as if he is right next to her. But then the blast comes and they are torn apart.
There’s a war on the Astral Plane between the forces of Imagination and Logic. An army of Shells terrorize the citizens. They are human like creatures; pale and waxen, naked and with no discernible sex organs. Some say they are monsters, golems, fueled by man’s evil thoughts, wants and desires. Down on Earth, the buildup to World War I is really a result of the War already raging on the Plane. The forces of Imagination and Logic need more bodies for their fight. A war on Earth would provide an abundance of young, dead, powerful soldiers ripe for radicalization.
People on the plane are dead. Maybe I didn’t make that clear earlier. Shells fight not to kill but in order to steal souls. They use mantric missiles; mantras like om that literally transform into weaponized aural bombs. The dead can get injured, they can even be blown up but a day later they regenerate. Hilma is not so lucky. She can travel to the plane but she can’t regenerate. Amaliel warns her of the danger but Hilma does what she wants.
There are explosions almost every night on the Plane. Amaliel and Hilma escape the violence and hide in the intricate web of catacombs deep below the city. The walls are covered in symbols and glyphs painted by Ancients long since gone. Amaliel explains that the Ancients moved easily between the Astral and the Earthly. They created pathways that allowed for the transmission of universal Truths but those passageways are closed. Hilma’s job will be restore them to Earth.
Up to now the catacombs had been a safe bet. Now they are infested with Shells. Amaliel reaches down and takes Hilma’s hand. Hilma turns and sees a hundred shells standing motionless in a darkened cavern. They seem to be sleeping, inert. Hilma’s sleeping self has drifted over to the other side of the cavern. Too far for her to get back in. Her heart pounds. Amaliel hears it. He looks at her. Control your fear. They creep along the perimeter of the room, moving toward her sleeping self. If they get close enough he can put her back inside and send her home.
They are nearly there when one of the shells wakes. They screech a command and the others wake.
Amaliel grabs Hilma, as one of the shells releases a mantric missile. Amaliel dives with Hilma to avoid the explosion as her sleeping self rides the wave of the current and disappears into another tunnel. Hilma and Amaliel run through narrow passageways and tunnels searching it. Amaliel firing his own aural bombs at the Shells. The wave pushes the Shells back but inadvertently wakes others resting in the vast underground complex. Amaliel spots Hilma’s body drifting out of a tunnel straight ahead. They need to go faster to catch it.
Amaliel holds onto Hilma, and transforms his thoughts into motion. The two of them ride this intense tidal wave of energy, shooting through the tunnel past the Shells, who can’t get into the current. They land on the ground. Hilma sputters out a mouthful of dirt. She has to go back now but her sleeping body isn’t there. The Shells emerge from the tunnel opening. Hilma looks frantic but Amaliel sees her body. They kiss. Their first. And then he sends her backward into her sleeping self.
The Shells hurl a bomb, Amaliel counters with a mantric shield that holds long enough for Hilma to return home. Then he counters with his own bomb, an unearthly, ungodly sound that comes from deep within the universe. It disintegrates all the Shells and everything else in the vicinity. Trees. Park benches. The old wall. All obliterated.
The scene here is a small studio, in the attic of an apartment building. Hilma’s friend Anna has rented it for her. In doing so she acknowledges not the commission so much as her friend’s emerging genius. Hilma has an ally. She craves another. She schedules a meeting with Rudolf Steiner at the Theosophy Society to show him her work. She tells him about her mystery service; how she is supposed to restore a lost language to the world in order to return the concept of oneness to the world.
Steiner is dismissive. He says a woman would never be allowed direct contact with the spirits. He says, dangerous spirits are often able to penetrate weaker minds. He says she must destroy the work.
I try to stay out of the story but it’s impossible. I am part of the Astral Memory playing out against the wall. I am the writer searching for the truth to the story of a woman who lived a life unseen. I look down from my spot on the wall and see her running down the street into Amaliel’s building. I watch her climb the spiral staircase to his apartment. The door is already open. He’s expecting her. She is so frustrated. So exhausted and so disappointed that all he can do is offer her kindness.
Hilma: Steiner says to destroy the work.
Amaliel: Do not destroy the work.
Amaliel misjudged the toll the commission would have on her. The world is trying to destroy Hilma and he cannot let her be destroyed. He explains the one thing he hasn’t.
Amaliel: The work is for the future.
She looks stunned. He wonders if maybe he should have said this sooner.
Hilma: What about the Temple?
Amaliel: It’s enough for it to exist in your mind.
He feels her pain as the words sink in and she realizes the ramifications.
Hilma: No one will see the work.
Amaliel: They will see later.
The words don’t appear to comfort her.
Amaliel: You are free to create.
Hilma: I’m alone.
Amaliel: You are a pioneer.
In the years that followed, after he left to fight the Great War on the Upper Plane Amaliel often worried about the harm he had caused her. He knew the work would be unseen from the beginning but he assumed there would be other things to keep her satisfied. A man to love her. Children. Camaraderie among her peers. But what he sees now is that in accepting the commission he had forsaken her. She embraced her own agency and was punished for it. Amaliel did not anticipate this. What he does not know is that had she known the consequences in advance she still would have accepted.
I will stop here though there is more to say. Hidden inside this particular ending is a beginning. An opportunity to see where female heroism lies. I will tell this story while no one watches. In my process there will be no support, no credit, no accolades. There will only be the intersection between two women. Both of whom have been denied agency but proceed with the plan anyway. The heroism not in the completion of the objective but in the dedication to the service. That the world is blind to it is not our concern.
Hilma completed the commission in 1915. That I suppose is one ending. That she did it with no support, no allies, little money and in secret brings me back to the middle. And so the story ends where it began. Everything else in between still needs to be discerned. That job is left to me. Against all indifference I will piece together the debris from the unassembled facts and tell her story. Because her story matters.
In my waking dreams, I see Hilma on the periphery of my mind, glistening at me from the far edges of my consciousness. She holds up a small sign.
It reads: You have mystery service ahead.