194 – Visionary, too

Hilma af Klint, Tree of Knowledge, No. 1, 1913-15. Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland.

Tate is currently hosting a remarkable exhibition, Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian, about which I will be talking this Monday, 8 May at 6.00pm. It is remarkable, I think, in that it combines two artists who never met, and who, in all probability, didn’t even know each other’s work. From that point of view, I have never known another exhibition like it. However, they had so many things in common, starting with an early romantic approach to the landscape and evolving towards their own, idiosyncratic and highly individual forms of abstraction, inspired by what would nowadays be seen as occult – or at least, esoteric – theories, which were nevertheless much in vogue at the time. But more about all that on Monday, of course. Thereafter, we will see The Rossettis at Tate Britain, Carpaccio (in Venice), and Lavinia Fontana (Dublin), all of which will take us up to The ‘Other’ Vermeers at the beginning of June. It will all be in the diary soon. But today I want to look at Hilma af Klint herself – or, at least, one of her intricate and intriguing works. Or, rather, part of one of her works…

To give it its full title, this is Tree of Knowledge, The W Series. This is the full series – eight works in watercolour on paper, as exhibited by David Zwirner before it travelled to its new home, Glenstone, in Maryland, USA. As such, it is one of the very few works by the Swedish master not held by the Hilma af Klint Foundation (and the reason why this should be the case will be one of the things we will discover on Monday). What we see in the photo above are Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a and 7b. She often created series of paintings, rather than individual works, and, having amassed a huge number of them during her nearly eighty years, af Klint catalogued them, giving each series or group a letter or number: Tree of Knowledge, The W Series is actually one of the simpler titles. Today, though, I just want to focus on No. 1.

By the time Tree of Knowledge, No. 1 was painted, af Klint had already created what could be considered the first abstract work of art, and had done that in 1906, some five years before both Kandinsky and Malevich claimed to have been responsible for this major innovation. However, throughout her career she continued to shift between two modes, and this image certainly contains both abstraction and representation, as well as, mid-way between the two, stylisation. As a ‘tree’, it is clearly highly stylised – but in the bottom circle, we can see what could be a root system. I say ‘circle’, but the darker brown oval looks like a foreshortened circle on a horizontal plane, making this a diagrammatic representation of a three-dimensional form, in which lighter brown circle is a sphere. A white trunk grows up into a mottled area, the canopy of leaves. Sets of concentric blue and yellow lines flow up from a red ‘node’, spread out, and loop back around two birds, and continue to loop up and around towards the top of the tree.

To understand why the subject itself was of interest, I’d like to compare it to a couple of other images of trees.

What I’m showing you – and to be honest, where they sit on your screen depends on whether you have a phone, tablet, laptop or desktop – is Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve (1526) from the The Courtauld, London; the af Klint; and Yggdrasil, The Mundane Tree (1847), by Oluf Olufsen Bagge, which is illustrated in a superb entry by Nabila Abdel Nabi in the exhibition catalogue – which I can recommend highly. The fact is, trees are not only important for our existence, but, as such, play a vital part in many religions and numerous myths. Christianity has the Tree of Knowledge (…of Good and Evil), under which Adam and Eve are standing in the Cranach. It also has the Tree of Life, later identified as the Cross, with Jesus as the Fruit of the Tree. Norse myth has Yggdrasil, the ‘world tree’. I’m just going to quote what the Encyclopedia Britannica (online) says about it:

Yggdrasill, Old Norse Mimameidr, in Norse mythology, the world tree, a giant ash supporting the universe. One of its roots extended into Niflheim, the underworld; another into Jötunheim, land of the giants; and the third into Asgard, home of the gods. At its base were three wells: Urdarbrunnr (Well of Fate), from which the tree was watered by the Norns (the Fates); Hvergelmir (Roaring Kettle), in which dwelt Nidhogg, the monster that gnawed at the tree’s roots; and Mímisbrunnr (Mimir’s Well), source of wisdom, for the waters of which Odin sacrificed an eye. After Ragnarök (Doomsday), the world tree, though badly shaken, was to be the source of new life.

This description does not correspond exactly to what we see in Bagge’s illustration, but the format is telling, and it gives some idea of where af Klint was coming from. She is illustrating neither the biblical Tree of Knowledge, nor Yggdrasil, but is using a similar format to explain some of her own beliefs.

In the ‘root system’ we see yellow, red, and blue roots: like Mondrian, af Klint had an abiding interest in the three primary colours. For her, they had specific symbolism. Yellow was related to the masculine, and blue to the feminine, while red was associated with love. In 1904 she had joined the Stockholm Lodge of the Theosophical Society (Mondrian would also join the society – in Amsterdam – five years later). Theosophy, usually considered to be an esoteric religious movement, was founded in the States in 1875. It drew on Eastern religions to promote the idea of the evolution of humanity and of the human spirit. At the bottom of the trunk, the red ‘node’ (as I described it above) can be seen as two joined spirals, or two shells, which grow out from separate centres and then combine. Both shells and spirals were used regularly by af Klint to represent the idea of growth and development, and therefore evolution. From these shells issue the two interweaving strands of yellow (male) and blue (female) lines.

At the crown of the tree is a golden chalice. Gold, as in so many world views, represents the divine, and the source of light. The aim of alchemy was to turn base metals into gold, to ‘redeem’ them from their ignoble state: it used much the same language as Christianity. The chalice is rimmed by small white forms, two of which, contained within a figure of ‘8’ – a symbol of eternity – are also seen in the pink centre. Pink, like red, implies love, but in another form. Amongst the ‘leaves’ of the tree further pairings in white, blue, yellow and pink can be seen. The chalice stands on the top of the series of loops which have grown up from the roots, and contained within this top loop is a white bird.

Below this single bird are two more – one white, one black, the basic opposition of light and dark, and potentially, of life and death. In the lowest loop the two have separated, as if the white bird is being chased away, while the colour of the loops has gradually changed, from top to bottom, from white, through cream, to yellow and blue. However, we should probably be reading from the bottom up – as the opposites gradually combine to create unity and light, as they aspire towards the chalice and its divine radiance. To explain at least part of what this is about, I am going to quote from the website of the contemporary Theosophical Society in America:

The three basic ideas of Theosophy are (1) the fundamental unity of all existence, so that all pairs of opposites—matter and spirit, the human and the divine, I and thou—are transitory and relative distinctions of an underlying absolute Oneness, (2) the regularity of universal law, cyclically producing universes out of the Absolute ground of Being, and (3) the progress of consciousness developing through the cycles of life to an ever-increasing realization of Unity.

Hilma af Klint’s work is continually dealing with these opposites, their ‘fall’ from unity, and their evolution towards a renewed harmony. This can all be related in her paintings to the Fall in its Christian sense, and to mankind’s salvation, which is a return to harmony with God. As such, we could read the tree from bottom to top and from top to bottom – there is a continuous cycle at play.

She was not alone in seeking a diagrammatic representation of esoteric ideas: Bagge’s illustration of Yggdrasil is another example, and in the catalogue Nabil Abdel Nabi also draws a parallel to one of the illustrations in Carl Jung’s The Red Book, written, in secret, in 1922. This is Illustration 135.

Again we see a tree, which, like Yggdrasil, has three roots, while the leaves seem to be a source of light. The whole is contained within an egg shape, symbolic, in all probability, of new life, ‘possibly evoking the cosmic egg, or world egg, which features in the creation stories of many Indo-European cultures’, according to Nabi, who sees the Tree of Knowledge as existing within a similar egg-like form. The series as a whole was sufficiently important to Hilma af Klint for her to paint it twice.

If you were really observant, you might have noticed that the previous illustration was slightly different to the one I have used so far, which is the first of this pair, the one now at Glenstone. The second (also seen in the previous pairing) belongs to the Hilma af Klint Foundation. It is less precise, suggesting it was the first to be painted: she is working out her ideas, settling on the colour scheme, and using pencil to sketch the different possibilities for the composition. Once decided upon, the second version (the first illustrated here) is more precise, clearer, and more luminous. It is the second set which belongs to Glenstone, and it was only discovered relatively recently. One of the great advocates of Theosophy – meaning ‘Divine Wisdom’ – was Rudolf Steiner. However, like the beliefs of the movement itself, he too evolved, and broke away from Theosophy to found Anthroposophy, ‘Human Wisdom’, which sought (seeks) to align the original aims of Theosophy with aspects of Christian belief, all backed up by what is described as a scientific method. Af Klint met Steiner when he visited Stockholm in 1908. It was not a happy occasion for her, as he did not approve of her method. Nevertheless, as her viewpoint changed, she too shifted her allegiance towards Anthroposophy and made the second set of Tree of Knowledge as a gift for Steiner. It was probably intended to decorate the Goetheanum, the home of Anthroposophy in Dornach, Switzerland, the entirely original design of which was due to Steiner himself. However, the watercolours were passed on to Steiner’s successor as the head of the movement, and from that collection, sold to Glenstone very recently: Zwirner exhibited them just last year before they headed to their permanent home.

The original series is owned by the Hilma af Klint Foundation, and is the one I will show you on Monday. The reason for the Foundation’s existence, and why we have known so little about this undoubtedly original artist until now, will be just some of the issues we will consider. We will also discover why such esoteric beliefs – shared by Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian alike – made sense in the context of the late 19th and early 20th century world view, at a time in which the unseen became manifest. And, apart from all that, we will look at some truly wonderful, life-affirming paintings.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

6 thoughts on “194 – Visionary, too

  1. Fascinating! I can’t help but be reminded of the Chakra system (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chakra), and the principles of Hatha Yoga and Shaiva Tantra, in which the sleeping serpent/feminine energy, Kundalini, who lies coiled at the base of the spine (in the muladhara chakra), is awakened by means of meditation, and whose energy then rises up a ‘subtle channel’ in the spinal column, the Sushumna, to the crown of the head, producing a profound shift in consciousness. There are 2 main other nadis or subtle channels, the ida and pingala, (moon and sun), which loop up through the body, and intersect at each chakra or wheel. If Hilma af Klint was influenced by Theosophy, she is likely to have come across these ideas, and might have seen some of the medieval iconography. Could she have combined the idea of Kundalini with the Christian and/or Norse Tree of Knowledge?


    1. Thank you! This is so interesting! One of the problems with her work is that she left behind over 26,000 pages of manuscript which are mainly in Swedish. I’m sure they are all being combed through as we speak. Another problem is that, although we know how interested she and others were in Theosophy, relatively few Art Historians have gone as far as to learn about Theosophy themselves (myself included!). So, all of the things you have brought to this are in all probability things she would have been aware of… and so, yes, I think you are right, I’m sure she did combine these sources. Later images in her ‘Tree of Knowledge’ series (Nos. 4 & 5) do include serpents…


    1. Hi Teresa,
      Sorry about this – I think you accidentally typed in the wrong email address. I had a message from Tixoom saying they couldn’t deliver your ticket, but I haven’t had any way of contacting you. If you could send me your email address via the ‘contact’ page, I’ll get Tixoom to send a duplicate:


      Thank you!


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