True to af Klint’s intentions, the show begins with a spectacular mystical flourish. Along the walls of the museum’s High Gallery are ten massive rectangular canvases (more than ten feet tall and eight feet wide, they’re simply called The Ten Largest), each replete with exploding pastel colors and oscillating geometric forms. As a series, they constitute a meditation on the human life cycle: the first two represent childhood, the next two youth, the following four adulthood, and the last two old age. As one’s gaze sweeps across the gallery, light blues and oranges give way to soothing purples and pinks; flower petals and baroque ellipses flow into dotted lines and nautilus spirals; an ornate script even fills a few canvases with invented words and Roman numerals. The paintings are staggering in their novelty—still more so when we consider that af Klint completed them several years before figures like Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian began experimenting with abstraction.
Yet The Ten Largest are also deeply traditional. The show’s catalogue explains that af Klint had a fondness for religious paintings, especially from the Italian Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age. Just as these works aimed to draw audiences beyond the painted surface and into prayer, so too does af Klint’s series point past itself into a fuller, richer whole. Along with purely abstract elements, we find symbols typical of religious art: patterns modeled on Swedish bonader (large-scale folk art paintings, often depicting sacred subjects), as well as a spinning mandala filled with the words “ave maria” (in the third canvas, “Youth”). The last painting (“Old Age”) even features a large white cross at the center, mimicking a gravestone. The more time you spend in front of the paintings, the more the shapes and colors start to mirror the unfolding process of human growth and decline. On the day I visited, I watched new mothers with brightly dressed infants posing cheerfully in front of “Childhood,” while elderly couples stood reverently before “Adulthood” and “Old Age.”
Much of the rest of the show is dedicated to illustrating the process of af Klint’s development as an abstract artist, highlighting her formal achievements as well as her evolving intellectual interests and expanding religious vocabulary. From her early work of the 1890s, we know that af Klint was a skilled painter of nature. Detailed drawings of insects and flowers, as well as striking portraits of two women, precede the “automatic drawings” that she began in the early 1900s, when together with a group known as “The Five” af Klint began tracing the geometric forms that she perceived during spiritual seances. During these practices, af Klint felt herself a conduit, a physical body possessed by spiritual entities (they even had names: Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg, and Gregor) that worked through her without any mediation. Fulfilling their “commissions,” af Klint completed her earliest abstract works, including the explosive WU/Rose Series (which illustrates how spiritual energy congeals into matter), the tender Eros Series (whose curves trace the tugs of desire), and the esoteric Evolution (which expresses af Klint’s growing interests in science, theosophy, and spiritualism).