By Chelsea Odhner
Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) made abstract works inspired by her occult practices. The results overflow with spiritual insight.
Sitting with my coffee at breakfast, I opened the December 13, 2021, issue of The New Yorker. Life is full, between children in elementary and middle schools, a spouse in graduate school, and the juggling of work and home responsibilities. For several months, I haven’t been able to do much more than admire the covers of The New Yorker as I see them come to our door (a subscription my husband and I gifted ourselves early in our marriage). I’ve even left off scanning them for inappropriate content, since our twelve-year-old’s usual habit of stealing off with them to be the first to read the cartoons has been diverted by the busyness of science fair projects and afterschool clubs.
Somehow, though, a moment of peace arrived; the center of a whirling eddy settled over me for a brief pause, so I reached for the mid-December issue to take in the simple pleasure of browsing—first reading the cartoon caption contestants at the end, then circling back to the beginning, flipping through the pages of the “Goings On About Town.” And that’s when I saw it. In the section entitled “At The Galleries,” my eye was immediately drawn to the image on display. I needed no information about the artist or the context, for what lay before my eyes was so clearly a capsule of Swedenborgian spiritual reflection. I was seeing a portrait of myself, and I recognized my features.
Johanna Fateman, for The New Yorker, writes that eight watercolors by the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) have been newly discovered—a series entitled Tree of Knowledge. The collection is now on view at the David Zwirner gallery through February 5, 2022. Fateman writes that af Klint created these works between 1913 and 1915.
A little more than three years ago, the Guggenheim Museum held the first major solo exhibition in the United States for af Klint, which ran from October 12, 2018, to April 23, 2019. The show became its most attended exhibition of all time, with more than 600,000 visitors. Ben Davis, National Art Critic for Artnet News, speculates as to why af Klint resonates with today’s generation, while her work has gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream for more than a century. Davis’s piece was written before the global pandemic, so I can only wonder how much that resonance with af Klint may have grown for people as they now navigate a peri-COVID world.
It was simply a single piece of her artwork, taking up no more than a ninth of the page, that had an immediate calming and engaging effect on me. This particular image, Tree of Knowledge, No. 1, from the newly discovered collection has traveled across time and space—from Hilma af Klint’s imaginal interior to her brush and canvas, through more than one hundred years, to this page in The New Yorker that was displayed before my morning gaze. It is exquisite.
Af Klint was a spiritualist and a member of the Theosophical Society. Both the society and the Spiritualism movement have roots in, as they do in many other sources, Emanuel Swedenborg’s (1688–1772) theology. I can only speculate as to how much af Klint studied Swedenborg’s works directly, but as someone who has studied them in-depth, it is hard not to see the many spiritual concepts exhibited by Tree of Knowledge, No. 1. I felt an invitation to contemplate the potential spiritual messages at play in the work. From my Swedenborgian vantage point, the map of the human spirit that she has created in this single image is precise and comprehensive. Let me describe the qualities that I see.
Foremost, I see a tree. From the title of the work, one is quick to notice the reference to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2–3). When paired with Swedenborg’s theology, this allusion becomes multilayered.
And so I am gazing at an image of a tree, but this tree is an image of a human being. Part of the correspondence of a tree to a human being is that a tree is integrated at each of its two ends into two distinct environments, just as the human mind is designed to exist in two worlds at once.
The crown and roots of the tree, which are connected by the trunk, comprise two overlapping spheres, conveying a sense of how one’s spirit exists both in heaven and on earth. The crown of the tree is a picture of our spiritual self; the trunk and roots, which are embedded in the lower sphere, represent our earthly self. These two parts of us, Swedenborg describes, are intricately interconnected; our spiritual self is alive through our earthly self.
There is a horizontal, more darkly shaded oval that makes up the center of the lower sphere. I wonder if the dual-tone nature of the lower sphere represents our selfhood when it has been reborn, a process that occurs through crises of the spirit.
At the base of the trunk of the tree, which also appears at the center of the lower sphere, there is a heart. This red, spiraled heart has two rivers—one yellow, one blue—that meet within it and then cross upward as channels leading to the crown of the tree. Af Klint is known to use these two colors in her depiction of balanced energies. I am reminded of the will and the intellect in Swedenborg’s theology, which are the vessels of love and wisdom, respectively, in us. Love and wisdom, Swedenborg writes, “are that entity that we call the soul” (Divine Love and Wisdom §398). In af Klint’s painting, these channels flow upward as crisscrossing rivers that bifurcate the crown of the tree. The two sides of the crown might represent the two kingdoms of heaven: “Heaven is . . . divided into two kingdoms, one called the heavenly kingdom and the other called the spiritual kingdom” (Heaven and Hell §21).
Swedenborg goes on to say that heaven is divided into three levels. As the trunk of the tree ascends through the crown, it passes through three epicenters where the yellow and blue rivers cross, creating three levels that reflect the natural, spiritual, and celestial heavens. According to Swedenborg, these levels are mapped onto the human mind in such a way that connects us to heaven.
Two birds can be seen at each of the three epicenters. In the lowest of the centers, the two are somewhat misaligned, as they face away from each other; then, in the middle, the birds are facing one another; and finally, in the highest center, they seem to have merged into one. Swedenborg records a time when he was contemplating the nature of love and wisdom in the human mind and suddenly witnessed a spiritual representation in which birds symbolized the three levels of heaven.
I hear an echo of those windows in the epicenters of af Klint’s tree. The curves of the two rivers create forms akin to windows at each of the three tiers. As the rivers ascend, each of these forms is smaller than the next, giving a sense of depth to the rivers’ journey upward.
The trunk of the tree darkens, becoming golden above the highest epicenter, and it continues its path like an artery to what appears to be a sun—an orb at the top of the tree, with golden rays shining out in all directions. The direct connection with the trunk of the tree paired with the rays that flow out from the sun into all parts of the crown is reminiscent of what Swedenborg says about the two forms of inflow that we receive from God: one is a direct connection to God and the other is indirect, from God by way of the spiritual world.
Throughout the crown of the tree can be seen several multicolored shapes that resemble the figure eight of the infinity symbol. These make me think of what Swedenborg writes about how our minds are connected to vast numbers of communities in heaven, each with its own distinct reflection of the divine’s love and wisdom.
Two larger figure eights rest at the lower edge of the crown of the tree, one on either side of the trunk. These are yellow and blue, like the rivers. Perhaps they are a reflection of our closest associations in spirit, the angels and spirits who are nearest to us. The tree itself, with its overlapping spheres, also resembles the binary shape of the figure eight. These shapes remind me of Swedenborg’s description of how individuals, communities, and heaven in its entirety are all of the same form, but on different scales:
Lastly, I am intrigued by the four flowing loops of the roots of the tree, each a different color, that point in the four cardinal directions. According to Swedenborg, the four seasons and four directions symbolize the changing spiritual states that we go through in our development, a process that continues even after death.
Although this painting is the first in the series, it seems to reflect a culmination. There is balance and alignment. There is simplicity in the lower sphere and infinity in the upper sphere. There is cohesion between the golden leaves and shades of brown and gold, which lends a satisfying contrast to every part. I don’t know what Hilma af Klint was envisioning with this piece, or with its sisters in the series, but she captured a resonance and was able to convey it to me—carrying me from my roots at the table, where I was sipping my coffee, to a sense of the wondrous possibilities, which are the golden leaves of my spirit. I marvel at how physical objects, such as a work of art, can miraculously contain and transmit divine revelation. I am moved and I am grateful.
While there seem to be countless messages within this singular work, I might gather into one final quote what it speaks to me:
Perhaps Hilma af Klint experienced this in herself, and perhaps, through her work, she invites each of us to awaken to the possibility.
For more about the David Zwirner exhibit and a look at all eight pieces in the series, go to https://allarts.org/2021/12/hilma-af-klint-tree-of-knowledge-david-zwirner-gallery/.
Chelsea Rose Odhner serves as the Vice President of Publishing at the Swedenborg Foundation. She is a writer for the Off The Left Eye YouTube channel and is the creator, writer, and host of the spirituality podcast Inside Off The Left Eye, which shares insights from Swedenborg’s works and delves into their historical context. She loves to support people on their spiritual journey and explore the nuances of lived spirituality among different religious identities.