At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which on this day is a temple, I wander back and forth through rooms full of gloriously confounding art. Eventually I stand before an untitled watercolour. Hilma af Klint painted this self-portrait in 1934, when she was in her early seventies. I see a pale, translucent, ghostly woman. I see what I want to see.
I stay with the self-portrait for a long time, as if waiting for af Klint to speak to me, to guide me, to tell me the many errors of my ways, to indulge my hope that the two of us are kindred spirts, to tell me to study theosophy more deeply or with all my heart, to say, ‘I have nothing to say to you.’ I stare into her unblinking eyes. I imagine her hand, already in blurred motion, reaching out to grasp mine or to gently but emphatically push me away.
According to the curatorial note glued to the wall beside the self-portrait, ‘a snail wraps around the artist’s shoulders, its giant spiralling shell forming a halo around her head, as if to suggest both a burden and a blessing. The unearthly creature also connects with her heart, an organ af Klint described as “the central point of my being”.’ On the one hand, I accept the authority of experts: ‘spirals … symbolise the evolution of the material towards the spiritual. Snails are also mermaphrodites and for af Klint pictorially convey the fusion of the two sexes into a genderless, non-binary being’. But on the other hand, is that really a snail wrapped around af Klint’s shoulders? It could be a worm, a snake’s shedded skin, a fake fur, a factory’s chimney, a hat, a sewerage pipe, a spaceship’s exhaust fumes, an Elon Musk tunnel, the moon. It could be anything.
• • •
I believe in things. I do. I believe in writing fiction, and reading it, because it’s fun and because we live in a fantasy world in which the billionaires have no clothes (although they do have great big rockets). I believe that the Great Barrier Reef, which I have never seen, is doomed. I believe my daughters are advanced for their age—or at least I believe in repeating that line, as reliable as the joke that begins, Why did the chicken cross the road? I believe that beer has become too heavy on the hops. I believe that we should shut down parliamentary Question Time. And I believe in Hilma af Klint, the Swedish woman, abstract artist, mystic, thinker and visionary who, with or without the help of the spirit world, shifted her artistic and intellectual gaze from the visible, the measurable, to the invisible, the inexplicable, the everything. When I wrote a novel called Rise & Shine, about the end of the world, my publisher put af Klint’s painting The Swan, No. 17 (1915) on the cover. At the time I barely knew who af Klint was, but now I think about her every day and every time I write. Divine intervention or a book designer who is good at their job? We’ll never really know.
I do not believe in the occult. I do not believe that six higher beings called Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, George and Gregor took over the minds, souls and hands of af Klint and her four friends, directing what they drew and wrote as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth. I do not believe that in 1906 Amaliel commissioned af Klint to paint The Paintings for the Temple. I do not believe that Amaliel existed then or exists now, although I do believe that af Klint believed that Amaliel and her celestial colleagues existed. I do not believe in God, I do not believe in Richard Dawkins and his damning and damned misuse of atheism, I do not believe in Naomi Wolf and her vaccination and mask fantasies, I do not believe that fossil fuels have a future, I do not believe in the logic of journalistic balance, I do not believe in the 24-hour news cycle.
Af Klint painted the stages of life from childhood to old age, she painted primordial chaos, she painted atoms, she painted theosophy’s version of evolution, she painted unrecognisable swans and doves, she painted rye and oats, she painted flowers and trees, she painted world religions—this is what Buddhism looks like—and she painted reconciliation between the spirit world and the scientific world. She deployed colour, swirls, numbers, letters and words, curves, geometric shapes, spirals—so many spirals—to devastating effect. Julia Voss calls af Klint a revolutionary:
Her works, she believed, could help us leave behind everything that makes the world too small and rigid: entrenched thought-patterns and systems of order, categories of sex and class, materialism and capitalism, the binary view of an Orient and an Occident, and the distinction between art and life.
I admire af Klint because I get simple awed pleasure from looking at her art—because to be in a room with her work, or to gaze at it on the pages of a book or a screen, makes me happy. I admire her for her ability to combine, with uncommon force, deep intelligence and deep strangeness. I admire her for her audacious nonconformity: ‘The more lively the vibrations of thought, the more flexible life on earth becomes; anyone will be able to work on matter with their imagination.’ I admire her work ethic, her toughness, her commitment to the task. I admire her skill and her willingness to redeploy her classical training. I admire her courage: she willingly gave so much of herself, even though she eventually decided that the world wasn’t ready for her art: ‘I am so small, I am so insignificant, but inside of me rises such a strength that I must go forward.’ And I admire her for her certainty: ‘Those granted the gift of seeing more deeply can see beyond form and concentrate on the wondrous aspect hiding behind every form, which is called life.’
But even though these shards of admiration add up to something more than the sum of their parts—astonishment, perhaps—they do not amount to belief. When I say that I believe in Hilma af Klint, I am trying to describe the way she has intruded upon my inner world and become a sort of guiding light, despite me finding her belief system fanciful and despite my awareness that faith—‘confidence, reliance, belief, esp. without evidence or proof’—is not something that has ever come naturally to me or that I have ever really understood, even though I grew up as the son of a minister of religion.
In trying to understand af Klint’s power over me, I need to try to understand myself. I used to believe, ardently, solemnly, loudly, that I should actively avoid trying to understand my own creative process, because, you know, art is pure and spontaneous. Now I seek a midpoint between wilful ignorance—because art is still pure and spontaneous, but it’s not really—and wanting to understand my creative process in sufficient detail and depth that I might even be able to refine it. This is a serviceable if cosy arrangement most of the time, but af Klint demands more of me. When I look at one of her paintings, I am fascinated by what she intended that I see. But the extent to which I can understand it—she is, after all, inexplicable—I rely on her genius, often incomprehensible glossary—‘wwH = special circumstances within dazzling matter’—and, more to the point, by studying the ever more sophisticated research, interpretations and ideas of twenty-first-century art historians and curators.
Regardless, I know enough about the real Hilma af Klint to know that I misread her every time I gaze at one of her paintings and then turn it into something of my own. I am a Pentecostal preacher using the Old Testament for my own base purposes: ‘Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war; desolations are decreed; do you wanna buy a watch?’ Take af Klint’s painting The Swan, No. 10 (1915), one of a series of paintings that hint at the horrors of World War I but are ultimately about reconciliation, about unity. In The Swan, No. 10 I see nuclear holocaust: an earth so damaged it splits into two, with clouds of radiation fanned by winds that will not subside for centuries, the last humans left breathing in the cancer dust as they shuffle from firestorm to firestorm with nothing to eat but the hair that falls from their heads.
To look at an individual painting is one thing. A postcard-sized copy of Jeffrey Smart’s Cahill Expressway has sat blu-tacked to the wall above my desk for years—I’m looking at it as I type these words. I have invented many stories about the blue-suited man, most of which I’ve never written down. Many of af Klint’s paintings spark a similar response in me. But believing in her involves something much more than an imaginative reaction to a single image and my imagination’s capacity to turn it into something else. I imagine all af Klint’s paintings and studies and notebooks, thousands of canvases and pages laid out and floating free so that I can move freely around them, view them from every angle, and shift them at will, as if creating a mosaic. Or I imagine them all piled up in the corner of a warehouse, vibrating. Or I imagine them thrown into a vast drum and boiled down to their elixir: a sip gets me through the next day and the next.
My inner world—I suppose I could go out on a limb and call it my soul—is a repository in which I set out to connect everything, from plain facts (one plus one really does equal two) to opinions (mine and other people’s) to wild speculation (mine and other people’s). It contains every emotion I’ve ever felt, forgotten or suppressed, everything I’ve read or heard, everything I’ve tasted, all that bad television, every speculation I’ve ever indulged, abandoned or rejected. It contains real people, or at least my distorted version of them, and it contains all the people I’ve ever imagined. My inner world is not a natural phenomenon: I water it consciously and conscientiously, hoping that it will produce original thoughts and words that I might turn into sentences and paragraphs. It rewards me now and again, at least to my own satisfaction. I have learned to live with its waste product, earnestness.
Whereas af Klint believed in the spirit world and studied long and hard to understand her place in it, I believe in the power of uncertainty, of not knowing, of there always being some other context. I’m not describing a commitment to contrariness, or at least I hope I’m not: to be a devil’s advocate for its own sake is a tactic favoured by lazy bullies. Instead, I believe that bewilderment is wisdom. But if I used to believe I was well and truly bewildered, now that I know Hilma af Klint I realise that I was just getting started: I have so much more not to know.
I have no doubt that belief in bewilderment is sometimes a cop-out, a resort to equivocation, an acceptance of desensitisation, an avoidance of speaking out and acting out, and ultimately a passive complicity with the various injustices of the world that bother me the most. Nonetheless, I believe in my unbelief: it is itself a belief system, no less than Hilma af Klint’s or the Dalai Lama’s or George Pell’s. It underpins everything I have ever written or tried to write.
The former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld said it better than I can: ‘As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’ Taken in isolation, I find Rumsfeld’s words to be true and resonant—poetic, even. But when returned to the context of why and when Rumsfeld said them—to help justify an unjustifiable invasion and war—the stanza is violent and pernicious.
Known unknowns and unknown unknowns: these are the invisible parts of the world that I see, or wish I could see, or cringe at seeing, when I look at, and think about, and dream upon, the art of af Klint. In the twenty-first century, just like af Klint’s twentieth century, the invisible comes in all shapes and sizes. If I started a list of things I cannot see without the aid of a machine or tool, I might never stop: dark matter (whatever that is); the deepest thoughts of Jeff Bezos; the air inside a netball; compassion; the roots of a ghost gum; my own heart muscle; a voice, singing; what’s happening on Manus Island this very moment; a virus that has the ability to jump from person to person; and so on and on and on. Maria Tumarkin, who migrated to Australia from the former Soviet Union when she was a teenager, describes a compelling form of invisibility: ‘The invisible were first and foremost invisible to themselves; they claimed to be the everypeople and had things like democracy and human rights and empathy and literature and “egalitarianism”. It took me too long to start learning about that all-conquering invisibility’s genesis in whiteness and colonialism, about the harm it caused and is causing, the cloak thrown over violence and dispossession.’ Invisibility, sometimes natural, sometimes human-made, is all around us, carrying us forwards and backwards on its winds and tides.
The founder of theosophy, Helena Blavatsky, ended one of her books, a question-and-answer tome, with words of hope and expectation:
Consider all this, and then tell me whether I am too sanguine when I say that if the Theosophical Society survives and lives true to its mission, to its original impulses through the next hundred years tell me, I say, if I go too far in asserting that earth will be a heaven in the twenty-first century in comparison with, what it is now!
Af Klint, a committed theosophist, painted pictures for a future that never arrived and never will. I do not mourn or pine for this never-to-be-realised world. I prefer to believe that af Klint painted for futures that she did not predict, for futures she could not have conceived and that she would not have endorsed. She painted, for example, in anticipation of the climate crisis. She painted machine learning. She painted Donald Rumsfeld. •
Patrick Allington’s novels are Rise & Shine (Scribe) and Figurehead (Black Inc.).