The “Spirituality” that Influenced my Grandmother near the turn of the 20th Century

Eva and I visited the current exhibition of art at Millesgården on the island of Lidingö, the outdoor sculpture garden on a cliff overlooking the sound between Lidingö and Stockholm.

(Quoting from the descriptive panel inside the entrance to the indoor art exhibition:)

The exhibition Painting and Spirituality presents three Swedish artists, active at the previous turn of the century: Hilma af Klint, Tyra Kleen, and Lucie Lagerbielke. They joined various occult movements which influenced their lives as well as their artistic processes… Hilma af Klint and Tyra Kleen were aristocrats and Lucie Lagerbielke… married into the aristocracy. All made life choices that, at the time, were considered unusual for women; they were intellectuals (who) prioritised their work and their art before family and children. Despite common points of departure and interests, their art differs greatly, both in terms of expression and working methods.

Tyra Kleen, Les Frileux

(Continuing the text from the panel at the entrance:)

At the turn of the 20th century there was great interest in spiritual seeking and (this) was also an important point of departure for many artists. Europe was undergoing an industrial revolution… and old social structures were (being) dismantled. The Church… lost its grip on people’s lives… Many people turned to spiritual movements (including) artists and writers. Séances, meditation, and hypnosis were different ways of establishing contact with worlds beyond our physical universe, as well as with an inner… reality. Many of the artists who depicted their spiritual experiences (employed)… abstract imagery filled with symbols, (no longer) portraying the visible world. Hilma af Klint was one of the first artists to produce entirely abstract paintings (in 1906).

Lucy Lagerbielke, from her 1915 book “Mysteria,” inspired by a vision of Christ

(Continuing the text from the panel at the entrance:)

In the occult movements women played a more prominent role than in the Church, the art world, or in society at large. Women, who were thought to have a sensibility suited for communicating with the beyond, were mediums at séances, became interpreters of messages from other worlds, and practiced healing and hypnosis. Many movements had female leaders. The advocated of these movements often had scientific pretensions. Influenced by scientific discoveries and inventions such as electricity, the telephone, and X-rays, as well as Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the psyche, people nourished a hope of being able to prove scientifically the existence of other worlds. Women, who had limited opportunity to succeed in traditional research, here saw a possibility to carry out what they regarded as scientific work. The intention was to save the human race from spiritual and psychic decay. The occult movements were strongly critical of civilization and the contact with higher powers was a way of helping people discover the true path toward a better world, in this life or beyond our physical reality.

From a list of definitions at the exhibition:

Esoterism – A range of spiritualist ideas is which secret knowledge, often shared through a process of initiation, plays an important role. The ideas have historically been such that have been rejected by the main Christian churches and well as by Enlightenment and natural science.

Spirituality – A human desire to attain a higher spiritual level beyond the material world, often of a religious nature.

– A term employed by researchers to denote esoteric currents variously affected by secularity and natural science. Many esotericists aimed to combine scientific methods with esoteric speculation, or garner legitimacy from science. The term as such is older. The umbrella term “occult sciences” (which included astrology, alchemy and magic) was use as early as the 16th century.

Hilma af Klint, Tree of Knowledge. One of a series of seven watercolors (1913 – 1915) which broadly deal with evolution, original innocence, and the fall, which let to man’s banishment from the Garden of Eden; and, the creation of a child.

Below, Hilma af Klint, The Dove, 1915. One of a series of 14 oil paintings, featuring both figurative and abstract forms, symbolizing the spirit and its descent into matter. The battle between good and evil is represented by St. George / the Archangel Michael with sword and the Rose Cross, which stands over the defeated dragon. The ending of the series represents the dominance of the spirit in the universe.

Here are my comments.

Upon one’s first look at the abstract words and phrases used, and the definitions of some of them, there seems to be much that is vague, non-logical, and/or tautological.

But… it would do a disservice to the seekers of non-logical wisdom to pick at the words, because the reality for the seekers and the artists resides within them; words cannot duplicate this experience. The artists reveal what they can through their art, and here you see a fraction of what is currently presented at Millesgården, both in words and art.

What has any of this to do with my paternal grandmother, Clara Lucille Pavellas, née Harpending? She was born 1872, and died 1934, three years before I was born—but I know her. I know her through writings, her photographs, and especially through my father’s many recitations of her life—and from her younger sister, my great-aunt Genevieve, who lived 40 years beyond her.

Clara Lucille Harpending

The Harpending sisters were daughters of Asbury Harpending, Jr., a Kentucky-born adventurer, speculator, promoter, miner, and, to some, rapscallion. He housed his family in the San Francisco area, but spent time in New York and London pursuing his business interests. His initial fortune came from gold and silver mining in California and New Mexico in the 1860s and 1870s.

Asbury’s two sons fled home as soon as they could, never to be seen again. His two daughters were his only basis for parental pride, so he indulged them in their artistic and educational interests.

At 1900, Lucille, as she was known, was 28 years old, unmarried and, as yet, with no prospects. She was educated in history, literature, languages, and the arts, especially those of Ancient Greece. As with many women of means is this era, she was fascinated with he occult and spiritual currents running through the middle and upper classes, just as with the artists shown above.

Lucille Pavellas at Stinson Beach, Marin County, California

Through great-aunt Genevieve and my father, at an early age I became aware of, and in some instance acquainted, with writings and influences of these persons, among others:

Annie Besant

Carl Gustav Jung

G.I. Gurdjieff

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

Jiddu Krishnamurti

P.D. Ouspensky

Paramahansa Yogananda

Rudolf Steiner

Some of these, and others in similar realms, were known to the artists in this exhibition. In viewing the art and reading their histories and influences I felt I was visiting friends of my grandmother.

It was good.

Hilma af Klint is featured in the following Youtube presentations:

Hilma af Klint -Guggenheim Museum

Bortom det synliga – filmen om Hilma af Klint – Trailer

Hilma af Klint: Abstrakt pionjär | Introduktion

“Hilma Af Klint” – Gertrud Sandqvist @ Summer Academy 2010

Daniel Birnbaum. The Work of Hilma af Klint. 2016