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Review: Who invented abstract art? Victor Hugo show at the Hammer proves critics and historians wrong

Review: Who invented abstract art? Victor Hugo show at the Hammer proves critics and historians wrong
Victor Hugo, "Stains," circa 1850, brown ink and wash on paper (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm)

The last several months have witnessed something rare in art — the birth and consolidation of a new art myth. A longstanding belief has been toppled, replaced by a brand-new conviction.

The fable: Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), a Swedish mystic and painter of remarkable skills who is not well known in the United States, invented abstract art.

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Her extraordinary artistic accomplishment preceded by several years that of Russian-born Vasily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich and the Netherlands’ Piet Mondrian, one or another of whom is usually credited as abstraction’s inventor around 1911. As early as 1906, Af Klint began creating revolutionary works that bore no direct pictorial reference to the visible world.

The new myth has been prompted by “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” a huge exhibition (167 paintings) that currently fills the spiral of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Local reviews have been rapturous, the Swedish artist’s generative role acclaimed.

Given the powerful part that abstract art would play in Europe and the Americas as the 20th century unfolded, becoming virtually synonymous with modernity, the new myth is dramatic. Of course, it also isn’t true. Hilma af Klint didn’t invent abstract art. The answer to the question “Who did?” is unambiguous: No one did.

Art doesn’t work that way. I’m not talking about the abstraction that is found in most every culture in most every age, including prehistoric, but of other modern European artists who had already been exploring abstraction. And decades earlier than Af Klint.

In London, at the height of the Victorian Era, Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884) began making vivid paintings on paper of colorful swirls, staccato dots, linear spirals, feathery marks and assorted shapes and forms of visual energy. The product of 10 years of work was shown in an 1871 exhibition at a gallery on Old Bond Street, center of London’s art quarter, where the 155 abstractions were greeted with stunned puzzlement and often ridicule.

Thirty-five years later, when Af Klint began her abstract paintings, she kept them from public view for fear of similar negative reaction.

Georgiana Houghton, "Glory Be to God," circa 1868, watercolor on paper.
Georgiana Houghton, "Glory Be to God," circa 1868, watercolor on paper. (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm)
Hilma af Klint, "Group V, The Seven-Pointed Star, No. 1n, " 1908, oil on canvas.
Hilma af Klint, "Group V, The Seven-Pointed Star, No. 1n, " 1908, oil on canvas. (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm)
Victor Hugo, "Stains," circa 1852-59, ink and wash on paper.
Victor Hugo, "Stains," circa 1852-59, ink and wash on paper. (Bibliothèque nationale de France ©BnF)

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was in exile when he began to make abstract art in earnest. The great and controversial French Romantic poet and novelist — “Les Miserables,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Legend of the Ages” — had run afoul of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, dictator of the Second Empire. Cast out to the island of Guernsey in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy, he applied the writer’s common tools of quill pen, ink and paper to abstract ends.

“Stones to Stains: The Drawings of Victor Hugo,” a darkly beautiful exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum to Dec. 30, lays out the absorbing result.

In collaboration with Swiss independent scholar Florian Rodari, curators Cynthia Burlingham and Allegra Pesenti of the museum’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts have assembled 65 drawings made between 1837 and 1876, the bulk of them from the 1850s and 1860s. Most pertinent are those referred to as “stains” — sensuous, layered washes of primarily brown, sometimes black or blue ink, often evoking a morose nocturnal gloom from which light seems to be pushing its way through.

Spilling ink onto paper, moving it around by tilting the sheet, drawing it out with the nub of the pen, brushing the quill’s feather across the surface, mixing it with graphite, blotting with cloth, dabbling with fingers — Hugo created a contemplative poetics of abstraction startling in its originality. Many relate to landscape — the stones of the show’s title. Earlier images of a church belfry, hilltop castles, threateningly fantastic monsters, natural phenomena like the cloud-covered moon or breaking waves, and even a spider industriously toiling in its web seem to melt into the nonobjective atmosphere of ink-stained paper.

Victor Hugo, "Stains," circa 1850, ink and wash on paper.
Victor Hugo, "Stains," circa 1850, ink and wash on paper. (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm)
Victor Hugo, "Stains," circa 1875, ink and wash on paper.
Victor Hugo, "Stains," circa 1875, ink and wash on paper. (Bibliothèque nationale de France ©BnF)

The politically active Parisian writer, a draftsman from his youth, seems to have found the melancholy of his pastoral exile to be an opportunity for speculative thought. (“The marriage of the sublime and the abyss” is how Rodari puts it in the show’s fine catalog.) Some 3,000 drawings are known, but none were publicly displayed during Hugo’s lifetime.

Hugo’s abstract art predates Houghton’s by half a dozen years. It precedes Af Klint’s by half a century.

Although very different artists, one thing all three shared is a deep interest in spiritualism and the occult. (The Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Melbourne, Australia, is the primary repository of Houghton’s little-known work, which resurfaced in London in a 2016 show at the Courtauld Gallery.) For an artist exploring experience beyond the visible world, abstract art is an almost logical development.

That’s important because it distinguishes their work from most modern abstraction. Hugo, Houghton and Af Klint were painting an invisible spirit world. They used color, line, shape and form to explore the representation of reality — just not the reality that a human eye could see. By contrast, other 20th century nonobjective artists explored painting’s visual structure as its own spiritual reality.

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Af Klint’s spiritual mapping of life’s cyclical rhythms was channeled to her telepathically, she said, from an ancient Tibetan brotherhood. Houghton’s torrential optical waves and Hugo’s bleeding atmospheric puddles resonate with their makers’ frequent participation in séances. (Hugo once tried to reach presumed inhabitants on the planet Mercury.) Little wonder, perhaps, that these three rarely showed their art to the general public.

That they didn’t, and that their work has rarely (if ever) been substantively shown in the United States since their passing — the Hammer survey is only Hugo’s second show — has left an unplowed field for growing a new mythology of abstraction’s origins.

New York magazine called the Af Klint claim “an airtight case.” “Game-changing” said the New York Times. The New Yorker, slightly more reserved, confirmed the argument while describing it as “the least of the excitements.” Down the Acela Corridor, the Washington Post declared “a headline revelation.”

The clamor around Af Klint as inventor of abstract art is partly a reactionary hangover, as critic Peter Schjeldahl has noted, of the generally discredited idea of artistic progress. In a race to the future, being first matters.

Af Klint’s gender has also contributed, as establishment discrimination against women gets steadily, if too slowly, chipped away. The retrospective’s timing was fortuitous: The thrilling Women’s March that erupted in the wake of rampant misogyny in the 2016 presidential election, forming the initial groundswell of the blue wave that crashed on the political shore in November’s record-breaking midterm vote, met the recent proliferation of contemporary art exhibitions by women now on museum schedules. (Five are on view at L.A. institutions alone.) Together they produced a receptive socio-cultural moment for her extraordinary work.

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Just as weary as a modernist belief in artistic progress is New York’s often-remarked provincialism — the assumption that if it didn’t happen in Manhattan, it didn’t happen. The Guggenheim show is the city’s first good look at Af Klint’s paintings, which the artist stipulated should remain hidden from view for at least 20 years after her death. The actual concealment lasted twice as long: The paintings’ international debut came in Los Angeles in 1986.

“The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985” was the inaugural extravaganza for a new wing that was opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Abstraction’s foundations were laid out in five introductory spaces. Af Klint’s provocative paintings were hung in the formative company of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian, plus Czech innovator Frantisek Kupka. The show traveled to Chicago and the Netherlands, skipping over New York.

During the three decades since the LACMA debut, sizable solo surveys have taken place all over Europe, from England and France to Iceland and Estonia. Her work was in a modest three-person exhibition at New York’s Drawing Center in 2005 (it traveled to the Santa Monica Museum of Art), and a small installation of her paintings was at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City in 1989, certainly inspired by the LACMA show. It seems not to have made a dent, the New York Times then describing the paintings not as a watershed but as “a footnote to 20th-century art history.”

They are, of course, much more than that, as the Guggenheim exhibition attests. Hilma af Klint’s paintings are the first pinnacle in a distinctive abstract legacy of metaphysical thought that unfolded over the course of a century. It launched in the 1850s and 1860s with the likes of Hugo and Houghton and picked up steam in America in the 1940s and 1950s with the transcendent mysticism of Lee Mullican’s knife-edge paintings, the colorful numerology and prismatic structural systems of Alfred Jensen’s thickly painted diagrams and more.

The quest for spiritual insight grows acute in eras marked by the emergence of strange new worlds. We’re in that perplexed soup right now. Renewed interest in artists like Hugo, Houghton and Af Klint speaks, I think, of our intensifying digital upheaval, as culturally disruptive as the Gutenberg revolution. Expect more new art myths to take shape around it.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Stones to Stains: The Drawings of Victor Hugo’

Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

When: Through Dec. 30; closed Mondays

Admission: Free

Info: (310) 443-7000, www.hammer.ucla.edu

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