Exhibitions

In pictures: the little-known pioneers of 19th- and 20th-century abstraction

Munich exhibition explores the experimental works of Georgiana Houghton, Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz

The exhibition World Receivers, which closes this weekend at Munich’s Lenbachhaus museum, brings together works by the British artist Georgiana Houghton (1814–84), the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), and the Swiss artist Emma Kunz (1892–1963). At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, the three artists developed—independently from one another—pioneering abstract forms of art informed by their mutual interest in spiritual and supernatural beliefs, as well as the laws of nature. The works by the female artists have been joined by the films of Harry Smith (1923–91) and the brothers John and James Whitney (1917-95 and 1921-82).

The exhibition’s curators, Karin Althaus and Sebastian Schneider, have picked out five of their favourite works from the show.

World Receivers, Lenbachhaus, Munich, until 10 March

“Hilma af Klint was convinced that beings of a higher level of consciousness used her as a medium for her Paintings for the Temple: ‘The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke.’ From 1906 to 1908, Af Klint created the first 111 works of the series; from 1912 to 1915, a further 83 works were added.”
Hilma af Klint, Gruppe III, The Large Figure Paintings, The Key to All Works to Date (The WU/Rose Series) (1907); © The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm; Photo: Moderna Museet, Stockholm

“Hilma af Klint was convinced that beings of a higher level of consciousness used her as a medium for her Paintings for the Temple. As she explained: ‘The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke.’ From 1906 to 1908, Af Klint created the first 111 works of the series; from 1912 to 1915, a further 83 works were added.”

“In 1860, Georgiana Houghton began to draw and paint ‘mediumistically’. Various ‘spirit guides’ led her to freehand drawing and painting. The earliest of her works depict botanical forms but the brightly painted pictures were soon formally complex and completely abstract: arches, waves, and spirals overlap in various layers, while sweeping brushstrokes are juxtaposed with microscopic lines and dots.”
Georgiana Houghton, Flower of Samuel Warrand, August 19th 1862; © Victorian Spiritualists' Union, Melbourne; Photo: VSU

“In 1860, Georgiana Houghton began to draw and paint ‘mediumistically’. Various ‘spirit guides’ led her to freehand drawing and painting. The earliest of her works depict botanical forms but the brightly painted pictures were soon formally complex and completely abstract: arches, waves, and spirals overlap in various layers, while sweeping brushstrokes are juxtaposed with microscopic lines and dots.”

“‘My art is destined for the twenty-first century,’ said the healer, researcher, and artist Emma Kunz about her drawings, which she created from 1938 onward on graph paper with the help of a pendulum. These complex geometrical works are records of natural energy flows. They are part of the extensive work and activity of this artist, who devoted her life to the research of disease and health, the microcosm and macrocosm, humankind and God.”
Emma Kunz, Work No. 003; © Emma Kunz Zentrum, CH-5436 Würenlos

“‘My art is destined for the twenty-first century,’ said the healer, researcher, and artist Emma Kunz about her drawings, which she created from 1938 onward on graph paper with the help of a pendulum. These complex geometrical works are records of natural energy flows. They are part of the extensive work and activity of this artist, who devoted her life to the research of disease and health, the microcosm and macrocosm, humankind and God.”

“In 1943, the brothers John and James Whitney developed an apparatus which enabled them to create synthetic sounds directly on the film's audio track. In their Five Film Exercises (1943-45), they synchronised the sounds with abstract forms. The films convey a ghostly presence; it almost seems as if a message from another world was being transmitted to us via Morse code. The brothers saw these films not as works of art, but rather as exercises that served to create a mutually interrelated connection between sound and image.”
John and James Whitney, Five Film Exercises # 1-5 (1943-45, video still); © John and James Whitney; Photo: Whitney Editions™, Los Angeles

“In 1943, the brothers John and James Whitney developed an apparatus which enabled them to create synthetic sounds directly on the film's audio track. In their Five Film Exercises (1943-45), they synchronised the sounds with abstract forms. The films convey a ghostly presence; it almost seems as if a message from another world was being transmitted to us via Morse code. The brothers saw these films not as works of art, but rather as exercises that served to create a mutually interrelated connection between sound and image.”

“Harry Smith impressively described how various forms and colours appeared to him while listening to Jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, and Thelonious Monk. With his paintings, he strove to make these inner images visible. While living in San Francisco in the 1940s, Smith extended this practice to the medium of film. Not least of all due to a lack of money, he developed a wide range of experimental techniques, which led him to formal innovations unparalleled in the animated film of this time.”
Harry Smith, Film No. 1 (A Strange Dream) (around 1946, video still); © Anthology Film Archives, New York City; Photo: Anthology Film Archives

“Harry Smith impressively described how various forms and colours appeared to him while listening to Jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, and Thelonious Monk. With his paintings, he strove to make these inner images visible. While living in San Francisco in the 1940s, Smith extended this practice to the medium of film. Not least of all due to a lack of money, he developed a wide range of experimental techniques, which led him to formal innovations unparalleled in the animated film of this time.”