The Center of the Universe – Atoms through the Eyes of Hilma af Klint

In 1917 the Swedish painter, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), created 22 paintings about atoms. They were spiritual and scientific investigations of the essence of the world’s building blocks, representing the birth and energy of the atom, metaphorically rather than through scientific models. The watercolour works contain the forms of a square and circle repeated in different colours and combinations. Aside, af Klint has written a little note about the essence of the atom and what each painting represents. The notes tell, for instance:

“The body must be transformed by going into its centre and extracting new energy from there” (Atom series, N:o 3: 11/1/1917)

“The atom finds within itself Truth and Justice” (Atom series, N:o 18, 25/1/2017)

Af Klint was a painter and pioneer of abstraction who tried to find the truth of living between the spiritual and scientific worlds. She was an active member of theosophist and anthroposophist societies and participated in the spiritual seances. In addition, she also investigated phenomena of nature, was interested in plant taxonomy, and followed the new twists and turns in the scientific world.

Thus, to understand af Klint’s art, it is necessary to understand both the scientific and spiritual tendencies of the early 20th century. The practice of spiritualism was rather typical for the artists of the time. Many names of the time, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, or Swedish Tyra Kleen practised spiritualist philosophy and used it as their source of inspiration. The discussion between spirits and influence from the eastern philosophies formed the most significant part of these movements. They also ladled their philosophy from the scientific findings of the century. The inventions such as X-ray and electromagnetics showed people that reality exists beyond the visible as well.

The discovery of the atom was indeed one of the events which reformed both the spiritual and non-spiritual worlds. Even though the atom was discovered already at the beginning of the 19th century, it stayed relevant thanks to Curies and new investigations in the change of the 19th and 20th centuries. For instance, the nucleus of the atom was found in 1911 by  New Zealander Ernest Rutherford. The nucleus of an atom indeed affected af Klint’s understanding of it as the source and energy of the universe. More significantly, her understanding of the atom might have affected Bohr’s model, developed in Copenhagen in 1913, just a train distance from Lund, where af Klint was living during those years. According to this model, electrons circulated the atom’s core, forming its centre. Af Klint writes in one of her paintings:

“Every atom has its own centre, but each centre is linked directly to the centre of the universe.” (Atom series, N:o 2: 10/1/1917)

Af Klint thus understood the atom’s centre as a creating force of the universe, full of the energy for one’s own body but also nature. In the Atom series’ notes, she tends to use the words “innocence” and “justice” when describing the qualities of atoms. Important to remember is that at the beginning of the 20th-century, the atom’s nucleus’s extensive source of energy was understood as constructive and not destructive, as at the end of the Second World War in 1945, just a year after af Klints death.

Another theory often linked to af Klint’s understanding of atoms was the Vortex theory, created by Lord Kelvin in the late 19th century. The theory attempted to understand why atoms exist in small varieties but still in large quantities. The vortex theory was based on the observation that the vortex can be formed in fluid with no ends and to the assumption that such vortexes could be sustained by luminous aether, the medium of the electromagnetic light, and which today has been agreed not to exist. Nevertheless, it was believed that this miraculous vortex made the number of atoms expand.

The spiral form is repeated in many of af Klint’s paintings, but she also talks about the aether in her notes. To af Klint, aether existed between the physical and mental worlds, and af Klint also situated the atom to communicate between the mental and the physical. This idea was strongly relying on the theosophist philosophy about the planes of the universe. She writes about the aether:

“The atom is simultaneously limited and capable of development. When the atom expands on the etheric plane, a spark arises in the physical part of the earthly atom.” (Atom series N:o 7, 13/1/1917)

Even though some of the scientific theories af Klint related to her Atom series are testified not to be accurate, the paintings show how we understand atoms even today. It is a building block between the yet-to-be-born and born. In this series, the in-betweenity indeed showed itself. Af Klint’s philosophy was affected by two worlds, science and spiritualism, the physical and mental, all of which culminates in these paintings.

Hilma af Klint, The Muhammedan Standpoint, 1920
Hilma af Klint, Cat 127. Parsifal No. 127, 1916
Hilma af Klint, Cat 128. Parsifal No. 128, 1916

Words by Anni Reponen