Neil Gaiman’s Art Matters: “Make Good Art”

by Renee Kimball

Neil Richard Gaiman will turn 60 this year. Gaiman’s stories and characters are now in our hearts and embedded in our lexicon. These stories are part of the story of us.

Who does not know the tale of Coraline, little girl lost, or American Gods, a tale of forgotten cultures and religions? And Anansi Boys (American Gods Book 2), a captivating yarn springing from African lore? And the popular collaborative work with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, now a Netflix production.

Gaiman is more than a fantasy writer, he reveals encyclopedic knowledge of world mythologies, world religion, world history, and a smorgasbord of other oddly relatable facts.

Mostly, people are drawn to him because he was and is a bookish person, and was once a very lonely boy who lived in libraries nurtured by librarians.

That lonely boy grew up and became one of the most famous graphic artists in the world, pushing graphic arts to new heights with his Sandman series. He has become a well-respected author for his research, and his multiple adult and children’s fiction. And he is the champion of Libraries and Librarians.

In 2018, Gaiman published a small book illustrated by Chris Riddell titled Art Matters-Because Your Imagination Can Change The World.

The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.’ Neil Gaiman

This book is a story about reading, libraries, librarians, writing, life choices, disappointments, and the belief that Art Matters.

Gaiman’s credo:

I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast.”

Gaiman stands as the champion of the freedom of ideas and against suppression of any ideas. He is a believer in the right of expression; whether these notions are correct or not, they are yours. Your idea of God, the state of the world, or anything else is individual—if you don’t agree, you can ignore or object—it’s your choice.

And Gaiman believes that our future, your future, “Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.”

“I suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m making a plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.”

Simply, librarians are unique in their position in the world. More than ever, they provide a universe in which “the love of reading” is encouraged, they show that reading is a “pleasurable activity.” 

. . .Everything changes when we read. . .Fiction builds empathy. . .”

I was lucky I had an excellent local library growing up, and met the kind of librarians who did not mind a small unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives of witches or wonders. . .”

A Library is a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it.”

For writers there is a personal desire that people should want to read, buy your books, your stories, become engaged in what you write. But more importantly there needs to be a concerted effort by everyone to teach all children “to read and enjoy reading.” To do that, libraries and librarians are the key, without them, we have nothing.

Neil Gaiman, by Rhododendrites. CC BY-SA 4.0. Via Wikipedia.

And where did all this reading lead this small bookish boy? Gaiman admits that starting a “career in fine arts, you have no idea what you are doing,” and that is a good thing, because you will not be held back by others’ limitations. Regardless of what befalls you, he admonishes, “Make Good Art.”

If you do decide to pursue a career in fine arts, know that not everything is going to work. It will make you uncomfortable, it will make you want to stop, it will make you want to hide. The point is, try again, write or draw and explore again. If we listen to Gaiman’s message, the message to create in your own way, even if it is uncomfortable or not understood, even if you feel like a fraud, or even if you are criticized, you will survive it.

“Be bold, be rebellious, choose Art. It Matters.” Neil Gaiman

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

 

Love in the Time of Coronavirus, or Pulling Poems Off the Shelf

 

by Helen Currie Foster

Maybe you recall an interview like this, a chance for a fellowship.

Three dour English academics at eight a.m., staring skeptically at me, siting tense in my penitentially hard wooden chair.

First question: “Do you like poetry?”

No!” I blurt.

Not even Keats?” – the horrified response.

I try, fruitlessly, bootlessly, to explain, a la Marianne Moore. Poetry requires the reader to take a deep dive, to concentrate, commit time, hoping the poet isn’t just producing a clever crossword puzzle with arcane clues, but offering a key to the universe. To the meaning of life. So I don’t “like it” like one likes, say, certain music.

End of interview.

A murder mystery, in contrast (I’m still arguing this decades later), invites the reader to notice the clues and…participate. Even have some fun.

Fun!

Here are three poets who offer not only fun, but some good advice for mystery writers.

Do you know “Passengers” by Billy Collins, about the airport waiting room? The first couplet grabs all of us:

At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats

With the possible company of my death,…

We’re there. We’ve been in those blue seats, we remember the people near us, the girl eating pizza, the kids on the floor, the guy on his interminable work call.

Collins does this so craftily. “At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats.” Yup. And as we board, doesn’t the thought cross our minds that this plane may be the death of us? He’s got us in the first couplet.

Here’s another, “The Lanyard.” First couplet:

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly

Off the pale blue walls of this room…

We’ve all felt like that, bored… then:

I found myself in the L section of the dictionary

Where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard

That word lanyard! We all know one use for a lanyard. We’re straight back to camp, trying to braid gimp into a present for, yes, probably our mom. Billy Collins got us with “lanyard” in the title, and with his “ricocheting slowly” off the walls, which is just how we feel sometimes. In two lines he has our full attention. We’re already there with him, remembering the gimp, the braids, the other campers, and letting our eyes go down the page to see where he’s taking us.

Or how about Elisabeth McKetta’s collection, “The Fairy Tales Mammals Tell”? Take, for example, “An Occasional Elegy for Milk,” with its first couplet:

Weaning my daughter felt

Like breaking up with her.

Well! Here’s a poem worthy of time and attention. This insight, this simile, zooms straight to the heart and the brain. It’s real. Memory stirs, and we are there inside the poem. Not locked outside waiting to grasp the oh-so-secret clue, but right in the room.

In short poems in the last sections (2009, 2014) of his vast collection, Oblivion Banjo, Charles Wright takes us outdoors to face big themes (time passing, mortality). Here’s the beginning of “The Evening Is Tranquil, and Dawn Is a Thousand Miles Away”:

The mares go down for their evening feed

Into the meadow grass.

Two pine trees sway the invisible wind—

Some sway, some don’t sway.

We’re there. Present tense, two mares, evening feed, pine trees. I won’t tell you how it ends: you’ll want to get there yourself. Similarly, his “Tutti Frutti”:

“A-wop-bop-a-loo-lop a-lop-bam-boo,”

Little Richard in full gear—

What could be better than that?

Obviously you want to know the answer. In eleven lines you’ll have it and be riffling through the pages for more.

We mystery writers seek vivid images, strong verbs, intriguing details. Like poets. We too want readers picking up each clue, following our character to the end. These poets, these poems, show how a first line can convince the reader to go on to the next line, and the line after that, not feeling that the writer’s just showing off erudition, or hiding a great meaning we’ll be lucky to find, but as if we’re invited into the enterprise, we’re in the waiting room, we’re watching the mares, we’re all in it together.

P.S. If only I’d read Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry” before that interview! I could have said something about how we don’t want to “torture a confession out of” a poem….Oh well.

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series.  Read more about Helen and her books here.

Down the Research Rabbit Hole

Have you ever fallen down the research rabbit hole when looking for details for your writing?

whirlpool-30390_640
by Pixabay

I have. Because I read extensively in a variety of nonfiction areas, I usually know where to look for information that I want to include in my novels and stories. However, my extreme curiosity, while helpful in writing, is a dangerous thing when researching. It’s very easy to fall down the internet research rabbit hole. While searching for a simple detail I need, I may find one article that leads me to another and another. Before I know it, I’ve lost an hour reading fascinating articles when all I really needed was a single detail for a single sentence in a story.

In my Bad Vibes Removal Services series, the character of Lea, who sees ghosts and is ultra-sensitive to other people’s emotions and moods, is a student of ancient history who is working to earn her master’s degree. As a student of history, she is particularly interested in studying the daily habits of people in ancient civilizations. She is fascinated by hair styles, clothing styles, perfumes, and hygiene practices from bygone eras. Her interest in the subject drives her to try ancient clothing styles, hairdos, and makeup as a hobby.

When I chose this pastime for the character, I foresaw that I would have to do some research to bring the character to life. For each successive story, I had to add details about what historical look Lea was trying on herself. Sometimes, I chose simple things, like kohl around her eyes in an ancient Egyptian look. More complicated styles I researched, looking for scholarly articles on ancient hair styles.

For example, in the book Degrees of Deceit, Lea wears her hair in a Suebian knot, a typically male hairstyle described by Tacitus in the first century as being worn by certain Germanic tribes. I was familiar with this hair style because an interest in mummies led me to read articles about bog bodies. Bog bodies are corpses recovered from peat bogs, some of which were mummified and showed signs of having been murdered.

800px-Osterby_Man_Suebian-Knot
Osterby Man with Suebian knot

To put details about the Suebian knot hairstyle in my book, searched for what I remembered seeing in a picture, an odd looping hairstyle on the side of the head of a partially mummified skull from a bog body. So I found the picture I remembered, Osterby Man’s head with its peat-dyed reddish-orange hair. That led me to another article I hadn’t seen before, the Dätgen Man, who also wore a Suebian Knot, but his hair loop was on the back of his head. That led me to the hair on other bog bodies including one with a 90-centimeter braid tied in a complex knot. After that I lost lots of time down the rabbit hole of bog bodies. Here is a link to a list of bog bodies for the curious.

FemaleRomanBust
Bust of a Roman woman, from the Met Collection

Statues and portrait busts from ancient Greece and Rome provided another great resource for hairstyles for my character Lea. The plethora of material from these ancient civilizations has been a wonderful source of details for my writing. However, because of the enormous volume of information, it’s very easy to get lost, even lose hours of time, in reading. I’ve read about the plaster casts of victims of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii, some of which are so detailed you can see clothing and hair outlines. I’ve read about lower class hairstyles and upper-class hairstyles, children’s clothing, and hygiene practices, far more information than I’ll need for my stories.

Then, I really fell down the research rabbit hole. I found Janet Stephens’ helpful YouTube channel videos. As a hairstyle archaeologist, she walks the viewer through creating an array of ancient hairstyles. This is exactly the kind of thing my character Lea would love. For those who want to join me down the rabbit hole, watch a few of Ms. Stephens’ videos. They are fascinating.

How about you? Have you ever “fallen down the rabbit hole” while looking something up on the internet? If you haven’t, please tell me how you avoid that pitfall.

****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Read a Book, Save the World

 

K.P. Gresham

By K.P. Gresham

My hubby and I make it our mission to see all of the films nominated for the Academy Awards’ most coveted prize—the Oscar for Best Picture. This year was no exception. We saw Ford V Ferrari, The Irishman, JoJo Rabbit, well, let’s just we say all of them. So on February 9 of 2020, we sat down with friends, champagne glasses in hand, and watched the Academy Awards show. I agreed with most of the winners. Renee Zellweger knocked it out of the park as Judy Garland. Brad Pitt was awesome in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. For damn sure, 1917 deserved the award for Best Cinematography. But when Parasite was announced as 2019’s best film, I didn’t get it. Then again, I didn’t get the movie either. The poor living off the rich. The rich living off the poor. Who was the bad guy? Which was the parasite?

So, I got out my cell phone, went to Dictionary.Com, and looked up the word. The first definition that came up was the one that stuck with me. It read, “an organism that lives on or in an organism of another species, known as the host, from the body of which it obtains nutriment.” I thought of the mosquito who bites humans and sucks their blood. They feel no remorse, no guilt. It’s what they do to survive. How exactly did this definition apply to the movie Parasite?

Then my book club (Remember them? I bragged on them several blogs ago.) had as its monthly selection Hyeonseo Lee’s book titled The Girl With Seven Names. It was the author’s true story of escaping from North Korea, via China, and finally arriving in South Korea. As she made this dangerous journey, she used seven different names to remain off the authorities’ radar.

Lee’s descriptions of growing up in North Korea were very unsettling. There are over fifty layers of societal classes in the country, each with their own set of privileges and restrictions. The only constant among all of these “castes” is that the supreme ruler (first Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un) is to be worshipped and glorified. (It is believed that Kim Jong-un was born in a lowly stable and that a bright, huge star announced his birth. Seriously?) As for the other laws, not so much. The main rule is Kim Jong-un first, and, as long as you’re not stupid, you are allowed to do pretty much whatever you have to do to survive. Bribery of officials to look the other way is the norm. (Hey, they have to make a living too.) This is how people learn to deal with famine, pestilence, and unemployment. There is no guilt in doing what one must do to survive.

Further, the society has no guilt in doing what it must do to survive. Bingo. I finally figured out what the movie Parasite was all about. A different culture. A different value system. A guilt-less survival instinct.

Books teach us things. Oh, yes, books entertain, but they also take us into worlds beyond our own experiences, histories we never learned, and points of view we never considered. Had I not read Hyeonseo Lee’s book, I would not have understood the movie, or the culture. More to the point, I understand that America’s culture has different norms, different thought processes, and a different hierarchy of what’s acceptable. We may think that the characters in Parasite and Lee’s book should feel remorse for how they live. But for them, it’s what they must do. And if their culture is all in on this “no guilt” survival, doesn’t that reveal something of their leadership?

For me, The Girl with Seven Names was a real eye opener. Books teach us about folks who are not of our national or personal culture. We can learn why they live how they live. Maybe, even, we can learn how to live with them.

It might make the world a safer place.

***

K.P. Gresham is the author of the PASTOR MATT HAYDEN MYSTERY SERIES and THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD. Read more about her here.

 

So Many Blogs, So Little Time #ROW80

 

 

by Kathy Waller

blog 

noun

  1. a website containing a writer’s or group of writers’ own experiences, observations, opinions, etc., and often having images and links to other websites.
  2. a single entry or post on such a website:She regularly contributes a blog to the magazine’s website.
According to GrowthBadger, there are over 600 million blogs online today. Over 31 million bloggers in the United States post at least once a month. Over 2 billion posts are published each year worldwide.
Alas, no matter how hard I try, I can’t read them all. I have some favorites, however, and in this post I’ll profile two of them.
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Friday Fictioneers

Which is easier to write—novels or short stories? How about short-short stories? How about short-short-short . . .

Each week, a photograph is posted at Rochelle Wisoff-Fields—Addicted to Purple. Using the photo as a prompt, you write a 100-word story—complete with beginning, middle, and end—post both photo and story on your own blog, and link to an inLinkz list of other Friday Fictioneers’ stories.

Prompts are also posted on the Facebook Friday Fictioneers page.

Rules and February 21 photo prompt appear here.

Photo prompts are not in the public domain. They’re to be posted only for Friday Fictioneers, and photographers are always to be credited.

The week’s inLinkz list is here. Currently, 56 writers have added their names here.  Below are five stories I’ve chosen at random.

“After All This Time” 
“Diluted”
“Rosey, a buggy and a heap of hay”
“Secrets”
“Why Should I Go to Pakistan?”
“How Much?”

Here are some of my own past efforts:

“You’ll Be Fine”
“‘Shrooms”
“Lovestruck”
and more here.

***

A Round of Words in 80 Days: The Writing Challenge That Knows You have a life

Many writing challenges set goals for you: Write 1,000 words every day. Write five chapters every week. Write write write . . .  And then life gets in the way, and goals are not met, and the challenge ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

ROW80, on the other hand, allows writers to set their own goals. There are four 80-day rounds in a year. At the beginning of a round, you set your goals, write about them on your blog, and then post about your progress on Sundays and Wednesdays.

As with Friday Fictioneers, posts are linked so other participants can keep up with your progress.

Progress is the operative word. Goals can be modified at any time.

Everything you need to know about how the challenge works is on the ROW80 site:

What Is Row 80?
How Do I Join?
I’m Lost . . . FAQ
Accountability Partners
Blog

If you miss out on the beginning of a round, you haven’t missed out. Just set goals, write them up, and post on the next Sunday or Wednesday that comes along.

***

I missed the beginning of 2020’s first ROW80 round, but today is Sunday, so I’m going to jump in.

Round 1 ends on March 26–31 days away.

Goal: By March 26, I’ll add 4,000 words to my WIP.

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I hope you’ll check out Friday Fictioneers and ROW80. Now I have to post.

NEW ORLEANS – A CITY OF MYSTERY, MAGIC, HISTORY AND THE WORLD WAR II MUSEUM

by Fran Paino

New Orleans is known for many things. It is a city of magic, mystery and a creole culture. New Orleans offers fabulous Cajun food, jazz and traditions born of hundreds of years of French, Spanish and American influences melding to create one of the most exciting cities in the U.S.

February marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras culture of masks, beads, and jazz music on every corner and in the streets,

and the closer it gets to Fat Tuesday, the more frenzied the partying becomes.

Somewhat out of character in this atmosphere, however, New Orleans has a very sobering institution. Surrounded by the city’s distinctive and ornate French architecture, surrounded by the mysterious atmosphere, and surrounded by celebrations and festivities, stands a stately monument.

Flying the Stars and Stripes, high above its roof, is the National World War II Museum. Visitors who take time off from the city’s fun events to come here experience the sacrifices made by so many in defense of other nations, as well as our own.

2017 TripAdvisor rated the World War II Museum the number one attraction in New Orleans, and number two in the world. Again, in 2018, it was rated one of the top ten museums in the world.

Well planned, the museum’s design provides immersive exhibits, multimedia experiences, and a vast collection of artifacts. Spanning the nation’s pre-war domestic manufacturing, preparation to enter the war, and its industrial efforts on the home front once the U.S. entered the conflict, the exhibits pay attention to the women on the home front who took over the industrial work when the men were sent overseas.

Upon entering the museum, one looks up to see a C- 47 transport plane suspended on cables. The C-47 carried many of the young men sent to fight and die in Europe and Southeast Asia. Beneath this plane is a Nazi anti-aircraft gun, the type used to shoot down the C-47s, and alongside the gun is an Andrew Higgins landing craft.

Throughout the museum, there are displays of weapons, the soldiers’ back packs, communication equipment, and first-person oral histories, as well as unique immersive exhibits—all included in the admission price. One interactive exhibit is The Dog Tag Experience, which

encourages visitors to choose a soldier from the kiosk of registered combatants and follow him through the war.  

For those who prefer to go from exhibit to exhibit on their own, the displays are labeled and arranged to move the viewer from event to event, but also included in the admission price are guided tours.   

These guides are well versed in the areas they cover, and they provide the details and connective tissue that turn specific events into full histories.  

Then there is the 4D movie. Shown on a panoramic screen, and narrated by Tom Hanks, Beyond All Boundaries covers the epic story of WW II. The film is a very intense experience and not recommended for young children. 

Although there are many stories of inspiration and courage, all war is hell, as is clearly shown here. No one sane wants it, but in the words of the first president of the United States, in his first annual address to Congress, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” (George Washington, January 8, 1790) To that point, there is an exhibit board displaying how unprepared the U.S. was in 1941. Japan had 1,700,000 men in uniform, Germany had 3,180,000, and the U.S. had 335,000.

In a separate pavilion, connected by an indoor bridge are two roads. Each one occupies a full floor. One takes the visitor on the combat road to Berlin, starting with the battles in North Africa, and the other, on the road to Tokyo, weaves in and out of the island fights in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

New Orleans was selected for the museum because it is the city in which Andrew Higgins built the landing craft used in the amphibious invasions. As the Supreme Allied Commander, Eisenhower believed the landing craft was one of the five essential inventions that helped win the war. New Orleans is better known, however, for its free spirit, fun, food, music, multicultural events, and Mardi Gras festival. Having the museum here is a solemn reminder that the freedoms and celebrations we enjoy carry a hefty price tag.

The men and women who paid the price in the mid-twentieth century are almost gone. One day soon, all that will be left to tell future generations what happened to the world between 1932 and 1945 are these stories of the citizen soldiers, the men and women who fought the battles in Europe and the Pacific, and the odds they faced. Their records, personal oral histories, and photographs taken by military photographers in real-time ensure that they will be remembered forever.  

The World War II museum is comprehensive, and it is not possible to see and experience everything it has to offer in one day. Nonetheless, any amount of time spent there is worth the price of admission. 

***

A native New Yorker and a Texas transplant, Fran Paino loves learning about her new State and enjoys melding the cultures and characteristics of two cities, New York and Austin, where she and her husband now live,  under the watchful and loving direction of their cat, Miss Millie.

Ms. Paino is an active member of the Writers’ League of Texas, Sisters in Crime, Heart of Texas Chapter, and Austin Mystery Writers. She is an alumnus of the Austin’s Citizen’s Police Academy.

Read more about her here.

Art History Mystery, Chasing Kandinsky and Finding Hilma Af Klint

 

by Renee Kimball

1986, Community College, Day One of Art Appreciation. Clumping to the podium on wooden clogs, dressed like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, the teacher stated we would learn two truths about art: 1) Art is subjective; and 2) with Art, there is always something more.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vassily-Kandinsky.jpeg
Wassily Kandinsky. Public domain. Via Wikipedia.

This post began about Wassily Kandinsky, but surprisingly, things quickly moved someplace else and about someone else. And, just like that, there was something more to the story–a real art history mystery.

In the long story of art, Kandinsky is the Father of Abstract Art. This was an undisputed fact until 1968. Then an utterly unknown Swedish artist’s hidden work was released—a woman, not Kandinsky, was the first Abstract artist. Her name, Hilma af Klint, and just like that, the art world was turned on its head.

The immensity of the af Klint discovery is still being debated, its impact on-going, her diaries under translation, and further scholarly work anticipated.

For this post to go anywhere, it was obvious much more digging would have to happen. First, find out more about these complex artists, the who, what, where and when of each.

Who was Wassily Kandinsky?

Composition VII. Wassily Kandinsky, 1913. Public Domain. Via Wikipedia.

Kandinsky, a Russian, was born in Moscow to loving and financially secure parents of the merchant class. Despite his parents’ divorcing when he was young, he had a stable childhood. After the divorce, he went to live with his aunt and attended school. His mother later re-married and had three additional children, providing him both siblings and a second family.

Kandinsky showed artistic talent early: drawing, painting, and playing the cello and piano. But later in college, he pursued degrees in law and political science, becoming a career educator, lecturer and teacher. Abruptly at thirty years of age, Kandinsky left the academic world, seeking a career in art. His formal training was brief, however; he adopted the day’s avant-garde styles and joined non-conformist artists in establishing the Bauhaus Movement in Germany.

Prior to World War I, Kandinsky achieved some notoriety as an art teacher and lecturer. In 1911, he wrote his treatise titled Concerning the Spiritual in Art, that is still in use today. Groundbreaking at the time, his premise (generally) was that within each artist there was a spiritual need to create. Art, in turn, when viewed, fulfilled a spiritual need inherent within the viewer. Music, color, and the arts (drawing, performing, painting) created a synthesis akin to a spiritual experience.

Kandinsky’s writings are complex but made clearer when it was found that he had a condition known as synesthesia. Synesthesia is a condition in which certain individuals upon hearing music, see colors and vice versa. With Kandinsky, the more intense the music, the more intense the coloration in his paintings.

Synesthesia also proved to be a key contributor in Kandinsky’s creation of a symbolic linear shorthand. Sixteen years after writing Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he published Point and Line to Plane, expanding his theory of lines, color, music, and composition, solidifying his theories.

Later, his most memorable paintings would be titled and numbered mimicking musical compositions. While historians have debated the point, they generally contend that the first Kandinsky abstract was his 1913 Composition VII. This work was, for the time, shockingly absent of any form and a total abstraction of color.

Something More

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hilma_af_Klint,_portrait_photograph_published_in_1901.jpg
Hilma af Klint. Public domain. Via Wikipedia.

When the estate of Swedish artist Hilma af Kint released her hidden private collection in 1968, the art world was at a minimum shocked. Not only was Af Klint a woman, her work was entirely unknown.

Af Klint, believing that the world would not understand her life’s work, stipulated in her will that it was to remain hidden until twenty years after her death. When af Klint unexpectedly died in 1944, her nephew inherited the estate. He was surprised at the immensity of the find, and abided by the will’s terms, withholding the collection and finally releasing them in 1968.

With the release of the collection, it was discovered that af Klint had been creating abstracts a full six years before Kandinsky. Hilma af Klint, not Kandinsky, was the most likely choice to have been the first abstract painter – a dramatic revelation.

Who was Hilma af Klint?

Hilma af Klint was born the fourth child of five children, a daughter of a Swedish naval captain. Af Klint, like Kandinsky, displayed an early talent for both drawing and painting. Hilma was also adept in both mathematics and botany. From other accounts, she was known as a kind, serious, and intelligent person, devoted to her family and particularly to her visually impaired mother.

Eventually, Hilma’s talent was recognized and she was admitted to the Stockholm Academy of Fine Arts at twenty years of age. After graduation, af Klint was able to financially support herself producing landscapes, botanical subjects, and portraits. She became the primary caretaker of her mother and never married. Due to her mother’s condition, she was unable to travel or exhibit outside of Stockholm.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilma_af_Klint#/media/File:Hilma_af_Klint_-_1907_-_Altarpiece_-_No_1_-_Group_X_-_Altarpieces.jpg
“Altarpieces, No. 1, Group X, 1907.” Hilma af Klint. Public domain. Via Wikipedia.

During the productive years of both Kandinsky and af Klint, Spiritualism was a widespread popular pursuit. After the death of her younger sister, af Klint became heavily involved and became a medium and member of a secret group of women named The Five. The Five met regularly to channel spiritual guides. Lengthy and detailed notes of instructions and messages received from the guides were written down in numerous notebooks and diaries.

It was during the seances that Hilma was instructed by her personal guide Amaliel, to create a group of paintings, reflecting the life stages of man from birth to death, later referred to as the Temple series. She completed the series in 1906, at 42 years of age. These works physically and mentally exhausted her. At one point, she attempted to share her work but was rebuffed gruffly by a critic and withdrew from painting for a period of time.

Comparing Lives – Kandinsky and Af Klint

After af Klint’s death, over one thousand spiritually directed works were discovered along with an undetermined number of diaries with sketches and notebooks. All of these works are now being studied and translated. Like af Klint, Kandinsky produced a large body of work; however, Kandinsky’s total output remains unknown. Many of his works were deemed degenerate and were destroyed under Hitler’s regime during WWII.

Both Kandinsky and af Klint believed in the Spiritual Movement sweeping Europe, and in separate and distinct ways, it directed their work. In his treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky, speaks of the confluence of music, color, and art as a spiritual synthesis producing the highest form of art. Hilma af Klint painted the famous Temple series at the direction of her spiritual guide, Amaliel. Although the spiritual instructions came in widely different forms, each artist believed that outside forces were directing their work.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hilma_af_Klint_1907_-_The_key_to_the_work_up_to_this_point.jpg
Hilma af_Klint, 1907. The key to the work up to this point. Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Historians have confirmed that at least on one occasion, af Klint participated in an exhibit with Kandinsky. It is also been confirmed that her working studio was in the same building in which an Edvard Munch exhibit had taken place, also confirming she was a contemporary of Munch and Kandinsky. There is no proof at this time showing that Kandinsky and af Klint were introduced or aware of one another.

Other differences exist between the two artists. Kandinsky was born in 1866 and died at 78 years of age, relatively unknown and penniless in Paris; Hilma af Klint was born in 1862 and died at 82 years of age as the result of automobile accident in Sweden, she also was unknown and penniless. Kandinsky was born in Moscow, an only child, only much later gaining step-siblings through his mother’s second marriage. Af Klint, on the other hand, was born in Stockholm into a large family, the fourth child of five children. While af Klint never married nor had any children, Kandinsky married twice and had one child who tragically died at three years of age.

Kandinsky did not pursue an artistic career until 30 years of age, having very little formal training. Hilma af Klint began formal training at 20 years of age and graduated from a prestigious art program at 25. Both artists displayed talent when young, yet Kandinsky was a respected academic before coming to art late in his life. Both artists created paintings in the Absract style, but produced their works in totally different countries, far apart from one another. It also been confirmed that af Klint created her abstractions a full six years earlier than Kandinsky.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wassily-kandinsky-stars.jpg
“Stars.” Wassily Kandinsky. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Geographical differences also exist between the two. Kandinsky moved frequently. He was first in Moscow then Munich, changing careers, pursuing art at thirty, finding some notoriety and acknowledgment. He was forced to flee into the German countryside, then went back to Russia because of WWI. After WWII, Wassily finally arrived in Paris, where he died penniless and unrecognized.

Af Klint, unlike Kandinsky, moved infrequently and always lived within Sweden. Born in Sweden, she grew up living on a naval base, went to school in Stockholm, and essentially never left Sweden her entire life. Hilma died at the age of 82, and, like Kandinsky, was isolated, penniless, and unknown.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilma_af_Klint#/media/File:Hilma_af_Klint_-_Group_VI,_Evolution_No._13_(13949).jpg
Evolution, No. 13, Group VI, 1908. Hilma af Klint. Public domain. Via Wikipedia.

Both Kandinsky and af Klint were pioneers of Abstraction. Both left art legacies filled with mystical language, color, and symbols. While Kandinsky left a linear language of representational movement, af Klint left admirers an otherworldly language of symbols.

Kandinsky’s fascination with lines and color are readily apparent in his paintings, while, af Klint’s paintings reflect her proficiency in botany with many images similar to cellular or even floral reproductive or germination phases.

And in the end, the question Who was the first Abstract Artist? remains unanswered. We ask, Does it matter that we do not have an answer? The best response, probably not. The legacies of Kandinsky and af Klint is their art – and happily, we are the beneficiaries.

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For Even More

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

“The First Abstract Painter Was a Woman.” by Nana Asfour. The Paris Review, October 12, 2018.

“Open Culture. Who Painted the First Abstract Painting?: Wassily Kandinsky? Hilma af Klint? Or Another Contender?” Open Culture, September 14, 2017.

“What Does Colour Sound Like? Kandinsky and Music.” Barnaby Martin August 19, 2019.

Stefan Scheider. “KANDINSKY – I spy with my little eye.”

“Hilma af Klint: A Painter Possessed.” The Observer, Sun. 21 Feb. 2016.

Jillian Steinhauer. “The Universe According to Hilma af Klint.” New Republic. March 11, 2019.

“Hilma af Klint.”  Wikipedia..

Maria Popova. “Kandinsky on the Spiritual Element in Art and the Three Responsibilities of Artists.”

Wassily Kandinsky. Concerning the Spiritual in Art, by Wassily Kandinsky, is in the public domain and is thus available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.

Also available from Amazon.

 

 

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.