A Short Video Introduction to Hilma af Klint, the Mystical Female Painter Who Helped Invent Abstract Art

It can be both a blessing and curse for an artist to toil at the behest of an influential patron. Financial support and powerful connections are among the obvious perks. Being hamstrung by someone else’s ego and timeframe are some of the less welcome realities on the flip side.

Hilma af Klint, the subject of a high profile exhibition at the Guggenheim, does not fit the usual artist-patron mold. She made her paintings to suit a spirit named Amaliel, with whom she connected in a seance. Amaliel tapped her to convey a very important, as yet indecipherable message to humankind.

Although af Klint was an accomplished botanical and landscape painter who trained at the Royal Academy in Stockholm, “Paintings for the Temple,” 193 works produced between 1906 and 1915 upon order of her spirit guide, are brightly colored abstractions.




As the Guggenheim’s Senior Curator and Director of Collections, Tracey Bashkoff, points out above, af Klint’s work was trading in symbolic, non-naturalistic forms ten years before abstractions began showing up in the work of the men we consider pioneers—Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Paul Klee. Yet, she was nowhere to be found in MoMA’s 2012 blockbuster show, Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925. Curator Leah Dickerman implied that the snub was af Klint’s own fault for considering her work to be part of a spiritual practice, rather than a purely artistic one.

In his 1920 essay, Creative Confession, Klee wrote, “art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”

It was a sentiment Klint shared, but the spiritual message encoded in her work was intended for a future audience. She instructed her nephew that her work was to be kept under wraps until twenty years after her death. (She died in 1944, the same year as Kandinsky and Mondrian, but her work was not publicly shown until 1986, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art organized an exhibition titled The Spiritual in Art.)

Perhaps af Klint did not foresee how dramatically the respectability of spiritualism and seances—a popular pursuit of her time, and one shared by Mondrian and Kandinsky—would decline.

Her dedication to carrying out her spirit guide’s mission may remind some modern viewers of Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor who created hundreds of artworks and thousands of pages of text documenting the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, a strange and gory series of events taking place in an alternate reality that was very real to him.

Thus far no one has fully divined the spirit's message af Klint devoted so much of her life to preserving.

As critic Roberta Smith notes in her New York Times review of the Guggenheim show, af Klint, a member of the Swedish Lodge of the Theosophical Society, was well versed in occult spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, Buddhism, Darwinism, and the science of subatomic particles.

Hints of these interests are threaded throughout her work.

Color also helps to unlock the narrative. She used blue and lilac to represent female energy, rose and yellow for male, and green for the unity of the two. The Guardian’s Kate Kellaway reports that the artist may have been influenced by Goethe’s 1810 Theory of Colours.

Moving on to geometry, overlapping discs also stand for unity. U-shapes reference the spiritual world and spirals denote evolution.

Af Klint’s spiral obsession was not confined to the canvas. Roberta Smith reveals that af Klint envisioned a spiral-shaped building for the exhibition of The Paintings for the Temple. Visitors would ascend a spiral staircase toward the heavens, the exact configuration described by architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s interior ramps at the Guggenheim.

Perhaps we are getting closer to understanding.

For further study, check out the Guggenheim’s Teacher’s Guide to Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future. See the exhibition in person through mid-April.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City through December 20th in the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and the book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Alan Watts Dispenses Wit & Wisdom on the Meaning of Life in Three Animated Videos

Since his death in 1973, the popular British philosopher, writer, speaker, and onetime-Episcopal-priest-turned-student-of-Zen-and-wildly-eclectic-countercultural-spiritual-thinker Alan Watts has become a cottage industry of sorts. And if you were unfamiliar with his work, you might think—given this description and the mention of the word “industry”—that Watts founded some sort of self-help seminar series, the kind in which people make a considerable investment of time and money.

In a sense, he did: the Alan Watts Organization (previously known as the Alan Watts Electronic University, the Alan Watts Center, or the Alan Watts Project) maintains Watts’ prolific audio and video archives. Founded in the last year of his life by Watts and his son Mark, the Organization charges for access to most of his work. The collections are pricey. Albums of talks on such subjects as Buddhism and Comparative Philosophy and Religion are extensive, but come at a cost.




Though the organization offers free content, you could find yourself spending several hundred dollars to hear the collected Watts lectures. It's money the Mark Watts suggests covers the “substantial undertaking” of digitizing hundreds of hours of recordings on lacquered disks and magnetic reels. These are noble and necessary efforts, but fans of Watts will know that hundreds of selections from his deeply engaging talks are also freely available on YouTube, many of them with nifty animations and musical accompaniment, like the videos here from After Skool.

Watts would likely have been pleased with this situation—he loved to give out wisdom widely and kept no esoteric trade secrets. But he was also, by his own admission, “a spiritual/philosophical entertainer,” who made a living telling people some of the most unsettling, counterintuitive metaphysical truths there are. He did it with humor, erudition and compassion, with intellectual clarity and rhetorical aplomb.

So what did he have to tell us? That we should join the church of Alan Watts? Attend his next lecture and buy his book? Shape our lives into an emulation of Alan Watts? Though he wore the trappings of a Western expositor of Eastern thought, and embraced all kinds of non-traditional beliefs and practices, Watts was too ironical and detached to be a guru. He couldn’t take himself seriously enough for that.

If there’s any one thread that runs through the incredibly broad range of subjects he covered, it’s that we should never take ourselves too seriously either. We buy into stories and ideas and think of them as concrete entities that form the boundaries of identity and existence: stories like thinking of life as a “journey” on the way to some specific denouement. Not so, as Watts says in the animated video at the top. Life is an art, a form of play: “the whole point of the dancing is the dance.”

But what about the meaning of life? Is Alan Watts going to reveal it in the last course of his ten-week session (payable in installments)? Will we discover it in a series of self-improvement packages? No. The meaning of life he says, is life. “The situation of life is optimal.” But how is anyone supposed to judge what's good without unchanging external standards? A classic Zen story about a Chinese farmer offers a concise illustration of why we may have no need—and no real ability—to make any judgments at all.

You’ll find many more free excerpts of Watts’ lectures—of varying lengths and with or without animations, on YouTube. To get a further taste of his spiritual and philosophical distillations, see the links below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Philosophy of Hayao Miyazaki: A Video Essay on How the Traditional Japanese Religion Shinto Suffuses Miyazaki’s Films

Even if you've never watched it before, you always know a Studio Ghibli movie when you see one, and even more so in the case of a Studio Ghibli movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki. That goes for his work's common aesthetic qualities as well as its common thematic ones, the latter of which run deep, all the way down to the traditional Japanese religion of Shinto. Or so, anyway, argues "The Philosophy of Miyazaki," the Wisecrack video essay above that finds in Shinto, a belief system premised on the notion that "we share our world with a variety of gods and spirits called kami," the qualities that give "the films of Miyazaki and his team of badasses at Studio Ghibli that extra Miyazaki feel."

Even viewers with no knowledge of Shinto and its role in Japanese society — where 80 percent of the population professes to practice its traditions — can sense that "a recurrent theme running throughout all of Miyazaki's films is a love for nature." Going back at least as far as 1984's World Wildlife Federation-approved Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, whose heroine takes up the fight on behalf of a race of large bugs, Miyazaki's work has depicted the exploitation of nature by the many and the defense of nature by the few.




None of his films have rendered kami quite so vividly as My Neighbor Totoro, the titular creature being just one of the woodland spirits that surround and even inhabit a human family's house. In the worldviews of both Shinto teaching and Miyazaki's cinema, nature isn't just nature but "part of the divine fabric of reality, and as such deserves our respect."

This contrasts sharply with Aristotle's claim that "nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man," and indeed to America's idea of Manifest Destiny and the consequent subjugation of all things to human use. Anyone who's only seen one or two of Miyazaki's movies would be forgiven for assuming that he considers all technology evil, but a closer viewing (especially of his "final" film The Wind Rises about the designer of the Zero fighter plane, which depicts the invention itself as a thing of beauty despite its use in war) reveals a subtler message: "Because we're focused on nature only through the lens of science and technology, we're blinded to the true essence of things." We'll learn to live in a proper balance with nature only when we learn to see that essence, and Miyazaki has spent his career doing his part to reveal it to us.

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Watch Moebius and Miyazaki, Two of the Most Imaginative Artists, in Conversation (2004)

Hayao Miyazaki Tells Video Game Makers What He Thinks of Their Characters Made with Artificial Intelligence: “I’m Utterly Disgusted. This Is an Insult to Life Itself”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The World’s Largest Collection of Tibetan Buddhist Literature Now Online

FYI: The Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC) and Internet Archive (IA) announced earlier this month "that they are making a large corpus of Buddhist literature available via the Internet Archive. This collection represents the most complete record of the words of the Buddha available in any language, plus many millions of pages of related commentaries, teachings and works such as medicine, history, and philosophy." In a press release from the Internet Archive, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, a respected teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, expressed gratitude that the teachings of the Buddha have been made available online. “We can share the entire body of literature with every Tibetan who can use it. These texts are sacred, and should be free.” It should be noted that the texts aren't written in English, but rather the authors' native tongue.

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The Talmud Is Finally Now Available Online

In South Korea, where I live, the Talmud is a bestseller. Just a few years ago the New Yorker's Ross Armud reported on the improbable publishing success, in this small east Asian country, of Judaism's "dense compilation of oral laws annotated with rabbinical discussions, consisting of about two and a half million words." Some of those words dealing with such pressing questions as, "If you find a cake with a pottery shard in it, can you keep it? Do you have to report the discovery of a pile of fruit? What do you do if you find an item built into the wall of your house?"

The much shorter "Korean Talmud," Armud writes, with its parables, aphorisms, and topics that run the gamut "from business ethics to sex advice," makes a reader feel like "the last player in a game of telephone." But Joshua Foer, the science writer who co-founded Atlas Obscura, might say that the Jewish Talmud has long left even Jewish readers in a similar state of befuddlement — if, indeed, they could find the text at all. Looking to get a handle on the Talmud himself back in 2010, he found that, shockingly, the internet had almost nothing to offer him. And so he began working, alongside an ex-Google engineer collaborator named Brett Lockspeiser, to correct that absence.




"Last year, after years of work and negotiations, Foer and Lockspeiser finally succeeded in their quest," writes the Washington Post's Noah Smith. "Through a nonprofit they created called Sefaria, the men are bringing the Talmud online in modern English, and free of charge." Sefaria's library, available on the web as well as in app form, now includes a variety of texts from Genesis and the Kabbalah to philosophy and modern works — and of course the Talmud, the centerpiece of the collection, the relevant resources for which had not been in the public domain and thus required no small amount of negotiation to make free.

Sefaria's creators have combined all this with a feature called "source sheets," which allow "any user on the site to compile and share a selection of relevant texts, from Sefaria or outside, surrounding a given issue or question." (Smith points to the most popular source sheet thus far, "Is One Permitted to Punch a White Supremacist in the Face?") At about 160 million words with 1.7 million intertextual links and counting, the site has made a greater volume of Jewish texts far more accessible than ever before. Readers, even non-Orthodox ones, have been discovering them in English, but if Sefaria wants to increase their traffic further still, they might consider uploading some Korean translations as well.

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

When Aldous Huxley, Dying of Cancer, Left This World Tripping on LSD, Experiencing “the Most Serene, the Most Beautiful Death” (1963)

The “spiritual adepts” of Tibet’s modern period, writes Huston Smith in his comprehensive introduction to the Bardo Thodol, or “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”, “were inner-world adventurers of the highest daring, the Tibetan equivalent of our astronauts—I think it is worth coining the term ‘psychonaut’ to describe them. They personally voyaged to the furthest frontiers of that universe which their society deemed vital to explore: the inner frontiers of consciousness itself, in all its transformations in life and beyond death.”

Western modernity—its energies focused entirely on shaping, subduing, and expropriating the material world—did not begin to take such complex inner journeys seriously until the 20th century. When it did, it did so largely through the popular influence of pioneers like Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary, who introduced the inner journey through a syncretism of Eastern spirituality, Indigenous religious practices, and psychotropic drug use—something of an accelerated course to the frontiers of consciousness for those who had failed for so long to investigate its limits.

Huxley’s first psychedelic experience, described in his 1953 The Doors of Perception, “was in no sense revolutionary,” he wrote, in that he did not, as he had expected, experience “a world of visions” like those in the Bardo or the writings of William Blake. On the other hand, he describes a shift in consciousness in exactly the terms spiritual practitioners use to talk about enlightenment. He references Meister Eckhart’s Istigkeit or “Is-ness”—“a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being.” He uses words like “grace” and “transfiguration” and refers to D.T. Suzuki’s essay “’What is the Dharma-Body of the Buddha?’”—“another way of saying Mind, Suchness, the Void, the Godhead.”

His faith in this experience persisted to the end of his life. It was, for him, an initiation, a “great change… in the realm of objective fact.” So profound were Huxley’s experiments with psychedelic drugs that on his deathbed ten years later, he requested that his wife Laura inject him with 100 micrograms of LSD. In the short video up top, Laura remembers the day, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And in the letter above, which you can read in full at Letters of Note, she describes Huxley’s last days in vivid detail to Huxley's brother Julian and his wife Juliette.

According to Laura, Huxley struggled in his last two months to accept the fact that he was dying of cancer. She read to him, she writes, “the entire manual of Dr. Leary extracted from The Book of the Dead.” Huxley reminded her that Leary used the manual to guide people through their acid trips, and that “he would bring people, who were not dead, back here to this life after the session.” After several painful days, however, he came to terms, “all of a sudden,” and made out his will. Laura had already consulted with Sidney Cohen, “a psychiatrist who had been one of the leaders in the use of LSD” and learned that Cohen had given the drug to two dying patients; “in one case it had brought up a sort of reconciliation with Death, and in the other case it did not make any difference.”

After she had offered it to Huxley several times over those two months, he finally wrote out his instructions to her for the dosage. She injected it herself, then, a few hours later, gave him another 100 micrograms. As he died, under the effects of what she calls his “moksha medicine,” Laura coached him “towards the light” as the Bardo counsels. “Willing and consciously you are going, willingly and consciously, and you are doing this beautifully; you are doing this so beautifully.” After several hours, Huxley died.

These five people all said that this was the most serene, the most beautiful death. Both doctors and nurse said they had never seen a person in similar physical condition going off so completely without pain and without struggle.

We will never know if all this is only our wishful thinking, or if it is real, but certainly all outward signs and the inner feeling gave indication that it was beautiful and peaceful and easy.

You can hear Laura discuss Huxley’s LSD-assisted death in much more detail in a conversation here with Alan Watts, who calls it a “highly intelligent form of dying.” In her letter, she defies the judgment that Huxley’s use of psychedelic drugs, in life and death, was irresponsible or escapist. “It is true we will have some people saying that he was a drug addict all his life and that he ended as one,” she writes, “but it is history that Huxleys stop ignorance before ignorance can stop Huxleys.” Indeed, in the same year that Aldous died, his brother Julian—the renowned evolutionary biologist—published an article called “Psychometabilism” in the second issue of The Psychedelic Review, the research journal co-founded by Leary.

“In psychedelic drugs,” wrote Julien, “we have a remarkable opportunity for interesting research.” Likewise, he argued, “mysticism is another psychometabolic activity which needs much further research… some mystics have certainly obtained results of great value and importance: they have been able to achieve an interior state of peace and strength which combines profound tranquility and high psychological energy.” In his informal, literary way, Aldous Huxley conducted such studies with himself as the subject, and wrote of the results and possibilities in books like The Doors of Perception and Island.

A few years after Aldous Huxley's death, the US and UK governments banned the kind of psychedelic research Julien recommended, but it has recently become a serious object of scientific study once again, and thanks to the reporting, and experimenting, of writers like Michael Pollan, Westerners may soon once again use psychedelics to take the inner journeys our culture does its best to discourage and denigrate.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Experience the Mystical Music of Hildegard Von Bingen: The First Known Composer in History (1098 – 1179)

The German abbess, visionary, mystic poet, composer, and healer Hildegard von Bingen “has become a symbol to disparate groups,” writes Brian Wise at WQXR, including “feminists and theologians, musicologists and new-age medicine practitioners. Her chants have been set to techno rhythms; her writings on nutrition have yielded countless cookbooks (even though she never left behind a single recipe.)” She did leave behind an astounding body of work that has made her improbably popular for a 12th century nun, with a lively presence on Facebook and her own Twitter account, @MysticHildy (“very into technology, love to travel”).

Her fame rests not only on the beauty of her work, but on her extraordinary life story and the fact that she is the first composer to whose work we can put a name. She was born in 1098 in Bermersheim, the tenth child of a noble family. It being the custom then to dedicate a tenth child (a “tithe”) to the church, Hildegard was sent to the Monastery of Saint Disibodenberg to become a Benedictine nun under the tutelage of Jutta, a highly-respected anchoress.




“After Jutta’s death,” notes Fordham University’s sourcebook, “when Hildegard was 38 years of age, she was elected the head of the budding convent living within cramped walls of the anchorage.”

Throughout her life, Hildegard had experienced visions, beginning at the age of 3. (Oliver Sacks attributed these to migraines). At age 42, she had a powerful experience that radically changed her life. She described this moment in her writings:

And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books...

Overwhelmed, and fearful of writing down her visions “because of doubt and a low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men,” she nonetheless found encouragement from leaders in the church to write and circulate her theological work: “With papal imprimatur, Hildegard was able to finish her first visionary work Scivias (“Know the Ways of the Lord”) and her fame began to spread through Germany.” Soon after, she relocated her convent to Bingen, and began an incredibly productive period in the last few decades of her life.

All told, she turned out an “extraordinary array of creative treasures,” writes Wise: a drama in verse, “more than 70 musical works, medical texts filled with 2,000 remedies, writings presenting feminine archetypes for the divine.” Although she held to orthodox doctrine, opposing the Cathars, for example, and other “schismatics,” she was a mystic whose ideas far exceeded the cramped theological confines of so many male counterparts. “Hildegard’s visions caused her to see humans as ‘living sparks’ of God’s love, coming from God as daylight comes from the sun,” writes Fr. Don Miller. “This unity was not apparent to many of her contemporaries.”

Her transcendent sight did not blind her to the diverse beauty of the natural world. “She not only had faith,” says German director and actress Margarethe Von Trotta, who made a 2010 biopic about Hildegard, “but she was so curious. Today, perhaps she would have been a scientist because she did so much research on healing people, on plants and animals.” Hildegard’s talent, intellect, and forceful personality made her a formidable person, “the only known female figure of her time,” writes Music Academy Online, “who achieved such intellectual stature and whose contributions have had lasting impact.” The revived interest in her music coincided with “the ‘new age’ chant craze in the mid-1990s,” but Hildegard’s work differs markedly from medieval chant written for male voices.

Varying from “highly syllabic to dramatic melismas (swirling melodies on a single open syllable,” Melanie Spiller explains, “her music is quite distinctive and easily recognizable, with unsual elements for the time, including exceeding an octave by a fourth or fifth, and large and frequent leaps.” Her music also functioned as “a vehicle for her own mystical experience,” and it continues to move listeners—of faith and no faith—who hear in her song celebrations of the divinely feminine and the wonders of the natural world.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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