Today I went to an exhibition of the work of Hilma af Klint, a Swedish artist, at the Serpentine Gallery, London, W2. I had read a short article about her work so I knew there would be some spiritual themes, as per the write-up. So by the time I had walked through Hyde Park on this beautiful, albeit fresh, day, I was ready and looking forward to seeing her work. At the gallery I just looked and looked, and avoided reading the information plaques. I wanted to experience the paintings first, without an additional interpretive frame. I loved her use of colour: pale whites, pinks, yellow, blue. I was really taken with two particular swan paintings:
And then, in the middle room there were eight really large pieces, ten or twelve feet high, with wonderful shapes and colours. I sat and looked at them for a long while. There were a few letters in places on the paintings, but they were predominantly curving shapes and beautiful colours. Then the next room was … awful. Okay, I just didn’t like those paintings very much. They were about something; and I found the ‘aboutness’ of them oppressive as I wasn’t free to think about what the painting provoked in me. Instead, these paintings all had the world ‘evolution’ on them quite prominently, and the colours were narrow and dull [I really didn’t take to them!]. I thought that they were quite contrasting to the more carefree paintings in previous rooms.
And then I went round the exhibition again and read the information and felt quite disappointed. Why? Well, it turns out Hilma was a medium and some of her art arose from those experiences, and that disturbed me. So I reflected on why that made me feel that way and I think it is because of the idea of a medium as being one individual who has some kind of hot-line to the spiritual, that other people go to for guidance. And it is my belief that everyone has a spiritual side and that part of becoming who you truly are, is the individual path you must take to discover and uncover that. It’s a bit akin to the Buddhist idea that everyone has the Buddha nature in them – everyone has the potential to be spiritually enlightened. Or as the Tao puts it ‘Remind people of who they have always been’.
Notwithstanding that, the piece of her work which particularly made me ponder was the one of the white and black swan. I thought of the swans not as being opposites, but as each of them having their own reality. Let me explain: I have been thinking lately about joy and also of sadness. I heard someone say that sadness is different from depression. In various forms and degrees of depression there is a kind of emotional paralysis and a withdrawal from the world as a way of stopping too much feeling. Sadness is not that. Sadness, and joy, are responses to the world of experience – different responses, but feelings about what happens. Sadness is allowing yourself to feel disappointment or loss or grief, or whatever it is that has provoked that response – and it will pass. Similarly, joy is allowing yourself to feel exuberance, delight, abundance, love, about something that has provoked this. Both joy and sadness are responses that come from being open to the world – quite the opposite of being withdrawn. Both swans are there- the black and the white. So I realised that it is okay to feel sad when that occurs, just as it is to feel joy. Sadness and joy, both, are a mark of life and taking part in life – life in all its fullness.